Chiang Mai’s music scene

James Austin Farrell takes a look at the Thai music scene and finds it isn't shit al all.

By | Fri 27 Aug 2010

Thesis: The Music is Shit

“Music, music, music… is SHIT!” shouts the Pre-Madchester band New Fast Automatic Daffodil’s lead singer on their second single from the, unsurprisingly, Music is Shit EP. It was 1989 and the dire UK music scene was thankfully on the cusp of an(other) enlightenment, having ejaculated itself from the fetid mire of all that tacky pop that now defines the deplorable decade. Not long before the NFAD’s lyrical pith The Smiths had vented similar spleen asking the public to take a ‘zero tolerance’ stance against the supply of bad ‘commercial’ tunes and simply “hang the DJ” – the man responsible for gaggles of middle aged drunken mums sublimating a week’s hard graft while inadvertently vindicating Freud on his theories of ‘mob mentality’, to the tune of Black Lace’s Christmas hit ‘Do the Conga’. In terms of musical epochs, this was the Dark Ages…And shame on British culture, it was a post-renaissance Dark Ages.

Thailand on the other hand, has arguably never seen a renaissance. Sexed-up, anarchistic, subversive realism pumped and punked into the Thai collective consciousness is perhaps a vain musical fancy. Popular (some might argue unpopular) music in Thailand _ besides a few underground socialistic folk numbers in the seventies – has so far been nothing but safe, solicitous and sellable, prostituting itself out to ‘entertainment’ conglomerates, relying on patently untalented boys and girls, always fair of face, to fluff easy-listeners’ loins with their paltry love anthems that a more discerning person might regard as anathema. For the harder to please johns, impressed somewhat by transgressive characters from the west, the pimps at the ‘entertainment’ factories also churn out endless lines of faux-punks, faux-rappers, faux-rockers, and whatever else might sell to impressionable, pretty, vacant teens. Only few bands ‘doing their own stuff’ such as Modern Dog, Lo-So, Paradox, the icons of Thai indie/rock, have managed to survive in Thailand – occasionally – swimming up (main)stream.

Antithesis: The Music isn’t Shit

The music scene here isn’t shit at all, explains Gary Boyle, only using an alternative lexicon slightly less frank. He has a point, or at least a pointer, concerning his retort to the ‘shit’ critique that is popular amongst scrutinising westerners living in Thailand. Boyle has been involved with orchestrating Chiang Mai’s musical resurgence from the depths of pop mediocrity. From York, UK, he worked with music distributor Vital Distribution for many years though now resides in Chiang Mai, he’s a part-time cultural correspondent on Chiang Mai for the Bangkok Post and has lately been instrumental in bringing bands, both Thai and international, over to the city. Thai bands “writing their own songs” have played at local pub Guitarman, thanks to the efforts of Boyle and the pub’s ownership. Well known Thai indie band, ‘Abuse the Youth’ consisting of Chulalongkorn Uni grads who sing all their songs in English – without sounding like they have a comb in their mouth, with Abuse the Youth and their support band Zero Hero, have played at Guitarman and brought Thai and foreigners in droves to the pub. The bands are signed to Mind the Gap record label, which last year brought electronic indie/punk band the Handsome Furs over from Montreal. The ‘Furs’, who in their own right are a pretty ‘big’ band, have been extolled by both music lover and music trader, and are currently riding the wave of seemingly doing everything right in the eyes of the hard-to-please music press. They played a free show at Guitarman on the 20th of this month thanks to Mind the Gap and Boyle.

Boyle, having already made music videos for Thai indie bands, will make a short documentary film surrounding the Handsome Furs gig in Chiang Mai, while the band’s last Asian tour was also documented by CNN. Boyle’s fairly optimistic about the Thai music scene and where it’s heading though does admit that in Thailand “it’s difficult to breakthrough”, and while Grammy enslaves teens in their pop prison, original music by earnest rockers hardly ever sees the light of day. “On Nimmanhaemin there’s an art rock, Thai folk scene, says Boyle, and mentions two bands, Redking Palace and Harmonica Sunrise _ both on the local label ‘No Signal Input’ who he’s recognised as talent. “No Signal Input put on their own concerts and about four bands have released their own cds,’ says Boyle. Another Thai band heralded as the next big indie sensation is Sonnet and Alcohol, who played support for Handsome Furs along with local unplugged legend, Lindsay Stevenson and his new band The Indicators. “We’ve seen some really good Thai bands,” he says, “Sonnet and Alcohol have it all, the songs, the talent, the charisma.” Boyle, who was around, and involved in, the musical crossover from the 80s to the 90s in the UK, is excited about the “spirited” prospects he now sees in Chiang Mai.

Synthesis: It’s Getting Better all the Time

The Handsome Furs, consisting of Dan Boeckner (also of alternative band Wolf Parade), and his wife Alexei Perry, whose alternative m?tier is fiction writing, put on a blistering performance at Guitarman to a phalanx of fans and neophytes that packed out the pub, filled the car park, invaded the street and pissed in the husk of a derelict building next door. Those who had not previously heard of the Furs were duly impressed by Boeckner’s raucous screaming and manic guitar slinging along with the sonic booms issuing from Perry’s synthesizer. The question a lot of bibulous expats were asking: How come a well known outfit are playing here? Ok, Suede did the shopping mall gig back in 200? (Google is not flawless) but word on the street was Thaksin held the band’s parents as hostage and would eat their hearts if they didn’t bring more tourism to Chiang Mai with a gig in a clothes shop.

At their hotel, a couple of hours before the gig, the Handsome Furs talk about how they ended up here at the end of the developing musical world. The two explain how they have always had an affinity with bands, and towns, that are less than famous. They both came from small towns themselves, but were there at the right time when the Canadian music scene became the daddy of alternative rock giving birth to brilliant bands such as Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Holy Fuck, Wolf Parade and The Handsome Furs. “God Speed [You Black Emperor] laid the groundwork,” says Boeckner of the Montreal indie explosion, explaining that the scene just took off and “they gave anybody a chance,” referring to clubs in Montreal bringing in bands to play, especially live venue La Sala Rossa. Boeckner and Perry agree “there weren’t a lot of labels, not enough opportunity to quit your day job.” But it was this kind of freedom from labels and managers and all the rest of the vampiric riff-raff that has allowed them to “be creative” to do their own thing. And that is how they ended up putting on shows in the void.

“It was a huge mandate of the band,” says Boeckner of playing small gigs, smaller towns. “We’re from small towns too . . . it would have meant the world to us as kids.” The night before the Chiang Mai gig they did something no one else has done, of their ilk, and played a show in Burma without the permission of the military junta. They lost a ton of cash on the gig but the couple, a day later, were obviously very pleased with their decision. “We really wanted to do it. Very few people in Burma knew who we were. But we’ve played in front of crowds in many countries that don’t know who we are. We like the challenge.” Besides their gig of virtual obscurity in Yangon, Handsome Furs have played small towns in China and Russia, in Latvia and Lithuania, and after Chiang Mai they were off to Beirut and Sarajevo. They’ve also expressed interest in a tour of Mongolia. The bread and butter gigs in Montreal and New York, where their fan base is massive, are all good, but they don’t mind at all “being out of our comfort zones,” where they’re a thousand leagues ‘sub-pop’. Boeckner says he appreciated the sheer quiet of being up on Doi Suthep; they both enjoy the travel aspect: “Just to talk with the local bands, the kinship, like last night in Yangon, chatting with the local kids about how they grew up, the control they faced” is the appeal of appearing in the strangest places for an indie band.

With management, the Handsome Furs are arrantly sure none of this could happen; no manager would’ve allowed them to lose money by playing in a South East Asian dictatorship. For a few dollars less they have their liberation, finding themselves in the rarified position in music of having not sold out. Speaking of their moderate fame and Spanish dance troupe lifestyle, Perry beams a smile and says that this is quite a “dream life” though admits that the level of success can be “terrifying…and weird, to reveal a part of yourself.” Boeckner’s energy, when you see him on stage, is nothing short of bionic, though he’s much more relaxed between two feet of hardwood table and a notebook. “We’re really willing to work our asses off,” he says, and amusingly states that he’s willing to play anywhere, whether it be Fargo or Chiang Mai. And doing it with a bit of dignity, as Sinatra sort of said, their own way.