From Las Vegas to Bangkok
independent music scene collaboration with various local artists
Photo by Suphakorn Buayangtoom
5 July 2019
Text by Thanart Rasanon
We arrived at Brownstone Studio on a Sunday evening when I called Tommy through a Facebook Messenger Call. Tommy answered and said clearly in the Thai language that he would meet us downstairs; of course with a slightly American accent to each syllable that I'm familiar with when I hear American people speak Thai. Tommy came down with a warm welcoming smile and led me and my photographer up to his room on the second floor of Brownstone Studio. I found myself surrounded by many kind of speakers, piles of cables, a vintage audio mixer control desk, vinyl records, hardware synthesizers and effects, various traditional instruments, and every other kind of audio and music gear. It was obvious to me his passion and journey into the world of sound and music. He invited us to his bedroom where his Eurorack modular synthesizer was waiting for us. He introduced us and familiarized us with his lovely child and how he played his Eurorack Synth in creative ways. I really had a good time there. Phonlawat, a synthesist and jazz pianist, went to his room and also played with us; chilling and talking more before we caught a taxi to Studio Lam for their show with two other interesting artists: Baank (Guitarist) and Micheal (Visual Jocky).
Tommy has lived in Bangkok, Thailand for around 7 years already and has had a long journey through the Bangkok independent music scene; making music and touring with big name Thai reggae bands like "Srirajah Rockers” and the “Sticky Rice" as a dub engineer. He also performs with “Yaan" a Thai world music super band in Bangkok. His solo project Para Sabda also interests me with it’s soundscape ambient guitar dripping you into a reverie of the moment.
He also curates shows under the series "Healing Sunday" at Studio Lam and has hosted plenty of memorable sonic trips that focus on improvisational performance and have featured a diverse cast of sound magicians.
Currently, you tour a lot with gigs all over Thailand both with bands and your
solo work collaborating with many artists in Healing Sunday at Studio Lam. how was the latest gig?
The Healing Sunday event belongs to the venue, Studio Lam, who has asked me to be a curator for one Sunday night of each month. This steams from my band YAAN’s long relationship with Studio Lam where we have played regularly for years. Because I have so many musician’s friends and contacts with visiting musicians I choose to make my night a showcase of my friends and collaborations with them. It’s been great, I love playing at Studio Lam. They commit themselves to interesting music and created an environment for like-minded people to enjoy together.
My last event was great, as I was contacted by Ayankoko from the Chinabot label and he brought to the night some very unique sounds. I had a really great time collaborating with him, we discovered that we have a very similar taste for sounds but with completely different approaches, it was fascinating and worked really well together. In the previous events I’ve had many fun collaborations with my Japanese friends Yuki and Tetsuya Kaneko who perform with Indian instruments and local musicians like June of Stylish Nonsense. In the near future I’m talking with Keith Hillebrandt and some other fantastic sonic artists both living here and visiting to join the collaboration. This week’s event will feature a Thai jazz pianist and synthesizer player Phonlawat Hirunwatcharapruck and the guitar Chainad (Baank) Bavorntreerapak. Baank and I play together on the remaining Sundays of the month at a minimalistic bar called KU bar. It’s an ambient music project we’ve done for two years now. He plays semi-improvised guitar and I do live processing of his guitar through my electronics to create rhythms and new sonic layers.
Even though I tour and play regularly with three bands, I came to music through improvisation and experimentation, and these Sunday projects are my opportunity to explore and satisfy that free and curious part of me as a musician. It’s a bit of a meditation for me.
Photo by Suphakorn Buayangtoom
How do you manage your time? Are you still teaching in school? How do they effect each other, as an English teacher and music artist.
I am still teaching, and will probably always be a teacher. I enjoy it. Teaching is a beautiful thing and I feel happy to spend my days helping the future generation. I teach language arts which are not related directly to music but as an artist I am not focused 100% on music. I find I can still share my passion through language arts because we learn and teach many concepts such as storytelling and composition, linguistic and connotative evolution, and figurative and symbolic representation. These are concepts important to any art. I don’t think working with words and working with sounds are very different processes.
However managing both lifestyles is difficult. I take my job seriously, because without money I cannot live and life as a musician does not pay the bills. This usually means not drinking much alcohol, not procrastinating, and keeping a fairly accurate calendar. I definitely don’t get as much sleep as I’d like, but I’m also a bit of an insomniac.
In the end, my art and involvement in the community brings me happiness and I don’t mind spending all the time I have on them. I would say it is much more about dedication than time management.
You're also into modular synthesizers, can you tell me about the modular synthesizer that you have right now?
I’ve always been a fan of modular synthesizers for several reasons. First the larger systems have far superior components to your average synthesizer. This is the reason I saved up for a Moog synthesizer and the Moogerfooger series of semi modular units Moog began releasing in 1998. That is my first modular system and it sounds beautiful.
The second reason is the advanced functions of a modular environment, you can create sounds that are otherwise impossible to create. Wave folding, pitch quantization, wave inversion, and granular synthesis are all great tools often difficult to find on your average synthesizer.
The third reason is I have a bad relationship with software. I like to touch and feel. Although I love and work with software like Max/Msp and Pure Data, I just don’t feel right making music on computers. I lose so much of the fun I expect from music as an improvisational musician. With all of the knobs and jacks, modular synthesizers are so interactive and the endless possibilities of different connections means you can always have surprises.
Photo by Suphakorn Buayangtoom
More recently I’m playing with euro rack modules which I feel conflicted about. The recent commercial boom of Eurorack modular systems and companies is a bit dangerous because it gives up the high standard for sound quality components and DIY nature previously associated with modular synths. In return though it gives us a more competitive market and a much bigger community of sound makers to exchange with. For this reason, I’ve become interested. There are extremely creative instruments being produced in the Eurorack community. It’s a futuristic approach to music not just as an interesting instrument but because it also challenges the composer and the audience. I’m a huge fan of the Siam Modular company who produces low cost modular synthesizers in Chiang Mai designed to make eurorack accessible in Thailand. Modular synthesizers can be a great opportunity for DIY spirits and experimentalist, and there is a lot of potential for the community. I even think it would have a positive effect on the local music industry.
The synthesizer I am building now is really about creating really flavorful and unconventional takes on familiar sounds and of course rhythms. I find the modular approach to rhythms very exciting. It takes me back to drum circles and getting lost in infinity. My rack is always changing and there is so much to talk about, so I will just tell you about my three favorite modules. First is the Rings module by Mutable Instruments. Its a resonant synthesizer capable of modal synthesis and it makes very organic sounds. This is a very refreshing for me and it’s a very flexible module cable of producing long drones, guitar strumming, and even wood and metal percussion. My other favorite is module in my system is the Zularic Repetitor by Noise Engineering. This module takes a metronome and turns divides it into various rhythmic patterns based on traditional African drumming. I can connect each element of the pattern to different sounds and each of these layers are adjustable in relation to the metronome to create polyrhythmic beats that modulate and evolve slowly. The last module I’d like to mention is the Dual Looping Delay by 4MS it was actually designed by a good friend and hero of mine Gary Hall, a long time resident in Hua Hin. As a dub and ambient musician I’ve been playing with hundreds of delay units, but this one is really special. As a looping delay it maintains the original pitch of the incoming signals at all times. It is like looking out of a window that is always moving around. It also has triggerable loop freezing and reversing options that can create extremely rhythmic effects. I highly recommend it!
I knew that you came from Las Vegas, why did you choose Isan, Thailand to relocate yourself at first before moving to Bangkok? What did you do there? You have relocated to Thailand since around 2012 right? What did you do in the states before arriving in Thailand?
My move to Thailand is long and complicated, and my memory is not so good with years and dates. But my first trip here was, I believe, in 2007. I was quite young at the time and was invited to stay with my cousin in rural Thailand. Though I stayed half a year, I consider it more of a trip. Everything was very different and very new to me. After returning to finish university in Las Vegas, curiosity brought me back to the country side again and eventually I began working as a teacher in Prachin Buri until 2012. That is when I moved to Bangkok, and have been here since. I still miss the country side. As a musician and academic, I feel life for me in the city is good but as I get older I find myself missing the nature and charm of the slow country lifestyle.
Las Vegas is really a thing of the past for me, it’s a fast-changing city and very migrant. When I go back to visit my family, I don’t feel much at home. I grew up there and did quite a lot. I performed with several ska bands throughout high school. Then in university mostly as a two- piece rock band called Solar Power, this band has basically been reborn as Pink Guns & Floyd Roses a recent rock duo I started here in Bangkok. During university I worked many side jobs from organic markets, to record stores, and substitute teaching. During my studies I also built a large surround-sound speaker system that I would take out into the desert with my friends for our own small private events. Now most of my friends have left Vegas and are spread all over. I’ve always been uncomfortable with some parts of American society but living here makes it worse. I may spend more time there in the future, but it will not be in Las Vegas.
Photo by Suphakorn Buayangtoom
How did you first connect with the Thai music scene? Who are the very first groups of people you got know in Thailand? How did it get to touring with Yaan and Srirajah Rocker right now?
My first connection was through the music venue known as Harmonica. I saw a flyer online somewhere to some small “shoegazer” show I believe it was one of the early shows of the Thai band Hariguem Zaboy. That is when I met Tat Bunnang, a writer for the Bangkok post and avid music collector, he was really friendly and invited me to some other shows, namely the Gift music festival at Silpakorn University. I fell in love with many of the bands there, and realized there is a more youthful side of Bangkok most foreigners didn’t know about.
I started attending many local shows, following the bands I had seen. When word got out that I was a sound engineer I ended up being called on to sort out a lot of the sound problems at these underground shows. That’s when I constantly ran into Nui Cheng, now owner of C3S sound systems, who’s been a great friend of mine and a member of my first Thai band the Sticky Rice. Eventually I ended up in an alley with the singer of the Sticky Rice. I told him I had interest in Dub reggae and had experimented with some ways of doing live effects, he was more than interested and within a couple month of living in Bangkok I had already found a band. Soon after I was on tour with Panda records and became close with guys like Tokin Teekanun who also played with Nui and organized some awesome music festivals. It was at the 3rd year of Stone Free Music Festival that I saw Yaan, and it turns out they saw me! They liked what I was doing with the Sticky Rice and later invited me to join them.
After joining Yaan I became more and more interested in collaborating and got wrapped into a collaboration project curated by Koichi Shimizu, founder of SO::ON dry flower. It was between Banana, then bassist of Yaan, and Win, the singer of Srirajah Rockers. After working together Win asked if I would do full time dub duties in his band. Since then it’s been I think three years playing with Srirajah and about 5 years with Yaan.
What made you interested to pursue your master degree in Sonic Arts at Silpakorn University?
Shortly after meeting Nui Cheng, Nui had introduced me to a man named Jean-david Caillouët, or JD, who was a professor at his university. JD and I become instant friends and would meet often to bounce back and forth our crazy ideas about art and sound. It became obvious that we should take some of these conversations to his school and so I promised to be a student in a sonic arts program if he could create it. Many years later the program came to fruition and I was one of its first students. I would say the inspiration was in some ways to connect what I’d seen in the east and the west and to get back into academics, digging deeper into my ideas and skills without leaving Thailand.
Where did your solo project name "Para Sabda" come from?
Para Sabda is an interesting name I got from one of my recommended books, Sonic Theology, it used this word in describing the various stages of sound as communication in Hinduism. Para Sabda is the “highest” stage which it described as sound which is not spoken from the mouth but coming from the mind and not heard by the ears but enters the heart. I liked this as for me sound has never been so much about messages or genres but about communication on other levels of consciousness. Today maybe I’m less idealistic and I usually just use my name to present myself instead of a moniker.
PARA SABDA - VIRGO + VIRGA
You didn't release your solo project album since 2012 right? Your live processed
guitar album. Do you have plan to make a new album in near future? if you do, how is it going? You told people that you try to keep away from computers and recording as much as possible but you aren’t anti them right? can you do "performance journey" and "home studio journey" together? Maybe DAWs and PC miss you a lot, your old friends from your old days.
No, I did have some problems with appreciating the past too much. My solo project in 2012 was a big project for me as Para Sabda and as a solo guitarist, a sort of goodbye to Las Vegas. I actually created a second album during the years after when I lived in Hawaii, but I have yet to release it.
I feel there is something important about being in the moment and when we take in too much planned, scripted, and artifactual media it can be unhealthy, and divisive a way to look into the future. I focused for the past few years on performing and communicating with others live, because I feel bombarded by media and music on the internet, and I didn’t want to be a part of it. Today I feel a bit different and I feel there is a lot for me to share now. At the moment I’m building a recording studio and hope to in the next few years to focus on exploring my ideas in the studio setting and recording with some of the talented people I have surrounding me.
Photo by Suphakorn Buayangtoom
It looks like you are really into experimental ambient music as I have heard on your old albums and from your live performances, can you tell me which artists inspired you at first and which artists or albums you are really into right now?
I’ve been flying through music since I first got access to the internet as a teenager and it’s hard to pinpoint my particular influences. I’ve been influenced more by the American punk and underground community as a lifestyle more than by a particular artist’s sound. In that community I fell in love with Windy and Carl who are one of my all-time favorite ambient groups and Lucky Dragons a duo of interactive sound artist who turned me onto the possibilities of interactive computer and visual experiences at a house party in Las Vegas. I’m also a huge fan of the early reggae artists of Jamaica and get most of my musical approach from listening to dub music and their way of producing. Dub can actually be quite minimal and ambient in its simplicity because it’s all about deconstructing. Of course, through my studies I’ve also come across many musicians who I don’t often listen to but have changed my perspective completely like La Monte Young, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luigi Russolo.
Of course, these days when I’m not watching live local music here I try to keep up with the times and follow Electronic and Pop music. The more futuristic the better! I really enjoy music like the PC music label in UK and Plop records in Tokyo, amongst of course many other gems floating in the vast world of internet music like LA ambient musician Ana Roxane.
You always play "What I'm into" and "What I'm not into" every month on your Facebook. How and when, did this idea start?
I don’t like Facebook that much so I try not to take it very seriously. I don’t know if social media can be a good outlet for your emotions but I started these lists as a fun way to interact with all the people I know and maybe start mini-discussions. Actually, it’s quite fun in real life because I meet my friends and we already have 5 topics to talk about!
Maybe these posts are just a phase or experiment for me. Its strange, something like looking in a small mirror and the world is there hovering above your shoulder. I tried last year to sell random objects in my house through my Facebook to raise money and using the principle that I could sell them through my message. You can go back and read them. Mostly funny, but it worked! I sold quite a few otherwise worthless items!
Photo by Suphakorn Buayangtoom
You really love to play with words both Thai and English, I'm interest in it. How did you learn to write the Thai language?
Yes, even the facebook lists are like lazy poems for me. As I mentioned earlier I feel like words and sounds are very similar and when spoken are actually the same thing! Another language is like a whole new scale, mode, timbre or even instrument. So, I enjoy doing the same things I would do with sounds with words: synthesizing, harmonizing, sequencing.
Teaching language has also been an influence on me as I am always working with words, and in the past it how I learned to speak Thai, exchanging basic words with students in the countryside. I must clarify though that I cannot really write in Thai, though my reading skills are developing. Today I hardly practice, but with the internet, typing, and translation I think we are sometimes learning without knowing.
Beside music and teaching, what are your favorite things and hobbies?
I love to create art of other forms, but these days I focus almost entirely on sound and my work. If I do have the extra time I like to spend it with friends just sitting and talking. In the past I really enjoyed gardening, cooking, and bicycle riding, but these are things I’ve temporarily given up living in Bangkok.
Let's talk about your future plan for your life and work.
I don’t really know. I move slowly even though I am always doing so many things. At the moment I’m focused on finishing my recording studio, so I can begin some more serious work. I have visions of staying in Thailand and continuing what I’ve been doing here already; However, lately I have been contemplating moving to a new place for a while and doing some deeper studies. Of course, I will have to come back because I feel most at home here.
Follow Tommy Hanson
Favorite Music Artists
Windy & Carl
La Monte Young
Boards of Canada
Lee "Scratch" Perry
Favorite Music Albums
Edited by Tommy Hanson
Shooting Location : Studio Lam, Bangkok & Tommy Home in Bangkok