Snake Eats Tail

“Just give me five more minutes,” pleads Zach Sch of the Rắn Cạp Đuôi collective when we open the door to the studio in Saigon. He’s bent over a scuffed laptop, blasting heavy subs and glitchy samples, making last-minute tweaks to an album he promised was finished several times. “It’s just not ready yet!” He’s almost pulling at his hair. Sch wrote the first song for the album two years ago and finished the rest a year later. “But because I nitpick everything, it took another year of mixing. I’ll send something along and say it’s done, then I’ll immediately change my mind,” he says, stubbing a cigarette in finality now that he’s been coaxed away from the monitors.

The album is done now. Called *1, it was released this week by the Vietnamese underground rave purveyors at Nhạc Gãy, marking their label’s sophomore release. It drifts from airy drones and uplifting ambiance to punishing digital destruction and drum barrages. At one moment it will meditate on the poetry of William Burroughs delivered serenely in Vietnamese, the next it assaults the senses with programming that smashes pulses together in an attempt to create new matter through sheer force. It embraces classical music from around the world, including the sitar-like Hindustani tanpura and the funerary kèn bầu of Vietnam, then collages them with booming rap beats and brutal techno kicks.

“I wanted to make something more accessible than what I usually do,” Sch explains of his motivations behind the album. “Also I got tired of people saying I don’t have talent because it’s inaccessible, so I wanted to prove them wrong. Because I do everything out of spite,” he adds with a sardonic grin. It’s released under the Rắn Cạp Đuôi banner (which translates to “snake bites tail” in reference to the ouroboros of never ending cycles) but he wrote the album in its entirety, splicing in bits and pieces from the crew’s past live sessions and recordings. He joined the collective alongside Lý Trang and Phạm Thế Vũ a year after it was founded by Đỗ Tấn Sĩ.

Sch is very much a part of Vietnam, but he’s a Jewish boy from the US. His dad, fleeing legal problems, brought him to the country 10 years ago at the age of 15. He finished high school through online classes, where he took advanced classes, but still had to take physical education classes in person. The teacher didn’t really speak English, so eventually he got fed up and brought Sch to go drink with his friends instead. “I ended up being friends with these old dudes,” he laughs. “I only started learning Vietnamese in the past few years.” When he turned 19, Sch’s father died and he was left to fend for himself in a foreign country, couch surfing with friends and living with a girlfriend. These days he earns a living making film scores.

Although the album is ostensibly an electronic project, Sch and Rắn Cạp Đuôi don’t DJ and perform as a rock band of sorts, often playing in gallery settings. “Our electronic output happened because I had ideas that we could have explored in a studio, but didn’t have the means to do that, so we turned to the computer instead,” he says. “Now it’s easier to book studio time, but back then it wasn’t an option.” For one show, they played a nonstop 48-hour performance at an art show, and at Boiler Room Ho Chi Minh held at club Khu 13, they performed live on three drum kits simultaneously. Sch also helped to organize the recent Nusasonic festival in the city, bringing together dozens of electronic artists from across Southeast Asia.

The collective sits on the fringes of the country’s burgeoning electronic community but are clearly embraced as a part of the scene. And while the album draws them a bit closer towards the center, it’s about as far as they’re willing budge. “This is the clubbiest and most dancey I’m going to get,” Sch laughs. “Even if this becomes number one, we’re still going to do live, improvised jazz shows.”