Soy Cowboy's decision to bill itself as "not just another Thai-Western band" provides the first clue that its unique approach to East-meets-West is somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
The band, which performs tonight in San Juan Capistrano, is composed of five rock musicians who are supported by three Thai female backup vocalists who sing alternately in English and Thai.
The group originally came together for a single studio session, but once the band's recording started getting radio airplay, the public wanted more. So the members decided to deliver, even if it meant formulating the group's polyglot concept as they went along.
The band's primary appeal seems to come from its inability to take itself seriously, even after an album, a video and a string of performances in some of L.A.'s top clubs.
The group is the result of keyboardist Vince Nicoletti's passion for Thai music and the sensual female club singers he saw while vacationing in Thailand in 1988. He returned to the United States determined to incorporate both into a future musical project.
In less than a year, Nicoletti assembled former Motels drummer Brian Glascock, bassist Tim Long and others into the studio to record a version of the cowboy classic "I'm an Old Cowhand From the Rio Grande" backed by a trio of Thai female vocalists. Joe Romersa, a drummer and sound engineer, was brought in for technical assistance but ended up singing lead while Nicoletti performed on keyboards.
The resulting tape fell into the hands deejay Tom Schnabel of KCRW-FM (89.9), who started playing it on his show.
"Next thing I knew, Vince (Nicoletti) was telling me about Schnabel's invitation for the band to give a live performance on his show," Romersa said. "I had to remind him that there was no band."
Nicoletti succeeded in rounding up the participants again, not just for a radio show, but for a video as well. The video was directed by Tersam Dandwhar, then a film student in search of a subject for his senior project. After hearing the KCRW performance, he decided that the group was worth a visual experiment.
Dandwhar, who won an MTV award in 1991 for directing REM's "Losing My Religion" video, succeeded in persuading skeptical band members of the group's viability.
"It wasn't until I saw the video that I really began to realize that we had something special," Romersa said. "We fell into the world-music niche, and people started describing us as the embodiment of the Los Angeles-Pacific Rim era. We're still not sure what to make of it."
Nicoletti began composing original material for the band, drawing on his rock roots and recent exposure to Thai music. But the group still relies heavily on covers of songs such as the Rolling Stones' "Paint It, Black," with the women chanting the original recording's sitar part in Thai.
In 1991 the band was signed by a small British record company that released Soy Cowboy's debut album, which includes eight original songs, most composed by Nicoletti.
He admits there's not yet a strong element of Thai music in the group's basic rock and country sound.
"We took a gradual approach to the Thai sound," Nicoletti said. "But I think our next project will be different."
KCRW music director Chris Douridas, host and producer of the station's "Morning Becomes Eclectic," said Romersa's "raspy dust bowl of a voice with a slight sneer in it" sounds surprisingly good when paired with the women's high-pitched, singsong voices. "The call-and-response between them and Romersa is startling but fascinating," Douridas said.
Backup singer Prinya Kusupholnand, says the group appeals to younger Thai immigrants who grew up listening to American rock 'n' roll in their homeland.
"We have always liked rock and accepted the American influence on our music. But no one has ever shown much interest in learning about us," said Kusupholnand, who came to the United States 10 years ago, when she was 15.
Kusupholnand and her Thai counterparts are still not sure what all the fuss is about. "We just do this because it's fun," she added.
The group will be short one backup singer during its San Juan performance: Nakunwadee (Ann) Suksamran returned to Thailand and has not been replaced. The rest of the band will be there in full force, including Nicoletti, Glascock, Long, Romersa, guitarist Wade Charles XXIII and backup vocalists Kusupholnand and Sarah Sihaman.
Romersa will don his customary 10-gallon hat and black duster and cavort aikido-style on stage for his role as lead singer and front man.
Is Soy Cowboy a parody on multiculturalism, or are they just musical mee krob ? Before that question gets an authoritative answer, the band might mutate into still another form.
"I wouldn't mind adding some African influence," Romersa said. He's not sure how that would sit with Nicoletti, who just returned from a monthlong foray into the night life of backwoods Thailand.
"The country has an incredible musical culture that I want others to experience," Nicoletti said. "Outside of Bangkok, I can't think of a better place to attempt this than Southern California, where so many Thai immigrants mix with Western culture."
* Soy Cowboy will perform tonight at 7 and 9 at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library courtyard, 31495 El Camino Real, San Juan Capistrano. Outdoor seating is limited , and concert-goers may take their own lawn chairs. $3 donation. (714) 493-1752.