New from Battered Hat Creations this week is Around the Traps, a collection of interviews and writings about music in Phnom Penh in 2019 by Scott Bywater, pieces originally published in the Khmer Times and Leng Pleng. You can pick up copies from Garage Bar, Cloud, Oscar’s on the Corner and, indeed, around the traps – email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your copy. Over 40 interviews with the people out there making music – it’s yours for only $8, and if you’ve contributed or been featured it’s discounted to $5 (for multiple copies – you know your mum wants to have one too).
As a sample, here’s some of Scott’s favourite quotes from the year in music.
“[Original Vibratone member] Benoit heard me at Memphis, and he came up and asked me would I like to join a reggae band? And I said I really don’t know reggae, but why not? Let’s try. At that point I had been singing for Memphis for years, but when you do the same songs for so long after a while you can do it in your sleep.”
“Without blues you won’t have rock’n’roll, you won’t have punk, you won’t have metal. It’s the blues that brought us together, without it I don’t think we’d be playing anything together.”
“My first instrument was the accordion, kind of the national instrument of Slovenia – my grandfather and my father both wanted me to play it. So I did it six years of accordion, but I always wanted to be a guitarist, ever since I was a kid, when I saw my first rock video, a heavy metal guitarist with long hair, I thought: I want to do that.”
“I first discovered Kampot Radio when I came to Cambodia to play the 2017 Kampot Readers and Writers Festival. I didn’t know when or where I’d play. I got thrown on last minute – ‘don’t worry, it’s Cambodia’ time – and just before I walked on stage I was told in a thick Manchester accent, ‘Okay, you’re going live to radio!’ Beautiful chaos. I’ve been a fan ever since.”
“I was doing a jazz gig, and after I finished my second song there was a little three year old who grabbed the flowers out of the bottle on his table and sort of waddled up and presented them to me – so the show is over, it’s not going to get any better than that.”
“Wow, it’s The Beatles. My mum was saying, oh, it’s been a long time since I listened to The Beatles. And after two or three days she was saying turn that off! Because I listened to it all the time. I remember I was playing a nylon stringed guitar, trying to pick out the solo for Drive My Car. Some guys in my class, they were listening to disco, dance music. And I said listen to this, and played them Hey Jude. They didn’t like it.”
“When I moved here I was trying to be an adult. I was done with music, I’m going to be in business. I didn’t know what I was getting into.”
“Once I moved to Cambodia I immediately started studying the traditional Khmer instruments. So I can play tro, khum, many others. When I was looking for a tro teacher I found Tola Say, and when I saw his playing – incredible! And I thought some day I want to do something with him, I want to show him to the world.”
“I asked her: what kind of artist are you? She said, oh, I play the cello. Did you bring one with you? And she said of course! And I went – wow. Anybody that travels with a cello, I mean, it ain’t no ukulele, baby.”
“My first concern is to be understood by the Khmer audience. On my first album in Cambodia, Samai Thmey, it was mostly French, I only tried to rap two or three verses in Khmer. The Cambodian flavour of the album came through the instrumentation, and with the help of great artists such as [rappers] Lisha and Mr Oun, because at the time I had been learning Khmer for only six months. Making music here helped to break down my personal artistic barriers. For my second album Oh Kampuchea, I wasn’t scared to try new things, and I dared to rap one entire song in Khmer, Kromom Srok Khmer, which became my biggest hit here in Cambodia.”
“I’m from Picardy, which is close to Brittany, and to Belgium. The Celtic music in Brittany is still very, very strong. You have a ceilidh every weekend, and people dance, even the young people and teenagers, and they know how to dance.”
“One thing we don’t lack is a bit of bravery. We set up on the stage and – right, this is us – and we could be horrible. And we live and die on that stage, and we have lived and we have died on the stage. Anything you could imagine that could possibly go wrong on a gig has gone wrong with a gig for us. But we just love it, and we’re trying to get better and better, and in the last two years we’ve got a hell of a lot better.”
“Ska was invented on the beautiful island of Jamaica. It has the typical Jamaican offbeat that most people know from reggae music, but ska was earlier than reggae. Ska is dancing music, and the legend says one summer it was so hot that people didn’t want to dance anymore, and the music got slower and slower, and so there was rock steady, and then came reggae. So it’s a faster version of reggae with many horns.”
“I started a high school band, and we played anywhere and everywhere – pubs, clubs, school discos, all sorts. They even invited us to play in an assembly once, and immediately regretted that idea; we played loud thrashy grungy stuff that they weren’t really expecting.”
Tep Modyka (Srey Ka):
“So now I know a lot of the titles of the songs, like Highway To Hell, It’s A Long Way [To The Top] – I feel like, that’s why these songs have a lot of highways – when I go there I see highways everywhere.”
“At first I wanted to be a guitarist, but when I met Tin I was already playing drums. I was interested in hiphop at that time. Then I started to know about the heavy music as well, like Metallica, Slayer, Iron Maiden, stuff like that. The sound of the drums, it’s cool, the anger, if you are stressed out you can release the stress out on the drums. After three or four years of practice I started a band. I invited Tin, asked him to play guitar, and he said I’m not really good at guitar. But he can scream.”
The Uncomfortably White Brothers:
GB: I love love. I think that’s the main takeaway from the Uncomfortably White Brothers. While we have enough drummers to be Spinal Tap, we love love.
EB: And we love gloves as well, because gloves are like love for your hands, hmm? The clue is in the word.
GB: Love is what makes the world go around, any kind of love.
EB: That and general sort of motion of…
EB: The planets. So that inspired us to rip off a lot of songs from people that were dead.
“My work is pretty old-fashioned. I’m not working in neon or fibreglass. Even in college I was written off as an old-fashioned modernist, and I can live with that. Miles Davis was an old-fashioned modernist but he kept exploring – and changed music three times. But music to me is something that I have to maintain, a certain skill set. Luckily, the drumming exactly informs the art. Does the art inform the music? Maybe, in some way I can’t define. Maybe it’s the result of having a broad palette, having studied timpani quite seriously, and also being a fan of The Cramps and the Ramones and Television.”
“There was a legendary DJ named John Peel who broadcast a pirate radio programme called “The Perfumed Garden”, an outlet for the music of the UK Underground scene, and featured blues, folk and psychedelic rock. John Peel unashamedly played anything that other conventional DJs would never touch, and I listened to all his broadcasts. I remember two pieces in particular that he played. Blind Willie Johnson’s “John The Revelator”, and then a piece of instrumental music which he introduced simply with: “This is from Cambodia”. I had no idea what I was listening to then, but it blew me away! I knew nothing about Cambodia. Many years later I found out that what I had heard was chapei music.”
“My influences are Mediterranean, oriental, Middle Eastern, gypsy, and Latin music has always been an influence on me. They are all connected. That kind of spicy, exotic… all this music shares the fire, the passion, the romance. These days I play mostly acoustic, but I did just meet my mother in Europe and she brought my electric guitar from the US, and it made it back here with me. So look out!”
“I like the old songs, Ros Sereysothea, Pen Ron. They never die, their voices never die. Even the new generation, they still listen. But the new songs, after just one year they are forgotten.”
“There’s a lot of really good musicians in town who are very loose and fluid on stage until you point a camera at them, and then all of a sudden they get rigid. Some I have to sneak up on to get a good shot. For me the best shots of musicians are them just being themselves – if people try to pose it never looks good. Just relax, play your music and forget about the camera. It’s not a gun.”
“Sitar is one of those things – this mysterious instrument. My aunt gave me the Revolver album when I was six, she was an actress in California who would send me Beatles albums to try and work her way into my mind, which worked wonderfully. I thought that’s a funny sounding thing. And as I got older – you’re always aware of a sitar, and there’s Ravi Shankar and more of George Harrison, but you never really actually think of playing it.”
“The day I met art my life changed. I could have been a bandit, I could have been a junkie, and I suddenly passed into the artistic life. And this is the message I want to give to kids. The message also is in art discipline, the main thing you need for living well is concentration, application, enjoyment.”
“Cambodia is warm people in a place where wealthy individuals can decide whether to invest in casinos or education.”
“I learned to play the guitar when I was 19, and in university I joined a band, and wrote my first songs. I was trying to be like Jarvis Cocker, from Pulp – it was pretty bad writing. After I left university I decided to form a band for purely original songs, and that’s when I really started writing, at the age of 26. But it never really quite took off until I was in Phnom Penh.”
“The music that I write – it’s mostly based on my mood, my feelings. I feel angry and I write an angry song. When I feel sweet I write sweet songs. I have my own kind of Sam Rocker genre. First I make the melody from the guitar, and then the words just come out. And I don’t know whether it will be Khmer or English, whatever language fits with the melody, I just go with that.”
“My true love is blues, gospel, soul, mostly gospel-inspired, spiritual-inspired. I really like a song that I can sink my teeth into, and really sing with emotion, so it’s usually the soul songs – Sam Cooke, Etta James, these kinds of artists.”
Stupidest question ever asked? “Ummmm…maybe this one?”
Geography of the Moon:
AR: The first gig we played in Asia was in Vietnam in Da Nang.
VB: No one clapped. We didn’t know that the Vietnamese don’t clap, they just politely listen.
AR: So we did three sets, and nobody moved, nobody said anything.
VB: Do they hate us? It was terrifying. We didn’t really know what was going on, but we had to keep playing for the time. And when we finished, people came to us: what is this? What do you call it? And some kids said this is the best gig I’ve ever seen in my life, you remind me of Nirvana…