Shayne Carter

Shayne Carter, known for his songwriting and musicianship in Straitjacket Fits and Dimmer, as well as his solo work, recently spent three months as an artist in residence at a creative hub in Bangkok, Thailand. It gave him the opportunity to connect with Thia musicians, and explore the world of South East Asian music. he tells us a little about his experiences.

How did your residence come about? How did you get this opportunity?

I was the inaugural International artist in residence at a new creative/civic hub in Bangkok called Bangkok 1899. Bangkok 1899  was set up by a Thai-American woman called Susannah Tantemsapya who I connected with through mutual American friends.

Bangkok 1899 is based in a mansion that was originally built in the early 20th century for a high ranking politician calledChaophraya Thammasakmontri who is known as "the father of modern education in Thailand". He also introduced soccer to the nation and wrote a sports song that is still sung before major sporting events - obviously a man of many talents!

The mansion - referred to as"“The Palace" by local residents - sits in an old part of the city and had been disused for a decade before Bangkok 1899 moved in, so there was still refurbishing going on while I was there. A new lawn appeared miraculously within the first two weeks of my arrival. A cafe sprung up downstairs within a month. Susannah and her staff worked at the venue during the day but I was left alone to wander the wide halls of the mansion at night, like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard or Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. My only company was a bat that would fly in at night and settle on the rafters and then freak me out by flapping about whenever I turned on the light. I should mention Creative New Zealand and the Asia NZ Foundation at this point, who both provided funding so I could go to Bangkok and get freaked out by bats.

Who else was involved? Who did you work with?

I had no specific battle plan or ‘outcome’ planned. But I was keen to meet Thai musicians and get some insight into Thai music forms, both traditional and modern. Susannah introduced me to people from the Studio Lam scene which is a small club that basically serves as a rallying point for modern Morlam music in Bangkok. European record collector nerds come and spend small fortunes on Thai vinyl at the record store next door . Morlam musicdeveloped in Laos andin the Issan region in Thailand. It utilises traditional instruments and reminds me very much of the blues in that it is a folk music that originated from disadvantaged and poor people. You can feel the integrity in the music and it has a lot of funk. I ended up putting together a set with a Morlam band who used indigenous instruments like the Kaen and Saw and traditional Thai percussion. The other popular instrument in Morlam music is the Pin, a three string guitar instrument that the players shred on, but instead of the pin I played discordant South Island guitar. The modern Morlam bands have incorporated Western influences like psychedelia, rock and funk so a lot of the music is based on major grooves. Our band performed at the official opening of Bangkok1899. It was a total joy and the music swung hard. 

I also ventured up to Chiang Mai in the North to do some jamming with an experimental sound artist called Arnont Nongyao. Arnont is totally uncompromising and has constructed his own complex, far out sound rig that produces clicks, drones and burrs that he creates while looking at video images he produces himself in real time using a small camera that spins above his kit and produces abstract shapes on an old school video screen. Arnont jams to these images everyday as a sort of spiritual therapy. We produced strange but heartfelt sounds together in the lush Thai countryside while his mother cooked us absolutely delicious food that upset my stomach for days. Arnont came down to Bangkok and we also did a set together at the Bangkok 1899 opening.

You were gone for a long time - was it challenging maintaining creativity for the whole three months?

To be honest it was a pretty cruisey gig. The best thing about staying that length of time is that it became an immersive experience and I got to dig under the covers. I met a lot of cool Thai artists, social activists and, for want of a better description, general members of the public, who gave me a real insight into the culture of the place. My impression of Thailand beforehand was one of the average Western tourist so it was satisfying to go deeper than that and to get a better grasp of the true nature of Thailand, in both a creative and social sense. 

What else did you find challenging?

Pointing and grunting at shop keepers and street vendors when you can’t speak the language is always challenging because after three months of that you can feel like a bit of an idiot. Having said that, being able to say “Hello” and “Thank You” and basically respecting the place you’re in can get you a long way.

What have you taken away from this experience? What's next for you?

It was a wonderful experience. In New Zealand we’re so often steered towards Britain, Europe and the U.S whereas Asia is sitting virtually next door. We don’t know much about Thailand, or other places in Asia, and they don’t know much about us. I think exchanges between artists can lead to better understanding and camaraderie, perhaps more so than government officials sitting in offices negotiating trade deals. There’s many similarities between Asian culture and Maori culture for instance when it comes to ideas about family and community. I’m very keen to go back and do some recording with the musicians I’ve mentioned. As an artist you can often feel alone in a capitalistic society based on money and often selfish or mediocre idea(l)s. Experiences like mine are valuable in that you recognise there are similar creative spirits, who exist outside that, all over the world. Our enviroments may be different, but no matter where you go, the artist’s heart is basically the same.

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