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In Điện Điên and Mutant Lounge Radio Shows, a Hidden Universe of Vietnam's Electronic Music

Many moons ago I had the pleasure of encountering Tobias Paramore’s lopsided grin in a dimly lit music event in Hanoi. Originally from Australia, Paramore has been creating electronic music since 2003. Currently based in Đà Nẵng, he arrived in Vietnam in 2016 and threw himself into the eclectic underground of Hanoi’s music scene.

Already making music as the "giant" of indie duo Tiny Giant and the master behind the genre-less solo project Tomes, in 2021 he began two radio shows to introduce some snippets of Vietnam’s electronic underground to the internet. The first project, Điện Điên - Electric Eclectic, features compilations celebrating every facet of the local electronic production, from the darkest of club drops to finger-snappers inspired by J-pop. The second show, Mutant Lounge, gives voice to live electronic artists that push beyond mainstream crowd-pleasers. 

Photo by Bui Linh Ha.

Saigoneer sat down with Toby recently to pick his brain about his projects, thoughts on the local music scene, and hopes for the shows as they grow beyond Vietnam's borders.

Music seems to be integral in all that you do, so I can't quite imagine you before music-making. What brought you to music in the first place?

When I was 15, my sister and I were watching the season finale of Friends on our one and only TV when mum shouted from the other room letting us know that dinner was ready. I jumped up, landing squarely on the TV’s power cord and it crashed to the floor in sparks and fizzles. [After the TV broke] I suddenly found myself with a lot of free time…so I dug out my brother’s old acoustic guitar and started downloading tabs off the internet, endlessly hacking away at pop punk songs. It wasn’t until I was at university studying contemporary music that I moved into electronic production, highlighted by a money-borrowing incident that introduced an MPC into my life. 

You arrived in Hanoi in 2016, what do you remember of the scene back then?

Kimmese and Suboi in the early days of Rec Room.

On my third day in Hanoi, I walked into an early incarnation of Rec Room, in Madake in Tây Hồ, which was hosting the second-ever Mutant Lounge event. The first musicians I met there were Nguyễn Đỗ Minh Quân and Trang Chuối; both have gone on to be hugely influential on the scene through their work — Quân as a pioneering member of the underground dance scene, and Chuối with her genre-blending project Limebócx and bass duties in bands MXM and Windrunner.

WINDRUNNER performing at Rec Room.

I also met Al Hobson and Seb Bo, who were working hard to push their and others’ music forward by creating performance opportunities. So my initial impressions formed from observing those people, all of whom were just going right ahead and trying to do what they believed in. Hanoi felt like it had a lot of drive from every part of the music community, I had the impression that if you wanted to do something all you had to do was start. And at the time there were venues and staff who were very supportive of that — CAMA ATK, Rec Room and DA at Hanoi Rock City in particular. 

I remember coming across a huge variety of different projects from the alternative festival Quest, with DJ Slowz spinning original breaks for crowds of B-boys and -girls, Rebel Monk’s hip-hop block parties, Sirens of Ha Long’s dark-edged pop, just to name a few! 

You got involved with a lot of projects in Vietnam, tell us a bit about the things you got up to?

I’ve been really fortunate to participate in lots of exciting and innovative things since I’ve been in Vietnam, but for me it really started with Rec Room. That project started as a recording/rehearsal space and then later turned into a live music venue and event production team. I joined right before a Quest festival and thanks to the support of that team I ended up running live sound on the main stage. And this was only two months after moving to Hanoi!

It was really eye-opening to get that level of trust and support, and to see the way the Rec team worked so hard to build bridges between communities and provide spaces for anyone that was interested in having events. The space they had — which was actually where Ngot and MXM shot their early music videos — was on the 21st floor of an office block that was dubbed "Creative City" and kind of felt like it shared some DNA with the famed Zone 9. The space hosted every type of music, showcasing the local metal scene and bringing in international metal, hardcore and thrash acts; having day-long psychedelic trance parties; gathering hip-hop and groove-oriented musicians by forming the Hanoi Dub Collective; hosting rap shows with local rising stars; giving a platform to experimental artists; even orchestral ensembles playing cinematic scores.

Inside the Rec Tour bus in 2018. Photo by Doan Khoa.

All this varied exposure and consistency in promoting original music led to a lot of requests from artists for us to record their work. So we pivoted to offer more support for that: capturing, mixing and mastering music from lots of different parts of the scene. The culmination of the whole thing was the Rec Tour, which put 20 bands and artists on a coach and traveled from Hanoi to central Vietnam over the course of three weeks, stopping each day to share music and connect with local communities. 

Tell me more about your two personal projects, Tomes and Tiny Giant.

Tomes is my main project, which was originally born out of a desire to release music. In my work, I try to explore genres and learn, and I’ve come to realize that I have to put things out into the world before I can improve any further. I often hesitate and feel things aren't ready or good enough, but I’ve learned to just put it out anyway. It’s never been a hugely popular project, but it’s been really valuable to me as a way to represent my exploration and my journey through music. Stylistically, there is a kind of thread throughout the releases, but it’s pretty skewed and I’m feeling like making something totally different now as well haha! Genre coherence is not really my cup of tea.

Photo by Bui Linh Ha.

Tiny Giant is a collaboration between me and Linh Ha for Now. We met about five years ago, after Linh Ha had just returned from Europe, listening to all that down-tempo, vibe-farming, Berlin techno stuff. We started from that genre point and managed to create a record and do a release party — all of which was incredible. We’ve toured across Asia, Europe and been to Australia, played festivals, parties, cinemas, bunkers, tourist attractions, shacks, rooftops… just about everywhere really! It’s been a magic experience, and it’s been amazing to see the response across the country. Having Linh Ha as the main performer for the band is really valuable and I’ve often witnessed young Vietnamese women finding inspiration in this strong role model who's quite outside the paradigm of how women in these kinds of roles are often depicted. It’s not exoticized at all, it’s grounded, visceral and raw, and I think there’s enormous importance in showing that there’s more than one way to approach that challenge. 

Tiny Giant. Photo by Simon Medard.

I was super pumped to see you come out with the Điện Điên and Mutant Lounge shows. Why did you start them, and how has it been to see them go out into the world?

I started the shows during lockdown in Hanoi mostly because I didn't have much on and felt pretty exhausted with my own creative work. I was inspired by other peoples’ sounds and got motivated to share some stuff that I thought was cool. Điện Điên was an opportunity to try to demonstrate that production methods can unify a scene rather than create opposition. The only rule was that there had to be some audible electronic elements in the music, but apart from that, any genre goes. I’ve tried to choose as widely as possible because I think there’s great strength in the diversity of the Vietnamese scene.

The first episode of Điện Điên.

The Mutant Lounge project was running for years and had really slowed down. Before lockdown I’d started planning more gatherings in Hanoi but COVID-19 struck and everything was canceled, so I decided I’d try it in a different format and approached a few artists to see if they were interested. Everyone I asked said yes, and only a couple fell through due to scheduling conflicts. I was so touched by the response, it’s amazing to see people’s passion because the show is a huge amount of work for the artists! They devise original material for it, record a performance, record themselves speaking about influential music in their lives and gather tracks of other artists to share also — it’s a lot! And people have done it willingly, spending a lot of time and energy to create something original. It’s been inspiring and makes me excited about what’s next for the scene here. 

What is exciting for you about the electronic music scene in Vietnam?

Rec Room is a community of like-minded music lovers.

The strength of the underground and the insane diversity of styles people are producing is super exciting. There’s a real "traditional," Euro-centric lineage of creators, such as artists Lương Huệ Trinh and Vũ Nhật Tân (may he rest in peace), who blend elements of Vietnamese aesthetics. Then there are crews like Rắn Cạp Đuôi, Mona Evie and Mâu Thuẫn that have no boundaries and are just "crushing" their own textures into whatever vibe or energy they want to explore. Or artists like Dee.F, Quan, or producers featured in the Gãy collective who have this really dark club sound that has echoes of other cultures but, to me, really resonates with the underground dance music scene that’s evolving here. On top of that, there’s a huge number of new producers who are making popular music with slight tinges of heightened aesthetics that are permeating pop around the globe now — slightly heavier 808 basslines, more densely orchestrated auto-tune harmonies and cleverly produced blends of genres that span local tastes and assimilate international styles too. 

This interview has been edited for clarity. You can listen Điện Điên on Tomes’ soundcloud and Mutant Lounge on mixcloud.

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