The Land of Smiles is also the land of catchy, exciting, contemporary indie music.
From rock and indie to dance pop, the past decade has seen an explosion of talented Thai bands and artists that heavily draw inspiration from a diverse range of European and North American genres and bands—including British rockers, 1980s synthpop outfits, ethereal shoegaze bands, and electro-disco artists—yet with a unique sensibility and, in most cases, native tongue lyrics.
Both visitors and locals can take in these sounds at live venues, festivals, and events around Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Petchburi, Hua Hin, and other cities and islands around the country. Of course, you can also give a listen from your home country, since these bands' videos and albums are often available today on YouTube, iTunes, Spotify, and other digital streaming services.
The 101 on 21st Century Thai Indie Music
The U2-meets-Radiohead (with a dash of Coldplay) of Thailand, ModernDog is one of the country's most famous, trailblazing acts. (In fact, they've played gigs with Radiohead and toured the U.S. in 2006.) Since their founding in 1992, they have helped bring a modern, edgy indie rock sensibility to the music scene, while still being exceptionally melodic and accessible.
ModernDog's YouTube channel features oodles of music videos and live appearances, and lead vocalist Thanachai "Pod" Ujjin sometimes sings in English. Their video for the 2013 song "Scala" features an impressive roster of lip-synching cameos from some of Thailand's most prolific contemporary bands and performers, including Scrubb, Gene Kasidit, Bodyslam, Tattoo Colour, and Flure (the latter's 2005 single, "Honeymoon," is one of the century's most beauteous slices of strings-driven chamber pop).
ModernDog also dabbles in design and visual art. When staying in Chiang Mai, check out the abstract art-inspired signature room at Art Mai Gallery Hotel, which Pod designed himself.
Sharing a record label with ModernDog, Mr. Z, a.k.a. Zomkiat Ariyachaipanich. arrived in 1993 taking cues from synthpop icons Pet Shop Boys (his song "Tell Me Why" could easily share the same playlist as the PSB's entire 1990s output), and more recently has flexed his hand (and keyboards and samplers) at lounge, dubstep, and other danceable genres.
Inspired by Michael Jackson, Hall & Oates, Stevie Wonder, and electro-disco, Cyndi Seui is the alter-ego of musician Cesar B. de Guzman and released a first album circa 2005. There's more than a little Daft Punk to Cyndi Seui's ditty "Hot Step."
In a similar vein to ModernDog musically yet without the flourish of avant-garde, Clash was founded in 2001 and is a household name. The soft rock-styled, lower profile outfits Flure and Scrubb came to be in 2002 in 2000 respectively, while the aggressively indie rock-styled SLUR released its first studio album in 2006. 2007 saw formation of an all-female trio, Yellow Fang, whose feedback-drenched, moody guitar-driven shoegaze and dreampop recalls bands like Slowdive and Belly: Their cover of Frank Ocean's "Thinkin' Bout You" was a highlight of 2016's Indiespiration concert, in which top indie bands performed both cover versions of influential tracks plus their own songs.
Having laid these foundations, these bands and others inspired and helped launch an even larger crop of artists this past decade, along with the record labels that nurture them.
Retro Rules: 80s and 90s Pop Influence
Hailing from Chiang Mai, the synthpop outfit Polycat's international claim to fame was an appearance as the wedding band in 2011's The Hangover 2. Initially a ska and reggae cover band known as the Ska Rangers circa 2007, Polycat radically changed its direction and line-up (the original quintet is now a trio), and scored major hits on their second album, 2016's 80s Kisses, which embraced a deliciously 1980s Top 40 radio pop sensibility. "So Long," with a music video reediting footage from a classic 1989 romance film, Chili and Ham (Prik Kee Noo Kub Moo Ham), is an irresistible earworm.
With their third album, 2020's Pillow War, Polycat has jumped a decade forward, switching up genres to smooth 1990s R&B pop (à la Toni Braxton, Babyface, and Tevin Campbell).
1980s electropop was a major influence on Gene Kasidit's shimmering 2014 album, Blonde, which signaled a major departure and new direction for the transgender artist. Kasidit started her music career during the mid-2000s as the male-identified frontsman of the electroclash, punk-inspired band Futon. Sprung from a party titled "Rehab" at ultra-trendy Bed Supperclub (which is where you'd find all stripe of Thai and international celebrities, fashionistas, and VIPS nightly until it closed in 2013), Futon released several albums but called it a day in 2008.
Kasidit released a solo album in 2012, Affairs. With English language lyrics and some genre hopping, Kasidit fumbled for a new voice and identity, and finally emerged as both female and an electropop diva with Blonde. Switching back to her native tongue, quite a few of the songs have a cheeky edge: "ONS" is local shorthand for "one night stand." Since then, Kasidit was responsible for the theme song of season two of Drag Race Thailand (an official RuPaul's Drag Race spin-off, it can be viewed in the U.S. on streaming service WOW Presents Plus), and a steady slew of hit singles.
Another unique element of Thai pop culture—and culture overall—is its embracing of transgender and gender nonconforming individuals. Besides Kasidit, other trans artists include actor/singer Chanudom Suksatit of the Placebo-esque band Chanudom (Suskatit had gained renown for playing Hedwig in Thailand's production of Hedwig & The Angry Inch), and Belle Nuntita, who snagged a Sony BMG contract after winning Thailand's Got Talent (her audition entailed a stunning, surprising song during which she switched between male and female voices) and is currently studying in the U.S.
Bands and Labels to Watch Right Now
With a band name that usually connotes “prestige” or “dignity” in Thai, the five-member band Somkiat met at Mahidol University’s College of Music circa 2008 and was performing publicly by 2010. Drawing inspiration from Britpop bands like the Arctic Monkeys, they craft catchy, tightly constructed, danceable, and infectious jangly guitar-driven gems that call to mind the best work of Weezer with a distinctly Thai pop sensibility.
Their debut album, 2015's Sara, sold out its first printing within a month of release, and a slew of singles has continued to flow since. In April 2019, to celebrate the Thai New Year festival, Songkran, they played a set at Smallroom's Holiday Party.
Based in Bangkok's Thonglor district, the 21-year-old Smallroom is one of Thailand's premiere record labels for some of the best indie music: Besides Somkiat, their roster includes Slur, Polycat, and Gene Kasidit, plus daynim, Penguin Villa, Summer Stop, Lomosonic, Tattoo Colour. Smallroom's YouTube channel is an excellent way to keep up with their latest releases via music videos, upcoming album teases, vlogs, and artists' live performances.
Label CometRecordsBKK and its YouTube channel spotlight bands and artists whose focus is electronic-based music, from slightly experimental (Sawat, Morg), to melodic chillwave à la Toro Y Moi (Perfectly Casual, Falling You), to lounge-ready dance-electro fusion (Orbital XX).
Catching Thai Tunes Live
Bands in Thailand perform live in places you'd expect and some you wouldn't, from proper concert venues to shopping malls to restaurants, bars, and even fairs and markets. Check band and record label websites and Facebook pages for upcoming gigs and, when in Bangkok, the live music and nightlife listings of Time Out Bangkok and BK Magazine.