indie music in thailand

The Thai cover band was playing “Banquet” by Bloc Party. It was a divey bar hidden in the middle of nowhere, of the type where the best indie music is to be found, there were girls with enormous schoolmarm glasses and ultra-slim Thai guys that looked like Asian Joey Ramones, keychains dangling from shiny chains in their back pocket. They were mods with sleek bowl haircuts, and beer with ice inside.

I was with my friend Te from work, it was an old wooden Thai house painted white, and I loved it instantly because this was a lot like our dive bars at home, shitty, gritty places where you can just enjoy the music and not feel like you need the most pretentious outfit to get in.

“Banquet” was playing and all the Thai kids were singing along, and I had this surreal feeling, like some kind of portal key between our two worlds — indie scene kids at home in Canada that make this kind of music — these middle class boring lives, and sweaters and nostaglia for the 80s, never wanting to grow up, wearing hoodies and skinny jeans and mix tapes and arts and crafts and knitting and going to university. Dorky indie guys, ackward and skinny like perching storks, suddenly turned into sex gods through strapping on a bass guitar in front of a crowd. That was kind of a great scam for nerdy guys — how the rise of indie rock suddenly made them cool.

But I mean, all of it was so different from what it must be to grow up here in Thailand — being disaffected in the suburbs, being cold in the winter time, having crushes on girls with glasses, music collections. How did it translate to growing up in a tropical country where monks regularly walked the streets, the new year festival was a giant water fight, rainy season that poured from heaven and turned the world a great emerald green, bangkok concrete, poor life in the countryside, riding motorbikes, school uniforms — I was kind of surreal that this kind of music meant anything to these Thai kids at all. It blew my mind that our completely different lives intersected in this way.

7 Responses to “indie music in thailand”


  1. 1 James January 20, 2009 at 1:03 am

    I’m not sure about this – most indie bands in Thailand are at least middle-class hence they can afford these affectations, (where as if you were in fact poor, the vulgar ‘bling’ aesthetics of hip-hop would be far more appealing) in fact it’s this downward aspiration that makes neu-indie so boring isn’t it?* Also, I dunno, playing music in an old wooden house, or a shack, or a dive: Is this because these places are ordinary or out-of-the-ordinary for them? Moreover, is it because there’s no choice but to play in such humble places or because of a privileging of the ‘shitty’ and the ‘gritty’? If the latter, it seems a bit sad in a way, like not only not doing the best you could but purposely seeking cheapness…

    Also why shouldn’t Thai indie fans identify with: ‘…middle class boring lives, and sweaters and nostaglia for the 80s, never wanting to grow up, wearing hoodies and skinny jeans and mix tapes and arts and crafts and knitting and going to university.’? It’s not difficult to assume that most of these kids know and care less about ‘poor life in the countryside’ than you or I know about urban inequality in the West. (Aside from the obvious point that the stuff that you describe as making Thailand so ‘other’ for you is just shit that they see every day and just as boring.)

    I think Momus wrote something somewhere about something simlar to this regards indie becoming so deterritorialised, that being an indie fan means being subsumed automatically into this homogeneous third culture. Which is good, because it aspires to the universal, but problematic because surely relation and connection to locality gives music its vibe? Although some musicians def. transcend the local obviously but that’s because they aspire to the cosmic*, but this would be more inline with belonging to a global society of impotents ;P

    On the other hand, you could take the view that they like it precisely because they have no symbolic connection w/it, as you might enjoy indian ragas or whatever, enjoying it for its ‘otherness’ – but why chose indie for that reason? I mean indie is identity music more than any other, isn’t it? —

    Anyway, hope you’re well & everything! Sounds like it from what I’ve read here. Cool. -James

    *Like Sun-Ra

    *You could say that there’s nostalgia for places like that, i.e. indie should be played there cuz it’s fundamentally unpretentious – or worse, that this is indie’s ideal dream space.

    *The aim seems to be to make less of yourself than more – hence names like ‘The Editors’, ‘The Ordinary Boys’, ‘Elbow’ – and songs about getting drunk, the difficulties of getting a taxi after a night out, songs that are too (a)pathetic to be properly disaffected… quotidian banality is something to be celebrated.(*)

    (*)This is UK-centric obv. (indie occupies most of the top twenty chart spots, and has a depressingly hegemonic hold over all other ‘pop’), maybe in other countries there is still a definite indie subculture that is means something now, and is not just a reiteration of what used to have meaning.

  2. 2 James January 20, 2009 at 1:06 am

    I’m not sure about this – most indie bands in Thailand are at least middle-class hence they can afford these affectations, (where as if you were in fact poor, the vulgar ‘bling’ aesthetics of hip-hop would be far more appealing) in fact it’s this downward aspiration that makes neu-indie so boring isn’t it?* Also, I dunno, playing music in an old wooden house, or a shack, or a dive: Is this because these places are ordinary or out-of-the-ordinary for them? Moreover, is it because there’s no choice but to play in such humble places or because of a privileging of the ‘shitty’ and the ‘gritty’? If the latter, it seems a bit sad in a way, like not only not doing the best you could but actually purposely seeking cheapness…

    Also why shouldn’t Thai indie fans identify with: ‘…middle class boring lives, and sweaters and nostaglia for the 80s, never wanting to grow up, wearing hoodies and skinny jeans and mix tapes and arts and crafts and knitting and going to university.’? It’s not difficult to assume that most of these kids know and care less about ‘poor life in the countryside’ than you or I know about urban inequality in the West. (Aside from the obvious point that the stuff that you describe as making Thailand so ‘other’ for you is just shit that they see every day and just as boring.)

    I think Momus wrote something somewhere about something simlar to this regards indie becoming so deterritorialised, that being an indie fan means being subsumed automatically into this homogeneous third culture. Which is good, because it aspires to the universal, but problematic because surely relation and connection to locality gives music its vibe? Although some musicians def. transcend the local obviously but that’s because they aspire to the cosmic*, but this would be more inline with belonging to a global society of impotents ;P

    On the other hand, you could take the view that they like it precisely because they have no symbolic connection w/it, as you might enjoy indian ragas or whatever, enjoying it for its ‘otherness’ – but why chose indie for that reason? I mean indie is identity music more than any other, isn’t it?

    Anyway, hope you’re alright, looks like you’re well from what i’ve read here. Cool.

    *Like Sun-Ra

    *You could say that there’s nostalgia for places like that, i.e. indie should be played there cuz it’s fundamentally unpretentious – or worse, that this is indie’s ideal dream space.

    *The aim seems to be to make less of yourself than more – hence names like ‘The Editors’, ‘The Ordinary Boys’, ‘Elbow’ – and songs about getting drunk, the difficulties of getting a taxi after a night out, songs that are too (a)pathetic to be properly disaffected… quotidian banality is something to be celebrated.(*)

    (*)This is UK-centric obv. (indie occupies most of the top twenty chart spots, and has a depressingly hegemonic hold over all other ‘pop’), maybe in other countries there is still a definite indie subculture that is means something now, and is not just a reiteration of what used to have meaning.

  3. 3 julielavoie January 20, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    Hey James,

    very interesting remarks. thanks for taking the time to think about this.

    I think the shittiness vs. not shittiness in art is something that art is always cycling back and forth with.

    you have whatever art form (let’s say music) is popular at the time, and then you typically have some kids who are not very rich, and don’t have access to fancy production methods like the popular musicians have, but they are creative. so they make music with what they have: the shitty basement, cheap instruments, the shitty warehouse with a bunch of their friends, their own bodies, stuff people throw away, pirated software, half-broken synthesizers, whatever. The popular music refines itself with each new band, each new iteration — it becomes more and more produced, refined, more and more a product. whereas whatever the poor kids are doing has crappy production values, but a lot of creativity and energy, essentially what starts to lack more and more from the popular music.

    after a while, the balance shifts — the creative stuff improves, or yields something really catchy, or a more accessible artist, and the popular stuff becomes more and more empty and predictable, and suddenly people start to become interested in the creative stuff — and they start to associate *crappy production values* with *authenticity* … and then, soon after, big companies get involved, market the whole thing to a wide audience, and essentially turn it into something highly produced and predictable – -which leaves room for the next new creative made-in-a-basement thing to come along and replace it.

    so i think people associate crappiness — music badly produces, second-hand clothes, divey-venues with authenticity in indie music, because indie music was a response to the over production of pop and rock music popular at the time. now indie music has become one of the most popular styles, and you can buy 50$ t-shirts that look as shitty as 3$ thrift store t-shirts, etc, etc.

    and yes, looking like crap has always typically been a luxury of the middle class: look at hippies, ravers, indie kids….etc, etc.

  4. 4 James January 23, 2009 at 3:19 am

    Yeah, in short, I think you’re right about the cyclical nature of pop. Or you were… I’m not so sure now that pop (i.e. chart pop) is less free-market than ever, I mean pop was always run by cartel, but before something ‘underground’ could get popular by weight of people buying it, and hence you had some diversity in the charts, and the chance of finding something genuinely weird on yr TV/radio.

    Now the underground is so divergent & dispersed, due primarily to the internet (downloads etc), there’s not much chance of anything new being pushed into the popular imagination. It’s more than ever a few people that run things at the top, and then the rest… but since it’s still only a few that seek out genuine difference, for the mass it’s actually more homogeneity (but in the name of diversity). I mean the much raved about Saint Dymphna (Gang Gang Dance’s recent album) which is backed by the likes of Pitchfork et al (;P), ranks 15,000 or something on amazon.com’s music sales and has three reviews… (1 = Sprinsteen 2 = U2 etc).

    And I suppose the reason why it’s mostly reiterative guitar music that’s the oppressive norm in the UK atm is that the people who’re running the music business are the people who bought the second-wave of punk or post-punk records, and so they were immediately attracted to the significatory sonix of Franz Ferdinand, The Libertines (etc etc) which harkened back to this era.
    Not to say that these are bad bands per say, but it’s empty music devoid of concept, why have them at all when you could just listen to Joy Division, Gang Of Four etc? (why not demand music & concept, have yr cake & eat it? ;P)

    “so i think people associate crappiness — music badly produces, second-hand clothes, divey-venues with authenticity in indie music, because indie music was a response to the over production of pop and rock music popular at the time.” – Exactly, FULL NOSTALGIA MODE. (And i suppose the strange thing in Thailand is it’s the nostalgia for something they hadn’t even experienced?) Yeah, and where it used to be the case that ‘The street finds its own uses for things’ vs. people appropriating old synths and making them sound completely new – now people make new & expensive equipment that exactly imitates the sounds from what were old pieces of junk.

    And there’s this contradiction between authenticity and originality, isn’t there? People need the legitimation of sound/looking like someone who used to be original looked/sounded and therefore they’ll be authentic – and ‘true’ to their scene. Keeping it real, (LOL!). Hence if you want to be true to rock, you must like the (scarcely credible as ‘rock’) lumpen busk-a-thon of Oasis, cuz that’s what rock IS. Apparently.

    Will anything be NEW again?

  5. 5 James January 23, 2009 at 3:39 am

    O, and I think it would be a good direction for Thais to look at their own tradition musics for ideas. It seems to be pretty much unexplored territory, suggesting a myriad of possible new directions – making a virtue of locality – and not succumbing to homogeneity of deterritorialised ‘third cultures’.

    But it involves entering into a new dialogue with yr culture, instead of aspiring to the ‘other’. Why couldn’t these ostensible notions of traditionality be reappropriated as a radical form of escape?

    They are in a unique position, for me, to explore New directions, both local & global. (Plus a project like that would be more credible than VAMPYRE WEEKEND… And it needn’t end up sounding like the Thai equiv. of Bollywood.)

  6. 6 Bill February 11, 2009 at 5:47 am

    hey was hoping someone might enlighten me as to what are the best indie clubs / venues with live music to check out whilst in thailand.
    cheers
    bill

  7. 7 zemetrus February 25, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    another great discussion on this blog 🙂 i tend to love reading about cultural juxtapositions of thai culture, especially when arts are involved!

    while uk is the wizard of turning any culture form into pop – the spinning of genres between the garage/warehouse and the HMV shelf you julie talk about, i think the long tail effect of the internet you james describe had a big effect on the local market. nowdays in uk every possible style exists simultaneously on the HMV self and in the squat, many people easily go to see a top charts band and finish their night in a warehouse. all genres and styles are at the same time pop and not. i love that as it gives all cultures the freedom of existing not purely to make profit.

    but then the same effect didn’t happen on a global level and the west still exports cultures (labelled as pop) to the rest of the planet. and the rest of the planet still sees it very much like “this is western, this is not”. in the west being rich is pop as well as not pop; not being rich is just the same. but in thailand being rich is totally pop and not aiming it is… punk? alternative, indie? so it kind of symbolises a culture of individuality or freedom that again is western product. a product that only rich kids can afford to go, buy and import, so it becomes a class status here.

    but at the same time being indivudal is the cultural rebellion of the next generation to their parent’s values. just like the indie bands became a culture for their breaking away of the values of the big old record labels. so than the paradox that the indie bands in thailand are middle class kids, yet they purposefully avoid the slick venues that are everywhere here and go to shacks, is totally indie and while it makes for a totally different atmosphere from the one in the west it’s culturally just as beautiful.

    however james, i think for the same reasons it’s the covers that matter and not exploring remixing indie with thai folklore. it may need another revolution where also the class status becomes unimportant to enable mixing these. but when this happenes it will be very interesting to see how a ‘western thailand’ remixes it’s traditional cultures. is it anything like japan?


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