Guitar afficionados James Speck and Dylan Walker discovered the ukulele a few years ago, and soon after that decided to start the first ukulele band in Cambodia as a joke.
But though it was originally a gag, the Ukes of Hazard is now a fixture of the Phnom Penh music scene, with the band regularly performing at venues including Mao’s, Sharky and the FCC. The Ukes spoke to 7Days about music, life, Cambodia, and the key to their success.
How did you find each other and why did you decide to form a ukulele band?
We met at an open mic night at Paddy Rice, over a year ago. James turned up with the ukulele, and I was already playing the ukulele, so this is when it was born I guess.
We started playing together with other people, we were in a Rolling Stones cover band together for a while, and then for our first gig we sort of opened as a joke for another band. But we had a lot of fun so we carried on doing it.
When and why did you move to Phnom Penh?
Dylan: I came here 15 months ago, to follow a girl.
James: I have been here for a year and eight months, after 17 years in Singapore. I wanted to stay in the area. I thought about Jakarta – I speak Indonesian – but the traffic is too heavy. I just wanted a different life and to get out of the large city and go to a nicer place.
Why did you start playing the ukulele?
Dylan: I was travelling for nearly a year and I missed my guitar. I was in Australia and I decided to buy this ukulele for about $15. It was perfect, I could carry it everywhere. I haven’t played the guitar since then. But I can’t speak for James. I think he was born with the ukulele.
James: Oh yes, I was born with the ukulele in my mouth. No, it’s actually the same, like Dylan I played guitar for a long time before starting to play this instrument. I picked up the ukulele in Singapore, while I was living there, and I have just been mental over it. Now it’s really cool and I like being in a band with no guitar players.
Dylan: And it’s also easy to learn! It’s only four strings instead of six, and if you have small hands like me it’s just perfect.
Do you prefer performing in Cambodia or in other countries?
Dylan: I think I prefer performing here. I am English and I was living in London before I came here and to rehearse in London is too expensive. To take your gear from one part of town to another costs a lot, and if you play a gig usually you won’t get paid, unless you make some ticket money on the door. There is a lot more competition too.
James: We are the number one ukulele band in Cambodia! Because we are the only one in Cambodia.
Dylan: But in the UK there are a lot of ukulele bands, and in America and Australia there are even more.
How would you define the psycho-ukelele genre?
James: Dylan is using a kaossilator which is like a digital electronic thing that adds a psychedelic sound to what we are doing. He’s adding in bass and loops that really expand the sound, and then we just go mental.
Dylan: I think that having the kaossilator really makes it a little bit more crazy.
Do you have your own repertoire?
Dylan: We mostly do covers, but we do some originals as well, we try to push more in.
James: We both write and in February we are playing at the Thailand ukulele festival in Bangkok, with bands coming from all over the world.
How would you describe the Cambodian audience?
Dylan: Usually our audience is made up of expats, but Cambodian people do seem really interested and happy to watch our gigs. I did some street busking for the Street 240 Christmas extravaganza, and Cambodian people would stay there, smiling at me, and watch much longer than the expats.
James: And don’t forget about the tuk tuk session. We did a charity gig, in a tuk tuk, on stage. They shot a video of the crowd, and the Cambodian audience was really into it. We had a lot of fun. But I must say, the kaossilator really helped. People like it more when it goes really psychedelic. I mean, the ukes are cool, but when it goes psychedelic it’s something else.
Dylan: Yes, I think people are more interested when they hear the synthesiser
What is your next move?
James: I am thinking about opening a studio, to work there with other people. I don’t like working at my place, so I would rather have a studio, open to photography and video shoots, animation, motion capture, and some music as well, something very cool. But I still don’t know the details, so I can’t really announce it yet.