For a band that plays Khmer wedding hits from 50 years ago, The Cambodia Space Project makes for a peculiar flag-bearer of avant garde Cambodian rock. But the tripped-out 60s psychedelia that defined the country’s golden era of music — when superstars such as Pan Ron and Ros Sereysothea ruled the air waves — is proving almost as popular today as it was during King Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum. And to the disbelief of nearly everyone, the The Cambodia Space Project appears teetering on the brink of international success.
The band recently performed at the 30th anniversary of Peter Gabriel’s World of Music, Arts & Dance festival in Adelaide. Front-woman Kak Chanthy is scheduled to work with veteran Australian rocker Paul Kelly later this year. And former Bad Seed Mick Harvey — who as co-producer helped guide PJ Harvey to two Mercury prizes — has signed on to produce the band’s third album.
“It’s a big deal,” said Julien Poulson, the Tasmanian guitar player who started the group together with Kak Chanthy in December 2009, adding, “Mick Harvey is the right hand man of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. He’s produced all their albums, many film sound tracks and of course he’s had a huge amount of success with PJ Harvey’s albums.”
All this, and the band’s second album has only just hit the streets. Titled “Not Easy Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the new vinyl is receiving a warm welcome. It will be availble at the show.
Detour to success
No ever dreamed, much less planned for, things to go this far. “We really never expected to do more than a couple of gigs,” Poulson said. In fact, the Tasmanian guitar player never envisioned The Cambodian Space Project becoming a band at all.
“When we formed,” he explained, “we really formed as a collective, not as a band. The joke about the name is that, in Cambodia, there are many projects. Everyone’s got a project. If you don’t have one when you arrive, you have to find one fast. Well, we’re the Cambodian Space Project, and we’ll get a bunch of transient musicians together and a make it like a collective.”
From those unpretentious beginnings, CSP has evolved from little more than a musical sideline into a slickly polished wayback machine driving headlong into Cambodia’s golden musical past. And as the band has matured, more and more people outside the Kingdom are finding them harder and harder to ignore.
Such turn of events still evokes disbelief in Poulson. “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “I’m still laughing about it.”
For front-woman Kak Chanthy, born to the sun-baked flatlands of Prey Veng province in 1980, the road to almost famous has been slightly less sublime.
The daughter of a tank-driving soldier, she spent the first ten years of life bouncing from province to province, battlefield to battlefield, with her father’s military unit. At 18, she moved to Phnom Penh looking for work and a better life.
She took jobs doing domestic work and selling juice, and eventually ended up singing karaoke in a dingy nightspot where one of the older girls tried to sell her into prostitution.
“I was young,” she says. “They wanted to sell me for $500. I cried so much. I thought they were going to kill me.”
She started singing in restaurants after that, and spent a couple of years working in a travelling band. But life on the road was hard, and by 2009 the soldier’s daughter from Prey Veng had seen enough.
“It was very hard work for small money, maybe $15 per day,” she said. “I was not happy. I wanted to changed jobs. After 5 years of singing, I was very tired.”
Chanty gave up the band and returned to Phnom Penh, where a friend landed her a job as a cocktail waitress in a corner joint on Street 51 called The Black Cat.
The music, however, wouldn’t stay away. The lounge hosted weekly jam sessions, and not a week after starting did some guitar player sit down with a laptop full of 60s Cambodian music — Ros Sereysothea, Pan Ron and all of Chanty’s favorites. “I thought, ‘What’s this barang doing with these old Khmer songs?’”
They told him she was a singer, and that she could do every Pan Ron song ever written. A bit skeptically, Poulson invited Chanthy to Meta house, where he played guitar and she sang. Even though that first session wasn’t great, “I immediately thought she had something,” he said.
They corralled a few other musicians together and played The Alley Cat, then La Croisette. One gig turned to three, and then a trip to Hong Kong, where a local label invited them to make a 7-inch vinyl picture disk.
It was the beginning of yet more road trips — Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, the USA — a life Chanthy was sure she had given up. And for these shows, she wasn’t just travelling long hours. She was landing in strange countries with funny languages, bad weather and worse food. Her drummer Bong Sak couldn’t take it and quit.
“Not easy, rock ‘n’ roll,” she concluded.
Yet for all the difficulties, Chanthy was evolving as a song-writer, and her experiences on the road contributed immensely to her music. The band encouraged her writing, and she got to play with other musicians from around the world. Plus, the overseas gigs tended to pay a bit better than wedding parties in Battamabang.
“Before I always worried,” she said. “Now, I don’t need to worry anymore.”