(art is by Azuma Makoto.)
The Cambodian Space Project’s singer, Srey Thy:
“My mum sing very good, and she wanted to go to Phnom Penh. But when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge come they kill her parents. She stopped singing. She cut her hair, same as boy. She make up black to put on face. If very beautiful, they want to kill. My mum was very young.
“Listen radio, listen my mum sing. I say ‘Oh mum, you sing good.’ We have parties, she sing. She work, she sing. She work, I work beside my mum. She make food, washing, she sing a lot. I sing beside my mum. My mum was my teacher. I didn’t go to school, except for one week. When the teacher ask if anybody sing, I say ‘Me! Me!’ Everybody shy, me not shy!
“People say to me: ‘Oh you sing good, old songs. Everybody loves old songs. Romantic.’
“In my song I try to have three emotions: happy, sad and funny. ‘Not Easy, Rock & Roll’, come from heart. ‘Broken Flower’, from heart, ‘Have Visa, No Have Rice’, from heart, ‘You Go, I Come Too’, from head, ‘Whisky Cambodia’, from head. From head, I see and I write, but write from heart not easy.”
The Cambodian Space Project’s co-founder, Julien Poulson:
“[The Khmer Rouge] ripped out the heart and soul of Cambodian culture. Their very ill-conceived manifesto was a kind of fucked-up Maoist thing, to return society to agrarian utopia, which meant destroying and dismantling culture. The Khmer Rouge very successfully destroyed everything, along with almost two million Cambodian lives.
“We do a cover of ‘House of the Rising Sun’. In this country for a band it would be a very silly, overblown and obvious cover, but in the context of a female Cambodian singer, taking the lyrics from Sinn Sisamouth [who, like most Cambodian singers, was murdered by the Khmer Rouge] who did an astonishing version of it in the Sixties, it has an incredible power.
“I met Master Kong Nay, the old, blind musician, and also Srey Thy’s teacher. I heard his voice and saw him playing in a corrugated iron hut and I was just blown away. They call it the ‘Mekong Delta blues’. They call him the Ray Charles of Phnom Penh, because he looks like Ray Charles, but really it’s a misnomer. He’s the Leadbelly of Phnom Penh, and just totally fucking cool.
“It was the biggest baby boom in the world’s history: 1979-1980. Srey Thy was born at the end of that. People weren’t allowed to marry before, or celebrate. I guess we see the result of that now where they have their big Cambodian parties, everyone comes together and the music goes at full blast.
“Her father was a tank driver. There’s an amazing photo which shows her semi-naked except for a handbag and some pants on. She’s about this big. There’s a table here, there’s a transistor radio with its aerial up, there’s Pa in his military uniform, a six gun slung around his hips, and the tank. They’re moving around the country in a Soviet T-53 tank and listening to the radio. They were moving around the frontlines, as the war continued. This is post-Pol Pot times. What many people don’t understand about Cambodian history is that war continued for a long time. The Khmer Rouge was supported by all the Western countries because they didn’t want to support the Vietnamese occupying forces.
“Our first gig was at a little swampy bar called the Alley Cat in Phnom Penh, and the other musicians blew in literally within ten or fifteen minutes of the first few songs. Scott Bywater, who is with us now, offered to play or bring some instruments down. He was the ‘Bill Wyman’ guy, which I can say because he’s not around at the moment! We wanted him for his instruments at that time, but he’s an incredible musician and such a big part of our creativity now.
“Bong Sak was a soldier for a long time. It’s sadly not uncommon in Cambodia. Right now he’s finding it very hard to be here in London. He’d rather stay at home, on the farm, eat food routinely and ride a motorbike down to the gig when it’s on.
“It’s remote, it really is. Srey Thy’s family home is literally a thatched bamboo hut, but she’s very attached to the place and it’s very deep in her persona. She’s steeped in the rice fields of Prey Veng. There are problems with the abject poverty, particularly for Srey Thy, because suddenly everyone there expects her to be rich or to be able to fix problems or to be different. Her grandparents love to look at her pictures from Paris or London, and they’ll say, ‘Now you are very different, very beautiful, you’ve changed!’ She’ll say thank you, and then they’ll say, ‘But never forget, you’re one of us. Your bare feet are in our fields.’ She will say, ‘Yes, I never forget.’
“This album was all recorded in Cambodia, which was very important. It was challenging but the results were pleasing. The next album we’re hopefully going to do in Melbourne with Mick Harvey. He’s interested and wants to do it. He did PJ Harvey’s last album and worked with Anita Lane, so he’s used to female vocalists, and that fact that ours sings in Khmer doesn’t really make any difference if you’re a soundscapey kind of character. Strangely, the darker Cambodian songs are kinda like the Bad Seeds: noir-ish karaoke that ends with murder in the rice paddies. They’ve got this kinda hypnotic groove to them.”
It’s not very often, admittedly, but occasionally the real life biography of the bands we cover are way weirder and more engrossing than any zany shit we could come up with.
Buy Whiskey Cambodia from Metal Postcard
Also, sadly not from Cambodia or space, but here’s a bonus track from 1975!