Nuy leans over the rough, beer-splashed table, his eyes alight with conviction. “For me, punk is not about fashion, it’s my life.”
Nuy Punk, the name he prefers to go by, is 21 years old and already has plenty of spikes on his collar. He is the lead singer of Chiang Mai street-punk band Pogo and Drunk, owner of the Mohawk Bar (the only dedicated punk bar in Chiang Mai), and has a day job custom-painting motorbikes at a Harley-Davidson garage.
I’m sitting with him and his friends on a green leather sofa outside The Mohawk Bar: a small, improvised and extremely DIY watering hole near Un Ari Soi 1, just outside the northeast corner of the Old City. The green sofa, we’re sitting on has springs sticking out of it and the words ‘FUCK HI-SO’ spray-painted onto the backrest. Other decorations include spray-painted anarchy signs on the inner orange orange walls of the bar, bumper stickers of classic American and British punk bands and photographs of Nuy and his punk pals wearing varying amounts of leather and metal, brazenly oblivious to the Thai heat and humidity.
“There are not so many real punks in Chiang Mai,” says Tanapat Deachupakan from across the table, a student and bass player for Pogo and Drunk. “Many farang think Thais are only soft and friendly but we can also be angry. People look at us and they only see the clothing and the hair, but we say don’t look outside, look on the inside.”
“Punk became popular in Chiang Mai maybe around 10 years ago,” adds Sarutsamit Nuttawat, another ‘real punk’ and bassist for Headbutt, another popular local punk act. “There is a punk band from Bangkok called Chaos of Society, they made punk kinda popular with Thais.”
“We can’t always say the things we want to in Thai,” says Nuy. “That’s why we love the old American and English punk, that’s why we play them. Even now what they are saying is true.”
For all their love of anarchy and chaos the punks in Chiang Mai are actually a well-organised group. They have a Thai Facebook page which translates to “Punk of Chiang Mai” which they use to organise their get-togethers and gigs. The bigger concerts happen roughly once every two months and often bring together a lot of acts from opposite ends of the spectrum in order to share resources and a stage. The sound quality at the concerts is good and there are almost always merchandise tables laden with band-branded T-shirts, spike bracelets and other punk paraphernalia.
The punk scene in Chiang Mai is far from an oddity in East Asia. Indeed, while many foreigners to Asia might associate punk music with classic acts like The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, the scene in Asia is arguably more vibrant, active and politically charged than its western contemporaries. Bands like Bangkok’s The Alldirty, SMZB from China, and Japan’s Disclose have been underground sensations for years and right now in neighbouring Myanmar the hidden punk scene is just starting to surface through bands like No U-Turn and Rebel Riot.
The Chiang Mai scene is decidedly less political though, with most of the punks I interviewed agreeing that they play mainly for fun. This is definitely the case with Itchy Band, an all-girl punk band based in Chiang Mai with members from the United States, Canada and Thailand. “We don’t play for any money,” says Ingrid Emm, lead singer of Itchy Band. “We can’t and we don’t even want to because we just want to have fun with our music and share it with people. That’s it.”
Fon Rainy, bassist for Itchy Band, nods in agreement, “It’s harder for the all-Thai bands because they have to play what the audience and the owner of the bar wants, we just play what we want, that’s why we have some original songs.”
The composition of original songs is one of the characteristics that set Itchy Band apart from the rest of the scene, aside from the obvious exclusion of any male members. “It might be easier to get shows because we’re all female,” says Bess Dolin, guitarist with the band. “But then people get a little surprised when we start playing punk and rock songs in situations where they thought maybe we were going to be a girl pop band or something!”
“But there is more pressure in another way,” adds Fon, “even though I don’t care about being the best bass player or whatever, if we don’t play well people will dismiss us more easily because we are women.”
The inclusion of international members in the band definitely gives Itchy Band a different appeal, perspective and sound. Their setlists are hard to define, oscillating from street punk to metal, and garage to hard rock. “We’re punk and not punk.” says Ingrid. “We’re just Itchy Style!”
So where can a newcomer to the scene get a chance to hear these bands play? According to the bands and broader members of the punk community, popular hangouts include Nuy’s Mohawk Bar, where you can find out where the next big concert is happening, Heaven Beach in the Zoe in Yellow complex, where there is usually a punk or metal band playing, and “on the sidewalk near a 7-Eleven where we can get Sato rice wine!” according to Nuy…