Night of the Iguana: What does Iggy Pop, a brazen cat burglar and Cambodia’s nascent music scene have in common? May well you ask…
Sometime around 3am on Friday April 7, sound engineer and Cambodian Space Project guitarist Jason Shaw was sleeping… happily in deep sleep, for it’d been an action packed week but things were about to take a most mysterious and dramatic twist. While Shaw slept soundly in his top floor room at The Vacation Boutique Hotel, a cat burglar or perhaps a few, had already cut a way through the steel grill that prevents access to the room’s street-side balcony. Somehow, the burglars crept, undetected, in and out of the room – making off with Jas’s laptop, a bag full of recording equipment and worst of all, a hard drive containing six months worth of recording sessions covering of some of the most brilliant musical acts in the Kingdom, plus, a near completed, and especially prized, recording session – one that features an inspired assembly of Cambodia’s most exciting new bands – each covering Iggy Pop songs.
An hour or so after the intruders hightailed with their heist, Jas awoke to a shocking and heartbreaking discovery… the burglars (most likely armed with a knife or gun) had brazenly ransacked his room while he slept; they’d reached right across his somnolent self, to snatch from his bedside, a most precious collection of work & equipment – strangely the thieves left some items such as mobile phone and cash. But made off with the master tapes for the best of Cambodia’s music scene – acts like The Cambodian Space Project, Doch Chkae, Kampot Playboys, Professor Kinski with Miss Sarawan and Jessica Lisha Srin, Bokor Mountain Magic Band, Phnom Skor just to name a few – each covering selections from Iggy Pop’s astonishing 50 year back catalogue.
Recording sessions had been happening all through an intensely busy week where each group fitted into a tight time slot to lay down their sounds for an album Jas and I had dubbed “Angkor Pop!” an tribute to Iggy Pop – intended as a showcase and companion release to The Cambodian Space Project’s own track-by-track homage to Iggy Pop’s seminal Lust for Life – all thrilling and exciting stuff, especially at a time when Iggy Pop himself has not only given us his full blessing but seems rather chuffed with the tribute coming from far flung Cambodia.
Earlier we’d put the call-out within our local music and arts scene:
“Angkor Pop! Is an exotic and ambitious compilation project – showcasing the very best of Cambodia’s new wave of East/West fusion groups, with the aim to present this incredible collection of new talent to the world via vinyl and digital release. Angkor Pop! is a broad and expansive pop art project bringing together musicians, visual artists, sound engineers and producers, videographers and performers. It is an homage that marks several astonishing milestones in rock’n’roll history – the 50th anniversary of The Stooges, the 40th anniversary of the seminal Iggy Pop/David Bowie albums The Idiot and Lust for Life and, not least, the occasion of Iggy Pop’s 70th Birthday!!”
A clearly bewildered Jason, now fully compos mentis, sent me a message just after the theft then proceeded to spend a long, dreary day speaking with hotel management and local police. There wasn’t much I could do to help but be equally devastated by the news. I was already heading back to Phnom Penh that day and had been expecting an exciting listening session to review a great week of recordings – after all, we’d gone to a lot of trouble and expense to make it all happen and the fabulous concept of compiling Cambodia bands covering Iggy Pop had become a reality – but instead I headed directly to the hotel, quizzed the manager, cased the place and could see that the burglary was most likely an inside job – a total set-up – someone or several people must have been well aware of the room’s shiny contents, the recording equipment, its occupant’s movements and of a way to get in and out. I checked out the back of the hotel (the Police didn’t do this), to find a kind of laundry cum staff area where I could see a ladder still leaning towards the roof – clear access. Later Jas double-checked and found another easy access to the roof and to his room, both areas where none of the hotel’s security cameras are installed.
It was unnerving to think that Jas may have been watched and set-up but then again, not surprising, a standard pattern in a poor country rife with this sort of crime, especially at ‘crime spike’ time – the days leading up to Khmer New Year. A time when everyone, desperate, poor or otherwise, is expected to return to family gatherings in villages across the Kingdom, bringing some kind of bounty, perhaps just enough money for the trip home. But how would these thieves know that their windfall of laptop and other odds and ends was so much more valuable? And involve so many more people than just one unsuspecting tourist’s kit bag? I seriously doubted these local bandits would have any idea they’d stolen something very precious to us – cracking Iggy Pop recordings!! Nor would they have any inkling or a clue to who the hell Iggy Pop was in the first place – 50 years as the World’s Wildest Punk – the reigning King of American rock’n’roll whose bold and enduring influence on culture even permeates far off places such as Cambodia. Nor would it have dawned upon the hapless thieves that 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of one James Osterberg Jnr, professionally known as Iggy Pop, emerging from an Ann Arbor trailer park to shake the world with The Stooges, or that 2017 marks 40 years since David Bowie and Iggy Pop got together to record the classic albums The Idiot and Lust for Life… these ignorant thieves (assuming there was more than one) would not have known any of this, or did they?
The week had kicked off kinda strangely… with an Angkor Pop! launch of sorts. First up: an outdoor concert at Freedom Park for an event called Camboo Fest. Camboo Fest was devised as a 4-day showcase of sustainable bamboo architecture leading up to April 1 – yes, Fool’s Day – with a concert as a finale. Camboo Fest showcased a few of our Angkor Pop! acts. On the day of the show, I was traveling back back to Phnom Penh from Sydney while my creative compadre and fellow Space Projector, Jason Shaw was flying in from Vietnam.
Right from the get go, things went awry – a storm of biblical proportions hits Phnom Penh, rattles and blows the flimsy bamboo structures, including the music stage, clearing festival staff and audience alike, scattering the whole shebang across Freedom Park. Around show time there’s a lull, the wind and rain subside just long enough for a lively opening by punk pop trio The Schkoots (covering No Fun), followed on by Professor Kinski and MC Lisha, Hypnotic Fist Technique and this writer’s very own UFO – The Cambodian Space Project. For just a moment, it was all happening! Freedom Park was alive and pumping but soon we’d all moved on to Oscar’s Bar where Nightmare AD were unleashing their own kind of maelstrom – made-in-Cambodia death metal – on all and sundry. While it felt like a great night to be back in Phnom Penh (a slightly wild night) I soon discovered that one of my guitars – a Fender P Bass – had vanished in the chaos, most likely stolen, backstage at Freedom Park. A disappointing bit of news, but certainly not the first time I’ve lost equipment and hardly uncommon in Cambodia where this goes with the territory; for the sake of keeping the show on the road – I’ll only use cheap, crappy, replaceable gear. Anyway, I cut my losses and split to catch-up on some much needed sleep, in a just few hours, Jason and I would be back at Oscar’s ready to ‘roll tape’ with the first of our acts, Phnom Skor (Sugar Mountain) scheduled for an ungodly 10am start. As I staggered down the narrow stairs and into a waiting tuk tuk, Professor Kinski’s stunning version of TV Eye was spinning on my minds turntable – Earlier, at Freedom Park, Kinski aka Jan Mueller had cranked up a preview of the first completed track for Angkor Pop! A most exotic electro reworking featuring the shrill, otherworldly voices of Miss Sarawan and Jessica Lisha Srin – banging out a uniquely Khmer take on TV Eye – wow!
Sunday Morning. After a whole lotta hollering, banging and steadfast persistence, Jas and I somehow managed to wake a bleary-eyed Oscar’s staffer in possession of the all-important item – the key! Going right to plan! we were now inside Oscar’s – a site for sore eyes and a abhorrently early start… not long after… Daryl Carter arrives on the scene… Daryl rates (self-confessed) as one of Cambodia’s most drunken and obnoxious expats who occasionally – has a good side. Carter’s flip side is some what obscured by random-psycho-outbursts – imagine a stuck cd playing Sleaford Mods or a drunken chimp with Tourettes – but yes, there is a good side… and lately, to his credit, Carter’s shown a glimpse of this through his enthusiasm to build a radio station in Kampot – Cambodia’s charmingly rustic coastal retreat and home to bands like the Kampot Playboys – and to record and document all the live music happening across Cambodia. On this occasion, Carter was in possession of uncharacteristically polite demeanor – asking if he could perhaps “record the session or two” using his portable radio gear. “Sure…why not” I replied, “It’d be great to have you document some of this week, and you’ll get a lot of excellent material to kick off your radio station…” nearly a dozen, very different, totally original, Cambodian Western fusion acts laying down their own interpretations of Iggy Pop songs…”
Soon, Phnom Skor members had arrived and plugged in and were already jamming out a blistering version of The Stooges classic “Ann”. Jason had our mobile studio up and running and was capturing a fabulously raw sound coming off the band playing through Oscar’s decrepit stage gear. Pulsating through the snake of leads and various plug heads the ‘Skors’ had soon cut a wild version of Ann – brilliant! If this keeps up and the rest of the acts hit this high mark the Skors had just set, then Angkor Pop! would shape up as an amazing success!
Early the next day, local faves The Kampot Playboys arrived on scene. By this time, a more disheveled Radio Daryl had already had found his way inside Oscar’s icebox to liberate a few early rounds of coldies and was blathering on about some cheap guesthouse, a long night of hostess bars and something about losing his flip flops… walking barefoot through the seedy backstreets of Riverside… Jas was on the other hand was spurring on The Kampot Playboys to record a thumpingly good version of I’m Bored – made especially cool by the clash of traditional Cambodian instruments with great rock’n’roll chops KPB’s throw at everything they do. A family of 5 monkeys had even swung across the mess of power lines and dropped in through the balcony mid session. I’d already split by the time the monkeys crashed the scene and before the Playboy’s had wound up. Later, I touched base with Jas and we got together for a listening session at The Vacation. That night Kampot Playboys took the opportunity of coming up from Kampot to Phnom Penh, to perform an insanely good live show at Oscar’s – at one point they even blew the fuse box and Oscar’s was thrown into darkness – bar staff stood around blinking while fanning the smoking fuse box ingeniously using bits of card ripped from beer cartoons just as a King Daddy sized rat bolted along a low-slung power cable hanging across the venue’s far wall – I did a double-take – did a rat just chew through the cable? Did the KPB’s just smoke the joint or was this just another power outage? Only in Phnom Penh! South East Asia’s most rock’n’roll city where every night is acid night.
Sometime the following morning, Jas and I managed to get back in at Oscar’s, this was no easy task – Oscar himself – drummer, owner, impresario – does not rise before 5pm. On this occasion, however, Oscar appeared earlier than usual…he looked worried…. Soon telling us that the sessions might have to wind up sooner than planned – neighbors were complaining! Ah Philistines! That morning, I’d also concluded I would have to bail ahead of schedule – Time to get back home to Kampot. I’d been away for seven weeks now, first on Cambodian Space Project’s “Spaced-Out In Wonderland” tour of Cambodia then over to Australia. My ever patient and loving partner was starting to question whether I was ever coming back home. I was also due back in Australia in a few days and Jason too would be returning to the UK for a couple of months – the few days were critical, if we were going to get all this Angkor Pop! hoo hah in the can then this week reperesented a rare opportunity of ‘place and time’. Still, I needed to split before sessions for both Lue Thy & Bokor Mountain Magic Band and for Channthy – The Cambodian Space Project – both sessions I really wanted to be there for.
To use time as best as possible, Jas and I decided to jump in and record a version of Real Wild Child as a two-piece getting this track ready for Lue Thy to record, meanwhile, Radio Daryl was in full-flight, going mental at the idea that I’d try and play drums (badly) on the track – he was right too – sometimes it’s good to have a mentalist cut to the chase – we dropped this idea and switched to an 808 style drum machine and I laid down a touch of high voltage slide guitar getting the basic 12bar Blues down as a bed track. Luckily the Kampot Playboys turned up to collect their kit and we suddenly had a great drummer banging out live to our pre-record… all going down swimmingly… Radio Daryl and his own personal Beer Liberation Army had again found his way to an icebox of ‘guest’ beers while Jas rolled a few Jazz cigarettes and got another great sounding track down. Later we again retired to Jas’s room at The Vacation Boutique Hotel, where we’d set-up a comfortable vocal recording space for Channthy to come and over and sing her versions of The Passenger and Success.
So far, Angkor Pop! was shaping up as more than half way to being a fantastic album –
1. THE SCHKOOTS – NO FUN
2. PROFESSOR KINSKI, LISHA, SARAWAN – TV EYE
3. PHNOM SKOR – ANN.
4. KAMPOT PLAYBOYS – I’M BORED.
5. CAMBODIAN SPACE PROJECT – THE PASSENGER.
6. BOKOR MOUNTAIN MAGIC BAND – REAL WILD CHILD.
Channthy was still not sure if she was ready to sing so we decided it was dinner time, Pho soup should do the trick. But by the time we got back to Vacation, downed a few glasses of Red, chatted a bit, Channthy was too tired to record. Earlier Jas had set-up a mix of the two songs we’d hoped Channthy would record but all we could do was chat about ideas and reschedule. You can’t rush these things; creative inspiration arrives in its own good time and before the night was done Channthy told us how much she liked the music we’d recorded for The Passenger – a totally spaced-out, atmospheric version built around analog tape echoes and the sounds of a vintage Yamaha YC20 keyboard – she’d rewrite the lyrics in Khmer but would also sing about her own ‘big trip’ as a ‘passenger’, looking out the window, on a 5000km drive we once did, straight across the desert, from Darwin to Adelaide… this sounded like a cool idea… let’s try it in a couple of days.
A couple of days indeed… by the time the following morning came around, I’d escaped the hustle of Phnom Penh but was already splayed across the back seat of a taxi, feeling more than a little queasy, running a temperature as hot as a broken radiator… on my way home to Kampot. On arrival, all I could do was to crawl into bed, down a fist full of Panadol then queue up all 9 episodes of West World…what a wreck! This Iggy Pop stuff sure does take it out of ya!
Back in Phnom Penh, Jason and Channthy had also taken the night off, opting for river cruise to throw a surprise birthday party for Thy’s cousin Chanran. Later that night they sent me a touching video link of their little boat party singing Happy Birthday to Chanran! Chanran’s Channthy’s little cousin who has grown up in abject poverty has been a nanny to Channthy’s son Makara, making all CSP’s worldly touring possible. Chanran appeared caught completely by surprise when her step son Makara suddenly appears with a birthday cake and with tears streaming down her face, she realized she’d never even known her date of birth let alone had a ‘happy birthday’. Nice! One guys – this is why I love working with The Cambodian Space Project – more a rock’n’roll family than just a band.
I think the same can be said of the crew at Yab Moung Records – one of the first truly independent labels on the burgeoning Cambodian underground scene, bringing together some of the coolest up and coming artists such at Vartey Ganiva, Slitten 6ix and the one and only Doch Chkae – earlier in the day Jas had tracked Doch Chkae (Same Dog) covering Now I Wanna Be Your Dog – great choice for a bunch of kids raised on a rubbish dump in Phnom Penh with youngest member being a 12 year old bassist. Check em out:
There’s something about working in a band in Cambodia that is far more compelling and motivating than if one was doing the same thing back in the West. Perhaps it’s the unknown frontier nature of the setting or the simple fact that it’s very rough’n’ready, the scene’s totally roll your own, DIY, do what you can and celebrate it simply for the sake of doing. The other aspect is that the effort of creating a band also brings business and social opportunity to those who’ve never dreamed this is possible. Certainly that’s the case for CSP and vocalist Kak Channthy – none of us ever dreamed we’d be in a Cambodian rock’n’roll band taking our sounds out to the world and finding fulfillment and enrichment along the way – with this in mind I explained again to Channthy who Iggy Pop was and how this legendary figure – raised in a trailer park not so far from Detroit (where we’ve previously lived while recording Whisky Cambodia) is now spinning our recordings on his own radio show Iggy Confidential and only a few days prior, had played CSP’s first recording – a Khmer version of House of The Rising Sun – remarking in his inimitable, raspy but erudite fashion “I think I’d like to be drinking some of whatever she’s been drinking”.
The idea of Angkor Pop! Is also an excuse to bring together contributions from artists of other forms – pop artists producing visual work, video artists, writers and journalists to talk about the work or create something in response to the project’s parameters – I’d started to play with a few graphic ideas… Pop Art… using the image of Iggy but also taking onboard the idea of a kind of seismic shift where Western rock’n’roll culture moves East. Coincidentally a very cool printmaking studio in Yogyakarta – Krack Studios! Got in touch to invite me, along with 15 other artists, to contribute a piece to be screen-printed by their team for an exhibition responding to notion “Resistance is Futile”. The title refers to the famous statement by the Borg in Star Trek films; “We are the Borg… You will be assimilated… Resistance is Futile.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AyenRCJ_4Ww)
So Krack! Studio’s invitation to design a poster for a faux Science Fiction movie seemed like a perfect opportunity to create something equally suitable for Angkor Pop! And with “Resistance is Futile” in mind, I’d soon morphed Iggy Pop into Hanuman – the White Monkey Warrior – as a kind of shape-shifting, sci-fi, time bandit. Behind Iggy Hanuman the White Monkey, with words to The Passenger running in Sanskrit style lettering as a back ground – the lyrics for Pop’s incredible song were allegedly borrowed from a piece of poetry by Jim Morrison. I’m pleased with the design and can’t wait to see the actual printed work later this month, but also to have a selection of specially produced limited edition works to sell and raise money to help replace Jason’s equipment stolen from The Vacation. Clink on the link and check out Krack! Studio here.
Money can replace stolen equipment but it can’t replace all the lost recordings… or can it?
Time was against us, both Jason and I were already booked to fly out of Phnom Penh in less than 48 hours… not a lot of time to go searching… meanwhile, my own condition – terrible fever – had gone from very bad to much worse – all I remember of the day I arrived deliriously back in Phnom Penh was briefly seeing Jas and then Uncle Tony over at our Gallery – Space Four Zero – where both the guys switched to nurse maids, fetching ice-packed towels, anti-biotics, juice, water, vitamins…. Meanwhile…. Some updates with word on the street… Radio Daryl had already come up with a wild idea… flush out the stolen gear by getting down to the hotel entrance and hitting up all the moto-dops and tuk tuk drivers with a reward of cash money for return of gear – NO QUESTIONS ASKED! Far out…this whole thing was getting more and more crazy movie-like than ever… I sweated out the night…wondering what the hell was going on… West World reaching its climax… Daryl and Jason blipping in reward and recovery plans via a stream of Facebook updates… Daryl, to his credit, got to work straight away, offering to personally chuck in $100 but soon reported back that he’d almost got in a fistfight with a disgruntled tuk tuk driver and would need to up the money! The cash reward was soon upped to $350…meanwhile Radio Daryl, reporting in early a.m., let us know he’d spent much of the night making invaluable enquiries at the Pussy Cat bar… according to his own admission, he seemed to be onto something…*
…. by the next morning I was desperately I’ll… Khmer New Year had kicked in overnight and the city was suddenly deserted… another power outage meant that I couldn’t even get onto the internet or charge my phone battery to call for help… I’d figured my condition was now an emergency… for crying out loud… I’d stopped being able to piss!! And was now in unbearable pain… somehow, I found a tuk tuk and woke up my buddy Uncle Tony who helped me off to the nearest hospital, all the while, googling Doctors and clinics and getting calls and advice from friends and family now aware of my emergency… Tony and I pulled up at a fancy looking clinic…”Once they get their bears claws into ya…that’s gonna be expensive!” where I thankfully found a help – a surgeon, full strength medication and a hospital bed for the night…later, after an incision was made (and I had the best piss in my life), I recovered enough to check Facebook…
Low and behold, Detective Daryl had upped the reward to $1000USD – a huge sum to be waving around on the mean streets of PP and while he did not have ANY CASH IN HAND it did turn up the missing hard drive – all the Iggy Pop recordings had been recovered but none of the other equipment – mystery and intrigue! Jason had already left Phnom Penh but sent a message to say Daryl’s mentalist methods seemed to have worked, simultaneously Detective D had sent out a group message, something barely intelligible, something implying someone’s life was in danger! Sworn to secrecy about meeting someone – not far from the scene of the crime – to hand over reward money at a mini mart – Daryl didn’t have the money on hand but friends of the project got wind of the situation through a stream of Detective Daryl’s odd and mystifying group messages – soon, two of our incredibly kind and generous friends – also worried about meeting someone who was claiming mortal danger – promptly met on a dodgy corner outside outside a Smile Mini Mart – and handed over cash for the return of the lost treasure – our Made-In-Cambodia tribute to Iggy Pop.
Now, I’m back in Tasmania, Australia, unfortunately awaiting more surgery but ever thankful to our public health system – I’m a world away from Cambodia where it’s dog eat dog and you’re damned if you don’t have money to buy your way out of trouble.
From my hospital bed in Phnom Penh, I had had a 5 Star treatment plus a 5 Star view across the entire city – what a view! What a place… Phnom Penh’s fast becoming “First World” for a few but for most it’s a desperately poor and disadvantaged place, mean and nasty, where the disparity between have and have nots is heart wrenchingly sad. Still, somewhere down on those mean streets… there was a cashed up cat burglar, a whole lot better off… reveling unbeknownst in a rock’n’roll swindle and no doubt toasting their own particular brand of criminal prowess just in time to celebrate Khmer New Year… with a whole lotta other down and outers. Despite my own mixed feelings through all this, I indeed felt a great sense of relief, some of our valuable work – a huge commitment of passion, time and money – had been recovered – Daryl’s methods had worked – Jason’s loss was lessened – our ambition to create a homage to Iggy Pop closer – Cambodia’s music scene brighter and best of all I was booked to fly out this filthy mess – and I could piss again.
This story was written in response to many of our friends and cohorts in Cambodian and beyond… asking for an update on rumors. It is published on April 21, 2017 – the occasion of Iggy Pop’s 70th Birthday – Long live the reigning King of Rock’n’Roll – we salute you!
- * the faux $1000 Reward Poster (pictured) was an attempt to make light of a bad situation by adding some humor. As an ‘in joke’ I made and posted the reward poster artwork before I got word that Daryl had actually found a lead in his on-the-street search for the stolen equipment and Iggy Pop recordings. Apparently the mock poster has lead to a few people suspecting that Daryl’s somehow in on the heist – we don’t believe this and while Lance Corporal Carter’s methods are somewhat unorthodox, we’re very grateful to Daryl Carter for his efforts in recovering a most invaluable piece of stolen property – the Iggy Pop sessions recorded by some of South East Asia’s most amazing singers, bands and performers.