By Brian Tucker
Bess Dolin, a former Wilmington resident (and fantastic artist) lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, playing guitar in rock and roll group Itchy Band. Dolin left Wilmington in 2009 for a planned year-long trip that turned into a longer venture. Enjoying overseas more than expected, Dolin put off moving back to the U.S. and now that she’s started a family there, getting back will be more seldom.
Adjusting to a new culture and a new home was easier than expected. Living in Chiang Mai, a place full of backpackers and travelers from all over, she says locals are usually very friendly. Plus, many places in Thailand are geared towards tourism and English is common for basic communication.
“It’s pretty easy to get necessities like food and shelter as well as checking out the landmarks,” Dolin said via e-mail. “It can be hard to have in-depth conversations though, and there are plenty of subtle cultural differences that can lead to misunderstandings. There’s lots of international cuisine, including some delicious Mexican, though the food tastes at least a little different from what I’m used to in the States. The Thai food is, of course, amazing.”
Itchy Band released latest album Mass Extinction in September. It follows on the heels of 2013’s gnarly and excellent Live Fast Die Fun. Three albums in, the band makes music explosive and muscled, burning along like a road racer. Fast, punchy, and sneering, Itchy Band plays music that’s loud, dangerous fun.
Dolin began to learn to play guitar while living in Wilmington, picking up a few blues and country songs. Still, she never felt the drive to play in front of an audience like today, the notion initially “freaked her out.”
“After a few years of live shows, I’m much less afraid of playing in front of people. Also, it helps greatly to have friends up there on stage sharing the experience.”
Those friends are Ingi, Fon and RaRa, people Dolin met in Chiang Mai. Fon, the band’s bass player and only Thai member, was her first friend there. A year after they met, Fon decided she wanted to start a band with some of her friends “just for kicks.” Originally they had a different drummer and singer – and little experience.
“We learned, tried to learn, anyway, a slower version of “Too Drunk To Fuck” by the Dead Kennedys. Needless to say, we were pretty terrible, and being on stage was scary, but with the support of our friends, including the venue we played our first few shows at, North Gate in Chiang Mai, we kept trying.”
After several singers they found Ingi who sang in cover bands around town, most often at a famous local dive named Heaven Beach. The Australian-American singer is electric – all fangs, sneers and taunts, recalling singers like Exene Cervenka, PJ Harvey or 7 Year Bitch’s Selene Vigil.
“We were on hiatus for a handful of months before we met (Canadian) RaRa in local Rasta styled bar Cafe Del Sol,” Dolin said. “We mentioned we were in a band and looking for a drummer and she literally screamed in our faces that she was a drummer looking for a band. We’ve been jamming together for about three years.”
Mass Extinction is five tracks of agitated, rock candy. Built on blistering guitar work, back alley-beating percussion and space-radio vocals, the album is fraught with manic energy (check out the guitar on short but sweet “Money in the Hand”). The title track is caustic, think Black Sabbath by way of by The Stooges. “Betty Blow” is freewheeling and defiant. With lyrics like “naughty knickers and a rude mood” and “white nose and a hot mess” the song slams stereotypes against a wall and wins. “Shadow Voodoo” is wild as a nasty, a rollicking number done with witchy narration. It’s music perfectly ill at ease, done with gnashed teeth and a dirty smile.
Did the band record the new EP quickly, doing songs in live takes?
Dolin: We’ve always recorded live, mostly because we enjoy the energy, partially because it’s cheaper since we only need a few takes for each song. With this last album, we initially recorded together but I re-recorded my guitar at home since the studio only had a simulated amp, which ended up not being what I wanted. I like it loud and on the verge of that sweet, sweet feedback!
How do crowds react? Is it new to them in some respects, the style of music?
Dolin: When Itchy Band’s current lineup first started playing shows, we’d usually clear out the room within the first few songs, which were too loud/unpolished for the types of places that offered us a stage. That was a problem of local venues thinking “Oh, a girl band, how neat” without actually listening to our tunes.
Broadly, there are lots of rock bands in Thailand. There’s live music in most joints around here, though a lot of bands are working bands playing covers, which sound exactly like the originals. There are many talented musicians out here. So I think the people who offered us shows assumed we wouldn’t be much different. Now that we’re more established, generally people know we play loud and original songs so we’re offered shows that fit us better.
We’ve got more fans now too, so the crowd usually digs our vibe. There really aren’t many (if any) bands here that play our type of raw, energetic, thrashy garage rock, much less original songs in a similar style.
Playing and making music in Thailand, what’s different about?
Dolin: It’s hard to find a studio here that produces the kind of raw sound we want, mostly because of general musical taste differences. Travelling and touring are relatively much easier and cheaper than in the States, and almost all the bars and venues have their own equipment so we don’t have to drag around amps, drums, etc. It’s convenient, but sometimes it’s more of a hassle if the equipment they offer is crappy.
How far has the band been able to tour outside Thailand?
Dolin: We have our first international tour planned for the end of the year in Cambodia and we’re planning a possible European tour this summer. Even though we haven’t made it out of the country before now, we’ve still had a blast playing around the mainland and islands.
Can you describe the music scene there?
Dolin: In Chiang Mai there’s a Thai metal/hardcore scene, and a lot of blues rock cover bands, as well as an indie music scene centered on college students. We’re often invited to play punk music showcases put on by the local Thai punk kids, though I’m not sure I’d say that it’s much of a scene. It’s kind of funny, we keep running into writers and filmmakers who are all abuzz about “the Thai punk scene.” Itchy Band was in a Vice Noisey article about it, and later this year we’re being shot for a documentary based on it. Which is all cool, but I don’t really see what all the hubbub is about. Maybe I’m just not hip enough.
What do you miss about ILM?
Dolin: Delicious Southern U.S. food (Basics!) I most definitely miss. Good second hand vinyl is hard to find (Gravity Records) and of course, shout out to Edge of Urge as well! I’m probably only going to be in the States a few months out of the year for the foreseeable future since I started a family here and we’ve decided Thailand’s our home base, though we do still travel quite a bit, and we look forward to visiting the U.S. and Wilmington over the summer.