The video is immediately seductive: Seven red-vested musicians surround a homemade tower of amplifiers and PA horns. Slumping in his red plastic chair, a bassist on the verge of a nap lays down a deep, dreamy groove while a five-man percussion section strikes cymbals, toms and bass drums. Above it all, one player weaves sinuous distorted melodies through a double-necked, pear-shaped lute — or phin — augmented by a small array of effects pedals.
The combo’s thrilling transgenerational clamor sounds old and new at once; familiar Thai and Laotian melodies receive a vinegary electric kick somewhere between garage, psych-rock and a New Orleans parade band. In the background are whiskey and beer bottles, a line for food and a row of motorbikes lined up alongside a verdant field, creating the atmosphere of a casual and uncannily cool country hoedown.
Hundreds of thousands have seen the video, which the site Dangerous Minds posted early last year under the headline “Mindblowing Psychedelia From Thailand.” But one of those viewers, Los Angeles producer Josh Marcy, who works at advertising giant TBWA Worldwide’s Media Arts Lab, was more than just merely curious. With the translation assistance of Honeybee, a waitress at Westwood’s Emporium Thai Cuisine, Marcy reached out to bandleader Pho Rin to arrange the recording session that led to Khun Narin Electric Phin Band (Innovative Leisure), the first international release devoted to the art of phin prayuk, or modernized phin.
The musicians were hesitant when Marcy first contacted them “We’re not professional musicians and there’s no need to record us,” said Rin, their leader. “We’re just a band that plays parties on weekends and we prefer to be heard live.” Despite their protests, Marcy convinced them to take a chance. “I told them they are indeed professional musicians because they’re great and they get paid for it,” he says. In September 2013, Marcy arrived in Bangkok and met up with Peter Doolan, a young American then working in Thammasat University’s library. Doolan has been writing knowledgeably about Thai music since 2008, speaks Thai fluently, and had already been hanging out with Khun Narin.
According to Doolan, the band is just one of many combos throughout Thailand that play phin (pronounced “pin”) prayuk. It’s essentially an instrumental version of lam sing — a fast, sexy style of vocal music that appeared during the ’80s and evolved from the mor lam (“expert song”) folk tradition of Laos and Thailand’s large northeastern Isan region. Lam means “sing,” and sing, somewhat confusingly, means “racing,” a nod to Thailand’s robust motorcycling culture. Rarely recorded, lam sing consists of long medleys of traditional and popular songs sung over a constant tempo. You might hear Bollywood melodies in the mix, says Doolan, adding that “you hear Boney M’s ‘Rasputin’ all the time; it’s a lam sing standard.” And where “prayuk” used to denote background synthesizers, it currently signifies “running the phin through a ton of effects pedals.”
Phin prayuk bands specialize in holiday festivals and ordination celebrations for fresh Buddhist priests. A typical gig for Rin’s group starts around eight in the morning, when cooking commences and the local spiritual doctor performs purification rituals. Then, everyone parades through town to the local monastery, band and villagers playing and dancing together in an Asian version of a New Orleans brass band and its second line.
Rin himself is a former railroad worker who now sells beef from a stand in front of his house. The other band members are carpenters, stonemasons, taxi drivers and mechanics. The group’s poster advertises “friendly negotiable rates,” but Doolan says conflicts often accompany end-of-gig settlements after a lot of whiskey has been consumed. “The village big men will forget what they offered him and sometimes want to renegotiate — nonverbally.”
Marcy, whose own negotiations went substantially smoother, recorded the album virtually in real time within a couple of days of arriving in Lom Sak. “We started the day by going up this beautiful mountain to the temple where they practice,” he says. “Beer [the group's phin player] is also an ordained Buddhist priest. We returned to the village and they said, ‘We just need a couple of last things before we get started: a bottle of whiskey and some incense.’” Fortified by a bottle of 100 Pipers scotch, the group was primed.
“They tuned up, I hit record and made sure the levels were right, and we were off and running,” Marcy says. “They’d play, take a break, and discuss what they were going to do next. I’d make sure everything was right, have a little shot of whiskey, and they would play the next song.” In little more than an hour, Marcy had 50 minutes of usable material he edited down to 40 and change, “so it would fit on vinyl.”
The resulting album contains two medleys, one nearly 20 minutes long, and two four-minute tracks. While the tempo remains the same, the energy level leaps as Beer, who added Fender pickups to his hand-carved phin (with serpent headstock), improvises inventive transitions from tune to tune within each medley. In “Lai Sing,” you can hear him tighten his phin’s resonator string with his right hand, raising the pitch as he continues playing with his left. Boss phaser, distortion, and digital-delay pedals give his sound a fuzzy psych-rock majesty.
The good news is that Khun Narin’s band is just the tip of the prayuk iceberg. Doolan has heard combos that use electronic keyboards and parade bands that replace the multimember drum set with a machine. He’s most excited about central-Thailand groups like Samroi’s Sound of Khaen Band, that run the khaen, a raft-like free-reed mouth organ with sixteen pipes, through various effects. The prevailing instrument may be different, Doolan says, but the repertoire remains the same. It will probably take a while for someone to get that session together. Until then, and thanks to Josh Marcy’s intrepid enthusiasm, the rest of the world can be introduced to Khun Narin’s joyous local specialty.