As indie pop sensations The Drums head into town we find out what life is like for musicians in Thailand. Are sex, drugs and rock n’ roll still alive? Or did YouTube kill the rock star forever? By Vasachol Quadri and Nuchanat Prathumsuwan, photography by Piyarith Panjathammavit

Buriram’s Ukulele Lion

Two years ago, I was at Stu-fe (see Top Live Music Venues, below) with some friends, and the guy seated behind me was strumming his guitar. Someone mentioned his name was Singto Numchok, and that he played here on Wednesdays. I don’t remember if I even bothered to look back.

Two years later, I’m chasing him for an interview, and he’s not getting back to me. Singto won a national ukelele competition just as the instrument was becoming a kind of musical Krispy Kreme. If Jason Mraz (of “I’m Yours” fame) started the ukulele craze worldwide, Singto was the one who brought it here.

Coming full circle, I go back to Stu-fe in search of the ukulele lion king. One of the co-owners, Tum, tells me to swing by that Wednesday, as the bar is celebrating its fifth anniversary. You see, Stu-fe isn’t just a bar, it’s home to the exciting music collective, Monotone, and it’s where Singto recorded his first album.

On Wednesday night, I’m greeted by another Stu-fe co-owner and Monotone member, Fat Radio DJ Ple-Noi. While Ple-Noi is reminiscing about Stu-fe’s humble beginnings, as a rehearsal studio, then as a bar, then as a recording studio, I’m busy worrying Singto might not show up. “When you meet him, ask about his first rehearsal, OK? Don’t forget,” says Tum. Tum has been poking fun at Ple-Noi for talking about her own album, Tue’sday. She gets even with another word of caution, “Don’t let Singto start talking to Tum. Or else, you’ll never get your interview. They’ll just wag their chins all night.”

More members of Monotone. More beers. Everyone seems to know each other. Even BK’s intern photographer turns out to have been around for Singto’s debut at Stu-fe. Great, but where’s my interview? A few beers in, Tum is getting sentimental. “Singto didn’t have it easy, coming from Buriram and all. He struggled to be a musician. He went to Bangkok, to Phuket, and then back here.” By the time a joking, upbeat Singto shows up, I’m not sentimental, but I’m pretty relaxed.

“So, Singto, how did you end up at Stu-fe?” I ask.
“I was playing in Phuket before I met Kij-Jazz, another member of Monotone. He liked the way I play, so we talked about our music and finally he asked me to join him in Bangkok. I jumped in without any hesitation,” he says.

Being an incredibly positive guy, he doesn’t seem to see his journey as something quite as epic as Tum portrays it. “You know, if you do what you love, then there are no difficulties. When I was studying guitar, my teacher told me, ‘If you love to play music, being successful in life is playing music.’ That’s it.”

“OK, but being famous and having an album out must be nice,” I say.

“Nothing really changes. I just have to wear a hat now.” He laughs. “Well, you have to dress up properly for a concert. You need to respect the place. At least here [at Stu-fe] I can dress any way I want.” He thinks for a minute, then adds: “I suppose I did get an amulet of Bal Ganesh once. I’d never seen someone do that before but it got me wondering what it would be like to bring a kilo of mangoes to my favorite artists, like Loso.”

I guess I was expecting him to act famous. But this is more like a family. Everyone in Monotone is incredibly talented, Singto is now very well-known, but they could be your best friends. I’m about to call it a night when Tum calls out, “His first audition, did you ask him?”

I look at Singto. “OK, so it was my first audition here and I just show up with a t-shirt and jeans,” he says. “So my friend gives me this jacket to wear on stage. I put it on and jump on stage and do the whole show. When I get off, everyone is laughing hysterically. The jacket was upside down—not inside out—upside-down, for the whole show.” And they’re still laughing hysterically. But it’s also a pretty metaphorical story. Singto doesn’t need to wear a hat or a jacket for his talent and warmth to shine through. 

Fish learning to swim

It’s Sunday, 3pm, I’m at the home/office of Parinam Music, the indie label managing Pla-Nin-Tem-Ban (House Full of Mango Fish). The PR gathers the band and sits them down. They all look at me expectantly. So much for a candid look into the life of rock stars. I’ve barely asked how they met and I get a story even they must be tired of telling: how they got their name.

“We were going to play at university but didn’t have a name yet,” Pop says. “I told my friends, who came to rehearse at my house, that the place used to be full of pla nin [mango fish].

Tul continues, “So when Pop saw us all crammed into his tiny room, with our instruments and all, he said, ‘Planin tem ban.’ [‘The house is full of mango fish’]. We liked it right away.”

This is definitely not their first interview but Pla-Nin-Tem-Ban is still a band in transition. They almost all have day jobs, but they’re already famous on Bangkok’s indie scene. Tul is a graphic designer, Ton a math tutor, Toon makes resin dolls (of actual people), Tor makes drums. Only Pop is a professional musician although Art teaches guitar.

After playing at the Silpakorn Music Awards—they are alumni of the university—the band entered the Net Design Love Song Contest and won. Nothing much happened after that and the band considered giving up. Then Tul wrote a song, “Kid Dee Dee,” which climbed to #6 in the FAT Radio 40s Charts. They went on to win a FAT award for Bedroom of the Year [for home-recorded music] and played at FAT’s 10-year anniversary concert and the FAT North Tour. By that point, people had actually started singing their songs.

“That was brilliant,” says Tul. “Toon was so nervous that he forgot the guitar chords.”

“There were lots of people and we didn’t expect to hear people singing our song that loud. It was so impressive,” Toon says.

I cut the interview short, suggesting I watch them rehearse instead. It’s funny to see how a band will stop “behaving” the second the interview is over. Most of all, I can see them interact with Poom, the head of the music label. They call him “the boss” but the atmosphere is definitely more playful than respectful.

“What’s it like being famous?” I ask.
“What do you mean? Like do we have to wear sunglasses all the time?” says Tul looking at Toon, who has fallen asleep with his Raybans on. They all laugh.
“Hey, Toon. Tell them about the dek waen [motorcycle racing teens].”

Apparently Toon was politely asked by a street racer for a picture together, which they think is hilarious. But under the guy talk, there is a surprising depth to these guys. Maybe because they still have a foot in reality with their day jobs. Their songs are rarely about the usual love clichés. “Nalika” (“The Watch”) was about the timing of meeting someone, so that love can blossom. “Lok-Suan-Tua’ (“Own Space”) is meaningful and interesting. But it’s also the passion to keep their other foot in music that is admirable. Tor says, “No matter what, we will come here once a week. Even if we don’t rehearse, we meet up, just to spend time together as a band.”

็็Hanging with The Yers

Late at night, I receive a call from my fellow intern, Gung Ging: “Can you follow an indie band tomorrow, for the whole day?

“Which band?” I ask.
“The Yers, or something like that,” she says.
I head online to do some research. Of my 350 friends on Facebook, only two “like” The Yers. But the music video for their first single, “Thedsakarn (Festival),” is wild, with a guy in a tank top running crazily around the city, searching for his beloved. I want to at least match each band member’s face to their name before starting the assignment, but the internet drops off, and I go to bed.

10am. Gott, BK’s intern photographer, and I are at Smallroom. We meet Lah, the PR person, who gives us two pieces of paper promoting The Yers with words like “cool” and “funny” and “extreme,” so I expect to meet that kind of band.
Finally, they arrive. Boats, the guy running around in the music video, Ooh, Boom, Tor and Tao. I quickly try to memorize them: Ooh is easy to remember because of his yellow hair; Boats has sunglasses; Boom has fluffy, curly hair, like he just escaped from a bombing; Tor has a mole and Tao is, well, the last one. We jump into a van with them, Lah and Prae, who is along to shoot the behind-the-scenes bonus track.

The Yers, comprised of Ooh’s high school and university friends, is a brand new band from the Smallroom family, the hottest indie record studio in Bangkok. After several rounds of rejections, their demo-tape was picked up by Smallroom and their first single, “Thedsakarn,” became a number one hit on Fat Radio. Today, we’re following them on a crazy whirlwhind of press events, where they will be covered by four newspapers, a tv channel, a magazine and ten radio stations. “We are not an indie band,” Ooh announces in the van. “Thai people always misunderstand the word “indie,” they think that it means every song that is a bit strange or that does not belong to Grammy or RS.” I read through the promotional material and see that they are a “post-punk alternative rock band”—whatever that means.

There’s jostling in the back of the van. Our post-punk rock stars are making fun of one of their fellow members, who’s wearing his university pin as an earring. I feel shy about turning around to see what’s going on. Instead, I chat with Lah.
The stuffiness between The Yers and us diminishes a bit when we stop at Nai Ngork restaurant for lunch. I ask them about their personal lives, and it turns out that they’ve all just graduated from college and are a couple of years older than me. “I used to teach music and did some web design work. But now I’ve just quit all of that to concentrate on The Yers,” says Boom. Tor is still working six days a week as a customer service officer at a condominium. “I can’t really quit right now, because my economic situation makes it difficult.” Then Boats accidentally drops his ice cream on the floor. The waitress gives him a new one.

After that it’s Channel 7 and then Dara Daily. The stress of the day is starting to show. The Yers seem to lack the snappy, self-promoting, ready-made answers that are expected of them. When the interviewer asks what they’d like to tell people who don’t know them yet, they say, “Listen to our song.” The interviewer, dissatisfied, pushes for another answer, but the band hesitate. Finally, Boom says, “Catch our live performance, because our style will rock the stage.” It sounds less sincere than their earlier answer.

Back in the van, they say that if they could, they wouldn’t do press, because they are not talkative enough. Boats disagrees, “It’s good to have many people see us. I used to go to modeling auditions. It’s a lot different because it is judged on physical appearance. There, when you see that the guy next to you is apparently more handsome, you think it makes sense that he is chosen. But promoting your song is different. We have our own, personal thing to show.”
Gott asks what is their hardest moment as a band. Ooh says, “It’s when we send out our songs and wait for feedback. We have to sit around the desk with Rung [owner of Smallroom] and listen to the songs together. If he doesn’t like it he will say it right away. Even if there’s a song we were sure about, he might say, ‘What are you guys doing?’ or ‘You guys are kind of lost.’ That’s always shocking to hear.”

Finally, at the end of our exhausting day, we stop by Hobby Cake to cool off and reenergize with ice coffees and cakes. Leaning back in his chair, Tor says, “Becoming a musician is not that difficult. If you can play each song then, that’s it, you are a musican. I used to think that when I become a musician, somebody would teach me how to play or perform. But in reality there’s nobody to do that.”
“Maintaining things is more difficult than beginning,” Boom adds. “After playing for a while, there is always a wall that you need to break through.”

As we’re finally driving back to Smallroom, the van’s air conditioner dies on us. It’s been a long day, but fun and eye-opening. The faith, determination and public relations skills it takes to become famous is daunting, and I’m impressed with these guys’ efforts. Still, for them, more than anything else, more than the smooth talk and the music videos, it’s about just playing the music. When I ask Ooh what he wants to say to young people who want to become rock stars, he says, “You are the coolest guys in Thailand. Don’t stop. Or else it’s the end. If you quit then you aren’t musicians anymore.” 

BK Asks: Which rock star would you most like to hang out with?

Piyanun Choonikorn, 29, buiness owner
Incubus because I love their music—it’s first-rate nu metal. I’ve seen their live performance on DVD and think that’s what their backstage behavior is like!

Suwitcha Pothikanit, 26, businessman
Bob Marley.
I love his music but that’s pretty much all I know. I wanna know more about his life, who he is and learn more about his close-to-nature lifestyle.

Supreeda Sukpon, 19, advertising agency owner
Toon from Bodyslam.
He’s talented and being able to capture thousands of people like that. I also adore him for having the courage to pursue his dream. I’d love to learn why this law student decided to be in the music industry.

Chananya Rattanacharoen, 21, law student
Katy Perry,
of course. I love her music and her style. I want to go shopping for clothes with her and find out where she gets these beautiful dresses from. Hanging out with her backstage would be a total dream come true.

Naraporn Mallikaman, 46, housewife
Tae Vitsarat.
I’ve always loved his sad love songs and he seems like a pretty nice guy from what I’ve seen of him on TV, so I think dinner and having a nice conversation with him would be quite interesting.

HOW TO: Be a Rock Star

"Inspiration, in Thai, is called rang bandan jai and if we translate it to English word-by-word, it is something like “heart driven by energy.” If you truly love music, or whatever you are doing, you’ll let your heart (or passion) drive your energy." Tum, composer and producer for Monotone

"Some people might say that if you want to be a rock star, you should enter a music competition. But I wouldn’t recommend that. Most of the competitions feature covers or original songs under an assigned theme. These requirements distort your style and who you are. You should produce your own song and find a place to perform as much as you can. And always look for something new in your music." Poom, owner of Parinam Music

Top Live Music Venues

Cosmic Café

RCA Block C, Rama 9 Rd., 081-304-6907 Open daily 7:30pm-2am. http://tinyurl.com/4xkhxja
It’s kind of grungy but we still love Cosmic Cafe for its unerring commitment and dedication to live music, a commitment that it carries out every day of the week. We also love the regular line up of bands (including the fast rising The Jukks) and the sheer diversity of their nights, from hipster heartthrob Maft Sai to avante garde Japanese progressive rock.

Motorcycle Emptiness Bar

Ramkhamheang 39, Town in Town Rd., 089-780-9946. Open Mon-Thu 8-12:45am, Fri-Sat 8pm-2am. http://tinyurl.com/3knk8fd
Set in a former motorcycle repair garage and taking its name from a Manic Street Preachers song, this grungy dive bar has quickly become a go-to joint for live music enthusiasts. And it’s easy to see why: the bar features bands and DJs from indie labels like Panda Records six nights a week. The vibe, like the shabby décor, is fantastically edgy (think Wong’s Place and The Overstay). We highly recommend Thursday night where up and coming local and international bands like Pussy & The Learjets tear up the stage.

Stu-fe

33/1 Soi Farm Wattana, Rama 4 Rd., 02-712-0375. Open daily 5pm-1am
The brainchild of indie pop band Monotone, Stu-fe is one of the city’s first bar-slash-restaurants set in a vintage house. Apart from the ultra chilled vibe and yummy food, this place scores big in terms of the music, which leans heavily towards Brit pop and indie. If you’re lucky, you might get to hear the members of Monotone and friends crank out some hits but Stu-fe also doubles as a breeding ground for today’s artists like ukulele king Singto Numchok.

Brick Bar

265 Buddy Lodge Bldg., Khao San Rd., 02-629-4477. Open daily 6pm-1am
Yes, we know that ska is so last year but you know what, we really don’t care. Anyone who has enjoyed the sweaty heaving mess that is the Brick Bar on Friday and Saturday nights will also tell you the same. Smack right in the middle of Khao San, this two-story tavern packs in ska and reggae devotees nightly and you just can’t help but stomp your feet to that rock steady beat. Check out the Teddy Ska Band (nightly 11:30pm onwards).

Rock Pub

Hollywood Street Building, Phayathai Rd. BTS Ratchathewi. www.therockpub-bangkok.com
You can’t fail to spot this venue thanks to its totally over the top mock gothic castle façade. In fact, the inside is almost a letdown after such Spinal Tap ostentation. What you get instead is a gloomy almost cave-like space where dark wood dominates the boxy low-ceilinged room. At the far end, there’s a good sized stage and a decent space for some moshing. Expect to hear everything from hard rock to 70s/80s Rock n’ Roll classics. Two bands play every night of the week though there are also special one off gigs, including regular performances by guitar legend Lam Morrison.

Parking Toys

Ramindra Soi 14, Kasetnawamind Rd., 02-907-2228. Open daily 6pm-2am
Don’t be put off by this place’s inconvenient location—this small bar might be located on the outskirts of Bangkok but Parking Toys is well worth the drive thanks to its nightly line up of great live music. It draws in diverse crowds from Fat Radio DJs to neighborhood music aficionados drawn by the eclectic musical styles on offer ranging from electronic to rockabilly and jazz. You don’t have to worry about dressing up because no one here really cares.