Interviews – Conrad Keely

Conrad Keely (POSTED 24-Oct-2011)

Just last week the Cambodian music scene was privileged to have a number of impromptu performances by musician and artist Conrad Keely  – best known as one of the leading members of the band …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. Conrad was passing through Cambodia on a trip through south-east Asia from his Father’s native Thailand and whilst here he played several gigs, including Sharkys on the 7th of October, 2011, Equinox on the 14th of October, 2011 and Kampot last week. I can tell you that anyone who met him was greeted with his genuine warmth and humility and a true love of music. We were lucky enough to have Conrad give us a few words in regard to his experience while traveling through Cambodia. All photos courtesy of  Dylan Walker (http://dylanwalker.co.uk/).

What brought you to Cambodia?

Believe it or not, it was something as arbitrary as the weather.  At first I’d planned to head east from Thailand into Laos and Vietnam, but there was a monsoon coming in and floods expected, so we decided instead to head south towards Siem Reap, and that began our adventure. 

How did you enjoy your experience in Cambodia?

I’m still a bit speechless at not just how much fun I’ve had here, but also how moved I’ve been by the culture, the people, the scenery, the food, the places we’ve stayed, the music I’ve heard and dancing I’ve seen, and the many opportunities I’ve been afforded to play music with other people… quite remarkable.  I really love this place.  And I can’t miss the opportunity to mention one of my favorite things ever: driving a motorcycle through Phnom Penh traffic in five o’clock rush hour, in the rain, in flooded streets.  That is my idea of a crazy, crazy time.

Did anything in particular strike you musically in Cambodia?

Well, I’ve been learning violin so I do enjoy hearing the bowed instrument Tror Sau.  I like the big bass drum that you hear for miles when it plays, and of course the dancing that accompanies them.  I like hearing people singing, we had several young people sing songs for us in the Chong Kneas floating village and on the Tonle Sap river, which I made recordings of.

We’ve been in Kampot now for about a week and I’ve gotten to know several local expat musicians who like getting together and playing informal jam sessions, which has been great, especially since we seem to share a love of Celtic ballads and country.  It is something I really miss back home.  In America people are so focused on starting bands and rehearsing their bands that they forget that before bands people used to just get together and play for fun, for the simple pleasure of listening to and sharing songs.  That is a tradition that gets lost among many folks back home who think that being in a tight band is the most important thing in the world  It’s a great tragedy to lose sight of the unselfconscious joy of playing with a group of strangers and not caring that you’re not practicing for a gig.

There has been a lot of attention to bands playing a fusion between Khmer and Western music.  Is there a similar vibe in Thailand of which you know?

Not that I know of.  To be honest, I think that the bond of Cambodian and Western garage music is far stronger here than in Thailand.  Thailand has it’s own unique blend of extremely horrible, unlistenable pop music which sounds as if all they really care about is pandering to a Thai pop mainstream.  However in Cambodia there is this really weird, unearthly garage sound that has been created by (I’m assuming) people with very little access to slick recording studios, and so for that reason it seams to share a lot more in common with the underground garage scene that has been popular in the US since the 1950’s.  That’s something that really makes the Khmer sound really special, and something I don’t think Thailand can compete with.

Have you had a chance to listen to any of this fusion music in Cambodia (or Thailand) and if so – what are your thoughts ?

Yes, I’ve been lucky enough to fall in with a group of German expats who turned me onto a lot of stuff, and it was great.  I also have known of Dengue Fever for many years now, when they first started in LA.  It was great to discover how popular they are out here, and it was really great to play in the legendary Maxines (Snow’s Bar) where they once played (before it had been moved to Kampot).  That place definitely has a distinct, creative vibe that seems to radiate from the very wood of the house itself; it made me want to write a book there.

A totally great genre of music (which has not been covered by any fusion bands) is Khmer Surin music – which emanates from the Khmer’s living in north-eastern Thailand. Have you ever got into it?

I haven’t, but thanks for the tip, I will definitely check it out.

Any chance of doing some return gigs in Cambodia? If so will you play the whole band?

I sure hope so!  It’s not easy getting everyone out here, but if they refuse to come I’ll just start a new band next time I’m here, okay?

Do you play in Thailand or the surrounds very much? If so, how can people catch you?

People just have to catch me when they catch me, because I don’t really have any schedule.  I just play whenever I’m invited!

Cheers and hope to see you back in the land of the Khmer’s soon.

Thanks, and can’t wait to come back!

More information on …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead can be found at the band’s web site at http://trailofdead.com/ and Conrad’s music can be seen here (http://www.myspace.com/conradkeely) and his art here (http://conradkeely.com/).