Way back in August 2013 I took to the stage behind the drum kit at Slur Bar in a brand new rockabilly band with my friends Joe Wrigley on guitar and vocals and Adrien Gayraud on bass. Around 50 alumni and multitudinous line-ups later, Joe & the Jumping Jacks are back once again, with Greg Beshers on bass and Salvatore DiGaetano on drums. Joe talked to Leng Pleng about the history and ethos of the dance machine that is the Jumping Jacks.
“Around the corner from Slur Bar was a place called Oscar 51 [fore-runner of Oscar’s on the Corner],” Joe recalls. “Oscar had me playing there on a semi-regular basis, and that was where the Jumping Jacks played a bunch of gigs and got off the ground. So the Jumping Jacks logo now says Oscar’s on the Corner on it.
“I called it Joe & the Jumping Jacks because I knew that the personnel would change as time went on, it was always meant to be me plus hopefully a regular bass player and drummer, and other people coming and out, because I like it that way, and because people come and go from Phnom Penh. And obviously Jumping Jacks because I jump around the stage. And [his then nom de plume] Jack Diamond.”
Joe in action with Stan Paleco, Andrey Meshcheryakov and Antii Siitonen
Joe arrived in early 2013 after a brief spell in Thailand. “When I came to Cambodia – although I hate to admit it – I had less than 20 songs that I could actually play. My level was certainly quite amateur, and the level of the other players was sometimes really high, and sometimes not so high, but it’s progressed over the years. The band has got better as I’ve got better.”
The big change was in 2015. “I said okay, I’m going to play lead guitar, so we can do it as a trio. Before it was always four or five, and I wouldn’t play if I didn’t have a soloist. I went to the 50s stuff and learned how to play Scotty Moore, Buddy Holly’s lead lines, Chuck Berry stuff. Through a lot of practice I became a lead guitarist. The first trio had Andy Potter on the stand up drums, and Andre Swart on bass. I’m not short, but those guys are two-metres plus, so it made me look five foot tall – to the point where sometimes I’d stand on a box.”
Joe with Andre Swart and Andy Potter.
A later line-up featured a stand-up bass. “When Antti Siitonen was in the band, in 2016, Danny Lumen was on electric bass, and one day mentioned that he had a stand up bass. I’ve since learned that it’s not just about stand up bass, it’s about catgut or synthetic gut strings, which are flexible, so you can do the slap bass style, using the bass as a percussive instrument. You can’t do that with steel strings. Unfortunately the bass wasn’t in the best condition, and it was always a real battle with the sound. Great for the photo shoot, but it doesn’t work in a gig scenario, unfortunately.”
For all the changes of line-up, some things never change. “It’s always the same: I’ve created a place where I play in my comfort zone, playing my repertoire – I choose the songs and I decide the arrangements, and every song is suited to my voice and my guitar playing and is a song that I love to perform. I’m just completely in love with the music. In this band, unlike any other band, I jump around and get mixed up in the moment and have a great time. And that’s essentially what the band is all about, and that’s what people react to. Miss Sarawan is something else, Cambodia Country Band is something else, working with Marianna Hensley or Richard Pearl, that’s something else, but this stuff is in the Joezone. Nothing more than that really.”
A young Joe found inspiration in Hank Williams, Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash. “Roots music came from the folk tradition of the British Isles and northern France, went over to America, diverted into what we now call country music, Americana, but it’s the same as English folk. Eventually it became country music and then developed into rock’n’roll and rockabilly. I was one of those British people who heard Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, and really got into it.”
Now a scene veteran, Joe can reflect on changes that have gone on in the live music landscape in Phnom Penh. “It’s ironic that in Phnom Penh this year we’ve jumped back seven years to what the expat music scene was like in 2013. We’re kind of starting again, back to people doing passion projects. Seven years ago there was no money in it so it was more about passion projects, which is why people still rave about bands like Durian and Grass Snake Union. There was a lot of experimenting, anything goes. Then six venues opened in the space of a few months, the economy kicked up a few gears, and all these passion projects were suddenly getting gigs at places like The Village, Doors, Slur Bar, and the FCC. A purple patch where musicians who were playing for passion were now getting paid. Then more working musicians came in, particularly expats from Thailand, and it wasn’t just school teachers anymore; it became more about the money gigs, and the passion projects fell to the wayside. Now in 2020, in the space of a few days, all that was turned off.
“For me personally now it’s only passion projects. So I started doing sessions with Marianna, because I’d never had time to do that. The Cambodia Country Band reformed, because the whole perspective changed about how important that was, how special that was. And of course I have to do the Jumping Jacks. That’s why we’re playing Oscar’s on Friday night, because we love it, and because we want you to have a good time. And that is all I ask: that you come to the dance floor and leave your inhibitions at the door.