IRISH expat Keith Nolan is one of the hardest working foreign musicians in Bangkok. When he’s not sat at his Hammond electric organ, belting out classic as well as self-penned blues during his band’s weekly gigs at bars around town, then he’s at his home studio writing music for corporate clients. And if he’s not doing that, then he’s out shooting video for two cable TV shows – ‘Keith Nolan’s Access All Areas,’ in which he interviews local and international musicians in Bangkok, and ‘Beyond The Lines,’ which sees him interview the authors behind Bangkok-based noir fiction.
“What can I say, I like keeping busy,” he says with a laugh, when we meet him before a Wednesday night performance at Apoteka, Sukhumvit Soi 11. “And playing blues, my favourite type of music, is always a rich reward after a day spent writing horror and spa music.”
“Home will always be Dublin,” he says. “But I don’t go back that often. And when I do, it’s always freezing cold – a penance to remind me of why I’m here – and people always wonder what’s happened to my accent.”
Thailand’s favourable climate isn’t the only draw to the kingdom. Keith also loves the food – “thoroughly delicious” – and the people – “some of the nicest I’ve met” – but what really has him hooked on Bangkok are the opportunities for growth, both as a musician and an entrepreneur.
“If you want to start a business or create something or develop yourself, Bangkok is really good for that,” he says. “It’s affordable to have a go, to have your dreams come true. I don’t think I would have done, or being able to achieve what I’m doing now, in Ireland.
“You learn more when you travel and meet new people. It propels you, it drives you to new places and you discover a lot along the way. It’s both challenging and enlightening, and very inspiring.”
Just some of the big name clients Keith has created music for over the years include BBC, CNN, Animal Planet, and National Geographic. In Thailand he has supplied the signature music for many five-star spas, worked as a session musician with popular Thai bands such as Silly Fools and Mint, and has proved a dab hand at creating background music for horror movies and shows. “I’m frighteningly good at it,” he jokes. “All that shrieking and ominous tones. I often scare myself.”
“While there are a lot of opportunities in Thailand, and in Asia, doing business here is a challenge and very different to Europe,” he says. “You can’t be under any illusions: nothing happens fast, and you have to work hard. And while the work may appear glamorous, you have to really create your own business, you have to knock on a lot of doors, and people really have to like you if they’re going to work with you. It’s all about developing the right relationships and building the right contacts.”
Keith’s approach to knocking on doors extends to his website and various social media pages, the former of which hosts an online library of relaxing music, funky music, scary music, happy music, and more different genres, which Keith presents to film directors, documentary makers, and other creatives who need music to match their visuals.
And that’s just Keith’s day job. Meet him at night, when he acts as frontman of his band, Keith Nolan’s Love Gone Wrong, or during one of his regular Sunday jamming sessions at Checkinn 99, and you’ll encounter a different musical beast – one who explores the hurt and lessons learned from past failed relationships, via the soul-searching grooves of blues music.
“People often ask where the band’s name comes from,” says Keith, who plays Hammond organ and guitar, “and for that I have my band mates to thank. While I formed the band 12 years ago, we never settled on a particular name, but a few years ago, when I broke up with my ex-girlfriend, the band said: ‘your relationships are just a disaster, we should just call the band Keith Nolan’s Love Gone Wrong,’ and it stuck.
“So we’re still looking for a good blues band name, if you know any,” he laughs.
Keith’s love of blues stems from his childhood, when his dad, a jazz musician, introduced him to artists such as American jazz maestro Jimmy Smith, who helped popularise the Hammond B-3 electric organ (Keith’s favourite instrument), and Irish blues-rock guitar legend Rory Gallagher.
“I’ve played world music, I’ve played funk, I’ve played rock, I’ve sessioned with Thai indie rock bands, and I’ve written songs for pop artists,” says Keith, “but for me I really get so much enjoyment out of playing the blues – it’s very rewarding.
“New Orleans style music with blues piano has a real depth to it and is challenging to play well. I’m still trying to do it well! But when the music starts to groove and swing, and you really get it in the pocket, that’s the best time in a song. It’s always exciting.”
Keith Nolan’s Love Gone Wrong currently plays three nights a week – Wednesdays at Apoteka, Thursdays at Molly Malone’s Irish Pub (Soi Convent), and Fridays at Whisgars (Sukhumvit Soi 23). Alongside the aforementioned Sunday jam, Keith and his band mates also sometimes join other Bangkok-based musicians to play on Sunday nights at Spasso, Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok.
“We’re currently halfway through recording an album which we hope to have out before the end of the year,” says Keith, when asked about the band’s future. “This won’t be a traditional release as such, because we don’t plan to release a CD, but fans will be able to download the tracks from iTunes and Amazon, or purchase a unique flash drive, presented in a nice box, which will also come loaded with videos, photos and information about the band.”
With a new album on the horizon and a global audience to tap into, does this mean Keith hopes to one day emulate the success of his favourite artists such as Freddy King, Taj Mahal, The Allman Brothers Band and Eric Clapton?
He’s far too humble to make claims like that.
“I’m not doing this because I want to be famous,” he says, “I’m doing it simply because I love the blues. I mean, to be able to play music at a few venues in Bangkok, as well as the occasional big concerts on the islands, well that’s just great. I want to document my life here, I want to write songs that strike a chord with people’s emotions. And if my band mates and I can achieve that within our own circles, with the people we really care about, then that’s as good as it gets.”
As for the future of his lucrative day job, as well as his sideline as a TV show host, Keith’s parting shot is equally modest:
“As long as I can continue to sustain myself as a foreigner in Thailand, and continue to establish avenues of business that last a long time, then that’s great. That’s success. I’ve discovered a happy life is possible for foreign musicians in Thailand. It just takes time – and a lot of hard work.”