this was an article i wrote last year on the blossoming underground scene in bangkok, based on the exciting developments of label collective so on::dry flower. fittingly, the next few posts will feature the musicians mentioned in this piece, which i hope will serve as a useful primer to the curious but uninitiated.
so on::dry flower – found sound in the bangkok underground
by daniel tham
It was about two years ago when I first stepped into the bustling street corner that Bangkok indie record store DJ Siam occupied, and it was there that I had first glimpse into the city’s vibrant music scene. Of all many CDs showcased, the one that caught my attention was an elegantly crafted white album graced by a sketched owl and a label announcing the finished work of Bangkok’s leading experimental music collective, So::On.
The CD was titled Ghosted Note, a haunting introduction to six different local artists and their respective work. A variety of style and form is evident in these songs, ranging from minimalist electronica to ambient, noise, folk, free-jazz and post-rock, although genre seemed to be the last thing these artists were concerned with. Instead, this album documents clearly the free-spiritedness of these musicians in their sonic explorations, presenting to us in overcast textures the world as they saw and experienced it.
As I found out more, So::On was a collective born out of the shared interests and passion of like-minded musicians, which started off in June 2003 hosting experimental and electronic music gigs in Bangkok. One of the founders was electronic sound artist and producer Koichi Shimizu, who had just moved from Japan to Bangkok that year. This was at a time when there was an upsurge of new musicians in the underground music scene, raring to go with their experimental music and yet with no established avenue to showcase their work. “So we decided to start our own party,” remarked Shimizu, and the time was ripe for So::On to kick-start a blossoming scene.
Much of the subsequent development of So::On as a music collective is owed to Shimizu’s vision, who has been the main figure in the music production under So::On, and is responsible for mixing most of the tracks for the bands represented, such as Goose and Space Bucha, and musicians like Atit Sornsongkram. Goose was the first young rock bands that Shimizu was really impressed with, and he contributed to the production of their debut album. They went on to garner critical acclaim locally and regionally, receiving an invitation this year to perform at Mosaic, Singapore’s biggest international music festival held at the Esplanade.
Earlier this year, the collective expanded to become So::On Dry Flower (SODF), following a merger with indie record label Dry Flower. Goose had formed that label to release their debut album as they did not want to come under any other label. As So::On wanted to expand their influence beyond experimental circles into the rock scene, it became a perfect partnership between the two, as envisioned by Shimizu. The two had already become good friends since working together on Goose’s debut album.
“SODF was started from friendship of So::On and Dry Flower”, shares Goose guitarist, Bancha. “Koichi talked to us that we should combine into one label so that we could produce a better work and also organize events together.” Indeed, the collective delivered its promise by hosting their label launch concert in March this year, an explosive gig that featured established acts like Goose and introduced new bands Assajan Jakgawan and Desktop Error. In addition, the intense evening was boosted with the guest performances of Singaporean ambient-rock outfit The Observatory, Malaysian shoegazers Furniture and esteemed Japanese drummer Tatsuya Yoshida.
Even with the expansion of SODF across different music genres and the waves it has been generating in the Bangkok music scene, the ethos of the collective remains a fiercely indie one. Everything from recording, editing, album and gig artwork, and videos are done DIY style, with Shimizu at helm with the mixing and also taking charge of the PR work. “We are all friends no matter what kind of music each one of us plays – post-rock, folk, electronica – artists who play these kinds of music have a similar attitude of seeking something new and challenging themselves to do something new,” shares Shimizu, who proceeds to add, “we don’t limit our genre of music. We basically accept all kinds of music that inspire us”.
However, the collective has set its sights on higher goals, with the planned release of three albums later in the year by Talkless, Little Fox, and a collaboration between Shimizu and Singaporean experimental musician Zai Kuning.
For Little Fox, as Mahasmut Bunyaraksh is otherwise known, the upcoming album will be his first solo effort comprising mainly minimalist acoustic folk songs, a tenderly wrought affair featuring his whispery voice entwined with a gently plucked guitar and the occasional lingering harmonica. A deviation from the rock music he plays with Saliva Bastards, this album was recorded with a few of his friends listening live, which explains the intimate atmosphere captured in the songs. “I like to find my own way of doing things”, Bunyaraksh tells me as he introduces the free way in which he approaches his music.
An album of a very different kind, Koichi Shimizu‘s joint record with Zai Kuning is titled Melancholy of a Flowering Plant and serves as a soundtrack to a new Thai film by Aditya Assarat called Wonderful Town. The instrumental record is a rich and complex, demonstrating a strong chemistry between the two artists with Zai on guitar and Shimizu providing the ambient soundscapes – it is no wonder since they have been playing music together since 2005. Shimizu has had a particularly prolific year, having earlier released Bangkok Archive, an offering of collaborations and some of his solo work which earned him a deserved nod in a review this October by esteemed UK avant-jazz magazine The Wire.
The third upcoming release from the label collective is Dotdotdot by Talkless. A new project by Goose guitarist Bancha with vocalist and keyboardist Fon, it was something that had been brewing in Bancha’s mind for a long time but never bore fruit until he met Fon, his junior in school. “I saw her play guitar and keyboard in school but never talked to her until one day when Goose released their second album”, Bancha recalls. “She came to see my show and we started to talk about the music we liked”. This was to be the starting point of Talkless, an atmospheric and electronic outfit that serves as a branching out from the psychedelic rock of Goose.
In light of the increasing buzz they are creating, the future certainly bodes well for these promising musicians, many of whom are at the forefront of pushing the envelop in independent music in Bangkok. However, their efforts are not without certain obstacles. When asked about the Bangkok scene, Bancha has a mixed reaction. He tells me that while there has been a lot of interesting work emerging, “they’re in the shadow of something. Good stuff always gets lost”. When asked what he meant by that, he explains that it is always only a small group of people that follows the “good stuff” which tends to get lost in the overwhelming Bangkok scene, since “most of the good bands are not in a major label, so they don’t have money to promote themselves”.
But he does admit things are better now, with the use of the Internet platform to promote and distribute music. His compatriots also agree that the Bangkok scene has been improving. Atit Sornsongkram recounts the time when he quit his band to be a solo artist: “I felt great but had no money”, he says wryly. Now based in Germany, his friends tell him that the Bangkok scene is now getting better everyday, with more good music getting out to the public.
This, I am sure, has every bit to do with the pioneering efforts of SODF, and the unrelenting passion of the musicians in this collective to continue making music that matters. “We just keep doing our thing,” says Shimizu, “trying to introduce new types of music to the Thai people and organizing music events with unknown but good artists”. The same ethos is applied to the records they release, and while they may be unfamiliar to most of the Thai audience, Shimizu is glad that some are taking note of the work they do. “We are very happy that many people listen to our music and enjoy it”, he adds, clearly pleased to be playing a central part in changing the mindsets of listeners and making a difference in the ever-evolving Bangkok music scene.
mp3: space bucha – esplanade (from ghosted note)
thanks koichi and the rest of the SODF musicians! do check back over the next few days for more music from SODF.