Hugo Chakrabongse, the 39-year old great-great grandson of King Chulalongkorn, is a rock star. Best known as just Hugo, he’s graced stages from New York to Bangkok for the past twenty years, was signed to Island Records, visited Graceland, and he’s written a song for Beyoncé. Born in England and attending school in London until he was 17, Hugo returned to Bangkok in 1999 and started working in show business.
“There was a real vogue for luk khrueng, for young artists who were half Thai, half foreign when I came back. I became a teen male model, a TV presenter, singer, a lead actor in lakorn soap operas. I did seven of those. Shooting upcountry, I learned a lot socially, even if I wasn’t fan of the TV work.”
Hugo was clearly restless in the face of a pre-ordained career path.
“I was imagining an aesthetic that was opposite of what I was perceived to be – an aristo pretty boy. Before the internet came in, I thought that if I didn’t assert control I would be stuck with this forever. I was fine to be typecast as something I liked. I’m happy to be objectified in certain way. I wanted to be perceived as a rebellious teen, which is probably what I was.”
Hugo quit lakorn and started a band.
“Siplor means Ten Wheeler Truck. Trucks in Thailand are psychedelic, very male vehicles, with drawings of the likes of Peter Fonda, Serpico and Sylvester Stallone on the mud flaps. I wanted to show that modern Thai culture is quite American. We got this residue from the Vietnam War era.”
Siplor played country-rock with socially conscious lyrics thrown in.
“That 60s sound, that happened to be the music I liked. And I loved the warm, analogue sound. In the 90s, rock bands were very candy pop. We were into The Doors, Janis Joplin and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I sang about Thailand’s relationship with the West. Specifically, my relationship. We felt that we played in the tradition of Carabao, political, anti-mainstream. I loved the contradictions in that. I was known as a soap opera actor. Back then, if you were on Channel 7, everyone would watch you. You had maximum exposure, you could do commercials, you were set. Siplor was my vehicle for emancipation. I was trying to connect outside my background.”
As a result, Hugo became aware of the class divisions in Thai popular music.
“Regional or pua chivit (song for life – a 70 musical genre that included Caravan and Carabao) songs, implying rural stylings, didn’t work on a national level. If you had a degree back then, you didn’t listen to Carabao. Even as that kind of music had originally been written for intellectuals, it became very much the sound of people without college degrees.”
Siplor’s first album, released in 2001, sold 25.000 copies, bankrupted its label and set the band up for a bright future.
“We signed with Grammy, their sub division for original bands, More Music who’d released LoSo and Silly Fools. One of the guys from Carabao, Thierry Mekwattana, produced our second album and kicked us into shape. We had a super dry, 70s hard rock sound, like Free. And we got some hits. It’s because of the albums we did with More Music that I make a living now.”
Siplor took to the road, playing 100 shows a year until the mid 2000s.
“We decided to make an anti-establishment record. We wanted to sing about (then PM) Thaksin, about his war on drugs and the problems in the south. But the guys from Grammy were close to Thaksin. We released our 4th album with Warner, which is where Carabao was. We thought we were sticking it to the man with that one, but the record was not as successful as the previous two.”
Yet Hugo’s decision to change label proved wise.
“When the tsunami hit Thailand in 2004, Ad Carabao asked fellow artists to record songs for charity. The deadline was really tight. Writing a song in Thai takes so long, so I wrote one in English and called it 26 12 04.
Amanda Ghost, a producer and music executive in the UK, heard the song and invited Hugo to collaborate.
“I signed a deal with Island Records and they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars putting me into rooms in LA and then dropped me. The money that was spent on me was criminal and I got deeply depressed as I had quit my band to take this opportunity which only the most bloody-minded person would have turned down. But it was a decision of the head and I was heart-broken. I came to think that the artist is the bottom of the food chain in this industry. The important people are the producers, lawyers and song writers.”
Hugo used the rest of his advance money to write songs.
“2010 was the tail end of the time for the white unshaven guy with the acoustic guitar. Now it was more about young confident, female, goddess. I wrote a lot of lyrics and met young and up-and-coming starlets. Amanda Ghost played one of the songs Island Records had rejected to Beyoncé. It was called Disappear and she released it. Her husband Jay Z signed me to his label Roc Nation as a writer. I did lots of sessions with bigger artists, but none of my songs were used.”
With the new record deal, Hugo moved to New York.
“I wrote songs independently and eventually recorded Old Tyme Religion, my first solo album in 2011. It featured 99 Problems, which was credited to Jay Z. I did David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel, and superficially I was successful. I was determined to keep gigging until I could live in a big house in LA.”
Hugo toured the American Dream until he couldn’t take it any longer.
“I’m a fan of 20th century American culture. I played at the Filmore. I visited Gracelands, stood at the grave, just like the guys in Spinal Tap. I went to the Staxx Museum and stood on the banks of the Mississippi River, visited New Orleans. Touring was great, good to do before I got totally domesticated. But I didn’t have cut throat ambition and I wasn’t dating famous people. I was married and had a child by then. My second album for Roc Nation, Deep in the Long Grass, didn’t do that well. I was 32. I had enough and moved back to Thailand.”
Back home, Hugo carved out a career as a prolific solo artist.
“My music has changed. There are less nods to genre and my song writing has become more ambiguous. It now serves the song rather than any tribe I might be part of. You don’t have to like The Doors to like my music any more. Everything has become a little softer and more melodic, a conscious step to be a bit more Thai. I share the stage with Thai indie bands like Desk Top Error, Yellow Fang or Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band.”
Occasionally, Hugo, his rebel side not quite vanquished perhaps, plays political events.
“I did a Future Forward gig, a pro free speech event, a while ago. I’m a working musician and I wouldn’t turn down a paying gig unless it’s fascist. I’m always against anyone in power and have opposed every single government as a matter of principle. I mean, what kind of person actually wants to be in power?”
Hugo’s creative change of direction continues with his latest project.
“I’m working on a conceptual album. It’s called rua sam ran, ratree amata – ‘the pleasure cruise of eternal evening’. It’s full of Morricone-style cinematic chords with lots of brass. The six songs, in Thai, are about different characters in a dystopia where the leisure-seeking class is finding new ways of entertainment in a world that’s become a degraded, dust covered plays. My songs illuminate the people who work on the boat, the guests, the men in the engine room. The cruise ship sails into eternity, never to return.”