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Rắn Cạp Đuôi Collective's Only Rule in Music Is Having No Rule

To write any music interview, my formula is quite simple: start with the story of how they got into music, followed by their critical opinions on the field. There will always be a narrative that the media wants you to believe — be it from the artist or the journalist. But the narrative, or the story, of Rắn Cạp Đuôi Collective doesn’t follow this recipe since the members are … not sure when and how it all began.

This one-minute snippet will convey all you need to know about Rắn Cạp Đuôi's spirit.

But (maybe) this is how they began

Starting with the name, we can go back to 2012, when Đỗ Tấn Sĩ — the group’s founder and bassist — first discovered the term “ouroborous.” It refers to the eternal reincarnation circle, originating from ancient Egypt, portrayed by a snake biting its own tail. Impressed by the concept, Sĩ found the Vietnamese equivalent and used it as the project name. That’s how the name Rắn Cạp Đuôi came to be.

But Rắn Cạp Đuôi (RCD) only really started when Sĩ met Phạm Thế Vũ, the band’s guitarist, in 2014. Back then, both were members of a community for local fans of Coldplay. They met and had their first jam in 2015. A year later, Vũ moved from Hanoi to Saigon to focus on RCD. They met Zach Sch at an exhibition opening and not long after that, Zach officially replaced their former drummer, becoming one of the main producers for RCD.

From left to right: Henry Millest, Trần Duy Hưng, Phạm Thế Vũ, Đỗ Tấn Sĩ, Vương Thiện, Trần Uy Đức, Spencer Nguyễn and Zach Sch.

Rắn Cạp Đuôi has been through a few member reshufflings, though Sĩ, Vũ and Zach remain the group’s core. Under the “collective” umbrella, they can create music under one name while still being able to work on individual projects. At the moment, RCD also features Spencer Nguyễn, a “guitarist who doesn’t play the guitar,” and Trần Uy Đức, a vocalist and special member whom they admitted to “coercing to join.”

The first album "Đẹp Trai Chết Hết."

In 2018, the collective released their first studio album, “Đẹp Trai Chết Hết.” It was RCD’s first attempt to co-write and record their sounds. All songs, each played and recorded in one take, were listed with a description lifted from supposed “reviews” written by foreign music sites — these were probably included for fun since it features a 10/10 from Pitchfork. 2018 was also RCD’s most active year, as they released two other albums, including “Trẻ Em Tồi Tệ.” Recorded in Đà Lạt, that album, according to Sĩ, is the record with the most RCD characteristics including a lot of electro elements. They decided to never play it again, for unclear reasons.

"Occidentis et Inferno," the live album "containing gory music at Yoko Bar" released in 2018.

RCD’s albums consist mainly of noise music with electro, infused with multi-genre sounds, even K-pop. In short, it’s not easy for one to analyze RCD’s music, but one can still connect with their work since the collective tends to use music to express emotions instead of specific messages. “Occidentis et Inferno,” their live performance at Yoko Cafe in 2018, for example, was recorded while footage of forest fires raged on.

Rắn Cạp Đuôi at Nổ Cái Bùm, Đà Lạt, 2022.

Live performances: What makes RCD RCD

But still, emotions are subjective. That goes to say: live performances are what makes RCD RCD. Just like the albums, RCD’s live shows have their own … disorganization. No set list, no intro, no clear-cut start or end. Everything comes together like a conversation in music between members: sometimes talking over each other, sometimes cutting the other off, at times, just downright quarreling.

Nonetheless, once you really listen to the layers of sounds, you'd be surprised to realize that you’re actually enjoying it. One can almost make out the mind of each member through how they communicate with instruments: the leading percussion, smoldering bass, irregular guitar, and sometimes screams from Trần Uy Đức. It’s not easy to break away from the set, not because of the unexpected twists and turns, but because the segues sound too seamless.

Before each show, the band will do a few quick rehearsals, mainly to feel the energy and connect with other players. To them, good improvisation comes from a sense of familiarity with your other players. And within the improvisation, they learn to lean on one another to get to the end. Sometimes, the end is when everyone is tired; other times, the end is actually the beginning of a whole new set (if time allows).

Rắn Cạp Đuôi's full set at Gãy, Saigon, May 2022.

It’s this distinctive individual personality that contributes to RCD’s extraordinary and unpredictable essence, be it as a collective or as separate individuals: Zach with his foundation of classical music, Vũ and his sensitivity toward traditional music, or Sĩ with preferences of contemporary music and indie pop.

Noise music and its listeners

Rắn Cạp Đuôi is probably one of the most well-known Vietnamese noise bands outside of Vietnam. Experimental and noise music is not yet welcomed by many listeners in the country, yet it’s very well-received among avant-garde listeners in Japan, South Korea, Germany and Australia.

“The Pitchfork article mostly just serves to pique the curiosity of Vietnamese listeners. When the article went up, we got a few interviews, and a few new listeners here. But nothing comparable to the kind of coverage one witnesses [happening to other artists]. We’ve been doing this long enough to get used to people walking out mid-show. Vietnam is just not the right market right now, so we don’t really mind.”

Despite the genre’s lack of development potential in the Vietnamese market, Rắn Cạp Đuôi still harbors hope that their persistence will one day be rewarded. Noise music may look simple and sound random, but the challenge lies in the craft of production, and the ability to communicate what the artist really wants to convey. RCD is fully aware of this, and they hope that younger artists will understand this as well.

The end (but not quite)

Because they started young, it’s no doubt that Rắn Cạp Đuôi’s music has changed over time. The most significant shift comes from how they focus on refining the layers of sounds. “Back then we were really short on equipment, so we had to work around it and be more creative. Now with much better tools, our sound quality has massively improved.”

Ten years have gone by, but Rắn Cạp Đuôi doesn’t seem to have any reason to stop. Their music continues to be a journey to contemplate and express their feelings. Maybe that’s why the band doesn't usually play old songs. But, to me, it’s this always-moving-forward outlook that makes their work exciting.

It wasn’t an easy task writing about Rắn Cạp Đuôi. There is always a narrative that the media wants you to believe. But for me, the most interesting story about them would come from someone who’s been through the thicks and thins of their live shows: through sounds, we can witness the growth and development of the collective. As long as they remain on stage, the story goes on.

And when asked about what they had to trade off to keep Rắn Cạp Đuôi alive for 10 years, they all agree:

 I just have to trade my sanity to be with these motherfuckers.


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