Have bass, will play

Phnom Penh’s not-so-new-now ska band, Checkered Past, returns to Cloud on Saturday night.  Band leader Jon Banules sat down with Leng Pleng to talk about the development of the band and his own musical journey.

Jon has been on Phnom Penh stages now for many years, and over time has found himself playing a wide variety of music, mostly on guitar and keyboard – from indie/pop cover bands like The Fumes and Jaworski 7 to the shoegaze noise of Simoun, a little recording with metal band Nightmare AD, and a reggae experience with Vibratone.  “I was lucky to play with Vibratone in the last year or so of their original line up, and Julian  – I think I can speak for a lot of people in that band – he really taught us about reggae.”

Jon in Simoun days

Adaptability has become the key, thanks to some timely advice.  “I played piano a little bit growing up, then just played guitar for many years.  After I’d been in Bangkok for about six years someone said if you want to play in a band you’ve got to play bass or keyboards.  There are so many guitars.  And I think that’s helped more than anything: have keyboard, will play; have bass, will play.  I think that helps a lot in a band to be a little versatile, for whatever sound the band needs.”

Having developed a taste for the off-beat, and being between bands, Jon developed the idea of forming a ska band.  Jams were held, people came and went, songs and ideas were shared.  Eventually the pieces fell into place – with the appearance of experienced ska singer Ariane Parkes and drummer Michael Forster.  “The two people that know about ska in the band, really, are Mike and Ariane,” Jon explains. “They are the band’s ska conscience.”

Still, there is more to a band than just playing.  “I think the biggest thing I bring to the band is that I’m pretty good at organising stuff.  For me it’s work, but it’s not work at all.  When I’m in a band I’m generally not the best musician, I’m not the most talented songwriter, but I can at least facilitate a bunch of creative people trying to get something cool done.”

Along with Jon, Ariane and Mike are Steve on guitar, Veronika on saxophone and Lauren and Sean on trumpets.  The band is working on original material, and the audience can expect more in the gigs to come.  “We’re rolling out two new originals at the next gig, which brings us to three, and we’ve got two more in the forming stage.  Eventually we’ll have a full set of our own stuff, but I can’t see that we’ll abandon covers, because they’re so much fun to play.

Jon on bass in Checkered Past

“When you first play an original, and I want to say: you don’t know this song yet, but give it a chance.  You want the whole band to believe in the song, and for the audience to see that they believe in it.

“Sometimes when I make a ska song I have to ask myself – is this going to pass as ska?  So I strive, with my limited knowledge.  I’ve written songs here and there, but this is the first band in Phnom Penh where I’m actually writing lyrics – and writing lyrics for someone else to sing.   I like that ska has the element of playfulness mixed in with the serious.”

Checkered Past will get seriously playful at Cloud on Saturday 7, from 8 pm.

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