Interview with Neung Phak (AKA Mono Pause etc)

Ben Bush



Each night of Mono Pause’s cross-country tour in 2002, masked men came onstage, threatening to kill them if they continued to play while a voice with a heavy Eastern European accent announced over the sound system, "Tonight’s concert by Mono Pause has been canceled. Please find the exit and leave." In most cities some audience members, skeptical of the staged event, lingered to see the show. However, according to band members, of all the venues they toured, Los Angeles was the only city where the crowd immediately cleared out.

Based out of Oakland but with strong roots in River Falls, Wisconsin, multi-faceted experimental rock group Mono Pause operates under many names but are perhaps best known under the guise of Neung Phak – a loose Thai translation of “Mono Pause” (also conveniently the name of a Lao dish of chicken, coconut and banana leaves). The band plays interpretations of catchy Southeast Asian pop, disco and traditional music and also writes their own songs in a similar style. Band members Mark Gergis and his brother Erik have traveled extensively throughout the region and were inspired by nightclub bands there and the tapes they made of shortwave broadcasts, sometimes basing a song around a 30-second snippet interrupted by static from one of these tapes without any knowledge of the identity of the original performer.

While the originals often feature synths and drum machine instumentations, Neung Phak performs with horns, guitars and live drums, taking Taiwanese pro-recycling jingles and making them their own. The band’s singer Diana Hayes (also of Tigerbeat 6 electroclash dynamos Dynasty and The Roofies) is half Thai but was born in Pennsylvania, doesn’t speak the language, and learns the songs phonetically.

While the band contains some half-Iraqi and Jewish members, they also perform as the White Ring, a satirical but genuinely frightening white supremacist rock/seminar band, in which they pretend to be a group of born-again Christian Desert Storm veteran National Guardsmen. In "The Hyphen Song" they explain how terms like Asian-American weaken our great country, while other songs tackle the evils of abortion, and they have been known to hand out misspelled, grammatically imperfect racist pamphlets at gigs.

Mono Pause brings up some interesting and sometimes troubling ideas about cultural appropriation. Their music is an oddly revealing microcosm of globalization, with its bizarre combinations of commercial pop culture, international media, militarism and religious fundamentalism.

FANZINE: I heard about the show where you guys had all the banter pre-recorded. How did that work out?

PETER CONHEIM: The taped banter really fooled people and it was extremely hard to do. We had to pre-record it in an environment which we thought would sound like the club’s PA system.

MARK GERGIS: Heady banter, too, like “Oh, Miles, you left your sweater onstage,” or, “Could I get a level check on this?” Just a ludicrous number of level checks. It was just impossible that they were actually happening and done in a laconic manner where no one would ever waste that much time doing them onstage.

PC: We did it as convincingly as possible and then as the show went on it was revealed through absurd things happening where someone moves away from the microphone or makes a grotesque movement with their mouth that couldn’t possibly be what they just said. You could hear a wonderful, giant sucking sound as people realized they’d been completely had.

MG: We’ve done that in a couple cities and everyone believed it. Everyone! That’s a really fun trick and anyone can do it. Milli Vanilli did it and made millions and we did it and made, uh, $85, which we gave to the sound guy.

We hope that we sent a lot of people home who lost all faith in anything for years.

FANZINE: How does the audience respond to these kinds of stunts?

PC: We never really called them stunts because we don’t really know how to do things any other way.

FANZINE: What’s the American influence on the music that Neung Phak is covering from Southeast Asia?

PC: Southeast Asian pop music is the grandest blender, incorporating Western influences into their own cultural fire. We take their interpretation of Western culture and add our inevitable Western approach on some level. It just goes around and around so many times that there’s just no way to know who started it or who it sounds like.

MG: The American influence happened 25 times in the past and we just added #26. This is not an ironic project. There is no intended irony. What is intended is to embrace the cross-cross-cultural theft/reuse inherent in this music, much of which is Southeast Asian grifting of Western pop, by replicating/re-Westernizing it. We are not interested in smirking, and this is, I think, why so many people have responded to it with such love.

FANZINE: Your alter ego band Neung Phak has its own side project, Pusser’s Pihn, in which you play compositions based around the hypnotic Thai Morlam music style. Is there an American funk or psychedelic influence in Morlam or is it a native folk music?

MG: It isn’t funk or psychedelic influenced. It’s actually an ancient form of music that became electrified in the 60s. They started playing the traditional bass lines on an electric bass…they would play the lines they used to play on the flutes on the electric organ. They learned how to play guitars from listening to Santana. For some reason Santana had a huge influence on all of Southeast Asia. Their approach to playing with wah-wahs is rare, but you’ll hear it. Because it’s been electrified, suddenly it can be called Western influenced but it’s actually still being applied in a way that is pretty linear Morlam.

Morlam is considered the national music of Thailand, but it’s looked down upon in the big city, who would rather that some classical Thai music had that distinction. It comes from the Isan region in northeastern Thailand and it’s seen as country music from the hicks from up north. But everyone there has a feeling for it. Morlam is the pulse of Thailand.

FANZINE: What is generally the response from people from Thailand and Cambodia? Do they understand your phonetically translated lyrics?

PC: I don’t like to make cultural generalizations, but in general, the Thais that we’ve played the music for tend to greet it with a detached head scratch, whereas Cambodians are much more excited that you’re singing their words. Laotians, too.

Several times Mark and I and different members of the band went to this restaurant in Alameda called the Blue Lagoon and watched this Cambodian bar band play, and we joined them onstage and did “Inside the Program” with Mark singing all the vocals. Inevitably people would smile and say, “I understood you! I heard what you were saying!” Whereas, in Thai culture, there’s much more of a holding the cards close to the vest.

MG: I’ve played Neung Phak for people in Thailand and they pretty much don’t care. They don’t fetishize music like Western cultures do, which has a lot to do with why they’ve thrown away or forgotten about a lot of the incredible Thai music from the 60’s and 70’s. Some of it’s being reissued now and received with much fanfare in the West, but that music is virtually meaningless to anybody currently operating in these countries.

Neung Phak covers music from things currently on the charts over there to stuff written 40 years ago. Some of them are actual classics and others are classics because of the ephemeral nature of the music industry over there, which deems a pop hit from 2002 a classic simply because it’s already forgotten over there.

FANZINE: So you would say the forgetting of traditional music or even just 60’s and 70’s music has less to do with Americanization and more to do with a Thai cultural traditions and ideas about the role of music?

PC: It’s a complicated response to all of those things. If you try to find Morlam or traditional music they just say, “What do you want that for? Here’s Britney Spears.” But there’s also this thing where when people are doing really hot shit Morlam music onstage or other more traditional stuff, people don’t even applaud. It’s not that the music is devalued, it just has a different place in society.

MG: I’m always searching for good music when I’m there and I went into this live venue in Isan, and they were effortlessly performing a set that included Leonard Cohen, Metallica and Willie Nelson – no Thai music. You’d never see songs by those bands performed on the same stage in the U.S. They’re mixing and matching the same way we do and singing phonetically too. All the words were wrong. At one bar in Bangkok, I saw them doing “Gloria” and they were like “G–O–I–L–O-Y-A!” It was great, man. Just amazing.

FANZINE: Is your upcoming single “Fucking USA” a straight cover of a Southeast Asian song?

MG: That’s a direct cover of a Yoon Min song. The song was reputed to be North Korean, but our friend who translated it says it’s definitely South Korean.

It’s an anti-George Bush Sr. rant about the Olympics scandal in which the South Koreans were robbed of a medal, but it also harbors a lot of resentment against U.S. forces in South Korea. It’s fair to say that because of our phonetic translation our version is mostly not those words at all. But “Fucking U.S.A!” is loud and clear, as is “Yankee Go Home!”

There’s a video of the original song that’s been circulating online and there’s a spooky chanted intro – Bush Evil! Bush Evil! – while a cartoon of Bush Jr. morphs 90’s style into a monkey.

FANZINE: Did both of you have an early interest in world music?

MG: I got into international music in the late-80’s and early 90’s when a lot of my so-called musical heroes washed up and I got hungry for something from the greater beyond.

I started going to the library and checking out a lot of Asian and Middle Eastern music. My dad’s from Iraq and that probably helped me tune into it a lot easier than others.

FANZINE: When your family emigrated from Iraq were they given some sort of refugee status because of Saddam?

MG: Most of them came in the 60’s and 70’s – before Saddam. Even in the 80’s Saddam was a friend and partner of the U.S. I have a family portrait on the wall of Saddam with two of my second and third cousins, who were cardinals in the Chaldean Catholic church. In the beginning Saddam was really good to the Christian Iraqis. In the 80s he gave a couple hundred thousand dollars to the Chaldean Catholic Church in Detroit and the mayor even gave him the key to the city! One wonders why he didn’t bother to use that key during the invasion.

Refugee status? Visas? No. When my dad arrived in 1964 it was much easier to become a citizen here and there wasn’t the whole anti-Arab thing that started later into the 70’s. Iraq and Beirut were still travel destinations for a lot of wealthy Westerners.

FANZINE: Your born-again Christian Desert Storm veteran National Guardsmen white supremacist alter ego rock group, the White Ring, had a legendary September 11th tribute show. What happened at that?

PC: We did our September 11th tribute show on the first anniversary. It was the White Ring’s culmination as agents provocateurs.

We arrived onstage to the Iraqi national anthem. We sang some hits from our early period, such as “The Monkey Song” about evolution, and what a terrible force that is. We screened our public safety infomercial which is called, “Homeland Security: It’s in Your Hands.” We even had a Homeland Security rap and our drummer, Miles, who was break dancing champion in Sacramento when he was growing up, pulled that out and really threw down.

Great things happened at the show although it ended in tragedy, but it was all with the best intentions. There was a beautiful, beautiful flag that was given to us by a 4th or 5th grader in New York at PS 187, blocks from ground zero, and it was a crayoned, very lovingly rendered, slightly inaccurate but nice flag. There weren’t quite enough stars but we decided to auction it off to raise money for the firemen’s fund. We had an eternal flame in the gallery, which was supposed to burn forever a la Kennedy’s flame. I sang John Ashcroft’s “Let the Eagle Soar” while we had a real San Francisco fireman bring up the torch and light the flame, but we had a little trouble lighting it and I had to keep singing to cover it. We finally got it lit which was really cool, but then the smoke alarm went off and there was a bit of panic and the sprinkler went off and doused and ruined the flag. It was pretty fucking embarrassing. We played it off as best as we could. Thankfully at the end of the show we had taxi cabs waiting outside to take us away, just to sort of go.
MG: We didn’t want to greet people or deal with people anyway. We said our thing and we just got out of there as quick as we could as the colors ran down from the flag. It was kind of sad.

PC: Poor little Teresa Chin, who made this flag, she doesn’t know that it got ruined because we fucked it up.

MG: No good could come of telling her at this point.

FANZINE: The White Ring doesn’t have an album out. Have you released any songs under that guise?

MG: We did a track for the Cool Beans magazine sampler.

PC: It was a compilation of trucker songs. They gave us a double CD of classic trucker songs and said, “Pick a tune.” So we decided to cover this one about eating at the only good restaurant on the highway. But we took only the very first few words from the tune and the rest became a tribute to Eunice Stone.

MG: If you remember, about a year after September 11th Eunice Stone was eating in a Georgia diner with her son…

PC: A Shoney’s restaurant…

MG:… and saw some Middle Eastern men at a nearby table who were en route to Florida for a doctors’ convention and she went into panic mode. She thought that they were talking about “bringing it down” and doing something else and “they had the money to pay for it.” She told her son to get the license plate number while she called 911 and ruined these men’s lives.

PC: They closed the freeway in Florida where they were traveling for like 12 hours while these poor guys sat in their car being searched alongside alligators and God knows what else, and finally they were let go because there was absolutely nothing on them. Because of this whole thing, one or more of these medical students was never allowed to work at the Florida Hospital they were heading to. We were able to find Eunice’s actual words on the Internet and use them as some of the lyrics. She really believed she was doing her duty. Even after she was exposed for basically destroying these poor guys’ lives, she said: “Well, I’m just doing my job, Bush called me to be a member of the Operation TIPS army and I am.” No remorse. What a jerk.

FANZINE: So Mono Pause has a new album coming out. What’s it all about?

MG: Each track is different from the last. It’s a ten year project that will involve everything that we know musically. It will take everything out of us emotionally, spiritually, and creatively. It is a mammoth full-length record. It’s our second full-length record in 12 years. It will be worth the wait.

FANZINE: I hear there’s a song on the upcoming album called “Why Did You Create Me?” a cover of an Israeli pro-occupation pop song from a couple decades back, which has been retrofitted with new lyrics, correct?

MG: When I was in Leipzig, Germany, I picked up a ten-second fragment of the original song “Israel, Israel” on short-wave radio direct from Tel Aviv. I didn’t know what it was. I liked it so much that I went on a 17-month rampage hunting down the original of it. I would telephone webmasters worldwide that ran shitty music websites with MIDI files and play the dirty fragment of music over the phone for them. No one could tell me what it was. Somehow a rabbi answered online and he forwarded the MP3 and my email to another rabbi in LA and said, “Please help our brother find the original version of this song by Chovevi Zion,” which is the name of the group. When we learned it’s a nationalistic uber-Zionist song it made complete sense because it was just so purposeful. The melody taps into that overwhelming nostalgic feeling that only a song like that can produce in you.

I used that fragment of the chorus as a jumping off point for an anti-child song. It became a part of what Mono Pause does in our live shows, where I give birth to this East German puppet baby and he and I sing the duet “Why Did You Create Me?”

FANZINE: Were you guys initially interested in being musicians or did you just stumble into it from an interest in making movies or taping radio or absurdist theater?

PC: Rarely do people say, “I love you guys’ guitar playing” or “I love your keyboard playing.” They don’t dissect us like that because we don’t fit that way. The mission hasn’t been to be musicians. The mission hasn’t even really been to be a band. It’s an idea machine. It’s an idea tablet. It’s an open field, where anything goes within the parameters that we set and those parameters are always changing.

MG: I never liked the approach of a lot of the people around me who really wanted to be musicians. Most of those people are either homeless or lawyers now.

PC: We did a show at the Great American Music Hall for the SF Weekly music awards. They wanted us mainly because of Neung Phak. We said, “We aren’t going to do Neung Phak. We’re going to do something really different,” and instead we just did basically a 15 minute ballet piece. We had almost no instrumentation – just physical movement. We played a tape of a backwards, tonal sound composition that we made…

MG: …our physical piece – our dancing or whatever you want to call it – was based on watching a videotape of our motions played backwards, and we imitated our own reverse movements.

PC: We had every possible thing thrown at us that night by all the drunk industry people who were there. It had nothing to do with what anyone was expecting, but it did exactly what it set out to do. I felt it was a complete and utter success and it was not a “fuck you” either…well, I guess it was a little bit of a “fuck you.” It was just an extreme elaboration on a side of Mono Pause. It was less a provocation, more just another way that we put our idea tablet out there.

In addition to their work in Mono Pause, Mark Gergis records in a solo project called Porest and will be releasing two albums this year. He has also curated albums of obscure music from Southeast Asia for the Sun City Girls’ Sublime Frequencies record label, and has issued a compilation of his field recordings from Syria. Peter Conheim has been performing with found sound collective Negativland since 1996 as well as Wetgate, a group in which all sounds and images are generated by 16 mm film projectors. He is also part owner and operator of the Guild repertory movie theater in Albuquerque. –Ben Bush