The show is about to begin. Its location is public. Its location is secret. Sound equipment and instruments are strewn about as musicians set things up. Their power supply is limited, so they hope the batteries don’t drain before all four bands finish playing.
Attendees were told the show starts at 3pm. 3pm becomes 4pm. 4 becomes 5. But the crowd gathered among the piles of gravel and refuse, some in folding chairs and some squatting on the sidewalk where they dodge occasional cyclists, seems unsurprised by this.
Soon enough, after a quick sound check, melodic strumming and booming drums signify the start of show.
This symbiotic community of underground musicians and fans with a love for new sounds and live music didn’t gather Sunday in an air conditioned venue or aloof nightclub. Instead, as they have done regularly since late last year, they turned an unlikely Bangkok location into their sonic playground.
Anyone cruising along Praditmanutham Road on Sunday afternoon would be forgiven for missing what was brewing under the Chalong Rat Expressway. There, a crowd huddled beneath an overpass remade from gritty urban expanse into post-rock music haven.
“I think playing outside in the unlikeliest of places protects us from COVID and relieves others from being stuck at home all day,” Wannarit “Pok” Pongprayoon said.
This is Bangkok Street Noise, and Wannarit, a hero of Bangkok’s alt music scene, is its public face. Since August, he and his compatriots found a way to escape COVID confinement and bring the underground into the light with a string of free public shows at unusual locations scouted throughout the capital.
The first was at a hard-to-find spot at an underpass off Rama IX Road near Ramkhamhaeng. Others have been staged beside a railroad, at a bus stop and green spaces hidden in plain sight.
On Sunday, underneath the expressway, several dozens had been informed days before of 2022’s second event.
“We are Million Acre, and this is Street Gig #18. Let’s begin,” vocalist Thanapon “Bo” Yoodee of the evening’s first band announced quietly to the chilled-out audience.
Michael Honeycomb, an American artist, helps with everything from logistics to sound check.
“It started out of necessity, where we just wanted to play music,” he said. “We haven’t thought about making shows in the beginning, we just wanted to play music outside.”
Most of the time, Bangkok is a place to be avoided by those who can. Those not limited by economic status hurry through its exposed places on their way to the next air conditioned bubble. Bangkok Street Noise reverses this by making the city the stage and provoking unlikely interactions.
On Sunday, curious cyclists and motorcycle taxi drivers paused to take in the scene, as other shows have drawn puzzled-but-curious locals.
“We choose public locations partly because it’s safe, but also partly we want music to be more public,” Wannarit said. “We love the fact that locals passing by can hear and see something interesting about what’s going on in the scene.”
The smell of cigarette smoke lingered in the air. Casual banter among the audience gave it an intimate vibe as ambulance and police cars flashed over the highway above, oblivious to the chaotic fun unfolding below.
The sun began to set halfway through Action Star’s bright rendition of The Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry, and after darkness fell, psychedelic outfit Dara Rasmi’s orgy of post-rock guitars and reverb sent the audience into a dance frenzy.
Lights were quickly set up and soon provided the only illumination. Spirit Snail, the final act in the lineup, dominated the space with a slower tempo and heavier guitars to deliver a headbanging crescendo in one hell of an explosive, stoner-doom wall of sound.
The music was so dark that some people began trickling out early, but when the sound briefly cut out, it didn’t break the trance state of those still intoxicated by the ethereal mix of distortion dread.
Wannarit has plenty experience organizing events that get by on good will and patience. With his label, Panda Records, he used to organize multi-day festivals in remote rock quarries known as Stone Free. Before the pandemic, he founded the performance-DIY-shopping Noise Market events.
Bangkok Street Noise began after he staged an outdoor show back in August with Honeycomb, experimental musician Gate Garnglai, and some others.
“We invited our friends to escape the stress of staying at home,” Wannarit said.
The street gigs began in August. The shows are free, and other bands are welcome to join. Only five to 10 people came to the first shows. But word spread and more caught wind. Sunday’s event saw upward of 50 people or so.
The group scouts out public locations via bike and Google Street View to find places to build walls of sound that can catch the ears and eyes of curious onlookers.
“I love to bike and explore places deep within alleys. I enjoy discovering new places hidden near my home,” Wannarit said. “Michael goes by motorbike and loves to explore too. He’s very familiar with Bangkok.”
That means always trying to one-up the previous gig’s location.
“We also try to go for more unique locations to refresh people’s eyes with the city, because we all get sick of concrete and cars,” he added.
Past gigs took place at Saphan Phut (Memorial Bridge), a graffiti-streaked patch of scrabble next to rail tracks near Asok, and green spaces such as Watcharaphirom and Piyapirom parks.
“Exploring the city is part of the fun for us,” Honeycomb said. “It’s like adventure gaming.”
Their network of musicians and performers provide a large pool of talent to draw on, though Wannarit is likely to be splayed out on the lawn, blowing into a melodica.
They also do open calls via social media, asking artists to submit samples for consideration.
“If a band hasn’t been to one of our events, we tell them to check out the event before booking them,” Honeycomb said.
While Sunday’s event consisted of four distinctive rock bands, the organizers aim to keep the lineup diverse.
“When we’re choosing a lineup for a show, we try to never have more than one band with one style,” Honeycomb said, adding that he’d like to see more hip-hop and metal acts join the cacophony.
In between shows, the community keeps in touch via the Bangkok Street Noise group, sharing recordings and waiting for Wannarit to announce the next location.
But due to the group’s ad hoc and unpredictable nature, organizing those weekly gigs poses challenges.
For one, most shows are far from electrical outlets, so musicians have to rely on battery power alone.
“One of the biggest challenges running these shows is power. We run everything through batteries,” Michael said. “They’re really good batteries, but it’s become a signature when at some point in the show the music gets cut.”
While there’s always an eye open for someone coming along to tell them to stop playing, other changing conditions are more likely to be showstoppers.
“We’ve had a couple situations where it started raining on our equipment,” Michael said. “One time a band was playing, and they were under cover, but the mixer and computer weren’t. So we just put a tarp over it while I stood there with an umbrella.”
So far, the bands have only been kicked out of a place once – a park – and were unable to finish there. So instead of giving up, they just moved everything over to a nearby overpass.
“What made it so amazing was that the audience helped us carry our equipment across the road, and within 30 minutes we were set up again,” Honeycomb said.
Another time a park which had given permission changed its mind when they showed up.
“Again, we just improvised and found a spot nearby,” Michael recounted. “From that day on, we don’t ask for permission anymore, We try to use parks less.”
Asked if COVID gave them pause, Honeycomb doesn’t think they’re being irresponsible.
“I think it’s pretty safe,” he said. “We only do outdoor shows.”
As someone who’s been avoiding indoor spaces, he said that’s one reason they’ve turned down venue invitations. That and wanting to keep it outdoors – and free for all.
“It’s always gonna be free and accessible,” he said. “The vibe that you feel is unique, you know that people are only here because of the music. There is no profit to be made, it is just a project of passion.”
Could it be a victim of success, however?
“I don’t want a lot of people at the shows simply because it could prove to be more troublesome for the neighbors around us,” Wannarit said. “We are also scared of attracting the authorities to chase us away.” He laughs.
But the randos are part of what makes it worthwhile.
“However, every time we perform around people who are jogging or heading back home, I can see that they enjoy what they see and hear, even if they aren’t fans of the music.”
That goes to the central tension of the art he’s created over two decades: casting aside conventions while also trying to find enough interest to be a viable force.
“It makes me happy to realize that there are things that mainstream society is willing to accept and welcome,” he said. “I do sometimes worry about the audience getting big for small spaces. Eventually, we’d like to buy a van to tour and connect with bands from other provinces.”
He thinks a moment before adding:
“We’d also like to get more batteries. And do 50 shows. Maybe.”