Firelight flickers over the faces in the crowd, an even mix of Thai and farang, swilling cheap cups of Sangsom and chatting amongst themselves. It’s a cool evening and many of the bar-goers are dressed in leather jackets adorned with spikes and patches – skulls, fireballs, the names of local punk gangs – attached with safety pins. The clientele meshes well with the bar itself, 7 Pounds, a ragtag open-air affair near Wat Jed Yod, several small buildings framing a central courtyard scattered with vintage adverts, old analog TV sets and mismatched chairs.
Inside the glassed-in room that faces the courtyard, a rotund Thai dude with a bald head wears suspenders, intentionally bleach-stained jeans and combat boots. His band, Stomper 191, has just finished their set, a rather cacophonous blend of deadpan vocals and crashing guitars.
Next up is Itchy Band, the four-woman garage punk ensemble that everybody came to see.
Fon, Inge, Rara and Bess have been playing together for just about four years now. As Itchy Band, they perform regularly all over Chiang Mai and have toured throughout Thailand and Cambodia. Their third album, Mass Extinction, came out this past fall. The band has garnered a loyal following and somewhat of a celebrity status here in Chiang Mai – if you live here and care about live music, you’ve likely seen them play at least once.
After a cover shoot that involves a lot of jumping up and down on the Citylife roof, I get a chance to sit down with the four band members on the mouldering balcony couches of our office, drinking Leos with ice. They tell how it all started back in 2009, when Bess, a travelling American on holiday, met Fon, a pretty tattooed Thai punk from Chiang Mai, at Zoe in Yellow one fateful evening.
“I wasn’t much of a guitarist and I didn’t have the guts to play in a band,” says Bess softly, her brown hair falling over her face. “I’ve always had really bad stage fright which kind of prevented me, I guess.”
“So what changed?” I ask her.
“Uh, Fon told me I should be in her band?”
In fact, there was no band – yet – but Fon felt it was time to start one. With no previous musical experience, she decided she would play bass, since she was into rockabilly music at the time. And so, with barely a chord between them, the duo recruited a drummer and played their first set at North Gate Jazz Co-Op.
“We played for, like, 15 minutes,” says Fon. “We only knew one song! But everyone was screaming, loving us. It felt good.”
“Did it sound good?”
“Not at all!”
But Itchy Band had been born. Soon Inge, an Australian by way of America who had mutual friends with Fon, joined up on vocals. Inge was a quick fit and with her the band worked their way through several more local performances. But when the original drummer dropped out, things came to a halt. They needed someone else.
“Everywhere we’d go, we’d be like, ‘So hey, how ya doin? Do you play any instruments?’” recalls Bess.
The girls met Rara one night at Caf? Del Sol in 2011. “They were like, we’re a band looking for a drummer, and I was like, I’m a drummer looking for a band!” recalls Rara.
Originally from Toronto, and the only member with past band experience, she’d spent the last four years working in Bangkok before moving to Chiang Mai on a whim.
Perhaps it was destiny. Rara says that less than a week after meeting, the four women were in the studio, jamming together. “That was cool because people talk a lot when they’re drunk but we actually made it happen. I can’t say any of us were that good…but we practiced a lot, friggin’ four or five times a week, all the time! Eventually people started letting us do shows.”
The shows only multiplied as Itchy Band got better and better, creating a strong bond between the members and a growing degree of notoriety around town. Itchy now has a standing bi-monthly gig at Paradise Rock Bar, in addition to their other shows around Chiang Mai. They also play in Bangkok, the islands, and just last winter finished a Cambodian tour that included seven shows in ten days – from Phnom Penh to Kampot to Sihanoukville to Siem Reap.
It was exhausting but exhilarating.
“Cambodia doesn’t have the same restrictions on foreigners playing,” says Rara. “They have developed their own band culture there.”
This is a clear point of divergence from Thailand, which the members of Itchy (not to mention plenty of other frustrated local musicians and music lovers) are quick to point out: the relative lack of concert culture in Chiang Mai.
“Take Toronto for example,” says Rara of her hometown. “There are a lot of different bands playing every single night of the week. Multiple venues, all over the city.”
“It’s the same in the States,” agrees Bess.
“Here it’s not like that though,” continues Rara. “You see reviews saying, ‘Chiang Mai, live music city!’ But actually the truth is, it’s a city of cover bands.”
Inge nods, adding that every few months there will be organised concerts like No Signal Input and Sub-Station, not to mention a slew of local festivals during the winter months. But, she says, “there’s no one bar or venue where you can go to always hear original music.”
“But how can you change that?” I ask.
“Well, that’s kind of what we’re trying to create with Paradise,” Inge replies. “It’s cool that the owner allows us to do what we want. We run a show there once every two months or so, so at least we’re contributing something. And we’ll invite other original bands to play with us.”
Itchy4Indeed, Itchy is in the process of trying to bolster Chiang Mai’s live music scene by showing other bands that it is possible to draw a crowd without playing Maroon 5 covers. First and foremost, they’re teaching by example.
Bess and Rara have also spun off into their own two-piece band called BobKat. With a more experimental sound than Itchy, BobKat was started when the two North Americans visited Rara’s hometown in Toronto last summer and got a gig as a duo. Since then, they play whenever the full band isn’t available, usually at Chiang Mai galleries like Sangdee and Pongnoi.
Back at 7 Pounds, Itchy has the crowd head-banging through a buckshot rendition of “Betty Blow,” an original track from Mass Extinction. Inge spits out lyrics (“any way the wind blows, any way the wind blows…”) as Rara bangs away like a machine gun and Fon and Bess layer strident sheets of bass and guitar. The leathered-up boys in the audience are dancing wildly, visibly smitten.
After the set, Inge and I head to the bar, seeking gin and tonics. The bartender misunderstands and gives us two giant shot glasses brimming with Gilbey’s, plus a can of tonic water.
“Shots of gin, then?” says Inge with a smile.
Bottoms up. The guy next to us gives us each a high five and we return to the courtyard to watch the next band, an all-Thai, Chiang Mai-based Brit rock ensemble called The Stereo Boys. As they finish their penultimate song, the frontman motions Inge back up to the stage.
“The Wall! Pink Floyd!” he commands. Inge shrugs and takes the mic as the marching bass begins. The crowd, still relatively small but fierce, goes wild as she snarls out the lyrics. “Hey, teacher!” The crowd sings along, stomping their feet. “LEAVE THOSE KIDS ALONE!”
“We don’t usually play that song,” laughs Rara. She prefers to stick with originals, although Itchy has dabbled in some lesser known covers. They prefer to avoid the mainstays, playing occasional renditions of songs from Screeching Weasel, Dead Kennedys, The Ramones, The White Stripes, The Damned, The Stooges – mostly American punk bands from the 70s and 80s. But they say they’d rather not be pigeonholed into any one genre.
“We put everything together,” says Fon. “Just call us Itchy style!”
Itchy to rock and itchy to roll – that’s the band motto, according to their website. The name was Fon’s idea, since “itchy” in Thai translates to a rather suggestive sounding “kun” and basically means “ready” to do something. “You can be itchy to go out, itchy to play…it has a lot of slang meaning in Thai,” says Fon. “It also means slut.”
In this case, it’s a rather feministic reclaimation of the word, but the girls recall with a laugh a wildly popular luk thung song that came out in Thailand a few years ago, “Kun Hoo,” which translates to “Itchy Ear,” a Thai idiom which means someone is talking about you. However, it also seemed to translate to something else when singer Turbo performed it in denim bikini bottoms, gesturing and “itching” body parts rather far from her ears. That song eventually got banned by the Thai government.
Itchy Band’s performances, on the other hand, have been quite warmly received by Thai and farang audiences alike, despite their refusal to conform to the norm. The girls tell me about the time they were asked to come in for an interview on Chiang Mai’s government radio station.
“They had heard us before,” says Rara. “The DJ had seen us play since we were starting up. So he’s like, what song should I play, girls? And we’re like I don’t know, how about number eight, or whatever. So you know, you hear the drum beat like dit dit dit dit dit and then ‘WE DIDN’T LAND ON THE MOON, MOTHERFUCKER!’ That’s the chorus.”
Everyone roars with laughter as Rara continues. “The guy is like…” she mimes a look of shock and horror. “He, like, falls off his chair. Literally. He was shocked off his chair. And then it says that five more times in the song, and each time we’re just cringing.”
“They played the whole song!” sputters Bess.
“It. Was. Amazing.” Rara cackles as she reapplies her cherry red lipstick.
In addition to misguided expectations, however, the women of Itchy Band say that being a female punk band brings about its fair share of sexism.
“You do have to consider gender discrimination,” says Rara. “Usually we tend to beat it, but after the shows people will be like, ‘You’re pretty good…for a girl,’ or, ‘Hey! You’re better than I thought you would be!’”
The other band members chime in knowingly, “Oh yeah, that one.”
“Honestly, after almost every show we get at least one of these guys. So I think… to have so many people come up to me and say that afterwards – even girls – just shows what kind of stereotypes girl bands have.”
“At one concert, we were there for two nights and after the first night the guy was like, ‘I thought you guys were gonna be SEXY!’” adds Inge. “We’re like, what the fuck?”
Rara rolls her eyes. “Yeah, the posters he made for us were like, some half naked woman with a guitar over her boob.” She pauses again, then cracks up laughing. “An acoustic! It was an acoustic guitar!”
“We ripped the posters down and put our own up. With like, a flaming skull.”
Along with the tendency to underestimate them, people tend to blindly lump Itchy Band in with other female musicians. “Everyone likes to compare us to whatever other girl bands they remember,” says Inge. “But lot of people just don’t know that many girl bands.”
Fon recalls the time they were paired with an acoustic band of tomboys for a show at a Chiang Mai bar.
“It was this soft Thai music,” laughs Inge. “It was lovely, but it was a total clash with us. But the guy was just like, ‘Wow! You’re girls and they’re girls! You can play together! Double Ladies!’”
Rara groans. “It was actually called that. Double Ladies.”
Despite their many shows and three albums, Itchy Band remains without a manager and without a label – actually, technically, they have their own label. They also each have their own day jobs – Inge at a local NGO, Fon at an export company (though she changes jobs often), Bess with some graphic design work (not to mention motherhood; she has a daughter who is nearly two) and Rara with another NGO and a small clothing company she started. Bess designs all their album covers, band logos and t-shirt designs while Rara sews the badass jackets they wear (“with my own bare hands!”). Everything about Itchy is very self-sustaining.
But when I ask them if they have any other plans for a larger international tour or joining the western festival circuit, they shrug. “If someone invited us to go somewhere and organised and paid for everything – awesome,” says Rara. “Does that happen? I’m not sure.” Issues arise with visas and planning, and the band doesn’t really have the resources right now to make something like this happen on their own.
Their most recent album has only sold about 50 copies – selling CDs in this day and age ain’t easy – but their Bandcamp site shows that people are streaming their music from all over the world.
“If you stream enough you’ll get some money…like pennies,” says Rara.
“We’re still waiting for that check!” Inge laughs.
They’re also currently waiting for the release of their first music video, shot by a university student in Bangkok. They’re not sure yet when it will be finished.
But none of the band members have any plans to leave Chiang Mai, and at the rate they’re going _ a local cult following, three albums in four years, self-planned international tours, and energy to spare, it seems that Itchy Band’s star is on the rise.
A few days after our interview, I head over to Pongnoi Art Space to watch Itchy’s two-woman offshoot BobKat play. Bess wails on the guitar, her tiny daughter watching from the sidelines (and dressed, notably, in no pink and no frills), as Rara bangs furiously on her drum kit while howling into the mic.
A snare tips over during the first track and the kick drum, which is being held up by a brick and a flip-flop from a guy in the front row, slides slowly forward as she plays.
“I’m fallin’ apart here!” she quips to the audience between songs, and indeed, the entire kit seems quite literally ready to blow. But the musicians don’t stop, nor do they lessen for one second the crashing intensity of their performance.
The show must go on.
To stream music and purchase CDs and band paraphernalia, visit http://www.itchyband.com. To stay tuned on upcoming shows, like them at http://www.facebook.com/itchyband. For bookings, email email@example.com.
Originally published in the Mar 2015 issue of Chiang Mai Citylife.