V/A - "Trailer" (Thai? Dai!: The Heavier Sound of the Luk Thung Underground)
Thai? Dai! is a rich and comparatively thoughtful addendum to the deep stack of recent psychedelic compilations from Thailand and Southeast Asia. Rich because almost every song is steeped in references, and thoughtful because its curators, Chris Menist, Maft Sai and Andy Votel, have put in plenty of time and love. This comp is also the culmination of a recent Bangkok-centered movement led to a significant degree by none other than Menist and Maft, who have in the span of a few years made a name for themselves with a flurry of boutique projects that include reissues, online mixes and parties. Thai? Dai! is, in this sense, not just a recovery of lost sounds, but a document of an ex-patriot musical community with a lot of energy in Bangkok right now.
As Menist himself confesses, the tracks on this comp “shouldn’t be considered nationally representative.” Check out some of Maft Sai’s DJ mixes and you’ll hear heavy doses of outré jazz, reggae and druggy production choices – key symbols of global hipster listening, but mostly peripheral to Thai aesthetics then and now. Maft’s signature move is to select vintage tracks that resonate with edgy ears, but which still read as exotic. Educated in Europe but today based in Bangkok, Maft is in an ideal position to broker this material for Western audiences. Menist has enjoyed success through similar channels, and both he and Maft have gotten plenty of warm attention from local English-language media.
The duo’s work, in turn, serves a worldly farang constituency. When Sroeng Santi’s “Kuen Kuen Lueng Lueng” leads off this comp by launching unapologetically into the riff from “Iron Man,” and Ploern Promden’s “Ying Ting” cops measures directly from the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone, you’re being flattered. (As well as hearing something telling about the still-common Thai attitude toward intellectual property!). Just as the heavy bass and fuzzy guitar will remind you of indigenous European psychedelia, you’ll hear in these musical citations confirmation that the appeal of early metal and spaghetti western soundtracks was as universal as you suspected. But the truth is that Thai listeners, while frequently charmed by Western music, are not necessarily listening in ways or to the things you might expect. Blah brass tunes and mild early rock and roll were among the most important mid-century global influences on even the best Thai pop, joined as key references during the war by the more masturbatory side of Santana. Nowadays, art-world-friendly Bangkok musicians who grew up in the 1990s are more likely to namedrop Oasis than My Bloody Valentine. Meanwhile, many other Thai genres are bluntly parochial, eschewing global trends as much as they can. All of this is to say that Thai? Dai! is not so much a retrospective of a forgotten Thai musical past as it is a report from a thriving but ultimately small cosmopolitan present, from a scene that’s had to filter through a lot of records to find the songs that fit its prefigurations of taste.
This present sounds, thanks to figures like Maft and Menist, a lot like this compilation, the tracks for which were in fact tested at live shows. Their Paradise Bangkok parties are anthropologically fascinating – Bangkok has plenty of ex-pats who come here for business or sex, but just recently seems to have reached a hipster quorum. A friend marveled the other day, nursing an expensive well drink at a Paradise Bangkok event, that so many people who looked like Brooklyn even lived in Bangkok, let alone were packed into one bar. The crowd was dancing to many of the same songs featured on Thai? Dai!, all of which would have been equally perfect for a soul night set in New York.
I meanwhile marveled at the vast distance between these listeners and the ones less than a mile away, over at the similarly-named but otherwise utterly distinct Bangkok Paradise Night Bazaar. The second crowd, almost all Thai, drank Sangsom whisky out of plastic bags and danced to fast (and burningly loud) lam sing under the gaudy neon lights of a converted parking lot. There was something striking about how Menist and Maft’s audience was so unaware of the parking lot scene, despite their proximity, and how that (much larger) scene likewise knew nothing about Maft and Menist’s set, including the music it featured. The Paradise Bangkok crowd, so familiar, suddenly seemed like an ethnic enclave.
Even the content of the Thai? Dai! songs felt out of place in the light of the comparison. The singers weren’t waxing earnest about acid trips and peace, but writing poetry about the fluctuating price of Thai goods and inept village headmen. The goofy vibraphones we expect from psych were there, and the percussion was rich and busy, but there was something off-kilter in the spirit of the words. Misinterpretation is of course the engine of much musical creativity – I’m tempted to say all – and it drives the retro-obsessed Bangkok ex-pat/hi-so Thai hipster scene as much as it once drove Teungjai Bunpraruksa to channel The Sonics while singing about half an eyebrow (!). In that sense the scene marked by Thai? Dai! is doing exactly what people always do when they get excited by exotic sounds. But Western consumers of non-Western music, from devotees of Putumayo straight on through to Sublime Frequencies, can fall prey to narcissism by listening only to material that echoes what they already recognize musically, despite their honest intentions. It is thus worth mentioning, not as condemnation but as fact, how much "you-centric" curatorial work goes into making compilations like Thai? Dai! sound like objective histories.