Garuda Album Interview with Mark Chattaway

Garuda is the highly-anticipated debut release of celebrated Cambodian fusion band The Kampot Playboys. Since 2011, the group founded by bassist Mark Chattaway and vocalist/guitarist Uk Chiet have played on a regular basis in their hometown of Kampot – often at Chiet’s bars Banyan Tree and Madi Bar – as well as several trips to Phnom Penh each year to play venues Duplex and Oscar’s and appear at events such as the Golden Street Festival. The arrival of the eleven-track album Garuda – set to be released next week – comes at an auspicious time, as the Playboys prepare for their first ever international appearance as part of the ‘Angkor Encore’ festival line-up for the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore. Go Playboys!

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Garuda – recorded last year at 60 Road Studios in Siem Reap – is a strong debut which successfully translates the unique live sound of the Kampot Playboys to disc. As Leng Pleng found out when we called Mark Chattaway this week, the traditional ‘Khmer Violin’ instrument – ‘Tro’ – has simply never been employed in this way before! The spicy Kampot Playboys soup is further distinguished by layers of rock guitars and folky accordion, a funky, dance-oriented rhythm section, and atmospheric, near-modal arrangements of forgotten Khmer rock songs. As with all the best music of Cambodian origin, listening to Garuda transports you to a rural rice paddy on a smoke-filled night, sweltering in heat under a palm sugar tree, drinking some boozy home-brewed concoction and swaying along, giving yourself up to the music. You can’t understand the words but you get the meaning.

The album begins in classic Playboys style with a lone bass riff and some catcalls by lead vocalist Uk Chiet, building up with chunky guitar riffs and drums before the tro brings in the main melody. At thirty seconds, the famous Kampot Playboys wall of sound has been established and the tone of the album has been set.

Lead singer Chiet performing at the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival, 2016. Pic : Steve Porte

Hi Mark! Chiet’s vocals on the album have been recorded quite ‘dry’, without a lot of effects and retaining all the asides and shouts you would expect to hear at a live Playboys show. Was it important to the band to keep a ‘live’ sound for Garuda?

The way Chiet recorded the vocals was amazing. He could do it in one take, he was incredible he just turned up and did it. We were like ‘take a break, have a smoke’ but he just wanted to keep going. All one take, raw. We could have just used the first take but we said, record one or two more, just to be safe. The way he sings is totally live and you never get the same performance twice, with all the James Brown-type noises and shouts. There was one that sounded like a cow… we got rid of that. To embarrass him we put a collection of his ‘oooos’ and noises on one track and played it to him.

Mixing engineer Jason Shaw told me, the vocals were the hardest part to get right, he spent the longest time on the vocals. Not too much effects, no autocorrect tuning or playing around.

When I met Chiet it was funny, he was playing these songs in the Madi Bar, early on. It kind of makes me laugh but he has been compared to a ‘Khmer Eddie Vedder’.

(l-r) Lee, Nget, Chiet, Mark and Kev at Diamond Moon. Pic: Steve Porte

The five permanent band members of The Kampot Playboys are lead vocalist and guitarist Uk Sochiet, Tro player Vy Nget, accordionist Kev Selby, drummer Lee Chapman, and myself on bass. Conrad Keely […Trail of Dead] also played guitar on this album. The sessions were recorded with audio engineer Steve Bloxham at 60 Road Studios in Siem Reap, we were there for one week in May 2017. We basically recorded eleven songs, there are no songs that didn’t make the album. We initially thought we might only have time for 4-5 tracks, but we made a decision – while we’re here, let’s do eleven tracks!

Chiet and I started the band in 2011. This line up has been playing together for three years. Is the band a democracy? Yes its democratic with me as a dictator [laughs] – joking – we make decisions together, we discuss what would be best. Same with the album tracklisting.

The playing on the album sounds tight as hell. But not sequenced to a grid or over-produced like most albums these days. ‘Black Coffee’, in particular, has a hard and gritty guitar sound – almost punk.

We recorded it all live together, drums and bass are live, we overdubbed tro, vocals,  accordion. Conrad and Chiet recorded the guitars together at the same time, fed off each other quite well. They both have such a different style. Chiet has a more relaxed rhythm, he locks in with Lee. Conrad is more energetic. They bounce off each other. They were changing amps, Orange, Marshall, Fender… changing sounds trying out different things. At one point they were playing through two different amps each, at the same time.

Mixing engineer Jason Shaw was there at the beginning of the project [before the recording sessions began], he gave us a lot of advice… which mics which amps to use, which we listened to. We didn’t actually contact him again until the end of the project [for the final mixing/mastering stage].

Nget ripping up the tro like its never been ripped before. Again. Kampot, 2017. Pic: Steve Porte.

Next to (obviously) the lead vocals, the tro is the most featured instrument on the album. There is some particularly fine tro-shredding on tracks ‘Phnom Penh’ and ‘Black Hair’. In fact, it would be difficult to imagine the Playboys without Mr ‘Flying Tro’ Vy Nget. Can you tell us how you first hooked up with Nget?

Initially we got a tro in from the mini Khmer orchestra who used to back up The Playboys. We have a good working relationship with the Khmer Cultural Development Institute in Kampot. Chiet’s uncle, mum worked there. He spoke to some of his friends there so we played different traditional instruments a couple of times. I really liked it. Some instruments worked better than others… the tro worked on all of the songs. We used to have ‘roneat’ [‘Khmer xylophone’] and tro, then downsized to just tro. Justin [former Playboy] Ringsack on trumpet with tro was enough. The trumpet taking the lead licks, intros and then for solos taking it in turns. The tro wasn’t a lead instrument. Then when Justin left we had no lead instrument. I said to Chiet, I think the tro can do it… he said it’s never been done before the tro doesn’t normally play lead lines.

We had a different tro player [at that time]. We had this one gig and the tro player couldn’t make it. Nget played the gig as his replacement and blew the other guy out of the water! Then the original guy had to move to Phnom Penh so we were stuck with Nget!

We gave Nget a lot of freedom… okay, play what you want. After doing that a couple of times, he knew what to do. Now we’re writing original songs, he gets me and Chiet humming, scatting the lines to him, then he goes away and works out his parts. Back in 2013, when Nget joined… even he didn’t know he could do that! The solos in these songs had always been played with organ or electric guitar. I had to show him, lead him through it. He had to release the traditional shackles first, then when he got it he just took off!

Accordionist Kev Selby and bassist Mark play in a self-styled ‘convict folk’ group called ‘When The Tide Turns’. Pic: Steve Porte

The blend of tro and accordion is great on the track ‘Row The Boat’. Have you guys ever played the ‘
Rhymes on The River
’ boat cruise event in Kampot? How did the Playboys hook up with accordionist Kev Selby ?

Yes, Chiet and I played that boat twice. Kev’s dream is to get a sailboat and piss off! Kev came in to the story just before [drummer] Lee joined. The band was going through a few struggles with two major players leaving – trumpeter Justin then drummer Ben – I’d been away for a couple of months. The band wasn’t really happening. We said ‘we need to make some changes’. I always felt before… the band was just a four-piece, the sound needed filling out a bit. We were friends with Kev, he came to gigs. He would always wear a fedora hat,  nice shirt, nice motorbike… ‘that guy should be in a band!’. We said look, if you want to stand in on a couple of gigs… Kev said ‘yeh why not mate’ [affects heavy Australian accent].

He sat in just for a couple of gigs, then became a permanent fixture. We call the accordion the ‘dirty organ’… ‘Kev’s dirty organ’ that was Conrad’s joke. But he’s not just a dirty organ anymore! The accordion is not necessarily at the front of the stage but its filling out the sound… like a keyboard in a heavy metal band.

British drummer Lee with his trademark ‘hi-hat stare’. Pic: Steve Porte.

‘Don’t Hate Me’ opens with a strong drum break, it’s almost… Khmer Disco! Lee Chapman is a tasty drummer! What is his background in the UK?

As Joe Strummer said, you’re only as good as your drummer. Lee is solid. One of the only drummers i’ve ever played with that writes his part – he plays it the same way every time. If he f-ked up one drum fill on Garuda, he wouldn’t be happy. He would need to do it again. You wouldn’t know but to him it’s not the drum fill he wanted to do.

Lee was a pro drummer in the U.K., played with Headnoise (funk rap metal band) managed by Bruce Foxton (of The Jam), toured with Reef and Stiff Little Fingers. The Playboys hooked up with Lee in Kampot when the original drummer, Ben, left to go back to Europe. We also used to have a Cambodian drummer who was very good but also played in wedding bands so was not available a lot of the time.

Lee is a loud, hard drummer, as soon as we started playing together I knew this was someone I could stand out in front of, have total confidence in.

Band of Brothers: Bassists and drummers need to rely on each other: bassist Mark and drummer Lee putting it out there at The Diamond Moon Festival, Phnom Penh, 2017. Pic: Steve Porte.

How about you Mark, what are your own musical influences?

I’m from Lincoln in the U.K. Growing up, there was always music in the house. My Dad liked R’n’B, jazz, my mum liked 60’s rock and pop: Van Morrison, Beatles, Neil Young. Growing up in the 80’s, I’m a big fan of 80’s music. As a teenager, grunge and hard rock bands: Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam. I also love 70’s punk rock.

‘Youth’ and ‘Riverflow’ are the two original songs on this album. ‘Youth’ sounds a little different from the other tracks, a more layered sound.

There are more layers of of vocals on ‘Youth’, but the recording process was the same as other tracks. We played it live. The lyrics are about young people: be a good child.

What will be happening for the launch of Garuda?

Friday 1st June, we’ll be at 60 Road Studios in Siem Reap, playing a couple of songs live and having a listening party for the album, meeting the press. In the evening we’ll play a full set at Laundry Bar. People will be able to buy the album at a discount. Saturday 2nd June: Duplex in Phnom Penh.

We like Duplex as the venue opens out onto the street… tuk-tuk drivers, people walking past – we’ve had some really good shows at Duplex and [owner] Geert has always been really supportive. It made sense to have our launch party there. Same for Laundry Bar  in Siem Reap: free entry, easy access to the street, people can check out what’s going on.

You’re going to Singapore on Friday for your first ever gig outside Cambodia! That’s fantastic. Can you tell us about a highlight of the Playboys live career thus far?

Yes, we are going to play on Saturday outside the Singapore Asian Civilisations Museum. There is an event there for Khmer arts, Khmer sculpture, Cambodian performing arts.

For us, we always used to like playing at Madi Bar [in Kampot]. It was intimate. The best memories are how you started out. A few years later playing at Golden Street Festival in Phnom Penh, that was fantastic – the size of the crowd, the reaction we got was really special. Our band feeds off the crowd, if the crowd are energetic and up for it… it’s a circle. The more energy we get from the crowd the more we give… it just keeps going.

Watching Chiet now as a performer.. he is not phased by the larger crowds. As Chiet would say ‘music is an international language, music brings people together, man!’

Garuda, it’s fair to say, has been a long time coming! How do you feel about it now it’s about to be released?

It’s weird really but now it’s actually happening… I just hope people like it. We’ve had so much support… I hope people enjoy it, want to hear more. Another recording would be nice…

Our main worry when recording was that we would end up something that does not sound like us. Steve did a really good job with the actual recording, Jason did a brilliant job with the mixing. We’re happy with the final result!

Chattaway blazing on bass at the Diamond Moon. Pic: Steve Porte

Thanks so much for your time Mark, and we’ll see you at the launch party next week!

Listen to and download The Kampot Playboys debut album Garuda via the usual online sources.

LENG PLENG

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