A series of leaps: Vanntin Hoeurn

Vanntin Hoeurn, the softly-spoken, loudly-screaming, rock’n’roll-haired front for Sliten6ix, Phnom Skor, The Phnom Devils, Reign in Slumber and Blood Bricks is about to leave Phnom Penh for a new life in Washington State with his fiancé Janelle.  This week Leng Pleng caught up with him to discuss music, the past and the future, and the importance of just doing it.

“It started around the end of 2011, when Alan Ou and I got together and started Sliten6ix,” he explains.  “I was in first year of university, still in school.  We knew many countries had extreme metal, why not Cambodia?  So why not start it?  So we did.  People already had a pre-existing interest, but we took the first step.  We knew there were other Khmer people who were listening to metal and punk music, who mostly met on-line.  There was a Facebook page called Cambo Headbangers, and we shared music and conversed.”

Tin’s vocal style, initially and on-going, reflects his attitude to the music.  “I wanted to make music that was abrasive, straight up, no bullshit.  And we weren’t great musicians – except Alan – we just wanted to play.  I love the music so much, and I can’t play guitar, can’t play bass.  I still think that I can’t sing well, but that prompted me to scream.  Yelling doesn’t require anything, you just ball up your anger, or love, or whatever you want to yell about, and just do it.  There’s no way of it being good or bad, because yelling is just yelling, there’s no right or wrong.”

The very first shows were at house parties organised by Cambo Headbangers, then the big leap into an outside audience was at Sharky Bar.  [Then owner, the late] Big Mike and [then manager] David Maybe, they’d never heard of us, but they said: you play metal?  Come and play at Sharky’s.  It turned out all right.  I don’t remember much because I was really nervous.  The Cambodian bar staff had never been exposed to that sort of music, and there were some barangs who were more into classic rock – but our friends were there, who knew what we were about, and they went crazy.  Everyone else was sort of bemused, confused as to what they were experiencing.  We made a point of no clean singing – because I couldn’t sing [laughs] – I’m just going to scream.  It’s intended that way.

“When we started out we played deathcore – a combination of death metal and hardcore.  This is stuff I don’t listen to anymore, it grew old pretty quickly for me.  We broke up for a year or two, and then when we got back our taste in music had changed, so the second wave of Sliten6ix was an amalgamation of all of the heavy sort of stuff I was listening to.  Predominantly it was black metal combined with a bit of hardcore punk, and some doomish elements as well.  Black metal without the overtly satanic lyrics, because I’m an atheist.  I like the imagery, and my lyrics normally consist of lots of imagery of devils.”

Tin identifies the use of demons and devils as metaphors for inner and wider societal turmoil as the link that pulled him later into a discovery of the blues. “It’s very different in terms of the sound, metal and blues, but metal wouldn’t exist without the blues.  Blues, rock’n’roll, metal.  I was reading the blues lyrics – it’s about pain and what people have gone through, and are still going through.  The blues is us in society, whether you like the music or not.  You can sing about anything.  The simplicity of it grabbed me.  At first I was listening to blues rock, like the Doors, and just dug deeper and deeper down and found these amazing African-American musicians from the 40s.”

The next big step was finding Show Box, an alternative rock’n’roll youth culture bar in the Tuol Sleng district.  “I remember Myles Rattle reaching out to us, probably around 2012 – come to Show Box, set up, no pay but an open bar.  So lots of vodka Red Bull was consumed.  After that gig the place became my home.  Show Box was very counter-culture.  Now we’ve got Cloud in a similar sort of space, but it’s cleaner, less prone to contracting COVID, no rats  [laughs].

“Most of the gigs we did at Show Box were pretty great.  Our first EP launch, that night was really, really good, the first comeback.  We shared bills with Doch Chkae, Vartey Ganiva, touring bands coming through.  When King Ly Chee came – led by Riz of the Unite Asia website – Sliten6ix wasn’t together, but we got Ned Kelly to play bass for us, and Maxime Nguyen on guitar, that was a great night.  Unite Asia is awesome by the way.”

During the Sliten6ix hiatus, Tin was exploring.  “The first time I sang onstage – not screaming but singing – was with RJ Marshall, at his leaving party one year at Sundance.  He asked me to sing Hurt (Nine Inch Nails/Johnny Cash), and that jogged my interest in non-extreme music, which brought me to the blues.”

On RJ’s return, they continued to share music and jam, and slowly formed the four-piece Phnom Skor.  “I’d recently met Damani Kelly (Hypnotic Fist Technique,), so we had a bass player, and we were looking for a drummer, and Mike Forster (Psykic Elektric, Checkered Past) came to me at the bar and said would you give me a go? I want to play drums.   And that was Phnom Skor.”

At their first gig, upstairs at Show Box, Tin introduced the band:  We are Phnom Skor.  If you don’t know what that means, you should learn some more Khmer.  “I used to say stuff.  In the early days of doing music I used to get pretty drunk, because I got intense stage fright – I still have stage fright, but not as bad anymore.  And I’m sober now, and it got better as time went by.  It takes practice.

“Alcohol allowed me to be a little bit more out there, for better or worse.  Without it I might have just stayed in my room and not done anything.  But it also wrecked me pretty badly.  Sobering up was long overdue, I just had to do it.  I started drinking as a way to escape, like everyone – always anxious and depressed, and drinking meant I got to go out and socialise and do music and meet people.  Eventually I was in constant despair, and I put a lot of things off, I could have done more music, I could have been more focused.  Drinking became the main thing, and that’s moronic.  I have always claimed that music is my main thing, but back then, on reflection, it was drinking first, because otherwise I couldn’t do music.  And I realised that it was affecting people around me.  I would black out and say stupid shit.  I was sick of feeling sorry for myself, sick of hurting other people.”

The first show sober was in June 2018, opening for Malaysian singer-songwriter Hameer Zawawi at a show at Java Tuol Tom Pong.  “It was terrifying.  Joe Wrigley had approached me to do be involved, and I was unsure – then I thought, well, I didn’t quit drinking for nothing.  I was shaking.  I got through it, and it wasn’t the best performance, but I’m still glad I did it.  The first band I started after getting sober was Reign in Slumber.”

Reign in Slumber, with Tin on bass (I can’t play bass!) and vocals, Alan on drums and ex-Sliten6ix guitarist Nara Tsitra, had a big year in 2019, touring in Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia, and recording and releasing music.   In the midst of it all there was a blues duo that he and RJ formed after Phnom Skor: The Phnom Devils.

Now there’s one more leap, into the Pacific Northwest of the USA.  “I’m going through mixed emotions.  I’m excited, but I’m also a little melancholic as well.  Living in another country has always been my dream, and it’s time to experience new things.  Nobody likes where you were born and raised, you hate your own city and you move away, but I’m noticing stuff a little bit more.  I just sold my bike as well, so now I’m either walking or taking tuk tuks – oh wow, I’ve seen this before, but not quite like this!  I’m sad to leave friends and family, especially my mother.”

Plans are being made to follow the music, but it will be a slow start.  “Wherever I go I will find people to play with – although because of COVID music isn’t a priority.  We’ll be living outside Seattle for a few months in a sparsely populated area; once it eases up a bit we will move to Seattle.  Seattle is laden with music and art and all the things I’ve dreamed of since I was a little boy, and a lot of the bands I listen to currently are from Seattle or Olympia.  I’ll find a way to do something musical.  Maybe learn how to play guitar.  Alan and I are thinking about still making music together, I can record the vocals, either for Sliten6ix or Reign in Slumber, a good way to still be in touch with the scene without being physically here.

Leng Pleng has always been encouraged by the openness of the heavy music scene, in that it brings together people of all types, without discrimination, and that the ticket of admission is your love of the music and nothing else matters, resulting in widely mixed audiences.  Tin agrees.  “Metal and punk music in general, we try our best to be inclusive – if you like the same music, that’s fine.  The same thing with skating, it doesn’t matter the colour of your skin.  We don’t have rules but we don’t tolerate intolerance.”

Tin has a clear parting message that contains the key to his own development: “I would to encourage people – Khmer, expat, whatever – who have not done music before, or want to and feel discouraged in any way by anyone, just do it, give it a go.  Don’t let other people discourage you.  If you want to start something, do it.  Keep the music scene alive.  A lot of people told me there’s going to be a void when I leave, but I don’t like hearing these words.  I don’t see myself as an idol.  When I’m gone I would like to see other people carrying it on.  If you want to do music, do music.”

Tin plays one last show with Blood Bricks on Saturday night at Oscar’s on the Corner, with The Goldilocks Zone and Little Thieves.  Tin’s music can also be found at Bandcamp:  Blood Bricks, Reign in Slumber, Sliten6ix, and Phnom Devils.




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