BackArts & Culture » Music & Art » Quãng 8 » Mèow Lạc on Growing up in Hanoi Rock City and Giving Voice to Cats

Mèow Lạc on Growing up in Hanoi Rock City and Giving Voice to Cats

Having just finished recording their new album, Mèow Lạc is temporarily taking time apart to focus on individual development so that, when they regroup, fresh ideas can come through.

Mèow Lạc consists of four members: keyboardist Hoàng Phương, Tô Ra on drums, Nguyên Lê the frontman, and Nguyên Vũ on bass. They revealed to Saigoneer that Mèow Lạc is currently a passion project, and to support this passion project, all of the members are working various side-jobs. While Tô Ra teaches drums and Nguyên Vũ teaches bass, Nguyên Lê works his magic behind the scenes at Hanoi Rock City as a sound technician.

"Mèow Lạc" translates to "Lost Cat." When asked how that came to be, Nguyên Lê and the band's manager, Hoàng, who have stuck with the band the longest, both laughed as they reminisced about how it took two months for them to finalize something. They share: “Mèow just means cat, everyone here likes cats. But Lạc can be broken into three meanings.” The first definition is being lost: “I feel like our music often gets lost from one universe to another in the same song, or even the same verse,” Nguyên Lê explains.

The second meaning came from the Sino-Vietnamese word "lạc quan," which means happy. This perfectly encapsulates the band's musical personality: playful and optimistic.

Lastly, "lạc" also means peanut. Though it isn't necessarily deep, this one feels like their personal favorite. “'Peanut' works very well when we want to design a poster or a logo. We can just draw a cat hugging a peanut and that will make Mèow Lạc. It’s a terrible pun, but it works!” they assure.

Music of boundless creativity

Mèow Lạc’s music is youthful, fun, and disruptive. Never committing to a solidly defined genre, they envision an endless creative boundary. “The coolest thing about our music is that it is a mixture of so many genres and influences. While I am heavily influenced by Twenty One Pilots, Nguyên Vũ gears towards funk and fusion; Tô Ra plays all kinds of genres because she has a very strong foundation in music. Lastly, Hoàng Phương fan-boys Jisoo from Blackpink!” Nguyên Lê cheekily shares. In their latest single, 'Hikikomori,' bits of jazz, alternative, and funk were effortlessly combined to portray a buoyant life in quarantine. The lyrics read: “Life is great when you get to be yourself, not having to worry about anybody judging. Life is great when you get to be alone, away from all the drama and flattery.”

Left to right: Tô Ra, Nguyên Vũ, Nguyên Lê, Hoàng Phương

Switching scenes, Mèow Lạc experiments with heavy electronica in 'Nhất quỷ, nhì ma, thứ ba lũ quạ,' a whimsical satire on school life. On the other hand, the romantic, keyboard-heavy track 'Mưa bóng mây' tells the story of a guy being head over heels about a girl. “Our main musical elements are creativity and explosivity. All of our individual influences can be seen in Mèow Lạc's music. Sometimes it may feel like chaos because every instrument seems to be on a different track. But they somehow come together to form the colors of Mèow Lạc. Only these four kids with these four brains can create something like that,” Nguyên Vũ adds.

In storytelling, there are three standard points of view: first-, second-, and third-person. When Nguyên Lê writes music for Mèow Lạc, he always imagines himself in the perspective of a cat. If one looks at the lyrics to each of their songs, every story that Mèow Lạc tells, every adventure that their character embarks on, fits perfectly with the experience of a lost cat. The cat sees "lũ quạ" (the crows), "mưa bóng mây" (the summer rain), and two people dancing under the living room lights. It is both personal and objective at the same time. "I borrow the eyes of a cat to tell objective stories," says Nguyên Lê.

A nest at the rock city

Every band has a “headquarters” — a place where they practice, bond, and find their creative energy. For Mèow Lạc, that is Hanoi Rock City (HRC). Võ Đức Anh, aka chú Đa, the founder of this art & performing space, in particular, has been an important mentor for the band since day one. “If we were asked how the band became what it is today, we would proudly say we grew up at HRC. We have performed on that stage more than anywhere else. We practiced there, ate there, slept there and our album was also recorded in that room. We will forever be in debt to HRC and chú Đa because, without them, there wouldn't be Mèow Lạc,” they share.

“When I first started singing at HRC in 2018, chú Đa gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me ever since. He told me that my singing seems superficial and that I lacked conviction in my lyrics. He said that when I sing, I have to really sing as I mean it, and really sing instead of just performing. There is no such thing as ‘fake it til you make it’ here. The audience can really tell when a performer is not putting their soul into the performance or expressing all of their feelings,” Nguyên Lê adds, “after receiving that advice, I realized that if this was my dream, I need to put 100% of myself into this; and to really sing every note with conviction.”

Beyond the stage, but the four friends always have each other's back in real life, too. To them, finding one another and forming a band was easy, but being able to stick with each other and develop chemistry is the real luck of fate. They began as simply as any other band, making calls, inviting each other to jam sessions, getting iced tea after practices, and giving each other relationship advice. “We all have a common trait: our short temper. So when one of us gets mad, the other three will have to comfort that person. Thus, we take turns being mad,” they laugh.

Telling stories with music

On why they make music, the band opens up: "We write music to say things that are difficult to say. You know the feeling when you have a lot to express but you somehow cannot put it into concise sentences? We chose to express it through music instead. Our music speaks what our words can't. Being able to tell these stories on stage is an indescribable experience; we can't explain how that kind of adrenaline can be so addictive."

When I asked what makes Mèow Lạc stand out at a time when there are so many up-and-coming bands, their answer came as a surprise: “We are just nerds who sit at home making music, then performing what we have created for an audience. We are just simply taking it easy that way, and that is also how we view music. I find it cool because the things we create can’t be found in other bands, but we never think of ourselves in the midst of other people, but rather view ourselves as an individual band that does things they love. Just as simple as that. To really analyze what makes us stand out from other bands is so difficult. The musical world is too wide. Hence, we never liked this question because every time we answer it in the most textbook manner, it leaves us feeling unsettled. A thousand bands can claim that they are unique, but in actuality, they don’t know what it’s like to look at their work objectively. So we are here simply trying to make good music in our own way.”

Next up for Mèow Lạc is the release of their first album, the name of which will soon be revealed. The theme for it is urban spaces and cities viewed through the eyes of a cat, relatable yet quite refreshing. A stray cat will see people strolling on the streets of a summer day, people pondering under the light of their apartment; it will witness a robbery, etc. The musical elements will also be a mixture of what they consider urban cultural influences: pop, jazz, hip hop, rock, and electro.

In the end, Mèow Lạc summarizes their motto as “creating youthful music; music that young people can enjoy, music for young people to dance to, music that puts a smile on your face.” They cannot wait to get back on the stage, to feel the exhilarating energy as the audience chants their name. But most importantly, "simply to have fun with what we do."

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