Chicken feet, bicycle rides, tampon ads and, er, songwriting: the acoustic punk maestro talks about his American Folk Armageddon album as well as his ongoing love affair with Vietnam.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
From budding rock star to the Vagina King of Vietnam… and back to rock star. As Elton John and those animated lions once taught us, kids, that’s the Circle of Life.
Brett Newski is finally back in the U.S. after a stint of living the not-so-glamorous life of an expat in Asia penning tampon jingles and doing voice-over ads for Red Bull. He has shed his band and is going the solo route with his latest, the superb acoustic punk album American Folk Armageddon. Part Frank Turner, part Billy Bragg, the ten songs that make up this record are often witty and always charming.
Newski spoke recently about what caused him to flee the modern conveniences of life in America for a moped and outdoor sleeping in Thailand, going under the knife of a med school dropout and, of course, his brief rein as the King of Vaginas.
BLURT: So let’s start with what brought you to Bangkok in 2011.
BRETT NEWSKI: My band had split; my girlfriend and I had split; I left my job and just bought a one-way ticket to Asia. I’ve always been obsessed with that part of the world; the bizarre Far East. Great food, smiley people, strange smells, organized chaos, sensory overload. With the cost of living being so low, it’s a prime place to write and work on art. All the pressures of the western world go bye-bye and you can finally see the rat race from a third person perspective.
I bought a Chinese Honda motorbike for $100 upon arrival and drove it up the entire country of Vietnam. The seat was literally duct taped on. I went for days without seeing anyone who spoke English. I ate chicken feet, pig eats, cow heart. Would ride my bike along Highway 1 until the sun retreated. Then pull over and sleep in a dusty town I didn’t even know the name of. No phone, no GPS, just dirt and freedom. The cops would pull me over and I’d have to bribe them 10,000 Vietnam Dong ($10) to let me go.
So did you go there with the intention of writing and recording music?
Songwriting was my #2 objective. #1 was escape. Getting a fresh start.
I was playing a bunch of makeshift shows in Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines and Hong Kong. We would throw DIY shows on rooftops, boats, corner cafes, small clubs. I even played a gig in the lobby of a happy ending massage parlor.
After traveling and getting burnt out from being by myself, I moved to Saigon, Vietnam. I had always wanted to live somewhere bizarre and foreign, so Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) seemed like the place. I found work making commercial music for tampon ads at Saatchi & Saatchi. It was like living on Mars you could say. Living in Vietnam is like a good mushroom trip. You see so many astonishing, wacky things; Locals cockfighting roosters in the street, 6-year-old kids herding water buffalo, old dudes taking dumps on the sidewalk.
What prompted the move to Vietnam?
Escapism. I just wanted to get lost and leave everything at home behind. Nothing was working out; my band, relationship with the girlfriend, and my best friend and I had a falling out. I was just being a mopey sad person and needed a change of scene. Distance from the negativity.
How did you hook up with the ad agency?
I went into Saatchi & Saatchi looking for copywriting work, because that’s what I did in the states. Creative director goes, “Hey we don’t need any copywriters but I saw your music Web site and we need music for this tampon ad. Can you do it?” I just said yes and drove my little shitty motorbike across town to a studio the next day and hammered out the music. They liked it, so more tampon ads started coming my way. Then music for other brands too. But tampon ads are my specialty, you know? As of a few months ago, they were still playing in the movie theatres before films, like James Bond and stuff. The creative director once called me “the Vagina King of Vietnam.” I peaked too soon. Now I’m back sleeping on strangers’ floors. The things we do for rock n roll.
Let’s talk tampons. Where do you go for inspiration to write a tampon ad?
You must dig deep into your soul in order to make quality tampon ads. I like to bust out the VCR and watch early Swartzenegger workout tapes, mute the audio, and play guitar left-handed. That usually yields a solid gold musical jingle within a few hours. It’s not hard to find VHS players in Nam. Also, going to the Vietnamese driving range is a good place for creative juices to flow. If the ball picker-upper guy is out on the range, I pretend I’m not aiming for him, but of course I do. We all do. Right after that I’ll usually write a tampon ad.
Any other ad music you wrote while you were there?
Did several voiceovers for Red Bull, Nestle, Laughing Cow cheese. There was a lack of tall gangly white dudes with American accents, so odd jobs came along all the time.
Is there a group of ex-pat American musicians living in Vietnam or were you pretty much it?
There is a strong ex-pat scene in Vietnam. Several Americans, but not an overabundance. The white devil hasn’t fully taken over yet. No McDonalds yet, and Starbucks had only moved in two days before I left. Every expat I met there was a total character with a couple of screws loose. I say that with love. You do have to be halfway fucking crazy to live in Nam.
One time I had a cyst in my leg. My American buddy Sweet Chucky B (who took the photo at the top of this page) had completed half of med school and convinced me he could cut the cyst out. I put my leg in the sink. He started numbing the spot with ice, sterilized it, then started cutting into my leg with a little razorblade. After five minutes he says “sorry dude, it’s too big. We gotta go to the hospital.” He puts me on the back of his bike and we drive five blocks to a very scary hospital. Total chaos, nobody seemed to know what’s going on. They send us to a little dingy back room where a Thai dude in jeans and a white T –shirt says “Hello, I Doctor.” He looked more like a mechanic, but he fixed my leg up and charged me only $8.
Were you releasing the albums you recorded there in the U.S. or Asia? Or did you wait to get back to the States?
I did two albums there, one solo and one band. I toured In Between Exits (solo record) for two years in the US, South Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe.
The songs that made this new record, were most of them written when you were living overseas?
Most of them were written in Vietnam and while on tour in South Africa. I might have retired from music if it weren’t for South Africa. They’ve been massively supportive.
What’s next for you?
Keep chipping away. I’m really starting to understand how to tour relentlessly without killing myself. It’s a grind, but the lows are always followed by big highs. Whenever I have a tough show or I get food poisoning or I miss my bus, I just think “whoever survives the beatings the longest wins,” one of my favorite quotes from South African songwriter Matt Vend.
Anything else you want to cover?
Yes, if you ever go to Vietnam, try chicken feet, its good drunk food.
John B. Moore’s regular BLURT column on all things punk is titled “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.” Get into the pit with him – such as this recent entry or this even more recent entry at your own risk ‘cos he is one tough-ass motherfucker.