Krom is a celebrated Phnom Penh-based band with an artistic commitment to creating original and challenging new Cambodian music. The cross-cultural group of musicians is comprised of Australians Christopher Minko and Jimmy B, and Cambodians Sophea Chamroeun, Sopheak Chamroeun and Mao Sokleap. Together with lead singer Sophea, guitar player Christopher Minko composes the songs of Krom – which often deal with issues of drug abuse, human trafficking and themes of the ‘Asian Noir’.
The self-styled ‘elusive, exclusive and reclusive’ Krom are currently looking forward to recording their fourth studio album, organising tours in both the U.S.A. and Australia and their very next gig at Jazz Club Phnom Penh this coming Saturday the 4th March, 2017. Christopher Minko took time out from a Krom rehearsal session this week to tell Leng Pleng more about the unique, uncompromising and extremely creative world of Krom.
Hi Chris, a lot of people are looking forward to the gig at Jazz Club this Saturday – what’s on the set list and do you have any special guests joining you?
We have Colin Grafton joining us for six or seven songs on the mouth harp. The mouth harp is ideal for this combination of instruments: slide guitar and delta blues picking.
Sebastien [Adnot – upright bass] will be joining us for the last song. It has become a tradition with Krom to finish with our song ‘Cambodia’ which is a bit of an anthem for the band.
Mao [Sokleap] will be alternating between bass guitar and keyboards
We’ll be playing quite a lot of songs from the latest album, ‘Mekong Delta Blues’. We are also going to pull out few classics.
We may be doing a live stream – I am fairly ignorant about I.T. – I’m concerned about the quality of live streaming broadcasts I have seen elsewhere. We will run a test on Friday. We hope to be able to broadcast the gig to the Khmer diaspora in Long Beach [California] – there is already a breakfast event planned over there where people will meet up to watch Krom play!
Krom are one of the very few Cambodian-based bands to break out into the international market. Any plans on the international scene in 2017?
We are very aware that Krom is a niche market. To break through internationally is a very hard task. We’ve been working on that step by step.
A lot of people said to me: you can’t have Khmer language songs out there [in the international market]. I said that is bullshit. Once we had the first album, [those opinions] changed. It doesn’t matter about the language because the voice is so beautiful and interesting … that’s what gets you.
We are working on forthcoming tours at the moment in both Australia and the U.S.A. We always have to remember that the core objective for Krom is to walk out into the international market, to showcase the amazing talent of sisters Sophea and Sopheak. The band is meant as that vehicle.
We have strong links with the Cambodian diaspora in America. Sophea [Chamrouen] has been going over to the U.S.A. to perform – Khmer pop songs and actually a few Krom songs too. We have given her backing tracks to take with her.
The first cab off the rank could be the Australian tour – late 2017/early 2018. We will be linking with the Khmer diaspora in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.
Krom have now parted ways with your former U.S.-based label, Musik and Film?
Yes. After lengthy negotiations we have now successfully managed to break the relationship – in an amicable way. We are now working closely with a new partner in the USA whom I can’t name but things are going very very well.
Krom is going to be played on [a major radio station] in Chicago. Driving along to the breakfast show you will hear Krom!
Our new label is called Mekong Sessions.
We are already working on the website and the next album – entitled ‘Hunger’. To be released in 2017 or early 2018.
The band has produced three studio albums of extremely creative and original music. How does a Krom record come together?
Our bass player Mao has his own private studio and we work together there.
The way we work is that I will lay down one or two guitars as the core foundation. I put that on a memory stick and give it to Sophea. I don’t hum her a melody, I don’t give her a title – nothing. This the action that creates the unique sound behind Krom. There is no influence on what she will come up with. Then she comes back to me later with another memory stick with her vocals on it. I whizz back home to listen and every single time I go wow! …She is creating those melodies by herself, along with the lyrics.
Then the guys will come in and lay down the secondary instruments. A solo on slide guitar or Mao on keyboards.
What we did with Mekong Delta Blues was send the tracks [we recorded] to Jay Mayberry who did the mix and master for us. We will certainly do this for the fourth album also. We were extremely happy with the sound that he achieved. I think he created a magnificent sound for Sophea’s voice – it really comes out.
As you know, I’ve worked with quite a few bands… Krom is the most professionally cohesive. For example, at rehearsal, everyone walks in and literally two hours later we’ve lifted our heads [for the first time]. Krom is a family.
Why is the band performing exclusively at Jazz Club in Phnom Penh ? You must be turning down a lot of gigs?
Krom’s music is best heard and best performed in a listening format. This is the way we like to present it. The audience is able to hear the subtleties. It is quite hard to find that [environment] here in Phnom Penh. We did do gigs in a few bars a couple of years ago but we decided that we didn’t want to compete with the beer drinking audience. We are working quite hard with Sebastien [Adnot – co-owner of Jazz Club Phnom Penh] to ensure sound quality. Also, we have a minimum price for the band – we offer a very high quality act at a high price. We won’t drop below it.
The recent video for ‘Lil Suzie’ was amazing. How did that come about?
A remarkable story. Sophea referred me to a guy called Chean Long – a Khmer American who has been living back here for a good ten years. He grew up or was born in [refugee] camps in Thailand. I gave him the song Lil Suzie and within a few days he had come back with a full storyboard. It was Long who came up with all the ideas. He filmed it all himself – just him and a camera! From start to finish it took ten days.
We have had absolutely fantastic feedback on the video. It is actually being used in indigenous communities in northern Australia to [highlight the dangers of meta amphetamine abuse]. [It may also be] used in schools in the state of Georgia in the USA. At this point in time it’s the highest number of views we have received for one video.
Is Krom a full time job for you?
For me it’s a full time job. I always make sure I practice between three to four hours religiously every day – that’s what delta blues [guitar] picking requires. We’re also working hard on the new partnership in America. We rehearse twice per week – usually 2-3 hours – tearing up the songs and putting in new arrangements.
I’m 60. There’s a lot of music inside me that wants to come out. I made a decision a few years ago to move away from the NGO work and focus on music full time.
Sokleab puts in a lot of work in Krom. Sophea has her work at Cambodian Living Arts and at the university. She also sings in Smiley band – a great hot band performing lots of Sinn Sisamouth songs. High energy Khmer pop. They tend to play often on television – CTN and quite a few other stations. I hope that Krom can perform with Smiley band soon.
Thanks a lot for your time Chris, and looking forward to the gig at Jazz Club on Saturday!