Noise complaints, ticket pricing, licensing issues, and the lack of a dedicated audience are all problems live music promoters are facing in Ho Chi Minh City, but they hope all that will soon change. By Michael Tatarski and Chris Mueller. Photos by Fred Wissink.
It wasn’t a typical night of debauchery at Apocalypse Now. There were no bright-tank-top-clad tourists or women, who may or may not have been working professionals, but the place was packed nonetheless. Unlike most evenings at the club, the crowd was there to see something rare in Ho Chi Minh City — quality international bands performing live.
Two bands had flown in for the night’s show. Dengue Fever, a Los Angeles-based band that mixes Khmer music with psychedelic rock, had already played in Vietnam before this June show. But it was the first trip to the country for Little Barrie, a UK power trio whose frontman Barrie Cadogan also plays with Scottish alternative rock band Primal Scream. A crowd was packed into the club, clustered around tables and trying to peer around the thick pillars throughout the room. Apo, as the club is widely known, was clearly not the ideal location for a live rock performance, and that’s because it wasn’t where it was supposed to happen.
The bands had originally been booked to play at Cargo Bar in Q4, a warehouse that Saigon Sound System renovated and outfitted specifically for live music acts. But for the second time in a row, the local authorities pulled the plug, forcing the gig underground.
“There’s a lot of grey in Vietnam,” Rod Quinton, who runs Cargo Bar, Q4 and event promoter Saigon Sound System, says. “Sometimes the legislation is very confusing and can be interpreted in different ways. In reality, we interpreted stuff one way and it turns out it wasn’t correct.”
This wasn’t the first time shows like this had problems with licensing. A week before, a charity jazz festival was held at Q4, only for the authorities to shut down all the live acts. It was a disappointing night for everyone, but in retrospect, Quinton says the blame ultimately lay with him.
A couple months prior to the festival, a local promoter used Q4 to put on a death metal show. It quickly turned sour when the bands and audience began shouting insults at the government and even the venue’s staff, Quinton says. Eventually word of the show got out, which led to other shows getting cancelled.
“We fully admit that we made a mistake with that death metal show,” Quinton says. “I should have pulled the pin on that … they were even annoying and offending me.”
Now Saigon Sound System and the local authorities have come to a better understanding of what both sides should expect, but there is still no guarantee what might happen next.
“The process of bringing international artists in is still incredibly difficult,” Quinton says. “Even if you do put all that documentation in really early … you don’t actually get the final license until the authorities come to see the sound check or rehearsal for the show. … For people like us who are putting massive deposits on things like fees and airfares, it’s pretty scary stuff. The show can be pulled and the licence may not be granted on the day of the event.”
Obviously, without a licence, a show can never go on. But even with a band booked and the licence sorted, live music promoters are running into another surprisingly common problem: the reluctance of many to pay. Most of these shows cost less than VND 500,000 per person, and this in a city where it is common for people to pay as much as VND 1 million for mediocre DJs, but many expats still expect live music to be free.
“I’m shocked by this perception, because it’s not like that in any country in the west,” Quinton says. “Where all of these people came from, if they liked live music they would pay to go and see it. So why the hell should it be different in Vietnam?”
Linh Nguyen, co-founder and manager of Saigon Outcast, agrees. He also finds that locals tend to be unwilling to pay, although this is a bit more understanding since VND 500,000 can be expensive for many Vietnamese. One way promoters are trying to get around that is by offering discounted tickets for students.
Since opening in December, District 2’s Saigon Outcast has quickly made waves in the city’s creative scene. Though the venue hosts a wide range of artistic events, one of its biggest impacts has been on local music. In May, Outcast hosted ‘Extinction’, which featured local expat bands Joy Oi! and Brian Wilson’s Brain, and the now-defunct Vietnamese band Time Keeper, as well as the Dodos, a two-man indie outfit from California.
“Extinction was our first experience with bringing in a band from abroad,” Linh says. “We weren’t sure how well it was going to work because Vietnamese people generally don’t like to pay an entrance fee to see music. Even a lot of expats would usually say VND 300,000 might be too much to pay.”
Doan Phuong Ha, the other half of Outcast’s ownership, believes the cost of these shows is great value. “I haven’t been to any festivals in Europe but I bet the price has to be much more expensive,” she says. “And do you have the chance to get close to them [the bands] like you do here?”
Since tickets to many of these shows are already cheap when compared to the west or more musically developed Asian countries, it limits promoters in how much they can spend to bring in international acts.
“We are independent and we don’t have much of a budget, so we have to find a solution where we bring in bands who are affordable for us and affordable for people to see,” Linh says.
That’s where Damian Kilroy hopes he can help with his Loud Minority live music nights. Kilroy, 32 from Manchester, started Loud Minority about five months ago with one goal in mind: to bring quality live music to Vietnam.
“I asked myself, ‘What do I like from a night out?’” Kilroy says. “I like to see quality live bands.”
With that in mind, Kilroy started using the connections he made while promoting music in the UK and Croatia to bring acts here. Initially he had a group of friends that were willing to help pay for the bands. “But when it came time to put down money, everyone had excuses,” he says.
So instead, he started working with Quinton from Saigon Sound System, and together they were able to bring in Frank Turner, a British folk-punk musician, for the first Loud Minority music night. Around 320 people showed up and the night was a success.
Loud Minority’s most recent show, with Dengue Fever and Little Barrie, didn’t go as well. Since it was cancelled at the last minute and fewer people went to the underground show at Apo, the event ended up losing money. While it’s not ideal to be taking a loss on these shows, Kilroy says at this point it’s more about building an audience by bringing in good bands.
“We’re starting from scratch,” he says, “but we’re always looking for quality over quantity.”
Strategy also plays a role in what bands Kilroy tries to bring in. “I want to make sure the bands have a good time,” he says. “It’s a small industry at the end of the day and they talk.”
He plans to put on shows that will not only be a good time for the audience, but for the bands as well. Kilroy hopes this will make Vietnam an attractive destination for bands and they will be willing to come for less money.
While these challenges may seem daunting enough — and it may be surprising in a country where loud funerals can last three days and nights — but even minor things like noise complaints have held some shows back.
After receiving their second written noise complaint from the upscale apartment complex across the street, where many well-heeled expats live, the police called Saigon Outcast right before Extinction and told them to cancel it. The show still went on, but Ha and Linh realised something had to be done. They now visit nearby homes before an event to explain what is going on and give free tickets to residents. This approach has paid off. “We’re getting more support and we try to solve the problems quickly,” Linh says. In the past, neighbours would go straight to police with a complaint, but now they talk to Linh and Ha first.
Ultimately, though, these problems will only be fixed if the local and expat communities start to show support for the events, according to the promoters.
“There are some amazing musicians here,” Kilroy says, “But they play in cover bands. With encouragement they could do stuff with integrity and build an audience.”
As for expats, Quinton has one simple message for them: “If they love Vietnam and want to stay here, live music is an important part of any cultural platform, so get behind it. Buy a ticket. Or even better, buy a ticket for your Vietnamese friends. If you can’t get behind it [live music], it’s just going to die again.”
If you’ve ever searched out live music in Saigon, there is a good chance you’ve come across the Wanderlusters. The band, with its affinity for cowboy hats and Western shirts, is hard to miss, especially if there’s a banjo or set of bongos lying around. The five-member group has been entertaining crowds from Saigon to Bangkok since 2010 with a unique sound they call “hillbilly soul”.
But how did something that seems more suited for the American south start in Saigon? “Badly,” jokes Davis Zunk, the Wanderluster’s founder, lead vocalist and mandolinist. Scott Brantley, who plays the bongos and sings, chimes in, “Idiot A called idiot B and said, ‘Hi, I’m making a band, you want to join?’”
It may have been a random beginning, but the band took off from there. Over the past three years, some members have come and gone, but the band’s sound has more or less stayed the same, mixing original Americana roots music that draws from bluegrass, country, gospel, blues and rock. Right now the lineup consists of Zunk, Brantley, Matt Willis on bass, Phil James on guitar, and Nick Rivette on banjo and Dobro.
As I speak to the band before their regular Tuesday-night gig at O’Briens pub in District 1, they are self-deprecating and, much like in their shows, try to get a laugh out of their audience — in this case me.
While their weekly show at O’Briens is usually packed with westerners, the Wanderlusters are also starting to make a name for themselves among Vietnamese. They regularly play at Acoustic to local crowds and recently even performed at a 400-person wedding. “We’re getting some Vietnamese digging it,” Zunk says.
Now the band is armed with over 75 gig songs and will head to Zunk’s old stomping grounds in New Orleans this month for a few shows, as well as some more in Phnom Penh and Bangkok. At the end of last month, they put out their first album of 14 original songs.
“I’m surprised it’s really good,” Brantley says of the album, “and I’m even more surprised Davis wrote some great songs.”
Similar to the band’s live performances, the album started as something simple, but turned into something a little weird.
“For me it’s hillbilly music meets Monty Python,” Willis says. “I laid down my initial recordings in two days … and then I come back a month later and they’d gone crazy. There’s all these weird bat calls, and I’m like, ‘What have you guys been doing?’”
As for the Saigon scene, the band members all agree there are some talented local musicians, but far too many cover bands.
“Any monkey can play cover tunes,” Zunk says.
“Well at least a trained monkey,” adds Willis.
Brian Wilson’s Brain
Like many bands it took time, and a few twists of fate, to bring Brian Wilson’s Brain together. Drummer Ian Cowie and guitarist Andrew Adamski, the original members, had played together in Hanoi, and when they moved to Saigon they decided to form a band named after the creative mind behind The Beach Boys. “We kept meeting people who wanted to play, but they wanted to know how much we would pay them,” Cowie says during our interview before a practice session at Cargo Bar.
Eventually they talked to bassist Rusty Massie, who decided to come into the fold. At the time Cowie was handling both singing and drumming duties, and they were finding it difficult to find a singer. “We had been looking for a female voice for a long time, but hadn’t had any luck,” Massie says. “She needed to not have any hang-ups since some of our lyrics are pretty strange.”
Not just any singer would do, the band had something specific in mind. “We wanted a Vietnamese singer, who was mad, hot, and didn’t really give a fuck about anything,” Cowie says.
That’s when Hannah Warburton contacted the group out of the blue. “I sent her a message asking, ‘Do you mind singing songs about machines that fuck?’, and she just laughed, so she was a good fit,” Cowie says.
The band was nearly complete, and recently David Haimovich, who adds an electronic touch with his computer, filled out the lineup.
Sadly, by the time this story goes to print Brian Wilson’s Brain won’t have much time left in its current form. Cowie and Adamski are both preparing to leave the country. “That’s the problem with expat bands, there’s always people coming and going. We’re finally in a place where we can play a lot and the pieces are there but it’s over,” Cowie laments.
The band members, however, hope their impact on Saigon’s fledgling music scene carries on. “One of our intentions when we began was to kickstart a scene and try to be a vanguard,” Massie says. “We’d really like to get the local musicians and the expat scene integrated.”
The band provided Saigon Outcast’s Extinction event as an example of how this isn’t happening yet. “We met the Dodos and we were hanging out with Joy Oi!, but the guys from Time Keeper didn’t approach anybody,” Massie says.
Cowie believes there isn’t a scene here yet, but he too hopes the band’s work will inspire people. “I think when expats see other expats playing maybe they’ll think, ‘I can do that’, or ‘These guys are shit, I’ve got much better songs’, then they’ll start something.”
Matt Bender, guitarist and singer for Joy Oi!, has a message for Saigon’s musicians: “There’s no competition in this city, and we’d like some.” Along with bassist Gareth Katz, drummer Bryon Rudd, singer Chelsea Rose North, and Alex McCarl on the synthesiser, Bender rounds out the lineup of one of the music scene’s newer outfits. Formed about three months ago, Joy Oi! played their debut gig after just a week of practice. “Our first show was at McSorley’s and we had just gotten our shit together the previous week. We didn’t know the ends of the songs,” Bender says.
Despite a rocky first performance it was well received and there was demand for more. “We were planning to continue writing music but then people started asking us to play more shows,” Rudd says. “Maybe it’s because there wasn’t a sound like that.”
As for what exactly that sound is, the band doesn’t want to lock itself into a genre. “It’s got a lot of elements from a lot of different sounds, so if you listen to a set it’s kind of like a rollercoaster ride,” Rudd says.
Like other bands in the city, Joy Oi! Wants to see more people getting involved and more musicians collaborating. “I think there are enough people in this city who are musically inclined that there could be a better scene if they just got off their ass and did something,” Bender says. “Everybody plays guitar, why not just start playing?”
In terms of venues, Rudd says the band has been lucky in its ability to regularly find places to play. However, there is little overlap between the expat and Vietnamese scenes at these places. “I can’t remember any time I’ve interacted with Vietnamese bands,” Katz, the band’s bassist, says.
Bender, for his part, thinks foreign and local bands don’t play at the same venues for a reason. “We’re playing original rock … while most Vietnamese places you go to have someone strumming away with a girl singing a fucking Taylor Swift song.”
One issue the band has encountered is inexperienced sound crews at certain venues. Saigon Outcast, Cargo and Yoko all have skilled teams, but elsewhere there is no telling what might happen. “At some places we’ve hooked up an iPad or a computer and they just don’t know what … they’re looking at,” Bender says. “Most places don’t consider live music a viable option to get business in.” As a result they don’t put any effort into ensuring that what music they do host sounds right.
Currently Joy Oi! is working on new material, which they hope to debut in the next month or two. Meanwhile, Bender has one final word for musicians in Saigon: “It’s really easy to write your own stuff.”
One thing that can be said about White Noiz is that it may have the most unique lineup in all of Vietnam. The rock outfit consists of lead singer/guitarist Nguyen Cu, drummer Tran Uyen Thao, bassist Nguyen Ngoc Thanh Tam, and guitarist Gokhan Dedebal. Three women and a Turkish dude. Definitely not your average band in this land of tepid cover groups.
Influenced by the likes of Radiohead, the Black Keys and the Rolling Stones, White Noiz brings high energy, original rock to their performances, though they don’t want to be labelled. The group has been together for two years, and has made a lasting impression on fans throughout the country. “People like that we have three women playing,” says Cu, the de facto leader. With her tattoos and styled hair, she looks the part, though is surprisingly soft-spoken off stage at Q4.
Cu is already mesmerising on stage, but notes that when playing original content it’s not hard to get noticed. “People started singing along to our songs pretty quickly,” she says.
Of course, the makeup of the band helps. “In our experience we are the only female rock band in Vietnam, so it’s a really good way to get attention,” Cu says.
Dedebel agrees that White Noiz has found a unique place for itself. “I haven’t seen any girls that can drum or play guitar like these girls,” he says.
The band, like bands everywhere, finds it difficult to make money by playing original live songs, and it is always an issue. “All rock bands in Vietnam are suffering because of the economy,” Cu says.
This is also one of the reasons why there are so many cover bands. “They [bands] don’t have money,” Cu says, “and when they play at different venues the managers ask them to play cover songs to make the audience happy. They need money, so they do it.”
White Noiz, however, is happy going their own way. They plan to record an album in the near future and then go on tour. “Playing outside of Vietnam is what we see for our future,” Cu says. As for the future of music in Saigon, Dedebel is hopeful. “There will be more bands coming in, but will they bring something new?” he asks. “If they do we would love to jam with them. We want to see bands in Saigon playing their own music.”