It’s a terribly humid October morning in Mumbai by any standards, at over 34 degrees, and half of Phum Viphurit’s band looks knackered or is asleep before soundcheck at 10 AM. Just coming off a long run of shows in North America, their body clocks are still adjusting and the glitch-ridden soundcheck in the heat that follows is a mere roadblock in their schedule. Later in the day, Phum Viphurit—one of Asia’s breakout musicians for 2019 and perhaps Thailand’s first indie pop star—will take the stage at Neon East Fest, Mumbai’s newest boutique music festival, set in the concrete jungle of Bandra Kurla Complex. Headlined by Swedish indie legends Little Dragon, the festival saw the likes of Mura Masa, Andre Power (of Soulection), and local heroes LIFAFA and Zokhuma take the stage over its two-day spread.
It’s fair to say that while 24-year-old Phum Viphurit has found success on American and Thai shores, he’s just about beginning to make his presence felt elsewhere. India welcomed the surf-pop-rocker with a strong showing of fans for his relatively early set, staying back for interactions, hugs and excessive selfies—each of which Viphurit handled with unfettered calm and kindness. “It’s just something I need to do, and the only chance I get to meet and interact with fans,” he tells VICE backstage shortly after that, glistening with sweat from their too-short but highly engaging 45-minute run of songs.
Viphurit’s songs are easy-listening ear-pleasers for sunny afternoons but what sets him apart from other surf rockers are his roots. Growing up in a Thai household in New Zealand, consuming American pop culture on television, while studying in a British schooling system. Much of this combination is common across kids in South East Asia, which not only makes Viphurit relatable, but also accepted in a big way back home as well, constantly being reminded of his heritage. Asian singer-songwriters, much like their Indian counterparts finding their unique voice by way of accents, are gaining popularity as Asian representation is on the rise globally.
“I think I’m made the most aware [of my nationality] when I play at home, in Thailand. It’s kind of funny; the first song of mine that went international is called “Long Gone”. I released it, thinking that yeah, this is the song that’s the most ‘me’ song that I’ve ever written. I released it in Thailand, and it didn’t go anywhere,” he says. “Then it went onto Reddit, and those indie blogs and people started talking, and then suddenly, I was touring internationally. Then, “Lover Boy” came and that was the one which Thai people picked up. There was a video of me playing [it] in Korea, and people there were going crazy [to the song] while people [back home] were like ‘hey, he’s famous in Korea’.” After this, bookings poured in from Thailand but Viphurit finds it weird that he is still reminded every now and then of the idea that he is representing those back home.
“I am proud because globally, for someone to be Thai and doing things their way, is not the norm,” he says after some rumination where asked about identity and its place in music. “But I really hope that in the future, people stop pinpointing where people are from. It’s irrelevant to what the artist is trying to do. Unless it’s their intent of course, but it’s not mine.”
For Viphurit, fame came all too quickly, gaining success with a couple of breakout singles and music videos. But before fame caught on, music was a hobby for him that kept him engaged. “But once you gain that recognition, you get hooked. It kinda fucks with your head, and to be honest, you at the start just do it because you do it. But now there’s a reaction and once you have an audience, there’s an expectation. I went a bit mad earlier this year because I thought so much. I would think that because I had already made an impression, I’d always be compared to that. But hitting that first million was surreal. It still is.”
He’s quick to follow it up with clarifying that he doesn’t care much for numbers, “not just in a cool artist way,” but because it can interfere with the creative process.
“The physical health you can regenerate, but mental health… if you go down a bad path, it’s something hard to come back from. So you just gotta stick to the right people and surround yourself with people who are genuine.”
After the release of a full-length album and an EP within a year, Viphurit hopes to take a break over the next couple of months. “I’ve never forced myself to sit down and write a song about something that’s never happened to me, so I guess what’s next for me is to just live as a 24-year-old. As one should,” he says, almost sounding tired from a run of successes that he didn’t see coming. “With all this fame, you kind of get stuck in this hyper-reality. I used to reply to everybody when my songs first went out, but I want to shut that down for a little bit, travel back to New Zealand, take some time out for myself. I would love for my next work to be a full-length album and [something that] defines all that I’ve lived, and soak it in.”
Viphurit’s current music reeks of kindness, a quality hard to miss when you meet him. In the future, one hopes that his music will be peppered with his experiences of growing up, touring the world and coming of age, addressing his identity and internal thoughts. As a parting note, we ask Viphurit what he made of fans mistaking his “I wrote this riff for you” lyric to be “I rolled this spliff for you,” and he says “Well, it’s the same thing, isn’t it? Both are a true expression of your love.”