Interview: Hanoian band Ngọt, a group of fresh-faced 18 year olds, are already gaining a following on the local music scene.
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They may be humble, but barely a week passes these days without the four guys from Ngọt taking to the stage and stealing the show with their mix of ballads and rock songs, covers and original compositions—a rare example of a Vietnamese pop band attracting Vietnamese and foreign audiences alike.
Mathias Rossignol from Hầm Hành (The Onion Cellar) Cafe sat down with Thắng (composer, singer and rhythm guitar), Tuấn Trần (lead guitar) and Nam Anh (drums), although the bass player, Hà couldn’t be there. The setting is colourful, the atmosphere relaxed, and the drinks… warm water. Thắng is taking good care of his vocal chords before a concert.
Interview by Mathias Rossignol ● Photos by Nguyễn Thanh Hương
&: You seem to have fun on stage and work together very intuitively, giving the feeling you could keep jamming for hours… How long have you been doing this together?
Thắng: We started playing in grade 9, that was… 13 years old?
Tuấn Trần: Me and this guy here [Thắng], met much before that. We were friends since elementary school, but not until the end of 8th grade did we start playing music together.
Thắng: The first time we met [drummer Nam Anh] was at some type of school field trip. We said, “You play drums?” He said, “Yeah I play drums.” We said, “OK let’s go.” At first we didn’t have any drummer, no knowledge, no drums, just two guitars and a broken guitar we used for drums.
The first concert that we did was at the summer at the end of 9th grade. Only curated by familiar people who had space for us to perform because they liked us in some way – I don’t think they believed in us, that we’d become anything, but… yeah, we started like that.
Tuấn Trần: We’re all self taught.
Thắng: Well technically I did take classes, but it didn’t last long. They gave me some exercises, but I don’t think that I got any better from it. Now my technique is nothing impressive, but it’s good enough for rhythm guitar.
&: And have you always been Ngọt?
Thắng: No, I had this ambition to create a band for many years, but the name came later. We thought really hard to think of a name, but then we said, “screw it we don’t need a name” and stopped thinking about it. Then we just came up with that, out of nowhere – it’s just a name, it doesn’t say anything about us. Does the ‘Apple’ say anything about the computer company? No. The logo is like a blank page; just like a name.
Ngọt, translated into English, means Sweet, the taste. I like candy. When you’re a kid you dream of eating lots of candy… Then most people grow up and give up on kid’s dreams; maybe they have other dreams, or maybe they stop dreaming. But if you start a band called Ngọt, in a way you’re living your kid’s dream—you get to eat all the candy.
&: Today you’re already starting to have a very recognisable sound… What are your inspirations?
Thắng: Hotel California by the Eagles, The Beatles, and other kinds of pop songs. At first we didn’t write music, we didn’t have any experience, we were just young guys starting to find out what music we like, we love, what chemicals it created inside our bodies when we listened to it. So we just did covers for a great deal of time.
Tuấn Trần: Hotel California happens to be the first song we played together. We actually ditched class to practice it.
Thắng: But, yeah, The Beatles. Of course they’re not new in Vietnam – I bought this magazine a few months ago; a Christmas of 1969 magazine from Southern Vietnam, during the American occupation, and there was a top 20 of songs in Vietnam back then that contained Come Together by the Beatles. But I have no idea why they have become more popular in Vietnam lately. When we began, the youth didn’t pay much attention to the Beatles, we can say this – we can proudly say this: we were the first of all the young bands who decided to cover the Beatles. We got a lot of attention and good feedback from people back then, a lot of people came – even though if we think about those concerts again we feel so embarrassed because we messed up so much.
&: When did you start writing your own songs?
Thắng: There were a few songs that I wrote with the drummer, starting 3 years ago, but it was just for the sake of creating music, it wasn’t meant for the band, and we didn’t rehearse them. It was just music. But when I performed the songs to my friends, with just one guitar, people went “wow, you should do this more, you should totally do this”. It gave me more courage. But the biggest influence for me was… I see lots of people who did it, and it made me realise that art is not something too high for you to achieve, it’s not something that you need to go to University for, you don’t need to read a whole library of books – although it’s probably good too – to create a work of art. A work of art is just… do whatever the fuck you want. Of course many artists do whatever the fuck they want and the result isn’t too good. But the idea gave me the confidence to do it. That’s really important. In Vietnam a lot of people are really good but what they lack is confidence. It’s what will give you the strength to tell anyone what you want to tell in music. I think if I can just have a small group of fans I already “win” in this “contest” of playing music. I don’t have to go on a TV show where somebody tells you who’s the winner.
&: And you definitely win with your fans – you exchange a lot with the audience during concerts, talk to them…
Thắng: What we love about it is to see the people respond to the music: sometimes they don’t dance, sometimes they don’t move their head to the music, it makes me a bit sad, but I can see in their eyes that something is in there; there’s a message inside the song that’s going through everyone’s mind. And I love to communicate. It’s one type of communication that’s not as boring as conversations. I love to get my music inside people’s heads.
Tuấn Trần: I like fun. The thing I expect when I play music is I want to have fun. That’s it. Seeing people having fun from the music is a reward in itself. I am not a person who writes songs, I’m merely honoured to play them and when the notes that I play actually bring fun to my friends, that makes me happy. Connecting to people is not my speciality. The connection between the musician and the audience is pretty abstract… Not a connection like through talking. You cannot really understand; but you can feel.
Thắng: Some of our songs are not meant to create an emotion though, or make people happy. Sometimes people need to stop all emotion and think to understand.
&: What are your songs about, then? Can you tell us more about your writing process?
Thắng: All rock songs are generally about… life and… love, breaking up. Or the end of the world, if you’re into death metal. But you don’t need to stop there. You just need an original idea, just a sentence, just a hint of an idea, and then you make it grow, bloom into a song (well, the idea must be good, to start with). One song, my idea was about conversation, just an argument — “you’re wrong / no you’re wrong / no you” etc. – not much, but now that’s a song, called “Opinion”, and it’s our most popular I believe.
It’s mostly about everyday life, observations. I want to give something new, not just more talk about love and breaking up. To the music industry, to other composers, I’d like to say “why not this? Why not talk about this, that? Why always talk about this one thing in a whole ocean of ideas?” It’s safe, it’s popular. It’s the same with music, with melodies. There are enough notes that we can make new music for thousands of years without running out of new melodies – but we always stay with the same lines, the same chord progressions. Sometimes I stumble upon a melody, and I really love it, but I have to let it go because it’s too similar to things that exist already; even though it could have developed into a good song. I don’t want to do it again. Maybe someday I’ll run into the [Pachelbel] Canon progression, by chance, and I’ll have to let it go.
&: What’s next?
Thắng: If any one of us has opportunities to go abroad, or just want to focus on studies and career, of course we’ll support them – we love music, but the band itself, well, it doesn’t have to be stable as it is now. As for me, though, I’ll devote my life totally to music. Well, I have back up plans too; but it won’t stop me from music. Which will probably at some point be a huge fight with my family… yeah (sighs)
Still, we do have plans for the band, too, a map of things to do if we’re still together. We’ll keep playing concerts, more and more, and try to save money towards recording new songs: the biggest amount of listeners is not in a cafe, it’s on the Internet. You always have nice weather there. So, yeah, record, put songs on the Internet, which means we have to deal with people’s freedom of speech – sometimes I wish I could punch them in the face, but… OK, we can live with that. Then if people start paying attention, one, two music videos, and finally an album.
Tuấn Trần: We decided that we will release our current songs completely free, CC0 [note: “Creative Commons 0” means no copyright, full public domain], although of course we accept donations!
Thắng: First we need to have as much audience as possible before investing in anything – we have to think about those things because we have no money! Some bands don’t care, they have the means, they can straight away shoot a music video of record an album – but then they get nothing from it, because it’s too early. Our advantage is that we are poor, so we cannot afford to be stupid.
&: To conclude, what’s it like to make music in Vietnam today? What’s the scene like?
Thắng: There are a lot of artists whose music I like in Vietnam today, really talented people, but the problem is the audience is very conservative, and that hinders creativity. One thing about creation: even if it’s not good, it’s not wrong either. You can do whatever the hell you like, and I’ll support that, even if I don’t like the result. But most Vietnamese listeners are not open that way.
It seems our music only attracts certain people – and I don’t understand why myself, to me it just feels so simple and obvious – but whenever people come to us and say they like our music, they’re all so cool, such awesome people, I love them so much, and a lot of them ended up being my friends… Young people with the potential to do great things. Just like us.