In the roughly two years they’ve been working on their second album ‘Unemployment’, the band H3F have had some serious bad luck in the health department – even by the standards of a global pandemic. The band members caught COVID, and frontman Thepvipat “Gong” Prachumchonjaoren recently battled laryngitis and a torn knee disc after a skating accident.
Not that the H3Fs let that hold them back. When they took part in a Zoom call on a recent Sunday evening to talk about their new record with NME, the Thai indie quartet – consisting of drummer Thakorn “Max” Aunyaphanon, bassist Thanabatr “Mhom” Somboonsith and guitarist Arakarn “Ping” Chantorn – were the epitome of chill, having completed a tour of northern Thailand . They performed sold-out shows to 700 people in Lampang and to an outdoor audience of 2,000 in Chiang Mai, performing on stage as a full live band for the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic, a section trumpet and trombone brass instruments in tow.
“The tour was good. But Gong got COVID,” Max casually reveals as we wait for the singer and lead guitarist, who is currently in his third day of self-isolation in Chiang Mai, to join the call. While on tour, the band snuck away on vacation while scouting locations for a live session, and Gong – who had previously toured on crutches after knee surgery – suspects that’s when caught the virus.
Ending their “Unemployment” tour with a lone bandmate seems kind of ironic, considering the album was born out of their frustrations with COVID from the first year of lockdowns. 2020 was to be a promising time for H3F after the double success of their debut releases, 2018 EP ‘Cheesy Lyrics, Sloppy Groove’ and 2019 album ‘Family Product’, which racked up millions of viral streams and rocketed to the top of the Thai music charts.
The reception was “far from what we could expect,” Gong said, giving them the confidence to book their first overseas tour of South Korea and Taiwan. “But then COVID came along and turned off all the lights. We were on such a high from our debut album and our first gig that being forced to sit at home for almost a year felt like a slap in the face,” the frontman adds.
A single positive COVID test is featured prominently on the artwork, the album titled “Unemployment” to commemorate this dark time for suddenly unemployed full-time musicians. Gong recounts the “very anxious feeling” they had in the album’s opening track “Waste My Time”, repeatedly fuming”I just don’t wanna waste my timeover thumping drums and gritty guitar solos between verses punctuated with fiery expletives.
It’s probably not the go-to track fans expected from the laid-back music majors (they all studied the subject at the same college, except for Max, who read the equivalent of radio and TV communication ) – and certainly not from the band who first called themselves “Happy Three Friends”. Gong laughs and quickly points out, “I know it’s a stupid name, but there were three of us at the time and I couldn’t think of anything cool – I still can’t, that’s why we just had it. minimized.”
The name change coincided with H 3 F’s decision to recruit another old friend, guitarist Ping, as their fourth member, while adding horns to expand the personality and depth of their sound. On “Family Product,” produced with the support of friends, the quartet settled into their mix of funk, jazz, blues, rock, and pop. Like their EP, the record was filled with easy, catchy melodies that made no apologies for chasing, keeping and losing love.
It’s an approach that 25-year-old Gong – who was forced to take on the role of singer-songwriter so the band could stop playing covers – champions. “From the first EP to the first album, I did my best to write honestly about the things I felt and the things that happened to me. I didn’t care if it was a corny song or a heartbreaking song” , he said.
“But on ‘Unemployment’, because I got anxious for a while, I tried to write stuff that wasn’t just about love anymore. As a band, we took the time to make sure the album sounded like we really wanted it to.
“We were on such a high from our debut album and our first gig that being forced to sit at home for almost a year felt like a slap in the face”
That meant indulging in songs that satisfied a creative itch, even if they didn’t necessarily have pop appeal, like the loungey two-minute instrumental “Interlude.” “It’s one of my favorite songs on the album because we recorded it live. You could still hear my feet tapping on the pedal board,” Gong recalled. “I remember the day we recorded this song, it was so cool. No one had a tense moment. Everyone was just there playing music. I love that feeling.
The track is also a respite for the leader, who had to slow down the vocals due to a swollen voice box. “Laryngitis took me out for about three months, and I was so frustrated because I was already struggling to record vocals,” he says; Gong sang in a higher key than the soft lower register he is used to, even breaking into falsetto throughout the album.
The seven tracks on ‘Unemployment’ may seem skimpy compared to their previous album, but Gong says the time they spent revising each song means the group is less prone to “losing sleep over it.” “I don’t have to wake up thinking, ‘Oh shit, I should have done this or I could have done that’. There was a lot of that feeling on the first album. This one feels a little different.
“We are all struggling. The only thing that can get you through this ordeal is if you’re honest about what you really want.
While H 3 F makes room for songs about chivalry (“It’s Alright”), heartbreak (“Clapton”) and the unflappable nerdy (“Hold Me Close”), the most “different” song in the group is also the most absorbing. On the closer “Make Believe World,” which begins quietly and builds to a jazzy crescendo, Gong sings about feeling lost in a pretentious reality. But then he realizes:It’s up to you to be true to yourself / true to the things that will hold you through / through times of great disguise”.
Gong explains, “When I write songs and make music, I tend to believe in an imaginary world. I think it relates to a lot of people trying to make a living doing what they love, not just musicians. We all struggle. The only thing that can get you through this ordeal is being honest about what you really want.
For now, all Max, Mhom, Ping and Gong really want is “to keep playing music together, to be in the same room, to share the same energy,” Gong says. “I think the most memorable thing about the tour is how we forgot the lyrics, messed up a few things here and there, and then moved on and laughed it off. It was those times when we felt like children again,” he adds.
“We’re serious about the music, but not so serious that we don’t have fun – that’s the best part.”
H 3 F ‘Unemployment’ is out now