Hanoi Grapevine’s newest contributor, “Hanoi Ink”, takes on the city’s hardest working band The Props in a no-holds-barred rock’n’roll smackdown on the eve of their album launch.
The Props are, hands down, Hanoi’s hardest working expat band. In their years together here in the capital they have racked up countless live shows, several TV appearances, legendary weekend-away performances in Ha Long Bay, last year’s Sonar Television EP and now their first full-length album, The Year of the Horse. In what is right now a burgeoning expat music scene in the city, they are definitely the band with the ‘Ông’ status, the current gold standard you might say here in the north.
The Props have gone from starry-eyed newcomers to the granddaddies of the Hanoi scene. They have stayed together far longer, and delivered way more, than just about any other expat band in Hanoi ever. And now they are stepping things up yet another level with the release of their album.
I on the other hand have been assigned to this article in literally my first week as some kind of rock columnist with Hanoi Grapevine. Sure, I have all the cocksure arrogance of the new kid on the block. But underneath my front, there are nagging doubts. Do I have what it takes to mix it up with these musical powerhouses? One of them is nicknamed The Horse, for goodness’ sake. Girding my loins (well, crossing my legs at least), I realize that I need a training regime. So here I am, 8:30pm on a Monday night, well into a bottle of Son Tinh’s finest Tao Meo liquor, watching Cameron Crowe’s rock-journalist-comes-of-age film Almost Famous and wishing I had, ahem, ‘borrowed’ more Post-It notes from the office.
Lester Bang’s words are ringing in my ears: “These people are not your friends.” But I have history with this band. To be precise, I once sold a bass guitar to one of their members. We reached a fair price like gentlemen, though, and the bass is still going strong. So I have no concerns on that score (right, Ed?).
Anyway, enough of the opening credits. Ladies and gents, please strap yourselves in, insert your tongues firmly in your cheeks, and let’s go.
“I’m flying over Tupelo with America’s hottest band, and we’re all about to die.”
Well, kind of. Substitute Puku Cafe for Tupelo, and Hanoi for America (both somewhat large* jumps I know. Hell, Puku is way more rock-n-roll than Tupelo, right? Oh, and we are not flying, and probably not about to die. But other than that, completely true story, I swear.) It is September 2010, we are at Puku’s first open mic night and The Props have just laid their hands on the new issue of The Word magazine featuring a massive several page story-and-photo spread on theirs truly. I’m slouching off to the side trying to scam a free beer from Daragh at the 3-deep bar. The sense of “We’re tops now” has probably not been this strong since a certain fictional early-1970s group made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
Hmm. Where the hell am I going with this? I’m starting to think there may have been better ways to prepare for this gig than six straight viewings of Almost Famous. But still, I could be onto something with the Stillwater analogy. The Props have gone from starry-eyed newcomers to the granddaddies of the Hanoi scene. They have stayed together far longer, and delivered way more, than just about any other expat band in Hanoi ever. And now they are stepping things up yet another level with the release of their album. Handsome chaps too, but pretty much all partnered up: there have to be some tales of rock-n-roll mayhem and, uh, relationship-pressure from all the attention they receive, right? And I’ve never bought this faux-humble “We’re all the front man” guff. Necking the bottle, I think to myself: I am definitely going to need more Post-It notes.
14:00 hrs, Tuesday: Inserting a barely-used TDK D-C60 cassette tape into my trusty 1968 Phillips EL 2202 Cassette Recorder, I roll across town to meet the band. No, strike that. Lacking the time or integrity for an actual sit down interview, I just fire off a list of questions via email to Brady, who is (I’m hoping) the most articulate and responsive member of the band. I’ll get THEM to write the article, I think to myself. Sure and it won’t be the first time in Hanoi, either. I’ll get the byline, and they can do all the work. Genius.
Well, Brady was—as always—the perfect gentleman. And Ed helped (all other band members being out of town). So the lads came through and I made deadline**. All hail The Props: Hanoi loves you boys and your swampified down-and-dirty tunes!
HANOI INK: On your website, which is very cool by the way, you mention that the members of The Props come from “the four corners of the globe”. Leaving aside the obvious problems of geometry, how did you all find each other and get things started?
ED: We sniffed each other out. It took a little while, as Hanoi is a city full of interesting odors. Once we located each other, there was some Silverback-style chest pounding and growling before deciding to play some songs together.
BRADY: Basically, it goes something like this: I met Tom back in 2005 when I lived here, and we played together and had a little project going. After I came back in 2009, he and I started playing again. He met a guitarist named Drew at a party, so the three of us jammed and found we were quite in-sync (forgive me) vocally, which was really exciting. It’s not common to find three dudes who can really harmonize well together. So from there, we played a totally unamplified show at the old Puku, and based on the reactions of the small-but-appreciative crowd, we thought we should sally forth. So we auditioned a couple drummers and settled, ironically, on the only one who didn’t have any drums to speak of, and didn’t even show up to the audition with sticks. That’s Ian. The four of us played a show at the now defunct Matador Bar (like a creepy version of the 17 Saloon) before adding a bassist to the mix – Ed we met through my wife, who worked with him at the time. Literally a week later, we all played on stage together at the CAMA festival.
Brady: “It’s been a really fortuitous string of events and I think we all stayed in Hanoi a bit longer than we intended, at least partially because of The Props.”
HANOI INK: The Props have been easily the hardest-working band in Hanoi over the past few years. How do you sustain the energy and keep things fresh in a city with a limited number of venues and the same basic crowd? Most expat bands here don’t make it past the 12-18 month mark, due to key members leaving Hanoi. And occasionally the old ‘stylistic differences’. You’ve had a pretty consistent lineup over the years, what is The Props’ secret?
ED: Clean Living.
BRADY: Beer! No, the short version is that we just got really lucky to find the lineup we did. It’s been a really fortuitous string of events and I think we all stayed in Hanoi a bit longer than we intended, at least partially because of The Props. The longer, deeper, uncut version actually does entail a few episodes that could be characterized as “stylistic differences”, one key member leaving the band, and several members quitting and rejoining the next day. We haven’t all fallen in love with the same woman (or man) or anything like that, but we’ve had our share of drama.
HANOI INK: Hanoi can be a great place to play live music, with super appreciative crowds and at the moment a very freaking active scene. It can also be pretty challenging sometimes. Care to share your finest moment? Your most frustrating? And your weirdest?
ED: The greatest show for me was the first Halong Bay show. I mean, come on, a cave in the middle of Halong Bay?
BRADY: The Ete festival, the Night of the Living Dead and playing the Green Mango with Van Ho Ba would also be up there.
ED: We have played a lot of shows with a lot of frustrating elements, it would be unfair to all of the other frustrating shows to just pick one.
BRADY: Most frustrating would be just the general state of sound equipment in venues. It’s difficult to play your best when you can’t hear yourself or each other. It’s also difficult to sing into a mic that been taped to the back of a chair (one can always find a mic in Hanoi, but never, NEVER are there enough mic stands!). If I had a dime for every time someone has told me, “good show, but we couldn’t hear the vocals” I would have enough money to buy a really tasty hamburger.
ED: The weirdest show for me was one of our earlier shows, The Matador, now defunct, where we were touted as being “Straight from the US”. There was a two-story banner hanging up outside of the bar and when it came time to play the audience was mostly older Vietnamese businessmen. They were loudly playing drinking games during our entire set. It was very surreal.
HANOI INK: There has been quite a buzz lately in Vietnam over international acts touring, and rumors of others to come. Have The Props been approached to play the support for the Backstreet Boys? Will you be at the show? Do you each have a favorite member?
ED: I was one of the original members of backstreet boys but had a falling out with the others due to our constant arguing over who the cutest member of the band was.
BRADY: While we were deeply honored to be invited to play on the This Is Us tour, we had to make a tough decision. Ultimately, the opportunity was withdrawn due to pending international restraining orders. Horse and Ian go all gooey for Howie, while Drew and I purr for AJ. Shaun, to the chagrin of us all, insists that boy bands are passé.
Ed: “We have played a lot of shows with a lot of frustrating elements, it would be unfair to all of the other frustrating shows to just pick one.”
HANOI INK: Ok, on to the album. Influences. Songwriting. Lyrics. Recording process. Tensions in the studio. Choosing a name and cover art…we want to know it all!
BRADY: Funnily enough, we never really talk about influences. We definitely know a lot more about the books and films we each like than we do about what music everyone listens to. Songwriting has without a doubt been the most rewarding part of being in The Props. It’s by far the most balanced approach any of us has had before, and I think that’s what keeps us coming back for more punishment. There is no front man or lead songwriter. We all bring ideas and create the songs organically. It just seems to happen. We’ve written 30-some-odd songs together in two years. The only drawback for audiences is that we don’t have a totally consistent, discernible style. I mean, what the hell is Post-Industrial Swamp rock anyway?
Recording in Hanoi has been interesting and challenging. The studio we worked with on this album was great. Our engineer spoke about as much English as we do Vietnamese, but we seemed to be able to understand each other, at least musically, quite well. Scheduling studio time was by far the most challenging aspect to recording. Given that we are all teachers at different schools with different schedules, it was next to impossible to find open slots when none of us were working, and if we did find a slot, it was often filled with a gig, so in the end we had to break up the recording into lots of little chunks. Then, on top of that, studios here tend to have a certain approach to appointments. It wasn’t uncommon for the engineers to be 30-40 minutes late or to double book us on top of a session with a pop band, which ended up usually being a bit strange because someone from the other band would invariably ask to take pictures of us and try to pet my arm hair. One time, we scheduled a 2-hour session between work shifts. We raced from school, got there and set up in the booth, were about to record and then were pushed out of the way by construction workers and had to wait an hour and a half as they proceeded to drill holes in concrete and mount flat screen TVs.
The name and the cover art, I’ll blame on whiskey and beer. We wanted something that reflected being a band in Asia but also expressed our appreciation to our newest member, Andy, aka Horse, who has sort of given us a second life.
ED: We felt we had really turned a corner after Horse joined the band, so the name was pretty quickly accepted. The cover was unanimously agreed upon from a number of possibilities.
As far as tensions in the studio, we were generally too wrapped up in the drinking…err, I mean music to focus on tensions. The songs had been finalized long before we headed into the studio, so we were all pretty much on the same page in that regard. Our influences are quite diverse within the band and I think that becomes quite clear upon listening to the album. That sucker is all over the place.
Ed: “Our influences are quite diverse within the band and I think that becomes quite clear upon listening to the album. That sucker is all over the place.”
HANOI INK: So what is next for The Props? A national tour to promote the album? And will you be taking your partners/wives/girlfriends along? Plane or bus?
BRADY: Most of us are leaving Hanoi this summer, so this is almost the end for us, you know, unless we get offered a multi-million dollar contract next week. We’re planning on sending press kits out after the CD release this weekend in the hopes that we can play a show or two outside of Hanoi before we go our separate ways. At the very least, we’d like to play HCMC and perhaps Hue and Hoi An. But it’s unclear at this point if anyone would be willing to pay us to travel anywhere. We rarely make a dime here.
Wives and girlfriends, definitely.
HANOI INK: (Optional question for extra points.) Any thoughts on the international hipster movement? Implications for future directions in sound and/or couture for The Props?
ED: I don’t understand most of that question.
BRADY: Being far from hip and honestly having no idea what couture means, we will probably hide from said movement.
And there you have it, folks. The Props, in (mostly) their own words.
The Props are:
• Ian Cowie (Scotland) – Drums, Vocals, Guitar
• Ed Merlin (Nova Scotia) – Bass, Vocals
• Vinyl (New Zealand) – Guitar, Vocals
• The Horse (USA) – Guitar, Vocals
• The Saint (Canada) – Engineer, Manager
• Brady Fossenbell (USA) – Harmonica, Vocals
They will celebrate the launch of their first full-length album, The Year of the Horse, at Hanoi Rock City on 18 March. You can hear a sneak preview of the unmastered tracks at http://theprops.org/music.html. See you at the show.
*There are actually more links between Tupelo and this part of the world than you might imagine. For example, Tupelo was the birthplace of singer Elvis Presley, once quite famous but now very much overshadowed by his namesake the Vietnamese-American singer Elvis Phuong. Actor John Dye was also born in Tupelo; he played Francis “Doc Hoc” Hockenbury in the US TV series Tour of Duty, which was set in Vietnam. Wikipedia also claims he was in the series China Beach, but I’m not convinced.
**Hanoi Grapevine’s quite wonderful fact checkers had to work overtime on this article, for which I’m truly sorry. But it was very touching when Brady turned up at my door, although of course he thought it was Penny Lane’s door, and then my mom came out, and he realized it was ‘the voice’ from the phone, and then she talked, and he talked, and I talked, and he talked a bit more, and mom cried, and it was all okay. And he HAD called the fact checkers to tell them it was all true after all. So I got to be a famous rock reporter, just like my hero Lester Bangs. Though Penny and I never made it to Morocco, but I supp-… wait, I think I’m back in the movie again. Sorry about that.
| Hanoi Ink has never quite managed to give up his day job but is nonetheless a very active member of the music scene in Hanoi. His other obsessions are Vietnamese literature and old books, which he writes about at http://hanoiink.wordpress.com/.|