Interview with Scott Bywater - Part One

Scott Bywater
arrived in Phnom Penh in 2008 to work for the United Nations. He was looking for a change of scene after growing tired of working around the clock running a live music bar in his hometown of Hobart, Tasmania. Scott found a fledgling expat music community that would eventually become the busy Phnom Penh scene of today. Along the way he became an integral part of several fantastic bands, including the Lazy Jazz Drunks and the Cambodian Space Project, before spreading his wings as a solo artist and poet. ‘Scoddy’ found time to sit down with Jack Diamond (over a few beers) and tell him how it happened.

As I always say to the incredulous, I arrived in Phnom Penh in August 2008 and found it really hard to find live music.  The odd night with a clockwork covers band, the occasional Mekong Pirates gig.  I discovered a Thursday night open mic in a now long-vanished little place near Wat Lanka called Revolution Bar, and this is where it began for me.  I met the Swedish Ambassador, as
multi-instrumentalist Dan was called, and we formed a duo, D’Sco: The Geckos of Love, and we played at Revolution, Touk Bar, the Chinese House, Zen Bar.  Eventually we started dabbling with some other folks as well, such as Melanie [Brew] and Jet [Odrerir], the Hellhounds, and strangers passing through. Around this time I discovered to my surprise that I could play the drums, having the epiphany that I was left-handed… so Dan and I turned into a kind of rhythm section for hire.
Photo: Steve Goodman
In 2009, as the 40th anniversary of the release of the last recorded Beatles album, Abbey Road, was approaching, I came up with the ambitious idea of staging the entire piece for one night only, along with a bonus set of Beatles songs. Fortunately, other people thought this was a good idea as well, and we
drew together a raggle-taggle crew, practiced through Pchum Ben, and as the ‘Magical Mystery Tourists’ performed at The Cavern on 104 Street, so full that the audience were buying beer next door and across the street and coming back.   All pretty rough, but we got through somehow.
It seemed that musicians had known each other before but sort of got out of touch.  Wandering around the room, on and off the stage, was Ken White, playing harmonica and taking email addresses from all the musicians, making sure the Leng Pleng mailing list was being kept up to date. Leng Pleng had a massive impact on the development of the scene just by giving musicians a way to contact each other, and providing the first real central and accurate gig guide. Credit where credit is due.
Photo: Steve Goodman
Around this time Dan and I met Ian Anderson and Tom Baker at an open mic at The Cavern, and suddenly formed what was first called the Lazy Jazz Drunks, as a more poppy version of the parallel band gigging around called the Stiff Little Punks (mostly Ian and Dave and a drum machine).  I’m fairly sure this was my
first time in a band as a drummer, and I learned a lot about the importance of just keeping time and occasionally directing traffic.  Also I knew almost all the words, and could follow where we were in the songs.  My clearest memory of Ian in those days was when someone stole his lyrics folder off the stage during a song, and he was forced to improvise – brilliantly.  It wasn’t enough to change his habits though.
So I played with the Lazy Jazz Drunks for a few months.  I think the last show I played was at another bar on 104 Street, crammed into the corner, all very tile and glass, and I had been lugging PA gear and drumkit in, setting up and thinking ‘all this for 20 bucks and the chance to play Honky Tonk Women?’  Interesting times indeed.
Photo: Steve Goodman
Scott kept a blog whilst all this was going on called ‘FollowingThe Applause’, which documented all the craziness, including the infamous Lazy Drunks gig cut short by a gunshot:
Then the coda is that the first night I was back [in November 2012], perhaps a Monday night, and I ran into Tom from the Drunks while I was out with the Space Project, at about 2 in the morning he said ‘we’re getting so many gigs, Ian’s out selling all the time, we’re playing at Sharky’s on Saturday why don’t you come along? Get up and have a jam… So I get up and have a jam and two days later he jumps off the bridge.
Read more about the legendary Ian Rowlett Anderson in an ‘Unauthorised Account of an Old Punk Rocker’ by Julien Poulson.
Then they contacted me and said hey, we’ve got all these gigs, including New Year’s Eve, and you know all the songs, can you come and sing for us? I figured hey, I’ve never been a lunatic frontman before, here’s a chance to learn… so I put on a blonde wig and took a tour of duty with them again.  Thanks fellas.
It’s a well told story now. I was playing drums with the Hellhounds at the now gone Talking to a Stranger, and met a fellow Tasmanian at the bar named Julien, who invited me to come to the Alley Cat for their fourth anniversary party, he was going to do some songs with a Khmer singer.  So I showed up and there was Julien fidgeting with a guitar amp about the size of a burger.  Do you need any equipment, I said.  What have you got, he said.  Everything, I said.  Yeah, bass and drums would be great.  So Dan and I ran off and got some, and the rest, as they say, is history.
A week later, it had a name – The Cambodian Space Project – and enough players to make it a band to play on the roof at the old Meta House, behind Wat Botum.  The early rehearsals were in Julien’s apartment on Street 21.  I recall there were some ambitious ideas that swung around to ‘what can we actually get done?’…and because Chantthy had almost no English, and we had almost no Khmer, between us it was a bunch of white guys trying to figure out how. Julien had already worked up a few songs but then to rehearse them, we learnt the hard way – we didn’t have any idea what the words for ‘verse’ or ‘chorus’ were.There was a young Californian Khmer guy around called Ratha Kanh who came along as a percussion player and a resource for helping to communicate between us and Channthy. Davis Zunk (once of the legendary Happy Lucky Love You Long Time Band, now of the HCMC-based Wanderlusters) was visiting, and playing just about everything.

Then a trip to Kampot for recording at Bodhi Villa. I remember already being interviewed by somebody on the phone as we were going to Kampot, because it was creating some sort of a buzz that we were doing this
golden era stuff, this was at a time when you didn’t hear it at all. You would hear it in cafes and bars and so on but no-one was actually out playing it.

On Christmas Day we were joined for our first real gig, at La Croissete, by Jimmy from the Hellhounds
on sax (now plays slide guitar with Krom). Ratha playing congas, I was playing bass, Davis was playing drums, Ken was on harmonica, a fairly motley crew.  On Boxing Day the cruise on the river, hosted by The Alley Cat. I don’t think we even had a bass player that day. If you google Cambodian Space Project, that’s the thing that comes up first: a video Julien cut from some footage a friend took. I think we still only had half a dozen songs.

SPACE SHUTTLE LAUNCHThen Gildas (Mekong Pirates) appeared, and then Irene, both on guitar. There was a gig at Meta House when Bong Sak shows up at Chantthy’s invitation, and was immediately dubbed Charlie Wat Phnom; he got on and played a few and suddenly became the drummer.  Dan came back from a holiday in Sweden and took the bass. Bunhong Cheak [Phnom Penh Hippie Orchestra, Klezbodians] playing clarinet. Gaeten Crepsel playing accordion.There were a few gigs where it started to really rise up.  It’s January [2010] now.  The third anniversary party for Meta House saw the debut of the later famous pink jacket. The trip to Chantthy’s village in Prey Veng. The Equinox third birthday party, downstairs and spilling onto the street next to where the ATM is today, an amazing gig out at Maxine’s (Snow’s Bar) for Australia Day. We went and played in Otres Beach, Siem Reap, Kep.

It got to a point where there was nothing for me to play, so I just carried equipment. There was quite a different feel to it in those days, it was band of 10 or 11 people. There was excitement, but always a little trouble around the edges: guitar is too loud, can’t hear the voice. Partly because there were too many people, partly because there were two guitars and then Julien, partly because Channthy was used to singing into Karaoke-type microphones and had no experience in projecting over a whole band. She was very shy and timid in the early days, we had to encourage her to dance, we had to encourage her to talk to the
audience.  She was bit ‘what the hell is going on?’. When she was singing it was okay.

And then it was our first experiences of overseas audiences in Hong Kong, followed by three months of a more acoustic model with me at the helm, and the creation of Espresso Thmei, and the very first visa
application attempts. France ensued.  By the end of 2010 I was very, very tempted to run away and join the circus, throw in my job at the court and run around the world to Texas and China and who knows where… but in the end I did the Australian tour and let the party go on without me.  I loved to tour, I could play every part and teach all the pick-up musicians along the way, and I had a credit card.  My line was: The best thing the United Nations ever did for Cambodia was to employ me, and thereby indirectly fund the Cambodian Space Project.There’s no shortage of well-produced, interesting, well-crafted music out there, but something that has such a different immediate hook – it’s exotic, it’s exciting, it’s Cambodian, it’s pretty basic rock’n‘roll, and it stands out in some kind of way. There are people always looking for something interesting to book, and lots of people who have been won over by just hearing the band.  It also had a really strong visual presence due to Julien’s graphic design skills, it does catch the eye, catch the ear.  The
secret weapon on one side is Julien’s graphics and Channthy’s boundless charm and ability to win over audiences, just because she’s so fresh and friendly and has this ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ look on her face.
After I left Cambodia in 2011 I joined the band for tours in the UK and Europe, and I’ve played with them again in Phnom Penh, but these days it’s only really when we’re in the same place. As much as I love the band, there’s no creative space for me, and I realised that it was time to put that front and centre.