"My Cambodian Space Project family thought it was funny when they came to my village and saw a lot of Britney Spears posters around the place" - Interviews - Soundblab

"My Cambodian Space Project family thought it was funny when they came to my village and saw a lot of Britney Spears posters around the place"

by Rob Taylor Rating: Release Date:

Recently Soundblab reviewed Whisky Cambodia, the latest album from the fabulous musical collective, The Cambodian Space Project. CSP are based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, but have been working a lot in Detroit, USA, where they met up with Motown and funk legend Dennis Coffey, who produced Whisky Cambodia. CSP has included musicians from Cambodia, the United States, Germany and Australia. 

I spoke with Julien Poulson and Srey Channthy on July 16, 2014.

Firstly, congratulations on Whisky Cambodia, and its captivating blend of pop, funk, soul, surf rock, and groove. The album feels surprisingly organic given the potpourri of styles.

Thanks! Cambodian Space Project (CSP) is by nature, loose and eclectic – none of us expected to be playing in such a band. The Khmers are just as surprised to be mixing it up with the ‘barangs’, as I am to be playing in a band that began with your average Cambodian wedding band (there’s thousands of them) set-list. CSP’s stylistic mix soon became apparent as we spent more time together as a band. I call it a kind of Phnom Penh soup – hot, spicy, sweet, sour – the works. 

Channthy’s voice is a revelation. Typically of the South-East Asian vocal style, Channthy sings in the high register, but her voice is also rock-steady and maintains a beautiful melodic line. Has she received formal training ?

When I met Channthy, I’d already been told she was a ‘good singer’ by another young Khmer woman. Channthy didn’t speak English, and wasn’t aware of my interest in music, but when I offered her my headphones and hooked her up to my laptop full of old Cambodian songs, her face lit up. She then, completely in character, started doing this 60s go-go dance.

At this point, I thought ‘I’ve got to hear her sing’ and arranged to meet her at a beer garden where she’d occasionally sing. I took some friends to the venue. Channthy blew us all away with an incredibly haunting and powerful rendition of Peggy Lee’s ‘Johnny Guitar’ in Khmer. I thought this performance was great and good enough to get a show together which is what we did. 

The next moment this completely untrained but totally intuitive singer blew me away was when, in the middle of jamming a bunch of covers at a recording studio, she piped up and suggested she’d sing her ‘own song’. This song was CSP’s first original track and is called ‘Mondulkiri’. The song moved me more than the covers we were playing: http://youtu.be/Bq2uv4SKmLU

Four albums and several hundred gigs later: We were in Berlin, collaborating on a show we call Galaxy Khmer with theatre director Michael Laub. The show was well-funded and produced, and enabled us a good week of rehearsals.

A professional opera singer was hired to coach Channthy, and this was the first time Channthy had ever had any sort of teaching whatsoever. She only had three years of primary school. Channthy relished and valued the opportunity. 

When I referred to Channthy’s voice as "a voice of reckoning" what I was trying to convey was that its power and confidence is itself a strong statement against the cultural suppression of the 1960s era in Cambodia. A kind of "Kapow!” to the paranoia of yesteryear. 

None of us, including Channthy, really know where this comes from. She is certainly not afraid to get up and let it rip, and this persona is the exception, not the rule, of where Channthy comes from – a place where people are mostly reserved and shy. Channthy is upfront and bold and this makes her a powerful performer. She really is the barefoot diva out of the Cambodian rice fields. 

Channthy, listening to that transistor radio inside the Soviet T53 tank you and your family were living in when you were growing up, were you soaking up a lot of Western influences, assuming there were radio stations tailored to the Western troops?

Channthy: I learnt the old songs from the radio and from my mum. I didn’t know any Western music until I met Julien and CSP. When I grew up the only music I heard on radio was Cambodia. I didn’t even see a white person until I was 13 and then is was the UN arriving in 1993. I only knew about Michael Jackson, my Cambodian Space Project family thought it was funny when they came to my village and saw a lot of Brittany Spears posters around the place. 

Joining the CSP has opened a whole world of music to me. Now my favourites are Nancy Sinatra, Amy Winehouse, Tina Turner, Nina Simone, The Ronettes and of course, great Cambodian singers like Pan Ron and Ros Sereysothea.

Julien, you’ve said that it was quite by accident that you all met up in Cambodia. The reality is though, there must have been a spark, a flint of inspiration that drew you together ? Hearing Channthy in the Karaoke Bar singing 'Johnny Guitar' perhaps ?

Yep, absolutely, I can the exact moment of realization, as I mentioned earlier. Hearing Channthy sing Khmer ‘Johnny Guitar’ was one thing (most Cambodian singers cover this, and after a while it’s as repetitive as hearing ‘Hotel California’ piped through the many karaoke machines), but hearing Channthy’s own song ideas from ‘Mondulkiri’ to ‘Whisky Cambodia’ to ‘Have Visa No Have Rice’ and ‘Not Easy Rock ’n’ Roll’ has been the most inspirational experience of our musical journey.

I thought I heard shades of rockabilly and cow-punk on the album. Southern Culture on the Skids came to mind ? 

Hmmm, the cow-punk genre could have something in common with Cambodian counterparts, especially out in the province but… Ah yeah… Channthy comes from Prey Veng province, one of the world’s poorest places where 1.1m people live in poverty.

In Channthy’s village, there is no clean water or electricity. Prey Veng is often a place urban Khmer disparagingly label as ‘Land of the Beggars’, and it’s true that most of the beggars on the streets of Phnom Penh come from this province. 

Anyway, it’s good to have poor rural roots if you’re gonna have any measure of cow-punk in ya… We like Southern Culture on the Skids too, I think Channthy has 'Walk Like a Camel' on her phone playlist. 

Dennis Coffey’s influence is palpable on some of the tracks on Whisky Cambodia, particularly the 70s funk of ‘Black to Gold’. What was it like working with Dennis, and how did his involvement influence your sound ? 

Dennis is the consummate professional, a living legend, and much of this legend is deservedly based on the incredible amount of hits he recorded with Funk Bros backing all the Motown artists. Give Dennis an inkling of an idea and he’ll run with it and see that the whole band is on it tout de suite! "Ya don’t want any slugs on your session” was a Coffey comment that’s stuck with me. 

When Channthy met Dennis (Thy and Coffey), she knew as much about the funk and soul music of the USA, as Dennis knew about South East Asian music. Thy loved Coffey’s ‘Scorpio‘, Dennis loved Thy’s tracks ‘Mountain Dance’. "Sounds like a hit", he said, and of ‘If You Go I Go Too’ Dennis said, “That’s real soulful". 

I had earlier demoed ‘Black to Gold’ from Whisky Cambodia with Channthy and Jay Thorpe in Bali and thought this track could be categorised as 'Khmer soul'. Actually, that was the moment, when he heard that term, that Sean Hocking at Metal Postcard Records piped up and suggested we get together and explore this idea of Khmer soul with Dennis Coffey in Detroit.

In a way, the Motown sounds that influence the Cambodian rock came back home to Motor City. Some time later we arrived in NYC to play a few shows and noticed we were being billed as a ‘Detroit band’. 

I understand you’ve recorded an album, Electric Blue Boogaloo, to be released later this year. This time you worked with Jim Diamond (White Stripes, Dirtbombs).

Last month, we were in France where we were joined by Jim Diamond who has produced numerous bands, not least The White Stripes, in his Detroit studio, Ghetto Recorders. We met Jim during our Detroit sessions and made a very impromptu recording for a doco being made on Jim and Ghetto studios.

Anyway, it was a quick jam, direct to two-inch tape, resulting in a great, wild sound, quite a flipside to the smoother Whisky sessions. So now we have a whole new album in the can, it’s called Electric Blue Boogaloo and was recorded in a little village in l’Ecotay, France. 

Boogaloo is another giant leap forward for the Space Project, especially as it features a selection of songs from beyond the Khmer cannon – interpretations and influences from Mexican, Dutch, Italian, French, English, Thai and American songs. Some are covers, some are complete mutations and others fresh and new. I can’t wait to release Electric Blue Boogaloo .

There’s a great promotional shot of Channthy dressed as royalty with a guitar and boom box. Someone it doing a fantastic job with the album covers and photos. 

I like this shot too. It was a bloody hot, humid afternoon in Phnom Penh, Thy and I were stuck in traffic. We’d just bought the Hello Kitty radio cassette player and I had my Guyatone Mosrite with me, so, long story short, we pulled up the tuk-tuk, and went into one of the hundreds of Phnom Penh photo studios, as much to find some air con, as for any pre-conceived photo session.

The studios are fun, they have all the clothes and most of the props. I just added the guitar and cassette player and presto! 

Lastly, how about that Cambodian surf movie? That would be cool!

Absolutely! No big waves in Cambodia, but Electric Blue Boogaloo is an album of music, surf music of sorts, actually intended for a feature film. Can’t tell you much about the film yet other than the script’s great and that it is a film set on the eve of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. Scenes play out ‘Casablanca style’ in a 1975 era rnr bar. Electric Blue Boogaloo is CSP’s response to a very enticing description of sounds and scenarios sent via the film's director:

Scene 2: Cuts to a club at dawn in full swing.

Blistering guitar solo in an absolutely kicking Khmer rock 'n' roll track. Something totally scorching and wild. 

Camera glides around the room which looks like that bar from Star Wars - full of freaks and super cool hipsters. Think Fellini in Cambodia 75. Ends with another bird-killing guitar solo which peaks as a fist fight breaks out on the dance floor.

End credits

Something totally liberating - pure joy, rock 'n' roll, power-pop. Make em grin like animals with tears in their eyes.

The heroine walks out of a hotel room full of carnage with a bag of cash under her arm and a forged passport in her pocket. Off to take the last plane out of the city. Super cool, ultra stylish, and totally noir.

The Cambodian Space Project will be establishing their own label, Chatomuk Records, for forthcoming releases. Electric Blue Boogaloo is expected to be released in the coming months. 

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