I recently interviewed rock star, actor and hotelier Krissada Sukosol Clapp for Roadbook.
Krissada Sukosol Clapp opened The Siam, Bangkok’s most elegant and priciest hotel, in 2013. The then 43-year old was no stranger to making a strong expression, having already made a name as rock star and movie actor.
“I was born and grew up in Bangkok. I went to ISB International School with kids from all over the world. As a teenager I would go to Patpong with my friends at night. The clubs were open late then. We went to Goldfinger. Not for the girls. We were just rebellious. I drove a car around then, at 15. That was the best time of my life.”
Sukosol Clapp’s family put up with his antics. His grandfather, Kamol Sukosol, was a maverick businessman in the 50s. He brought several US companies to Thailand and built hotels. His mother, Kamala Sukosol, went to study in the US.
“My mother became the lead singer in a doo-wop bad. My father was one of the back-up singers. They moved to Bangkok in 1966. I was born in 1970. My father always wanted to instill American values in me and my two sisters and brother. We were to fight for success, for the American way. My parents divorced in 1980. I think they had a good run and we didn’t suffer from the separation. My father returned to the US.”
When Sukosol Clapp turned 18, he followed to Boston, where he enrolled in a hotel management degree.
“At ISB I’d been a top athlete. In the US, I found out that I’d been a big fish in a small pond. I had dreams of becoming a pro athlete. But I only made a soccer B-team. My family was in the hotel business, so I majored in hotel management. But hotels were boring. I enjoyed the pressure and the crowds of sports. I am ego-driven, I love the moment of performance. I enjoy letting it all out. I turned to study anthropology and theatre arts. And what I missed from sports, I found in theatre.”
Sukosol Clapp moved to New York. “I was determined to become a theatre actor and studied at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. New York was an international city. It was almost like being back in high school again. I worked casual jobs, mostly as a waiter. I was surrounded by talented people. I went to auditions. I saw countless bands and went to art exhibitions all the time. There was so much to see.”
One of his teachers warned his class that ‘you better love what you do because out of all of you, only 5% will make a living from this’.
“I learned this hard way. In the arts, even the best don’t make it. It’s the same in the music business. You have to have a lot of ego and luck. In acting class, people around you are as talented as De Niro. But very few people have real on-screen charisma. You have to have that quality. I stayed for five years, but I didn’t succeed.”
Back in Bangkok, Sukosol Clapp’s brother Kamol ‘Sukie’ Sukosol Clapp had started independent music label Bakery Music.
“My brother called and said, ‘Come and play some rock music’. An American friend told me, ‘You’re lucky you’re mixed race, you have another market. Look at me, I am blonde. I can’t go anywhere else. I will end up waiting tables all my life.”
Sukosol Clapp learned some hard lessons in the Big Apple.
“In the US, you have to hustle. Perhaps I didn’t hustle enough. Perhaps I wasn’t good enough. I returned to Bangkok in 1996 and started producing Thai artists at Bakery. I would watch them on stage and think that I wasn’t getting any younger. I was in my mid-20s then. Thais like their artists young.”
It took Sukosol Clapp until 2001 to release a debut album with his band Pru.
“My brother played guitar. The drummer was a friend from school. I wrote and sang all the songs. I was influenced by Hans Zimmer and Ennio Morricone. Film music, with sweet melodies, which goes well with Thai pop. When we went on stage, we were more like an alternative rock band. With bits of punk thrown in.”
Sukosol Clapp began to work on a performance style that was to become all his own. “I looked at great movers – Fred Astaire, Bruce Lee, Muhammed Ali, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and my cat. I like looking at people who float. I made that my own, much more so than my singing. To feel comfortable was to keep moving.”
Relocating to Thailand created complicated mental challenges.
“I had a chip on my shoulder because I was a hi-so kid. As we live in such a class structured society, that’s a real challenge. Thais might not like a hi-so kid singing rock songs. I tried to understand what other people think. I wrote inspirational songs about people who have nothing and make something of themselves. There’s no inspiration in my story, it’s just having mates round the house. We loved going on stage. We were lucky that people pay us to cry and yell and to scream. Releasing hate and sorrow on stage, that’s acting, it brings out demons in you.”
Pru’s second album flopped.
“The songs were deep and very alternative and we didn’t give fans what they wanted. Then Bakery Music was sold and eventually ended up with Sony. Losing my publishing rights was a heart-breaking moment.”
Forever restless, Sukosol Clapp started acting in Thai movies.
“I became known as a mini Christian Bale. I was suited to psychological roles. My romantic movies don’t work. I did a comedy. That didn’t work. To fill seats, I have to play someone who goes nuts. I played gangsters.”
Sukosol Clapp won the Suphannahong National Film Awards, the Thai equivalent of the Oscars twice, in 2006 for the thriller 13 Beloved and in 2016 for Khun Pan, in which he played a villain opposite Ananda Everingham.
“I don’t feel American in the US. I don’t feel completely Thai in Bangkok. But I was always looking for an acceptance from the Thai public and I got that through my music and the movies.”
In 2003, Sukosol Clapp got married and had two children. In 2006, Pru broke up.
“Life came around full circle. My parents were hoping I would help out in the family business. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to go to school or university. I realized I was luckier than others. I always knew I was safe, an incredible commodity. But how could I contribute to both make myself feel good about myself and please the family? I was no good at business, I was shit in Maths. But I was good at design. I knew a thing or two about antiques. I was good at story-telling. That’s how the idea for The Siam started.”
Kamala Sukosol told her son about a property on the banks of the Chao Praya that the family owned.
“I was 37. It was perfect, on the river, in the old part of town. We had four hotels in the family already. I wanted to build something Bangkok didn’t have yet, a hotel with soul.”
Sukosol Clapp had to aim high, if he was going to compete with hotels like the Oriental.
“Building a hotel is so different from music and acting. As an actor you’re like a child. You memorize your lines, people feed you. You go to the set. You do the lines and go home. But a hotel is there forever. You have to get it right.”
Sukosol Clapp recruited prolific, eclectic hotel designer Bill Bensley in 2008 and construction started in 2010.
“I promised my mother that the hotel would make money. My sister Marisa was doubtful – we had only 39 rooms on a 9 rai property and we weren’t anywhere near downtown. We had to build something unique and create a lifestyle. That’s where the antiques came in. Every space in the hotel tells a unique Thai story.”
The Siam opened in 2012, a bombastic, elegant riverside palace. Half the investment was family money, the rest bank loans.
“I told myself, I am not going to fuck this one up – this is my family. So we had to prove ourselves, show why guests should book the most expensive rooms in the city. What we did have, was privacy. The Siam is like a big mansion. Even when it’s full, you don’t see anybody till breakfast.”
This proved to be a draw for international celebrities visiting the Thai capital, and the Siam’s guest list is impressive.
“David Beckham stayed twice. Tiger Woods, Katy Perry and Michelle Rodriguez, Sam Smith, One Direction…that helped. By 2015, we were profitable.”
Forever restless, the now 50-year old has set his sights on a new project.
“We plan to build The Siam 2 in Chiang Mai. We bought the land. Bill Bensley is on board. It got delayed because of Covid.”
Sukosol Clapp clearly feels frustrated by the changes the virus has brought.
“I worked out in the hotel gym in my underwear and trainers. There was no one here. It was like in The Shining. I couldn’t sing or act, but I released my emotions by running half naked through my hotel. Gotta keep runnin’ and livin’ man.”