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Sirens of Ha Long: Facetiousness and Vitriol on Debut EP ‘Rampant Happiness’

Having released Rampant Happiness, their debut EP, only a few weeks ago, and with a string of live shows lined up to debut upcoming music videos, Sirens of Ha Long are on the rise.  

Hailing from the UK, Australia and Hungary, the Hanoi outfit has been delighting audiences for over a year, yet they describe their genre as "international hate pop" and are an act that seem to have achieved success despite themselves. Drummer Richard Strang says they “wouldn’t have even thought about” recording anything if it wasn’t for suggestions from Tobias More, who recorded the album.

They met through work and “did some shit covers,” says bassist Daniel Nyilas, before eventually forming a band. A vital early influence was the increasingly prominent HUB Café. Calum To, lead singer and guitarist, claims that “if it hadn’t been for their dub collective nights” he wouldn’t be playing music at all right now.

When I meet them at a café in Truc Bach, the trio are breezy and carefree, never taking themselves too seriously. If anything, they’re slightly awkward. Although that doesn’t translate at all into their mercurial, accomplished songwriting. On Rampant Happiness, the band shifts effortlessly between incensed noise-rock and gentle, tender affection.

Drinking coffee by Truc Bach Lake.

They are a band with clear influences; somewhere between the incendiary romanticism of The Libertines, the seething vocals of Mark E Smith, Foals’ pop guitar lines and the surly, punk energy of The Pixies, you’ll find Sirens of Ha Long. Yet they’ve managed to carve out a space between these artists that is uniquely their own.

But, first things first – what’s with the name? Calum’s dad is from Hai Phong, does that explain the coastal connection? “You can put that in there!” interjects Calum. “That sounds good. But definitely not. We should’ve said that, that would’ve been a good thing to say.”

So are they referring to police sirens, or sea creatures singing them to shipwreck? “Ah, well that was it wasn’t it? Or both! Because it should be Sirens of Hanoi right, and then it would be the sirens we all have to put up with. If we put Ha Long then it’s a silly name, because it could be either.”

This wry humor of theirs is a recurring theme. On the front cover of their new EP is a shot of Calum’s fiancée as a young girl, standing in a white dress before Hoan Kiem Lake’s famous red bridge. Her face is, at best, downbeat – like a drunk who’s lost a bet. The name Rampant Happiness just seemed to make sense.

Though his dad is from Vietnam, Calum was born and raised in Manchester. Similarities to The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, however, are more than a Mancunian echo. Calum’s sing-slurred vocals, peppered with contempt, are part of the appeal. "Evidently, I can’t sing" he rambles on opener ‘Existential Eroticism,’ which they describe as a Bob Dylan-inspired country tune, with The Strokes drums.

It’s then one giant leap into ‘Astronaut,’ a song that grew organically out of jam sessions but which, ultimately, they wrote “in like half an hour.” “Hey Mr Disco, play that disco beat,” Calum drawls, in a tone suggesting anything other than disco. Yet the tempo is far more dance-inspired than anything else on the EP. Mid-way through the track Calum rips into a guitar solo, which marks the most cathartic point on the entire recording.

Noisy, guitar-driven ‘Chip Butty’ is easily the most Manchester-focused track. "Gonna go on the telly, and talk about, how hard me fucking life is" bellows Calum. He says the song is about being in his hometown and feeling blue, but all you have to do is “shut up and have a chip butty.” Or as he translates at the end – “bánh mì... khoai tây chiên.”

Low-slung ‘Pizza Box’, on the other hand, is like a languid day in Hanoi, albeit one imbued with expectation. “I fell off my motorbike today. Felt good, lying on the ground,” Calum murmurs. It’s also the most reminiscent of Foals, particularly songs like ‘Blue Blood’ or ‘Spanish Sahara’ that so adroitly build up suspense before a climactic breakdown.

Chaos and precision co-exist in their music, which hinges on the sense that, at any moment, the performance might all fall apart. “It’s always on the verge of collapsing” claims Strang. The threat of which may well keep them sane, with the band admitting it gets dull playing the same song over and over again. Some tracks, like ‘Pizza Box’, are in constant flux. Even the video they made for it is different from the version on the album.

I ask Calum if he’s interested in singing in Vietnamese, and he explains how that can be problematic: “I could say a sentence and someone would understand it. But you sing it, and there are no tones. Some of the Vietnamese at Hub are like ‘I know he’s saying something kind of in Vietnamese but I have no idea what he’s saying.’”

I catch up with them later as they headline a night at Sidewalk while debuting a newly-made music video. Calum asks a mainly seated audience to come closer to the stage before opener ‘Wacky Racers,’ and laughs as even his fiancée and sister stay on their seats.

Three songs deep into the evening, it’s a different story. During ‘Astronaut,’ there’s a countdown to a blast-off, but it might as well be a ticking bomb. Come zero, they explode, and Calum’s thrashing guitar solo hits the crowd in rapid bursts, his front man persona luring the few remaining seated revelers to the dance floor.

It’s increasingly clear how much is owed to their live chemistry. Later in their set, the band slows down for crowd favorite ‘Far East,’ which provides a more downtempo highlight. There’s also more singing in Vietnamese, which audience members may or may not understand.

The ‘International hate pop’ tag finally starts to make sense at the gig, too. Lyrics from ‘Rainbows and Unicorns’, along with their droll news anchor video, are cutting: “Dickheads, left and right. Now listen – your music’s shite,” grumbles Calum, followed by “people, always in my way… don’t care what you say.”

Finally, after ten songs and an encore, they wind down to elated applause. I chat with Calum after the show and, despite him saying "fucking sellouts, that’s how I’d review this gig” during one of the last songs, he seems pleased with their set.

Buried beneath their facetiousness, however, lies a realness. With so many Hanoi bands releasing music recently and with more collaborations than there has been in some time, he says it’s an exciting time to play music in Hanoi. “There’s been good bands for a while, but it’s gathering pace at the moment.” Then, he repeats simply, “there’s a sense that something is really starting to happen here.”


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