Lost Chords and Serenades Divine #1 by Stephen Mcclurg
Khun Narin’s Electric Phin Band: II (2016)
Music has all encompassing merits,
its worth is of a city, it can be as useful as you wish…
—from Phra Aphai Manee, by Sunthorn Phu
Certain sounds are familiar, but as a whole, this music has a welcome strangeness. Melodies like surf ballads or slightly delayed minor pentatonic electric fiddle tunes rise over the thuds and clangs of marching band percussion and groovy electric bass ostinatos.
I’m introduced to this on YouTube, which reminds me of being a kid and seeing, as much as hearing, new music on MTV. The musicians wear matching red vests and sit in plastic white lawn chairs surrounding a booming pillar, a column of amps and horns wired together. The handheld camera wobbles around them and skims across a table topped with beer and whiskey and tip buckets. Unclear and at a short distance away, under a pavilion, A young person holds hands in prayer at the center of a gathering. Someone seems to snip locks of hair from the young person.
I’m not sure what celebration Khun Narin’s Electric Phin Band is playing for in the video, but over the last few years, I’ve listened to Thai music around the New Year, when we’re prone to thinking about new projects, new selves, and wishing for more happiness, more love, or maybe just for more. I’ve found Thai music brings me joys that other New Year’s rituals don’t, and rather than trying to create a new self, this column will be more about connecting with an older one.
I’ve spent decades as a music lover and musician. When I had my first child, the time I could spend playing music disappeared. As someone who enjoyed the pre-internet dives into dusty bins of used vinyl, library discards, and flea market castaways, I’ve found little reason to explore music online until now. In some ways, this column is a return to a former life as an independent music store clerk. I now have access to more music than I did in that mom-and-pop, and I’ve found my interest in all things increase along with my urge to have something like the conversations I had in that little store. Khun Narin’s music instantly resonated with whatever musical soul I could be said to have and reminded me of pricing new trades, picking something I’d never heard, and after the silence of pressing play, the flash of unexpected sonic joy.
A similar thrill has been finding music played on the phin, a three-stringed lute, often elaborately carved with dragons or serpents, and now frequently run through amplifiers. One of my favorite groups is Narin’s Band, whose recent album II is available on Innovative Leisure Records.
“Rin,” as the bandleader is known, also carves his own instruments and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s responsible for their electric amp icon.
The music is frequently described as psychedelic, sometimes even (eye roll) Thai-chedelic. While I can hear that, it resonates as dance music in my mind. It’s music to move by. And I can listen to it with my children, who are still too young for The Fugs or the other music I like which I’ve been told sounds like household appliances. But when we have dance parties and I get tired of Taylor Swift or “The Hot Dog Song,” and they get tired of James Brown or Talking Heads, we can dance and be wild with Khun Narin. This is party music.
Though less noticeable on the records, the repetitiveness that makes the music danceable makes some of the live shows that stack up at two-plus hours difficult to absorbed. I imagine that this is less bothersome the more one is enveloped in Dionysian pursuits. Good news for writers out there, though, I’ve found that the repetition has the same effect as works by Steve Reich or Philip Glass in making a music I can write to. Such music creates a mood that keeps my thoughts and feet moving. When I was growing up, I did almost everything with music. As I get older it becomes increasingly more difficult to do that, and I never read with music these days, but occasionally I like the energy music gives my writing process.
Ultimately, Khun Narin makes perfect tracks for a party mix. They divide often into two types: the shredder and the slow jam. Many of the songs do both—begin slow and increasingly shred. This gradual tempo increase is a part of some traditional Thai folk forms. Melodic hooks, tremolo picking, and trills make up much of the language of the melodies. Occasionally, they will throw in a descending set of Iron Maiden-esque riffs or disco-octave bassline accompaniment.
I’ve been struck how when Rin switches tones, from delayed to distorted and back, he has the effect of multiple lead guitarists or voices, not simply someone stomping on an effect and changing one voice. I’m still not sure how he pulls it off.
Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.