A small crowd has gathered in 12×12, a cosy bar tucked into a sheltered soi off Thonglor 55. Good-looking girls sporting sneakers and expressions of disdain mingle with hipster boys dressed mostly in black. A deejay in dreadlocks serves up Afro-centric beats while everyone waits for the main act to take the stage – a funk, soul, groove trio composed of Panapong Permpoon (Top) on guitar, Jake Crowl on drums, and Michael Selby on keyboards.
The Lowdowns are finally announced to much applause and cheering. More people turn up to pack the place to the rafters and the temperature is soon sweltering.
But the moment the guitar kicks in, the keyboard fires up, and the drums take up the beat, everything else melts away.
Funk is in the house and it will have your ears for the evening! Two days later, I caught up with the band members to get the lowdown on their past, present, and future.
Q. Tell us a bit about yourselves and how the band came together.
Jake – I was born and raised in Chicago and I studied at the Musician’s Institute in LA. I applied for a job as a drum teacher at Rockademy in 2014, which I found out about through a friend who was doing the same gig before.
Michael – I’m originally from Kansas and I also came here in 2014 for a movie, intending only to be here for the shooting for three months. I got an opportunity to perform an acoustic show at a bar called Grease and I needed a band. I jammed with some musicians at Rockademy and instantly connected with their drummer, Jake. So, I asked him to join me for the how. Jake – Then all we needed was a guitar player and I roped in Top who also works at Rockademy. We rehearsed once together as a trio and that was it. Top – I’m from Bangkok and I studied music at The College of Music, Mahidol University. I met Michael for the first time at our first rehearsal! We did the show and we all thought we came together really well. So, Jake was keen to keep it going as a band but I was reluctant because of my other commitments at the time (being front man of the band, “The Messenger”). I’m glad now that I said yes because we’ve continued to put great music together.
Why the name “The Lowdowns”?
Michael (laughs) – We always get this question! The day of the show, the organisers at Grease were like you’ve to give us a name so we can let people know who’s playing tonight! Jake and I had a list that we came up with and then showed to Top. Top – Well, of all the names on the list, The Lowdowns was the only one that made sense.
Any close favourites?
Jake – We were so pressed for time, we even tried an online band name generator, which came up with Vaguely Asian! I don’t mind that one. Michael – It’s funny with the name, The Lowdowns. You talk to someone from the States and they get that it’s a funk term. Here in Thailand though people sometimes ask us, why’re you all sad? So that’s still an ongoing education!
Has it been a learning curve for your audiences not just with the name but your brand of music as well?
Michael – Certainly. I feel like this band itself is a big experiment. From the get go, I felt that funk music could work in Thailand, although Jake and Top weren’t as sure because there wasn’t as much of a knowledge base nor were there any performing bands or labels into that kind of music. Jake – Fortunately, Michael was proved right in many ways and we’ve played over 200 gigs since then. Michael – You do meet many here who’re open to different influences and sounds but it takes a certain blend of people to make our live shows work. Funk music is meant to get you on your feet, grooving but sometimes people just sit and watch us because I guess they don’t know what to make of it. A few times we’ve played indie shows, we get tagged on photos and the comments will be like, “I saw this band, they were really cool.” And the next one asks, “Me too! What kind of music do they play?” To which the response most times is, “I have no idea!” Jake – But the interest is growing. People are starting to pay attention and more indie events are coming our way. We’ve already played some cool music festivals this year like Wonderfruit.
Soul, funk, groove are terms so broadly applied so what does that mean for your band? What is your definition of your sound?
Michael – We all agreed on playing funk music but we brought three different perspectives to it. Jake comes from a rock, punk rock background in terms of the music he likes and was listening to. I grew up around a lot of blues music and was really into R&B. Top is more into post-rock and even electronica. We don’t exactly play funk chords the way you’d traditionally play them but we certainly come at it from a funk mindset, which is wanting to get people moving.
So, what’s next for you?
Michael – Putting our sound on a record is what’s next. We’ve an album worth of original music that we just need to refine, arrange and finalise. Jake – We’re more instrumental than focused on vocals and so far, we’ve been refining our music playing live. Not many bands get to play live twice a week the second they become a band.
Three years of playing together, we know each other really well, so we can start a song we’ve never heard before and react to it and each other really well. So, we’ve that going for us.
Now we’ve to try to get our sound to sync on a record. It’s two completely different orchestrations that go into the recording versus the live we know how to make things sound good live. We’re trying to make it work on a record, which has a different element to it.
Any chance of playing overseas?
Michael – We haven’t played outside Thailand yet but we’d love to. We’re not too picky on how it happens, whether we get in a van and road trip for three months. Not to knock Thailand but I also want Top to see what it’s like to play in the US or places where our music isn’t unique or unknown to the audience. Who are your personal favourite bands or artists? Top – I’m a huge fan of Radiohead. I also like Tower of Power for funk. Jake – It depends. Right now, it’s The Meters and Anderson Paak. Michael – For funk, Stevie Wonder was a big bridge for me. His Signed,Sealed, Delivered album introduced me to funk. I also used to listen to Ray Charles a lot. As a band, Radiohead has been an inspiration in how uncompromising they are. They’ve been a band for 30 years now and they’ve rarely sacrificed their artistic vision. Watching them recently made me realise that I needn’t get too caught up in trying to have our music fit into a neat category. That it’s far better to be true to who you are.
All three of you teach at Rockademy. What has teaching been like?
Michael – My students range from ten to 65 years old. For me, the older students are really interesting because most of the time they want to be able to play and sing their favourite songs. And we end up with the Beatles, David Bowie.
It’s really satisfying when we end up just sitting around playing these songs and melodies; it inspires my songwriting and reminds me to not take things so seriously.
If you write a song that people like to sing, that makes them feel good, then that makes it worth it. It trumps being cool any day. Top – Many of my students are older too so they feel more like friends. We talk a lot about songs and I learn a lot from them and from the other teachers that I know and interact with at Rockademy. Sometimes they introduce me to music I haven’t heard before. And sometimes they ask me how to play something that to me comes naturally and it helps me to better understand my method because I’ve to then break it down for them. Jake – I’ve been drumming and learning since I was five. I always looked up to my teachers and so now I get to give that back and teach someone else the joy of music, of drumming, which is beautiful. Sometimes the musicians I meet, we don’t speak the same language but we can get onstage and play the same songs through. Music is the last universal language. And I always say to my friends here, even if you can’t speak the language of the place you’re going to, if you learn how to play the chords to ‘Hotel California’, you’ll be good to sit in anywhere in the world. There’s always some bar playing that on repeat.
Rianka Mohan moved to Bangkok last year from New York, which she called home for 15 years. She spent 13 years on Wall Street, 10 as an investment banker before taking a career break to pursue writing. She has two kids aged 8 and 4. Rianka is Expat Life’s Art and Culture editor. Please contact Rianka with any arts or cultural events or profiling. [email protected]