2013 was a dramatic year in Phnom Penh expat music. There were innovative and supportive venues like Equinox, Sharky and Slur Bar, and many bands were formed. One of them, Sangvar Day, who describe themselves as alternative/prog rock, is still standing – just – and you can catch them this weekend at Cloud as part of the all-original My Indie Valentine night with shoegazers Simoun and the soul/funk/disco of Psykic Elektric. Sangvar Day lead singer Robin Narciso told some of the story to Leng Pleng.
“I was not the first singer in the band, they started with another singer and did a few gigs with her, but after six months she quit. I arrived in Cambodia and after about two weeks I was in the band. The first thing that I did was look up Leng Pleng and saw an announcement: looking for a singer in a rock band. And not only rock but grunge! Yes!”
Growing up in northern Italy, near Verona, Robin followed a familiar musical path. “I did a bit when I was a teenager, then stopped for maybe ten years, although I continued playing solo and acoustic. I always wanted to be in a band. I lived in America for a while and it was so hard to get good people and rehearse and find places to play.” As for many, it was in Cambodia that his latent desire to perform came to fruition. “Here it was so easy. Almost everybody wants you to play. [Sharky Bar founder] Big Mike pushed us so much. Doesn’t matter if you’re not ready, just play. Does next Friday work for you? Cambodia was where I learned to be on stage.”
Always a band focused on original compositions, Sangvar Day recorded and released a self-titled EP in 2014, then followed it up with a full length album, National Anthems, in 2016. “We were one of the first bands to record an album at 60 Road Studios in Siem Reap. I think it’s necessary for a band that makes original music to be able to record it – it makes you a better musician, better in terms of composition. And it’s fun: you have a band, you write a song, the next stage is to record it, and the recording is always going to be there. Even if it doesn’t happen [with all songs], that is the original objective.”
The band writes the music in a democratic format, then it’s Robin’s job to write the lyrics. “We bring in the ideas, and then it’s very much a collaboration. You need to have people that are really good at detaching the ego from the song. Julian, the guitar player, he brings in a piece and doesn’t care if you say it’s no good. We started with his material at the beginning, which created a model of being able to say no, this is bad, let’s cut it, change it. I haven’t found that in many musicians.
“We write the music, strictly instrumental, and I sing something incomprehensible – sometimes I hear a word in the gibberish and, oh, that will be the song – and then extend it from there. And the joke is the band don’t know what the songs are about.”
Song understandings aside, Robin believes the strength of the band has been their friendship. “I think it’s hard to find people to play with, and that you get along with. It’s not only the music, it’s really the personalities, and to do that for six years, seven years, and still loving what you do and still loving the people you’re doing it with, it’s really hard. We went to Bangkok in 2018 and 2019, and touring is the best thing to understand whether you want to do this, to be really serious. You’re not really there to visit, you’re waiting for the gig at night. And of course with the rock’n’roll lifestyle don’t sleep a lot. I can’t imagine doing that for a month – it would change me in ways I don’t think I would want.
“I think a good test of a band is when you are on stage and you can still perform and enjoy yourselves with no audience at all.” But Phnom Penh audiences were quickly very supportive. “I remember a gig at Oscar Bar when it was still downstairs – it was so small that the bass player had to lift the bass up to let people through to the bathroom. The Golden Street Festival in 2017 was fun. I think the audiences here are relatively easy and friendly. In Bangkok some places were sort of indifferent. And in Italy it’s quite bad. People would go to a show, but the feeling you get from the bar owners is that they are doing you a favour letting you play.”
Time passes, people move on. “Yes, we’re becoming more famous for doing our final gigs than the music,” he laughs. “But this time it’s unlikely that we will survive – everybody is leaving Phnom Penh. We might slip in another gig or two but this is probably the last period.” And might we see Robin put together a new band? “Yes, I’m thinking about it. In my head I would want to try something different, but I fear I would end up doing the same stuff. Despite all the aspirations we are made in a certain way.”
Sangvar Day play with Simoun and Psykic Elektric for the My Indie Valentine event at Cloud, Friday 14 from 7 pm.