Decoding Thermoboy: Living In Limbo
Thermoboy is an intriguing balancing act. Instead of doing a trepid tightrope walk with a unified aural vision, they prefer to straddle it, striking a unique form in between genres. One foot remains firmly rooted in its grimier ‘90s grunge influences, the other perfectly steeped in a cleaner, modern-day indie mindspace, complete with quirky song-titling, hipster glasses and the quintessential token member fiddling with electronic synths behind his laptop.
As they take centre stage at an IOMMA showcase, their sound’s rather international feel is as surprising for a local Reunion band as it is refreshing. Not to diminish the ethereal quality of the delightfully rich Maloya music I’ve been treated to over the last few days but the very fact that a high-octane, rock band like Thermoboy (or even the raging metal band Warfield I saw just before) exists is proof of a healthy music scene – one where the room for experimentation is never compromised either from an artist or audience perspective.
As I settle down with Keng Sam, the band’s bassist, I’ve collated all the corner pieces I need to construct the framework for the more complex jigsaw puzzle this band has begun to represent. 30 minutes later, he’s fleshed it out with ten years of context, DIY philosophies and the joys of owning a harmonium.
Excerpts from our conversation to see the design in its entirety…
Mandovi: Great set out there today. Tell us where it all began for Thermoboy?
Keng: Thanks! Actually the founder, Fred, he’s the one who wrote all the music. It’s pretty crazy, he just did it all by himself and I just met him through the internet, that’s how it all started. We all live here in the Reunion Island so it worked out quite conveniently.
Mandovi: Is there a story behind the name?
Keng: That’s a good question because I have no idea! I know it was Fred’s idea and I’m pretty sure there wasn’t any intended meaning behind it but we all liked it.
Mandovi: Tell us a little bit about the other band members.
Keng: Ok so we have the drummer, Olivier, who’s also the vocalist Fred’s brother and like I said I joined them off the internet. So that’s exactly how we toured for the first eight years and then after getting a slot at Sakifo last year we added Brice to the lineup who plays keyboards for us.
Mandovi: He was doing a fair bit of live sampling and programming too right?
Keng: Yes that’s totally right, we’ve started experimenting with all that stuff more recently but I think it’s working pretty well.
Mandovi: Yes, it’s definitely giving your sound a very relevant, international feel. Have locals here accepted it well given that Reunion’s quite an insulated environment?
Keng: Well the rock scene here is definitely peculiar because we’ve got our fans who know us and it’s easy because they’ll come for all our gigs but surprisingly, even when we play in front of an audience that’s not necessarily keen on this kind of music or been exposed to it too much, they end up actually liking it quite a lot. I guess that’s because it’s not too heavy or metal-ish but it’s still got melody and energy so the younger generation likes it. I think they’re quite open to experimentation. In fact, just two days ago we played in a high school who are much more used to listening to R&B or reggae music and we got a really good response!
Mandovi: So you would agree that you’ve been introducing fairly fresh sounds to the Reunion market?
Mandovi: And how did you’ll happen to get exposed to the kind of music that influences you growing up?
Keng: Oh we grew up with it all of us. Even before us, our older brothers were listening to everything from Nirvana to Alice in Chains, basically the grunge scene. I guess each member comes from fairly different backgrounds though. Like the vocalist is really into pop rock, I am too but I honestly listen to everything from metal to big, fat, American rap music and Brice comes from a far more traditional background of jazz and classical and our drummer’s super metal! But somehow when we all came together it just worked.
Mandovi: Is that why you prefer singing in English, it seems quite rare for local bands here?
Keng: You know, you’re probably right. There aren’t many but we’re not the only ones. I guess it just came more naturally while we were creating the music, we definitely love English just as we love French.
Mandovi: We read that Thermoboy’s known for taking a more DIY approach to getting their music out there, avoiding labels and what not. Tell us a little more about that.
Keng: The thing is, we know like so many others, record companies just turn out to be a complete downward spiral and people just don’t need them anymore. So we started thinking how can we reach people without a label and that’s when we realised that the internet is the best way to touch people, to get out there. We started as a very free thing, released a free EP ‘Sound of a Broken Home’ and we ended up getting booked for Sakifo like that. We live off of digital media.
Mandovi: So what does it really mean to be an Independent artist here, how supportive is your community?
Keng: We have to do a lot on our own but we have a very supportive community, people really want to help you out if you need it an everyone’s ready to. So if we need a van someone will help or need something else, it’s really great and pretty much how the rock scene works here. It’s not a huge community but it’s a very useful community.
Mandovi: What about the biggest challenges you face?
Keng: In the future or right now?
Mandovi: Whichever you think is more important.
Keng: Definitely the future. We really want to put our music out there. I mean, it’s been 10 years that we’ve been working on both our craft and the live show. The latter’s still a work in progress but the big dream is to just get out there you know and of course, make another EP. If we could go to India or China especially, that would be great! [Laughs conspiratorially] That’s probably because Fred and Olivier are half Indian and I have Chinese blood so I think it’s great if you can go to the country of your origin of course but actually, I’ve already been to India, Bombay’s amazing!
Mandovi: Since you have an insider’s viewpoint, could you recommend a few local Reunion bands you really like?
Keng: Actually, there’s a really great Maloya band called Lingo and they’re just amazing. They have this sort of rock energy, you’ve just got to see them live. The best thing is even if you don’t know their music and you’ve never heard Maloya, you just can’t sit still, great energy man! I’m sure you can listen to their music on Facebook, YouTube whatever but i think it’s much better to watch them live.
Mandovi: Any Indian artists you’d like to collaborate with in the future?
Keng: Ravi Shankar…but since that’s not possible, either one of his daughters! Seriously though, I love Indian music. I’m actually learning both the harmonium and sitar.
Mandovi: Do you have teachers for that here?
Keng: Yes, they’re great! When I went to Bombay I actually went to a singing school, I can’t recall the name now but I bought a harmonium there and just got really into Indian music ever since. That instrument is just so much fun!
Mandovi: Well we’d better get you guys over here soon then. Until then though, what’s next?
Keng: An EP due in September, probably a tour in France, Montreal and the States if everything works out. We’ve got around 15 dates in December so that’s a huge deal. But at the same time that’s why we’re here, just to work, tour and meet other people like you guys.
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