Earlier this month, Subtext Recordings, the label operated by James Ginzburg (of renowned experimental duo Emptyset), released an LP of music from Rắn Cạp Đuôi: a collective from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, previously unknown to us, and, we expect, most people in the global West.
A group of musicians, Rắn Cạp Đuôi have been operating since around 2015, when the majority of the group were under 20 years old. After 6 years honing their art with live shows and mostly self-releasing their music, the group’s ethic and approach to music seems to garnering more attention beyond their hometown.
And, this is just as well: their debut for Subtext, ‘Ngủ Ngày Ngay Ngày Tận Thế‘ (‘Sleeping Through The Apocalypse‘) is a truly original and unique work of avant-garde experimental music, combining a glossy sound design with traditional Vietnamese instruments and universal electronic compositional techniques that flutter between ambient and full-on auditory assault.
Behind the production itself the album’s story is deeply personal, and tells of the group’s journey through loss, and through lonely years of operating as one of the few experimental musicians in their city. In this interview, we speak with the group about the concepts and inspirations behind the album, how the album’s co-production with Berlin-based experimental producer Ziúr shaped the record, and how they came to find a home on Subtext Recordings.
Interview by Freddie Hudson
"We don’t think we are attempting to overturn the status quo in our city, any more than just trying to create new things, or connect with other music outsiders in our area or in Vietnam"
Firstly, congratulations on the album, it’s really spectacular. Can you introduce yourselves, and explain what your band name means for non-Vietnamese speakers?
Thank you! Our names are Phạm Thế Vũ, Đỗ Tấn Sĩ, Zach Sch, and Spencer Nguyễn. We’re Rắn Cạp Đuôi which means “snake bites tail” in Vietnamese. When Sĩ first started the group he wanted to name it ‘Ouroboros’, but there were too many metal bands named that, so he went with a literal Vietnamese translation.
You come from Ho Chi Minh – can you explain a bit about the scene there?
Ho Chi Minh, although recently in lockdown, is usually a really lively city although the arts and music scene is smaller. The main scenes are techno, club music and DJs, metal (tech death and grind, some black metal as well, and nu metal), Indie music, and a newer Pop Punk scene. There are some solo artists and one group doing more experimental electronic music in Vietnam, but they’re mostly in Hà Nội.
So, in Ho Chi Minh it’s really only us. There are some promising artists coming up that we know of but at the moment there isn’t really anything out yet, or proper groups together, but we’re helping them out. The visual arts scene is well developed though, and a lot of our friends are either photographers or visual artists who we work with pretty often. Our music video, for example, is being made by the accomplished Tôn Tôn Bo and Angelo Lara.
We read that you played a local spot for 2 days non-stop, which is very difficult to imagine! What was that like, and what else have you been doing to attempt to overturn the status quo in your city?
The show was one of many performances in 2018 where we would invite other musicians to improvise with us for an extended period of time. That was sort of us elongating our rituals of continuously playing for hours in rehearsal or recording sessions. Specifically, the 48 hours show was particularly made to see if anyone would actually join and also test our own endurance. Sĩ slept for 5 hours during the show, Zach did 3, Vũ did 8. We would take turns to keep the music going if there were no guests.
We don’t think we are attempting to overturn the status quo in our city, any more than just trying to create new things, or connect with other music outsiders in our area or in Vietnam.
Was there much of a scene for this experimental music before you began, and what does the musical horizon look like now?
After Đổi Mới in the 80’s there were a few different artists, again mostly located in Hà Nội. Some are still around but most have stopped for a while now. Nguyễn Hồng Giang is probably one of the only underground musicians from before us that is similar, and has had an impact. Besides him, Nhung Nguyen as Sound Awakener has been active as a modern classical and ambient artist for a while now.
There are a few newer acts also in Hà Nội, namely Mona Evie, who is making experimental pop, but as for Ho Chi Minh City, we’re really the only ones. Currently though we’re trying to work with some of our younger friends who have reached out to us about wanting to do music, so we’re looking forward to what that will become.
Your album is particularly difficult to place even within the modern realms of avant-garde/sound design music. How would you describe it yourselves?
The core writing style on the album was with vignettes and the arrangements of those, sort of creating seamless yet totally different sections in all the songs, with the exceptions of ‘Infinite‘, ‘Denial‘ and ‘Caves‘. We guess that there is some sort of collage element to it but more in the sense of the arrangement rather than it being used as some sort of instrumentation or effect in the actual phrases.
We were definitely inspired by the likes of PC Music and Hyperpop music, but a bit darker and more contemplative, more representative of our surroundings and situation as well. Zach sometimes calls it “ADHD music”, for its almost non-sequitur jumps and minimal repetition at times.
"It may be surprising, but we don’t record in studios: we have a little shack in the mountains where we keep some of our gear and set up a Tascam and play to that, or just record and arrange in a DAW, but we’ve never really had the means to play in a studio as a group"
What inspiration went into the creation of it?
So yeah, definitely hyperpop and stuff, but also maybe artists like James Ferraro and Chino Amobi. Initially it started out as a project to help catalog/mix hours and hours of recording sessions. Zach sort of turned into a Yamataka Eye on ‘Super æ‘ / Brian Eno on ‘Remain in Light‘ style of producer, arranging outtakes into loops or condensing and arranging different instrumental passages together, but as it started to take shape he began to add more synthesis and samples from other sources, particularly with the addition of the Kèn Bầu, a traditional Vietnamese funeral horn.
We’re interested in understanding how you perform live, as this appears to be an almost entirely electronic album, from what we can garner from just listening. What are your individual roles, and how do they translate from the studio to a live performance?
This is something we’re always dealing with, as our live line up shifts as frequently as our sound. Usually Vũ will play guitar, or a string instrument of sorts (he plays most Vietnamese traditional string instruments and even makes them himself), Sĩ plays bass and fiddles with electronics, and Zach plays whatever else we need, usually drums and electronics. If Spencer joins us he also plays guitar.
For this album though we’re currently in the process of either performing it totally live (if we can relearn the parts) or forming some sort of consistent core of sound that we can then improvise our interpretations onto. One of the methods we use is a sort of computer to computer connection between Sĩ and Zach so that we can interplay digitally as well as instrumentally.
An issue that we try to work around as well is the usually static nature of performing electronic music, so although we play the actual songs we may try to energise them in the performance with the addition of percussion or changed instrumental parts, so that it’s more engaging.
It may be surprising, but we don’t record in studios: we have a little shack in the mountains where we keep some of our gear and set up a Tascam and play to that, or just record and arrange in a DAW, but we’ve never really had the means to play in a studio as a group.
Similarly, we’re keen to understand the impact and the results of you working with Ziúr on this record: what are the key additions, if any, and how closely did you work together to create the final product?
Working with Ziúr was great, she helped flesh out a lot of the ideas that weren’t quite coming together and also helped tone down some of the more zealous choices on the album. Zach’s a drummer so there were some blast beats or drum oriented sections on some of the original demos of ‘Distant People‘, ‘Aztec Glue‘, and ‘Denial‘ and ‘Caves‘.
She also helped especially with ‘Infinite‘ by adding some crazy textures (we won’t give away her secret technique) and also cleaning up the arrangement so it was a lot more concise, as it was originally like 6 minutes, or something like that, and dragged a bit. Obviously, due to distance, we weren’t in the studio together or anything, but for maybe 2 or 3 months we were back forth almost every day fine tuning everything and probably getting on James’ nerves because of how slow Rắn Cạp Đuôi can be sometimes.
Lastly, we’re keen to know how the release through Subtext came around?
We sent out a few emails with the demos to a few labels, two of which turned out to be defunct, and a couple got back to us in a few days. James got back to us at that time as well, and it seemed like not only did he enjoy it a lot, but also offered to help us where we needed, which was amazing.
A funny tidbit was him asking us if we had heard of his band Emptyset who we love. Another is one of the tracks having an Ellen Arkbro sample on it, who we didn’t know was also on Subtext. Gediminas and Zach talk about Kpop together a bit as well now. The most difficult thing was probably us being too shy sometimes, but it was a really great experience and we’re looking forward to what’s next!
‘Ngủ Ngày Ngay Ngày Tận Thế’ is out now via Subtext Recordings. Order a copy from Bandcamp.
2. Eri Eri Eri Eri Eri Rema Rema Rema Rema Rema
3. Distant people
4. Mực nang
6. Aztec Glue
7. Denial and caves
8. Đme giựt mồng