pic: RJ Marshall
Richard ‘RJ’ Marshall is a 38 year-old singer-songwriter from Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. He has been coming to Cambodia for the last ten years and has been living in Phnom Penh for the past five years. As an active performer around the city and as a managing partner in the seminal Phnom Penh venue Show Box, RJ has a unique vantage point from which to discuss some of the happenings and some of the changes that have taken place on the Phnom Penh music scene during his time here.
On a very quiet pre-Khmer New Year weekday evening, Leng Pleng visited RJ at Show Box to chew the fat. As the venue staff were getting ready to close the venue down for a few days, we adjourned to the upstairs balcony with pizza and beer. Downstairs, a few staunch Show Box regulars who had not already left town were hanging out – munching on woodfire oven-baked snacks from the ‘Kati Perri Pizza’ mobile van which visits Show Boxeach week. As RJ began to talk, the chime of the ‘free beer bell’ (which can be heard every night between 6.30pm and 7pm) rang out across the Show Box yard.
Can you remember your first trip to Cambodia? Were you like… Phnom Penh is a good place to play music!
2006 was the first time I came to Cambodia, backpacking. It was on that trip that I decided that I wanted to do more music in my life, having done it as a kid but not doing a lot in the intervening period. The idea developed… I liked Phnom Penh, when I came here I had a good time. I thought it was interesting and there were places to go and places to play music. The idea was along the lines of: wouldn’t it be good to go out to South-East Asia and open a music venue? Initially thinking, on the beach somewhere but not knowing exactly where that would be. As time went on and I came back here again, and came back another time… gradually I thought Phnom Penh is where it’s at as far as I’m concerned. I came out here [for an extended period] in 2011 with [a friend] and that was when we started looking for ideas.
An early incarnation of Grass
Snake Union at Equinox – pic: jesseinindia
Which Venues and bands were around when you came to Phnom Penh in 2011?
From then I remember Equinox, Setsara, Paddy Rice, Sharky’s… Sundance had just opened around then. …The FCC had always been here as far as I remember. …Equinox was there but wasn’t really [a venue]. Then Anthony Mrugacz came along and became the manager, did the sound system and made all these changes and suddenly Equinox became a great venue to go to for bands.The Cavern was around then – in 2011 – and bands like Ian Anderson and the Lazy Drunks, Stiff Little Punks, Two Shots and a Chaser and Tango & Snatch (with Ziad [Samman]) …and Jet [Odrerir]. There was another place on Street 278 called Red Orchid. The best thing was Grass Snake Union – I really like bluegrass and country music.
What kind of changes have you seen in Phnom Penh since 2011?
Spending each summer in Europe then coming back to Phnom Penh, you see huge changes every time you come back – in marked contrast to where I grew up at home UK where you could go away for ten years and the place looks pretty much the same. There was a massive change in 2013-2014 when Slur Bar opened, Oscar Rock Cafe opened on Street 51… The Village opened before that… The Doors opened… In terms of music that was the most obvious thing that happened: a lot of places opened and it wasn’t entirely clear what was going to happen to them.One thing that has occurred to me is that your total music-going audience in Phnom Penh, although there might be a lot of expats here, the total number of people that might go out and see a band is probably not that many. I could say maybe a few hundred. It’s alright having a music venue but if there aren’t enough people to go to it and support the music then how can you operate, how can you have, like, three in one street?
When did you first become involved with Show Box ?
It was Myles [Hallin] and Darin [Ou] that opened it in, I think, October 2012. I first came in not long after that. I really liked the place and the idea and what they were doing. It was kind of a mix, they wanted a place where [young] Cambodians could come and hang out… there was nowhere for people to go… places where you get Cambodians and foreigners going to the same bar. They were looking for a third person to come in as a partner in the business… which was me. We got around to signing some paperwork in April or May 2013. Both Myles and Darin have now left, it’s just myself and Carla [Mason] – and a lot of staff – working here.When it opened, it was as a music venue. Live music there two nights a week… get the local bands to play… we had Sam Rocker here of No Forever, Sliten6ix, Splitter and some others. I think that was the first time I came here – it was one of those nights and it was just such a good atmosphere… really loud and really good… and a unique venue.But you know the story of what happened with that… we’re basically on a residential street and while our building is sound-proofed, it’s people coming and going late at night, making noise and the neighbours were quite understandably not too happy about that… and so the story goes on. So for a while we didn’t have any live music at all and now we’ve kind of reached a happy compromise. You cannot have a late night place like that in this location, as it turns out. But we close at midnight and as long as we don’t have extremely loud music on too late, and we don’t do it every night, then it’s alright.
The weekly Wednesday open mic session has got tremendously busy, what’s happening there? There is no other open mic night like that in Phnom Penh.
My idea for doing open mic was based on what I’d seen back in Brighton in England or in America. I wanted to have a place where people can come and play music and be able to do their own stuff and get up and play in front of a room. That’s my understanding of what an open mic is for. People might not be able to do that elsewhere – people don’t have the confidence or they’re just starting out… some people want to try out stuff…
Here, we’ve got a keyboard, a bass, drums… if you provide the facilities, people are going to use them. The fact that it’s there encourages people to come along. I was looking around [last week] and there were, say, twenty people I had never seen before. You meet people who have just arrived in Phnom Penh but they come here because they’ve heard about it somehow or other.I love the Wednesday night thing. You never know who’s going to be here …we just had a guy who was here like a year ago passing through and he came back …he enjoyed it so much he came back to play at the open mic. Both of the [musical] projects I’m in now, with Tin and with Christina, in both cases we just started off doing a couple of songs at open mic. It was because there was somewhere to play with an audience that we did it.
Show Box is definitely on the radar!
Mini Banana, Top Banana, White Rabbit, Mad Monkey, Eighty-Eight, Longlin… all of those places… we know people there… if anyone at the guest house is asking ‘what’s going on in Phnom Penh?’ they’ll probably hear about Show Box . But it’s not really aimed at backpackers and tourists, most of the people here are regulars… we did this art show the week before last, so that brings in a whole crowd of people who would not have otherwise come here.We are entirely self-sufficient… It is very much a business but we’re doing it because we enjoy it. Carla says she felt it was like her family… the bar staff, most of them are from one family! I’m doing it because of the enjoyment, it’s very much a collaborative effort. For example, Conrad [Keely] and Greg [Balster] curated this whole exhibition, organised the artwork. It’s always been like that at Show Box really. I used to come here and want to do a show. Damani and Steve did their electronic music thing the Friday before last… it was great.
Can you tell me how Phnom Skor got started?
The early days of Show Box, there’s photos of Tin [Vanntin Hoeurn], but I didn’t know him then. He was three years younger – but three years younger when you’re 22 is a long time! That was when he was in Sliten6ix. I got him to teach me Khmer here for an hour every week… we got to know each other from that. Tin was here a lot at open mic and it just progressed: ‘do you want to do a couple of songs at open mic, what can we do?’ and I think we did ‘Ace of Spades’ and ‘Hurt’… we started off with a couple of songs and it progressed from there.In 2014 when I was back here …that’s really when we started playing. Tin said ‘I want to get a band together’ because he’d finished with Sliten6ix and he wanted to do something where he could sing instead of scream and also do more melodic stuff. For the last year he’s been listening to loads and loads of really early blues. Basically going through everything he can find and coming up with some real gems of stuff that I’d never heard: Skip James, Son House, Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Howling Wolf… names I might have heard of but I didn’t know the music. It’s almost a cliché to go back to the blues but …that’s been the sort of stuff inspiring the music that we want to do and Tin hates it if I play anything too happy! There is a sound now where we can say ‘that’s our sound’ – which is easier to listen to than describe – …minor chords, open tunings, eerie. We found a bass player, Damani, who had just arrived in town. Myself, Tin, Damani and Mike [Forster – drums].
So, when is the Phnom Skor debut album coming out?
The focus is on writing our own stuff, which is what we’ve been doing. We’ve put in covers done in our own way, our own renditions. Tin and I recorded ‘In The Pines’ [classic blues/folk song also known as ‘Where Did You Sleep Last night’] in Khmer with Myles. We did three tracks last week with Myles, just me and Tin (so far). We should definitely record the band over the next couple of months. Damani has been producing Nightmare AD‘s EP at the CAM Projects studio.When we’re rehearsing [Tin] is often orchestrating the whole thing: ‘now we’ll do this… I want you to do this… I want something like…’ He’s got something in mind and I’ll play it. That’s how we’ve been writing stuff. He’ll come up with an idea, we’ll put in a middle bit and a break …he’s kind of directing the band in terms of orchestrating the music and how he wants stuff to sound, which is great. We’ve got eight or nine original songs at the moment, some of which are in Khmer and some of which are in English, and some are mixed.
Richard ‘RJ’ Marshall talked to Joe Wrigley for Leng Pleng.
Phnom Skor will play The Banyan Tree in Kampot this Friday the 15th April.
Watch videos from Phnom Skor and RJ Marshall on Youtube channel northseamusic
Follow Show Box on Facebook
For more info about the early days of the expat music scene in Phnom Penh, read the Leng Pleng interview with Scott ‘Scoddy’ Bywater