Call me old fashioned, but while styles and gadgets come and go, the wheel keeps turning back to the simple alchemy of a couple of guitars, a blending of voices, a meeting of minds, and later the addition of a rhythm section. Phnom Penh has forged yet another let’s-give-it-a-shot all-originals band formed out of like-minded individuals in pursuit of something fresh, new and stimulating. Little Thieves came to the Leng Pleng office at Golden Home to talk about their journey and the excitement of playing as a full band for the first time this weekend.
The nucleus of the band, Gary (from Oxford) and Lewis (from Scotland), met in Phnom Penh just over a year ago. Both had been involved in music in the UK before coming to Cambodia, playing and writing, but had been turned off by the competitiveness and self-imposed pressure of expectation. Away from such oppressiveness, their creativity has flowered.
“A few months after we met in Phnom Penh we went on a trip to Kep and hung out together around the pool,” says Gary. “We picked up a couple of guitars and started play. It came from that, jamming out a few things, and we started writing together.”
“When there’s two acoustic guitars it’s really simple,” says Lewis. Gary’s friend David (half English, half Malay) was recruited on bass and a trio was formed; they began gigging tentatively. “I’ve known Dave for six years,” adds Gary. “And we’ve always played music together.”
“I’d been playing bass in Phnom Penh, doing covers here and there, just to keep up the trade,” David explains. “Once these guys got together – let’s play! Then we needed to find a percussionist, and Rodrigo showed up.”
“I’ve only been here for seven months,” says Rodrigo, the newest member of the band. “I’m really new to everything, just adjusting to the scene. I arrived here from Mexico City in March and two weeks later everything was closed. I met David first, and I heard the Little Thieves demos and I thought: hey, this has heart. I’m always more interested in people creating from scratch.”
Their ease in working together is in contrast to the disparity in each other’s musical influences. “If you were to draw a Venn diagram of influences for the four of us there’s actually very little crossover,” says Lewis. “All the bands that Gary knows, I don’t listen to them, and vice versa. I love it – I think it’s ridiculous, it’s fun, it’s heartfelt, and it has many different parts and sounds that create something unique.”
Pushed on this Venn diagram analogy, Lewis names as his biggest influence a North American singer-songwriter, Ray LaMontagne. “I got introduced to him about 12 years ago. Very rich, husky singing style, emotional lyrics. In my younger days it was Radiohead who had a massive impact on me.” Gary immediately names one name and won’t budge. “I really love Elliott Smith, very passionately,” he says. “He has an approach to writing songs that is unusual. I think he’s a misunderstood genius. And I’m misunderstood as well, definitely.” To which there is general laughter.
Rodrigo describes himself as a prog rock kid. “King Crimson, A Perfect Circle – I love those guys – and Nine Inch Nails. That’s pretty much all I listen to. So I don’t know how I fit in the band, but I do. In Mexico I worked in a band playing folk music, traditional Mexican and Latin American. I just adapt.” For David, it goes wider: “I’m a massive fan of Incubus, Jack Johnson, Bill Withers, Tenacious D. Bass influences would be Mr Big, and Billy Sheehan. A lot of pop influence, but I like my 60s soul, and indie/alternative/90s grunge.”
Put it all together and what have you got? Lewis describes it as progressive folk for a jilted generation. “It’s definitely influenced by progressive rock,” says Gary. “The structure of the songs is not verse/chorus/verse/chorus, it winds around and goes to different places.” The blend of influences mirrors the expat scene in general, notes Lewis. “It’s a characteristic of people’s personalities – we’re not in our home countries, we’ve gone travelling, therefore there’s this common denominator that we’re all a bit more open-minded and flexible.”
And what else makes Phnom Penh different? “There doesn’t feel like there’s the same competitive vibe,” says Gary. “Lewis was playing a lot in London and Australia and other places, same for me in Oxford. Little Thieves has not been going for long, but from talking to other bands we’ve been much encouraged to get involved.” David adds: “In London you have to spend ages plugging a gig, and you have to separate the gigs far enough apart. You could have six people turn up, and you’ve spent a month or so on it.”
So what does progressive folk for a jilted generation sound like? Find out at their first full band show at Oscar’s on the Corner on Friday 16th, at Ege Bar’s second birthday bash, and/or at Raveology’s Lost in Illusion festival on Koh Dach for the Bom On Touk weekend at the end of the month.