In the two or so years they’ve spent working on their second album ‘Unemployment’, the band H 3 F have had some seriously bad luck in the health department – even by the standards of a global pandemic. Members of the group have caught COVID, and frontman Thepvipat “Gong” Prachumchonjaoren recently struggled with laryngitis and a torn knee disc after a skating mishap.
Not that the H 3 F are letting that keep them down. When they shuffled into a Zoom call on a recent Sunday evening to talk about their new record with NME, the Thai indie quartet – rounded up by drummer Thakorn “Max” Aunyaphanon, bassist Thanabatr “Mhom” Somboonsith, and guitarist Arakarn “Ping” Chantorn – were the epitome of chill, having just finished a tour of northern Thailand. They played sold-out shows to 700 people in Lampang and to an outdoor audience of 2,000 in Chiang Mai, hitting the stage as a full live band for the first time since the pandemic broke, brass section of trumpet and trombone in tow.
“Tour was good. But Gong got COVID,” Max casually reveals as we wait for the singer and lead guitarist, currently on his third day isolating in Chiang Mai, to join the call. While on tour, the band snuck in a vacation while scouting locations for a live session, and Gong – who had already been touring on crutches post-knee surgery – suspects that’s when he caught the virus.
Ending their ‘Unemployment’ tour with a bandmate in isolation seems pretty ironic, given the album was borne of their frustrations with COVID from year one of the lockdowns. 2020 was meant to be a promising period for H 3 F following the twin success of their debut releases, 2018 EP ‘Cheesy Lyrics, Sloppy Groove’ and 2019 album ‘Family Product’, which racked up millions in viral streams and propelled them to the top of Thai music charts.
The reception was “far from anything we could ever expect,” Gong says, giving them the confidence to book their first overseas tour to South Korea and Taiwan. “But then COVID came and shut all the lights out. We were on such a high from our first album and first concert that being forced to sit at home for almost a year felt like being slapped in the face,” the frontman adds.
A lone, positive COVID test features prominently on the artwork, the album named ‘Unemployment’ to commemorate that dark period for the suddenly jobless full-time musicians. Gong chronicles the “very anxious feeling” they felt in the record’s opening track ‘Waste My Time’, repeatedly fuming “I just don’t want to waste my time” over thudding drums and gravelly guitar solos between verses punctuated with spirited expletives.
It’s probably not the go-to track fans were expecting from the laid-back music majors (they all studied the subject at the same university, 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 minimised it.”
The name change coincided with H 3 F’s decision to recruit another old friend, guitarist Ping, as their fourth member, while also adding brass instruments to expand the personality and depth of their sound. On ‘Family Product’, produced with the support of friends, the four-piece settled into their wheelhouse mix of funk, jazz, blues, rock, and pop. Like their EP, the record was filled with easy, head-bobbing tunes that were unapologetic about chasing, keeping and losing love.
It’s an approach that the 25-year-old Gong – who was forced to step into the singer-songwriter role so the band could quit playing cover songs – stands by. “From the first EP to the first album, I tried my best to write honestly about things I felt, and things that happened to me. I didn’t care if it was a cheesy song or a heartbreak song,” he says.
“But on ‘Unemployment’, because I became an anxious guy 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 how we really wanted it to sound.”
“We were on such a high from our first album and first concert that being forced to sit home for almost a year felt like being slapped 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 favourite songs on the album because we recorded it live. You could still hear my feet stomping on the pedalboard,” Gong recalls. “I remember the day we recorded that song, it was so chill. No one was having a tense moment. Everyone was just there to play music. I like that feeling.”
The track is also a respite for the frontman, who had to ease up on singing because of a swollen voice box. “Laryngitis took me out for about three months, and I was so frustrated because I was already having a hard time recording vocals,” he says; Gong was singing in a higher key than the smooth lower register he’s used to, even breaking into falsettos throughout the album.
‘Unemployment’’s seven tracks may seem scant compared to their previous record, but Gong says the time they spent revising each song means the band are less inclined to “lose sleep over it”. “I don’t have to wake up thinking, ‘Oh shit, I should’ve done this or I could’ve done that’. There was a lot of that feeling on the first album. This one feels a little different.”
“We all struggle. The only thing that can get you through it is if you’re honest about what you really want”
While H 3 F make room for songs about chivalry (‘It’s Alright’), heartbreak (‘Clapton’), and unflappable cheesiness (‘Hold Me Close’), the band’s most “different” song is also their most absorbing. On the closer ‘Make Believe World’, which starts quiet and builds into a jazzy crescendo, Gong sings about feeling lost in a pretentious reality. But then he realises: “It’s all on you to be true to yourself / true to things that will hold you through / through the times of great disguise”.
Gong explains: “When I write songs and make music, I tend to believe in a make-believe world. I think that relates to a lot of people who try to make a living doing what they love, not just musicians. We all struggle. The only thing that can get you through it is if you’re honest about what you really want.”
For now, all Max, Mhom, Ping, and Gong really want is to “continue playing music together, being in the same room, sharing the same energy,” Gong says. “I think the most memorable thing from the tour is how we forgot the lyrics, we messed up a few things here and there, and then we moved on and laughed it off. It’s those moments where we felt like kids again,” he adds.
“We’re serious about music, but not too serious to the point that we’re not having fun – that’s the best part.”
H 3 F’s ‘Unemployment’ is out now