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The big sound from across the Mekong
With their second album seeing them signed to a local label, Lao rockers Cells are finding their fan base is multiplying
STORY BY ONSIRI PRAVATTIYAGUL
How much do we really know about our neighbours? Although we are generally aware that people reside next door to us, given the disconnection of urban living few of us know much more than that.
When it comes to neighbouring countries, most of us could provide some run-of-the-mill general knowledge and perhaps a few loaded generalisations, but detail would be conspicuously absent.
For Thailand's neighbour, the Lao People's Democratic Republic, we could readily paint tourism-oriented pictures of tranquillity, serenity, friendliness and traditional living. But if asked to include rock 'n' roll in that image, you'd probably have more chance listing your neighbours' names and occupations.
Well, it's time to update that imagined national landscape and meet Cells, Laos' most well-known and best-selling rock group. Their popularity is unrivalled on their home turf. Think Big Ass (post arcane indie days), Loso (pre unrealised international stardom) and Silly Fools (at the peak of their game) and you'll get the picture. But if you still think Outlook is delivering another fluffed up diatribe to justify Cells' place on our front page, perhaps the numbers will convince you otherwise. Cells' self-titled 2003 debut sold 40,000 copies in Laos, no small feat when such sales figures are considered an achievement in Thailand where the population is 10 times bigger.
"Selling 10,000 copies there is the equivalent of selling one million copies elsewhere. And I've heard that when you reach a million copies, you have to issue new CD cover!" said vocalist and songwriter Athisak Ratanavong, giggling.
However, you won't have to trudge all the way to Laos to get your hands on a Cells recording as the band have now been signed to GMM Grammy's Sanamluang label. Their second album Saew (Noise) was released in Thailand last week and the band's fan base seems to have gradually solidified. The first single, Waan (Sweet), is raking both the indie and mainstream charts, thanks to its catchiness, cute lyrics and polished production.
Cells are currently in Bangkok to promote Saew. As with their other visits to the Kingdom, their schedule is full and offers little time for fun. This time round bassist Anoloth Phiasackkhour has been sidelined due to illness, but Athisak, Bounterm Sisamud (guitar), Khonsavanh Senbouttalat (guitar), Latthisone Kettavong (keyboards) and Anousith Sivilay (drums) handle themselves amicably in his absence.
Athisak does most of the talking, as lead singers tend to do, while the rest of the band listen attentively and occasionally chime in. They speak Lao gracefully, politely adjusting and explaining certain slang terms. Collectively good natured, Cells approach almost everything with wide-eyed enthusiasm and an innocent sense of humour. Sanamluang's staff gushed about how humble Cells are, how politely they interact with others and the affect the band's sincerity has on those around them - even on old hands who have been working with musicians for decades.
Formed out of high school in 2000, Cells never had any intention beyond jamming for the love for music. Early on, the mutual friends entered a competition at a music school. They didn't win it, nor the many more competitions they entered later.
"We never won any awards set by the music contests. But we always won the popular votes. I think people liked us for our entertainment value," said Athisak.
But the path was certainly never paved with gold for Cells, who all went on to university in Vientiane, studying everything from engineering to agriculture. Out of their love for rock they begged for opportunities outside of competitions to play around the capital. Their persistence paid off in terms of a stable fan base and sharpened skills. When Cells unleashed their debut single Kob Jai Fah (Thank You, Sky), their name was formally carved into the Lao music atlas. Following the success of the single, Cells were picked up by the then-small Indee Records in 2002, which released their debut album the following year.
"We became more organised and more committed. We had to understand the music business when we moved onto a label," said Athisak.
Although a commercial success and a testament to their talents, the musical influences found on Cells' debut are all over the place. But the release of such a mishmash was a considered decision.
"It was quite eclectic. We wanted to put everything in because we wanted to do it all! And we also thought that we might not get another stab at releasing an album, so we just threw everything in there. So you've got metal, pop-rock and even ska among other things," said Athisak.
Cells' love affair with Thailand started with legendary deejay Suharit Siamwalla of the Bedroom Studio programme on Fat Radio, who stumbled upon Cells while holidaying in Laos. He brought the band's record back to play during his time slot, with the warm reception to the airplay leading to stage time at the 2004 Fat Festival.
"At first we were nervous, but the reception we got from the crowd erased our anxiety. We were elated," said Latthisone.
The Fat Festival gig paved the way for more Bangkok performances, including the Fat Connection project where they shared the stage with their idols, Big Ass.
Yutthana Boon-aom, Fat Radio's big honcho who now doubles as Sanamluang's managing director, has been watching Cells' development and decided to include them in his label's roster after hearing Saew, which was recorded in Laos. The band's second effort is clearly a more harmonious affair, with the nu metal route firmly in place.
"I've known Cells since their first album, and I believe they have made a gigantic leap on this second album, which goes to show that they are the real thing," said Yutthana. "I have to say that I initially relied on a gut feeling for this signing, but when I saw them play live at a Sanamluang showcase in May, all my worries were gone. I want to defuse all the stereotypes that we Thais have about Laos and would like us to start seeing Lao people as they are and not be clouded by preconceptions. And I hope that by bringing Cells to Thailand we can build a stronger cultural bridge."
Cells readily support this notion, adding that Laotians are receptive to Thai popular culture, which they are exposed to through TV shows and radio programmes. Boyd Kosiyabong and Bakery Music, for example, are among Athisak's favourites.
"That's how we know a lot of bands from Thailand. We get Thai programmes too, so we know what's hot and what's not. And the languages are similar, so there are no communication problems at all," said Bounterm.
But life as a full-time musician is tough in Laos, where paid gigs are few and far between. Each member of Cells has a full-time job or is still studying. Khonsavanh is pursuing his second degree in engineering and Anousith is working towards his high-school diploma while Bounterm, who graduated with an English major, is a jeweller and Athisak and Latthisone work as event organisers for Indee Records.
"If you want to make music your profession in Laos, you need to have a studio to provide complete services. I don't think you could live just by playing music at the moment, but we are trying to get there. We want to make it possible for younger generations, so they can follow us," said Athisak.
Asked how they view their future in Thailand, Cells seem to hold no expectations. As the cliche' goes, they intend to take it as it comes. Yet they are clear that they don't want to be judged in reference to their origins. Instead, they hope their music can speak for itself. "We are not gunning to be the next Big Ass," said Athisak. "It would be great if Thai people gave our music a go. It's like opening your window to see what your neighbours are up to. Everything has to go step by step. We're just doing the best we can, trying to live in the present."
CELLS - Whan
CELLS - Luek Luek
Das Album Saew 07 von CELLS gibts bei: Thaipop.de
Dienstag, 14. August 2007
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