With more than a decade and a half of presence in the Hmong music industry, releasing four albums with hits such as 1000 Miles, Lub Paj Rose, Los Nag Xuj Xuav, and Vim Koj Daim Duab, The Sounders, a Fresno-based band, has not only found a loyal following of fans, but has defined a generation of Hmong who have been influenced by their music. As a standout group of passionate artists, they have been credited by some Hmong for elevating the music industry to a new level.
Txhawb sat down with the band to hear about their influences, their passions, and their journey in music-making.
Shaping the Band
Founder and lead singer, Thai Thao, is often known by fans as “Thai Sounders”. His expressive vocals are joined by the other band members, Souk Chay Thao (keyboards), Bee Thao (bass guitarist), and Kwan Thao (guitarist).
Thai points out that much of the inspiration for Sounders is derived from earlier Hmong musicians: “I was inspired by an early-80s Hmong band called Kabnqosvas; they played old music, but they were pioneers because they put real thought into their music.” Others, such as Lis Pheej, Touly Vangkhue, and Xeev Xwm, have also had significant influence on their music. Thai grew up in Montana, so he listened to and was inspired by these pioneers.
But during the band’s early years, they were also inspired by the Beatles, music of the 60s, oldies, Americana rock, and The Carpenters. At one point, “we were also listening to Thai music non-stop” Souk Chay adds.
Defining the Band
After mastering the art of live performance over the years, many fans credit Sounders for their music-thumping concerts and parties. “If you came to a Sounders party, you’re going to have a big show, with big equipment, lasers, fog, non-stop music and dancing!” Thai exclaims.
They are motivated by their desire to be the best they can be, and many would agree they are the best Hmong band to hear live. Yet they have also been a driving force for one another.
Even without formal training on music, they learned how to create, perform, and write their own music. Their love and passion for music drove them to learn and perfect their musical talents, but it was not easy.
Although they knew basic guitar chords, the band members honed their skills mostly by watching others. “You have to train from your heart,” Thai explains charismatically, “and train your ear to listen. I’d watch someone play, and then go home and try to reproduce what I just heard.”
Bee has taken a few lessons, but he learned mostly through commitment, and not giving up, even into the early morning hours. Aside from the usual routines of work, family and life, he devotes 11pm to 1am on weeknights to his guitar, “it’s because you love the music no matter how busy you are.” Now, he often stops crowds at the local music store whenever he is testing out a new guitar.
Kwan came from Thailand at the age of 14. He was influence by Thai Rock bands such as “Micro, Ploy and Nuvo.” Thai saw his drive, his ability to study music with diligence, his love for the craft, and “that’s how I got involved in Sounders,” says Kwan.
For Sounders, originality and relentless dedication are critical to achieving a final product. As Thai points out, there is a “personal reward of building something new and original with your own hands and hard work.”
The Sounders philosophy on music also focuses on the words, which add a distinct message and tone.
The lyrics are the backbone that defines a song,” Thai explains, “it is the words that carry the meaning and you simply build the melody and music to help carry the message that the lyrics are trying to get across to the audience.
In their popular rock ballad, “1000 Miles,” the music crescendos as the chorus eagerly explodes into a few simple words that anyone can sing along to, “Kuv xav ya tuaj cuag koj / I want to fly to you.” The combination of the words and the crescendo together create a melodic balance.
Their lyrics, as Thai explains, “pull from the inside out.” Living in Montana, life was rather lonely. Many of their lyrics come from their personal experiences, which they have put into their songs “as a way to tell the story of life’s experiences.”
Distinguishing the Band
Aside from their musical craft, the band had dreams to make it big, take risks, and “overdo” the status quo.
They envisioned headlining major shows with big lights, big equipment and speakers, and creating a new brand of entertainment.
When they first started in the early 90s, they did something many other bands did not do. This would eventually set them apart and forge a long-term vision.
“We looked for a manager, Atary Xiong, who did our promotion and advertising, almost like a business plan,” Thai explains. “Atary had a big vision for us, to do big concerts; you have to dream it that big.” Atary added the flier, branded the group by the name “Sounders” and strengthened the dream, which spearheaded Sounders into a new era with explosive concerts every Hmong New Year that continued to bring fans back.
Yet even with a manager’s help, the band members run themselves on a democratic system. They all participate in the decision-making and vote on critical issues. They share leadership by appointing one person to lead activities and events each year. They sign a contract and share the band’s financial responsibilities. And they recognize that decisions are made with the best interest of the group in mind.
“It is about the band, not the individual,” Thai explains, “the band always comes first, and everyone shares a role as well as time in the spotlight.”
They view themselves as a band by design and by purpose, but still, “we have fun and we strive for perfection in all positions, there is no weak link,” he adds.
In the end, they take on most tasks themselves. “There’s a lot to do,” Souk Chay explains, “find locations for concerts; obtain permits and insurance; hire security guards, sound crew, lighting crew; design album covers and posters; etc…everyone had to take a critical role and responsibility.”
Atary created the name “Sounders”, which did not appeal to the band at first. Even when the band members presented their ideas for names, such as Lionheart, Atary remained adamant.
Over time, the band bought into the name, and realized ultimately, as Thai explains, that “the name doesn’t give stardom or life to the band, your actions shape and define the name, and a band is built and defined by the actions of each individual.”
Despite their success, the band has been dealt its share of challenges. When they recorded their first album, they were unprepared, especially after having booked a high-profile recording studio in Hollywood, called Saturn Sound, which Madonna previously used. The band was awestruck and inspired to be walking in the footsteps of a musical legend.
But this was their first time, and it turned out to be a learning experience. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” Souk Chay admits shyly,” we paid for 12 hours, at 200 dollars per hour…but we couldn’t get our equipment to work with the studio.” To top everything, the band did not have a sound engineer.
They regretted wasting a lot of money. After failing to accomplish what they set out to do, they were determined to pick themselves back up and give it another try. The band learned that falling down and failing is difficult, but getting back up and doing it again is harder. “Sometimes we have to fail to discover the inner strength and ability inside each of us to succeed the second time around,” says Thai.
They came back home and reworked themselves, and then finally recorded again. The result left them feeling satisfied and empowered that they created something all their own. “We’re most proud of the first album,” Thai shares, “we did it ourselves with our own hands and will power.”
“Walking amongst greatness [Madonna, Michael Jackson] inspires you to push past the limits of your ability,” he adds.
Their music has inspired a new generation of couples, many of whom fell in love at parties to one of their songs. To them, it is an honor. “We often get requests to play at weddings” says Thai.
Recently, in 2002, Sounders embarked on a two-week trip to Thailand to shoot their video, Vim Koj Daim Duab. At first, they were hesitant because of the immense time and resources needed to get the process and logistics underway. At the last minute, upon arriving in Thailand, the original production crew did not show. They had to find a new production crew.
Yet slowly, with Kwan’s industry connections to Tag Team, G-Gate, and Sony Music, things came together within the span of two to three days, a new crew, the plot line, the actors and actresses. And after shooting the video and arriving back into the United States, they received the final edited video in the mail.
The final result pleased and surprised many fans. A professionally done music video, complete with Thai actors and actresses, a compelling plot line of a pining boyfriend longing for his girlfriend, interspersed with momentary shots of the band members performing in a room with large square windows overlooking the city. “We’re never really ready,” says Souk Chay, “but it just happens.”
While in Thailand, they were struck by all the attention they received. “We felt like superstars,” says Thai, “there were police all around us, people with camcorders, you draw the crowd’s energy and it feeds you.”
“People were shocked that our music was good,” Bee adds, surprisingly that “most people, when we told them we were Hmong, they thought Hmong people only lived in the mountains, they were shocked.”
Message to Youth, On Music and Life
Grasp the moment, don’t let go. “You have a small window of opportunity in your life when you find your true passion,” and when you find it, Thai advises, “don’t step on the brake, just accelerate and go.” In his words, “you have to want it bad enough…there has to be a reason, and if that reason is strong, you’ll come through.”
“When you passionately love to do something, and can’t focus on anything else but that one thing, remember that feeling, that reason, and never forget why you started doing it in the first place.”
Success does not transpire from talent alone. According to the band members, commitment and dedication will push you farther beyond what talent can do alone. Without commitment and dedication, success remains further out of reach, no matter how talented a person may be.
And don’t be afraid to ask for help, or guidance. In fact, Sounders welcome questions, especially from start-up bands who are seeking advice. “We want to help others if they want to learn,” Bee says. He urges the younger generation to persevere, “don’t wait until you are a professional, if you have a dream, keep doing it when you still have the strong drive, push yourself to learn along the way, and you will become who you are.”
Music is built on stepping stones, they believe, but one must also stay focused on the big picture and remember the small reasons why one began in the first place.
It is not over for them. Even after 15 years, the band has no plans of retiring from music any time soon.
With new energy and new music coming down the pipeline, fans can expect to see more from Sounders in 2008. “Our music will now be more honest to who we are,” Souk Chay shares.
They see music as having the unique ability to hold time. Since they are more settled in their lives, the next phase of their work may focus on songs that are more personal and about life’s endeavors.
For Sounders, even though their musical journey will continue into the future, they have created a road map for those who follow. They have a lot to be proud of. A group of Hmong men who simply ventured out with a diehard passion to learn and do music ended up elevating the face of the industry.
Put simply, by Bee, “the best is yet to come.”