Cambodian Space Project – A Chat with Kak Channthy and Julien Poulsen
Cambodian Space Project is a freewheeling, psychedelic Cambodian rock group founded by Cambodian singer Srey Channthy and Australian musician Julien Poulson. They formed the band to bridge their respective cultures by performing Cambodian rock and roll covers from the pre-war years.
UPDATE 20 March 2018: Cambodia is heartbroken today. Kak Channthy, the effervescent singer of the Cambodian Space Project died tragically in a road accident in the early hours of the morning in Phnom Penh at the terribly young age of 38. Our hearts go out to Channthy’s son, family and Julien. I’ll never forget meeting Channthy and chatting to her at Laundry Bar after a performance with her son in her lap. We’ll treasure the times we saw Channthy perform: she illuminated the stage, enlivened the room, entranced us with her voice, and made everyone want to dance. #RIP
When you visit Cambodia, try to catch the Cambodian Space Project in between their cross-planetary trips for one of the most fun nights you’ll have while getting a history lesson in Cambodian Rock and Roll.
We first saw the quirky, retro-cool Cambodian Space Project at the Laundry Bar in Siem Reap soon after we moved here in 2013. There was a sizeable crowd of star-struck Cambodians and expats, as well as a sprinkling of dazed and bewildered tourists, spilling out of the bar and onto the street.
Charismatic lead singer Kak Channthy — best known as Srey Channthy or Srey Thy, as she’s fondly called (‘srey’ means ‘sister’ in the Khmer language) — sang her heart out in her mini-skirts, while her groovy Spacettes bopped beside her and guitarist Julien Poulsen and band injected sleepy Temple Town with a contagious energy the city hadn’t seen since their last trip here.
Meet the co-pilots of the Cambodian Space Project, guitarist Julien Poulsen, from Tasmania, Australia, and Srey Channthy, from Prey Veng, Cambodia.
Cambodian Space Project — An Interview with Kak Channthy and Julien Poulsen
Q. The Cambodian Space Project in a nutshell.
A. Julien: The Cambodian Space Project is a shape-shifting, amorphous entity first formed as a cross-cultural music group in Phnom Penh sometime around Christmas 2009. It’s a freewheeling, psychedelic Cambodian rock group founded by myself and Khmer vocalist Srey Channthy. We got together with the idea of bridging our respective cultures by performing covers of songs from pre-war Cambodia.
Q. How did the name Cambodian Space Project come about?
A. Julien: Lots of foreigners you meet in Cambodia are involved in some kind of ‘project’, so with this in mind I set about finding a project for myself. I thought of the Khmer vocal style, especially the voices of Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron and thought the high-pitched sound to be ethereal, spacey, so that got me thinking about ‘space’ in music.
Also, the idea that maybe, somewhere, deep in the jungles of Cambodia, there existed a space project — a highly implausible, far-fetched idea but if you search Google the following info comes up…
Cambodia’s Space Infrastructure
Cambodia is troubled by the ongoing insurgency throughout the country against the occupation of it by American forces. Its space program is, not surprisingly, non-existent. Not only does it not have an agency, but also not much of an infrastructure in which one would arise. The Royal University of Phnom Penh offers a degree in engineering but nothing specific to space related educational architecture, such as astrophysics, astronomy, astronautics or aeronautics. It focuses mostly on agriculture in this rural, mountainous country. The government has no ministry devoted to science of this type. Cambodia has no history of being part of any organization dealing with space, nor has launch capability. Cambodia lacks the industrial base, the educational base and the political foundation for a process like this to occur within it. It has no functioning university with an astrophysics or astronautics program, and marginal industry. Cambodia operates no satellites and, not having an orbital presence, has no space power. The government of Cambodia in in Phnom Penh has no plans for attempting to further any ambition in space development or research, but may once things stabilize, if they ever do. Source
Q. Is this a rock and roll love story?
A. Julien: Just like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Mick and Keith, Meg and Jack White, Ike and Tina Turner, we’re married in music, and, at times, I would say Channthy’s more Ike than me. We’ve been married. We’ve been unmarried. We’re not divorced yet.
Q. Would you say that Cambodia Space Project channels the sounds of Cambodia’s ‘golden era’ of rock and roll that flourished from the late 1950s through to the mid-1970s when the Khmer Rouge took power?
A. Julien: Yes, we’re certainly all about channelling the sounds and songs of Cambodia’s so called ‘golden era’ and the music and artists of this period inspired us to form. They were artists who became targets of the genocidal Khmer Rouge and were virtually all killed by the regime so this makes it even more important to pay homage and respect to their legacy.
However, we’re not totally revisionists, Channthy and I see the Space Project as an opportunity to create an entirely new take on making music influenced by the Cambodian experience. And we find as we’re performing more and more around the world, this experience keeps changing and evolving the music we make. Some of the songs we write, some we cover, some we just mutate.
Q. Channthy, was your mother a singer or did she sing to you at home when you were growing up?
A. Channthy: My mum wanted to be a teacher and maybe a singer. That was before the war. Once the Khmer Rouge took over she had to cut her hair short and make herself look ugly, like a boy. That is how she survived. I don’t think she could enjoy any of the music we’re now talking about. The Khmer Rouge abolished anything to do with the former culture and this included music.
Recently I met some Cambodian people in Berlin who’d lived through this era and ended up in GDR. They gave me some music of the Khmer Rouge — very interesting to hear this, too. When I was born Cambodia was freer but it was still war — desperate times — we did not have what you would imagine as a house and a home life. My father was moving around with the army. We went to the conflict zones. My two siblings died from starvation. This was just the situation, almost normal at the time.
Later, I remember my mum singing to me from an early age. I can remember and know many of her favourite songs. I can’t tell you their names in English but I could sing them for you. From a young age I went to work alone — I just had the old songs in my head, thanks to my mum and what I would learn from the radio.
Q. Julien, how did you come to listen to Cambodian rock and roll in the first place?
A. Julien: Well, Cambodian rock music was already quite widely circulated to an international audience thanks mostly to the releases from US labels like Sublime Frequencies and Finders Keepers Records. So I heard this music on community radio in Melbourne, through the Internet, and via friends who are interested in such sub-genres. I was really taken by the guitar sounds, especially the lead guitar on tracks like Wait Ten Months, that go me in. Then I started hearing more originals as well as covers by Dengue Fever, who I thought were great.
But I also thought there’s got to be a whole lot more to this and that my own take of interpreting the 60s sounds was perhaps different to the US bands. I’m very much a convict rocker and into the Australian sounds of this same era — the Aussie interpretations of the British Invasion, including stuff like The Loved Ones, The Easy Beats, Lobby Llyod and The Aztecs, The Master’s Apprentices, Johnny O’Keefe, and so on.
Anyway, I didn’t go to Cambodian to start a Cambo Rock band. I was there first to explore the folk, traditional and indigenous sounds, but after a while my interest stretched out to Khmer hip-hop and finally, irresistibly, back to what everyone’s now calling the ‘golden era’ of Cambodian Rock.
When I met Channthy it just made sense to start with this, though I certainly didn’t want to just be contented to be revisionist and play the old songs. That’s boring after a while. Cambodia Space Project has always been about bridging cultures and making something new.
Q. We loved your show Galaxy Khmer, which we saw under the Phare Cambodian Circus big top in Siem Reap. I imagine many foreigners would have found it strange and magical.
A. Julien: ‘Magical’ is the operative word… I mean imagine taking this large team of mostly young Khmer dancers and musicians into the thick of a European winter then working in some of the most beautiful theatre spaces — namely the Hebbel in Berlin — where we worked with a super team of techs and presenters who made the experience incredible — for us and I trust the audience too. Certainly, the reaction to the band, dancers and the visuals was excellent, so it’s something we’re continuing to evolve.
Q. Did you take your ethereal apsara dancer from Galaxy Khmer to Europe?
A. Julien: We’ve been working with principle dancer and choreographer Khen Vanthy for a while now. When we met theatre director Michael Laub in Phnom Penh, Michael told us the elements of a show he’d like to bring together, and we rounded up our musicians, dancers and film people, and then met Michael at Phare in Battambang, where he was already working, so naturally we put all these people and ideas together and spent a couple of weeks rehearsing under the (very hot) Phare Circus big top.
Q. It felt you were taking us time travelling — back to the great Khmer Empire with the apsara, the ‘golden era’ with the music and film clips, then back to the present with the circus performers? I felt like I was seeing something old and new, something uniquely Cambodian, very cool, and as contemporary as it was retro. Was that the intention?
A. Julien: Yes, I guess it was always the intention, to draw from the past and make something for today. Actually, today we’re working more and more with musicians and producers in Detroit. One of our friends over there in Motor City first heard us at MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit) and labelled us as ‘retro/modern’. I guess we just play and create music that inspires us and the back catalogue of Cambodian rock is a rich vein to tap into.
Q. You’ve been getting vinyl records pressed?
A. Julien: We’re an independent band and are self-producing most of our music. We want to get it on vinyl but it’s a very expensive process so recently we ran a crowd funding campaign to raise funds to press a full-length LP called Radio Cambodia. It was a successful campaign and worked through having product and perks for people to pre-order and at the same time support our endeavors.
Q. What have you been up to since returning to Cambodia?
A. Julien: Well, we’ve just staged the first stage of a ‘rock opera’ called Hanuman Spaceman in Kampot, in Southern Cambodia. It’s a rock opera we’ve been planning for the last couple of years and it was made possible by the support of the Australia Council’s Asia partnership initiative. Our local partner Kampot Traditional Music School for Orphans and Disabled have been great to work with. It was another mind-blowing experience working with great people and seeing our creative ideas come alive.
We staged two shows to a largely local audience who were quite awestruck by this play about a monkey that stumbles upon Soviet-era space technology in the Cambodian jungle. Hanuman Spaceman is a play with several layers to its narrative and one of these layers is following Channthy’s own bewildering ride in her own spaceship CSP.
Q. What’s next for Cambodia Space Project?
A. Julien: Channthy is off to Sydney where she is performing with her hip-hop group Astronomy Class. Cambodia Space Project will reconvene in the first week in December for shows in Melbourne, Australia, where we’ll play a venue called Ding Dong and coincide this with the release of a new 7” single Rom (Dance) Ding Dong. Two of our three Spacettes dancers will join us for the first time in Australia at Rom Ding Dong. Meanwhile, I’m in Cambodia and setting up a studio for Cambodia Space Project in Kampot.
Next year we’ll release Cambodia Space Project’s fourth album Electric Blue Boogaloo which is produced by Jim Diamond (of The White Stripes, The Dirt Bombs). Boogaloo is our rawest, grittiest, twangiest, most reverby, fuzzed out work to date and it’s a selection of songs that originate from all around the planet — Mexico, Italy, Holland, Thailand, France, UK, USA, and of course, Cambodia.
Galaxy Khmer is set to tour again next European summer, starting with dates at Theatre Garonne, Toulouse, on 5 and 6 June. Following these shows, Cambodian Space Project hits the touring circuit and will make a return to the UK where the band is booked for Glastonbury for Friday 26 June, 2015.
@CambodianSpace on Twitter
Read part two of our interview with Cambodian Space Project on Cambodian Rock and Roll.