Day 10 of 100 days: writing on flying through Space and Time with Kak Channthy and The Cambodian Space Project
We arrived for the first time in Detroit, USA on July 4th. It was to be the start of an incredible music adventure but it was also an opportunity – to record with Dennis Coffey – an opportunity created by the indie label we’d been working with but had come at the worst time imaginable.
In February 2013 , Channthy told me that she was pregnant! we were overjoyed and even doubly so on learning that we were expecting twins. I can’t describe the heartbreak we experience when just a few months later, Channthy lost the pregancy, I sat in with her during surgery to manage the miscarriage and wept. While it was also my loss, my heart broke for Channthy who had wanted this so much.
At the same time, things had become busy and more complex – an indie label was willing to foot the studio expenses of having Motown legend Dennis Coffey produce our third album but at the same time had no budget for Channthy and I to stay and live in Detroit. We were so overstretched financially and really were just working to keep on track with our commitments in Phnom Penh. With news that Thy was expecting, I started trying to slow down our schedule of shows and to re-figure dates to suit. We’d also been in Battambang, working on both animations for CSP’s film – something that was less and less a team effort and entirely the domain of German filmmaker Marc Eberle, and also Belgian ‘avant garde’ theatre director Michael Laub’s plans for CSP to develop a show and tour to Berlin. Like Marc’s CSP film, Michael’s theatre work…which ran with the title I gave it “Galaxy Khmer” was a major work and something that was also meant to be of great benefit to us and indeed everyone in collaboration. It seemed like a culmination of all our best wishes and hopes of what ‘could happen’ starting to happen beyond all expectations… heck! our team was even starting to receive per diems! but more so, amazing results and traveling to record with Dennis Coffey in Detroit was potentially the icing on the cake but then it wasn’t.
Thy lost her twins and we were like two lost souls dealing with our grief. We’d been so good together these last few months but now things just felt helpless. I felt like the best way to get through things was to keep busy – I’m always like this – I like busyness but when one’s rudderless it’s hopeless idea. I kept up emails with an increasing angst on the ‘pros and cons’ for Detroit…recording…costs…how to do it? was it even worth it? The deal kinda sucked but the musical artistic opportunity was great – questions going on through my head until I began to feel sick. It was worse for Channthy, I could see good things ahead out of all this but she couldn’t or simply wouldn’t. Another memorable incident – a big fight between Thy and I – came the day we were packing some merch at her shop. A friend had turned up to help, I’d only just met Tony Lefferts but he’d been incredibly encouraging and kind about all things CSP… Tony also loved what we’d created with Thy’s little Pop Shop in Golden Sorya Mall and saw much potential to develop it further… so there we all were… packing suitcases and Thy starting to say “Okay…Now I No Go!” WTF? what do you mean you no go? we’d be talking about this for months. “I No Go! Poulson… if you want sing song studio… you sing yourself”. I was furious… Tony was trying to calm and explain…meanwhile the German filmmaker turned up…whipped out his big camera and provoked the situation even further… “No…I gotta film this! It’s part of the story” and indeed it is part of the story but an ugly, sad and difficult part. In the end we got to the airport but not before Channthy insisted I get on my knees and beg! ridiculous! but hey… I did it.
Landing in Detroit our moods had lifted – we were already a world away from the trouble we temporarily put aside and had made up and enjoyed talking and being together through the long route from Phnom Penh to Detroit. Upon landing were met at the airport by Mathew – someone we barely new but a friend who’d become an instant CSP fan after seeing us at one of our best shows – a wild little night at a tiny venue called Madison Cnr in Battambang… Thy’s performance had been exceptional that night but it was also around the night that we probably lost the pregancy, she wouldn’t learn of this until a check-up on return to Phnom Penh a week later. At that show, Mathew had introduced himself and mentioned that if we ‘were ever in Detroit… ‘ and we got talking.. “Oh Dennis Coffey… he’s recording you, I’m a fan…that man’s a legend and I see him every other week at Northern Lights”. We stayed in touch and Matt, knowing our worries about staying in Detroit came back by email with a great offer… ” My sister T’s got a great place, she’s a great person and she’s happy to host y’all”… “Wow!” it was doable and then all of a sudden …there we were… strolling out through the exit doors and into a balmy summer’s night in the D!
The Big D
Things just got better and better and soon we were with a great bunch of friends, my old friends from Melbourne – Lizzie and Reggie Ray – had relocated to Detroit. They’re great creative people and I even semi-recorded and produced an album for them… set-up with a bedroom studio back in Jackson Street Melbourne, we hung out for a while and recorded 72 Blues – wow! check this out! 72 Blues – Not No More
Lizzy and Reggie were right on hand to help us get more than a little bit excited about the recording sessions coming up and about Detroit – they’d just done the migration to the D and were totally enamoured – as we’d soon be – but all the cool stuff there… from Motown Museum to The Heidelberg Project and just the dilapidation and ruin itself – something else Thy loved… “Wow! Detroit very cool place… I like it… can we go to Vietnam soup shop bong?”. Also, we’d settled into Tatyana’s place… nothing dilapidated or ruinous about T’s place – it was uptown, stylish (she’s an auto designer) and relaxed and welcoming…. T also knew many of the music community and arts scene so we’d landed in the right place and just like Matt had email… she’s an awesome person and a very, very kind host. Still, Channthy and I weren’t getting on … this time in 2013 was the beginning our our end as a married couple and almost as co-pilots of CSP. But it was the people around us who made all the difference and we were so damn lucky! Mark the filmmaker had turned up for the ‘last bits’ of the now fully BBC Commissioned documentary… we enjoyed hanging out, especially with friends like photographer Scott, Reggie and Lizzie who put Mark up at their place and introduced us all to Jim Diamond – Ghetto Studios – who we soon met at an Indo restuarant where he was dj’ing and spinning all the kinda stuff we love. I still hadn’t met Dennis Coffey … I was starting to wonder what he was like and asked T, hey… I’m getting these really short emails… I’m not sure whether this is going to work out, he doesn’t seem so interested… Messages like “Money arrived. Now we can begin”. T explained “don’t worry…that’s probably just how he is…. it’s be great! the man’s a pro”… and so we did begin but not before i got through a speed read of Dennis’ autobiography “Guitars, Bars and Motown Superstars” – for a man of few words via email … this book was a revelation. But not to Channthy – who was not interested in hearing my extracts and was totally distracted and on the phone constantly to some guy somewhere in the USA – a Cambodian guy? calling her up all hours and chatting for hours on end. I tried to ignore this. Meanwhile, when we did put book and phone down and did get out there, it was great! We even had our first proper Detroit gig booked – nothing less than the closing party for Concert of Colors, playing the wrap right after The Family Stone as last act of the festival.
The family Stone alone
We got to go the closing events of Concert of Colors and what a show it was…a who’s who of the Detroit Motor City scene… curated by another legendary local producer Don Was… it covered everything from pre Motown to current acts – bands from Jim Diamond’s “I’m a bit more down town… ” studio and of course the finale was the Family Stone… Channthy was blown away by this show…oohing and aahing at all the dresses and outfits onstage, jumping up and down about the music… she was absolutely thrilled to be here in Detroit and to realise that she was also part of all this… right after Family Stone she’d show us why, with our own show – with Reggie on drums and Jim Diamond on Bass at MOCAD (Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit). But kept asking me ‘who’s this band….what’s that guy? who the singer? oooh I know this one… I love this song”. Meanwhile I was thinking Family Stone with no Sly… I’m not sure this is going to be good. Of course, it as brilliant but I kept thinking….where’s Sly? he’s still alive right? why wasn’t he here?. I tried to explain to Thy that this band normally has an incomparable singer…. “Oun it’s like CSP playing without you… it doesn’t work”. Sly, so I was told by everyone within five feet of earshot… “Oh man… It’s sad….he’s totally coked out and living in his trailer… he ain’t likely to be coming back anytime soon….totally gone… it’s a pity”.
So, then were were in this stinking hot, humid warehouse, hundreds of people pouring in for our set and there we were… really the CSP of just me and Channthy with Reggie and Jim wingin’ it. They did a great job of winging it too but my ship sank quickly….first song…so damn hot … less then 2 minutes into our opening song I snap two strings at once…. without a backup guitar it was a humiliating scramble around in the darkness of a poorly lit backstage trying desperately to locate and change strings… the show went on. Somehow, Channthy transfixed and beguiled everyone and we got through the night.
Things were becoming more than just fun… the Big D was a revelation… thanks to Reggie teeing up some cool ideas we soon found ourselves jamming and hanging out with Jim down at his Ghetto Studios… one day, Thy was down on the street just outside the entrance to the studio – housed in an old Chicken factory building built in the 1920’s and copped a bit of racial abuse.. the first she’d encountered in all our travels… an old black lady, vagrant and passing up and down the street every other day… came sauntering past slowly… I was about 5 metres away from Thy but heard and saw her coming… checking out Thy with a skewed stare and starting this whine that got louder and more discernible as she past… “whaaa you Chinese, Taiwan….Vietnamese, Cambodian BIATCH!”
Thy just cracked up laughing…. “Oh wha? what did she say? talking about me? Cambodia….Oh my god Bong… she very crazy woman…” I was happy to see Thy relaxed, laughing at the situation and by this stage, really feeling at home in Detroit. We went back upstairs, away from the insanity of the downtown D and into Jim’s sanctuary – another amazing part of Detroit’s music story. Jim’s best known for recording (and falling out with) The White Stripes but to aficienados…for all sorts of brilliant records – from The Sonics to Andre Williams. We were about to start one of our own…. Mics on, tape and cameras rolling…. this is what happened next.
Needless to say…. the tape rolled, Channthy sang, talked, laughed and relaxed… we were becoming a Space Project in Detroit. It’s funny how it was working out… again, the concept of our CSP had very much been a family right from the beginning but of course, one where individuals where coming and going and each time it’d change slightly – different personalities, different chemistry but really same kind of spirit. As one of our Aussie line-up once reminded me…”joining the CSP is not just a gig, it’s a privilege” and I was happy to hear this … i agreed but it was not always smooth sailing, we had to work on it. Channthy’s way was to always put people as ease, cooking food for everyone was something she loved too… “Hey Dennis… you wanna come try my Lok Lak? don’t worry not too spicy for you…” By 2013, we’d really just become a duo and were working with different line-ups every other gig… but Thy would always make each grouping a family of friends, all gathered together on the same mission and that why each different incarnation also worked. By the time we started recording with Dennis, I’d read his book, relaxed with the idea that we were fine and happy and ready to go. Dennis turned out to be beyond all expectations, a great person in the studio – first to arrive each day and often the last to leave and this as the ripe old age of 73! Al Sutton likewise, cool and relaxed, easy to work with, excellent at his craft and great with keeping the group of musicians on track and effective. Dennis’s studio band… “Hey Dennis… I forgot to ask… what’s the name of this band?” Coffey laughed….”Oh they are called The Band I Call to Pay and Play” but more than that, they were also a family band…a band gathered not just for the play or pay but for the privilege or working with someone great and on something that – made all together – was even greater. We kicked off Whisky Cambodia – the name of our third LP by laying down the track If You Wish To Love Me and here it is…
I’m writing for 100 days in tribute to Channthy but I’m going to wind up this little meander on Detroit and what is means to be on the road, be in a band, be part of a family of friends here…. I’m busy right now, I’m in Kampot and I’ve just spend the day putting the proverbial band back together…. It’s got a gig tomorrow night at the French Embassy in Phnom Penh and it’s going by the name of The Mothership…. like the Family Stone without the brilliance of Sly, we’re really the CSP starting out again but this time without our beloved Channthy – The Mothership has begun…. I’m thrilled to say it’s very much as a family unit too… at it’s core there’s me, Channthy’s brother Lenny, Bong Sak on drums and introducing the best person to step into Channthy’s shoes in light of our current situation and loss, Bong Sak’s daughter Samnang – aka Lucky.
More on Detroit and Whisky Cambodia to come…. meanwhile, meet the CSP Mothership and watch this space!
Please support KAK CHANNTHY MEMORIAL FUND
For those of you in Phnom Penh, I’m pleased to say the CSP Mothership sets sail on it’s first voyage and debut show at 65 Friday 27th of April at the French Embassy.
This show had been booked for CSP but now it’s the right opportunity for us to keep our CSP team going…Channthy would have wanted this and I can’t think of a better cause to be involved in than one that supports wildlife and environment… we all love elephants!
Welcome aboard The CSP Mothership! In Channthy’s name, we will never stop flying!