(L to R) Christopher Minko, frontman of Krom, with with guitarist Jimmi Baec and lead singer Sophea in the studio at Cambodian Living Arts. Photograph: Sarin Chhuon/Phnom Penh Post
Sitting in the gloomy night-light of a Khmer café, Chris Minko, the Australian frontman of Krom, is telling me how people find him disturbing and why he doesn’t care. It is five days ahead of his Phnom Penh-based band’s first live performance, which will be broadcast live on CTN on Saturday.
The sentiment is hard to deny, coming at the end of an hour of a snarling, semi-Biblical tirade about Cambodia’s sex trade and hypocritical NGO world that has included the words “seven year-old chained to a bed”.
He courts the funerary image tonight, chain-smoking, dressed in all-black – crisp shirt, slacks – with his guitar resting beside his chair. A Mick Jagger cheeky, cavalier manner with the 3am whisky growl of Tom Waits and simple, rhythmic folk songs of Johnny Cash.
As Phnom Penh’s Man in Black, he is an apt choice for this month’s Phnom Penh Noir short story collection, which features stories by Roland Joffé, director of The Killing Fields, Kosal Khiev and a host of other authors working in the region. The complete catalogue of his powerful, twisted lyrics close out the collection.
But if Minko’s public figure is part-noir, there’s a kinder, lighter side that makes him all the more inscrutable. He has decades of experience in the arts world, and runs a host of disabled sports projects.
His long-standing work with the Cambodian National Volleyball League took the Cambodian team to number two in the world last year – a triumph over adversity story soon to be given a Hollywood makeover by Joffé.
He is also a loving single father to an intelligent, vivacious 18 year-old woman who seems to adore and respect him. When her Thai mother died 10 years ago he raised Anya alone.
The dark/bright contrast is felt in his music, too: Cambodian double act the Chamroeun Sisters (Sophea and Sopheak) croon Khmer charming folk ballads to the sound of slide-guitar. As Sophea is a lead dancer with Cambodian Living Arts, Minko has a collaborative project with the arts group in the works.
It’s a strange juxtaposition. In one song, a sweet-faced young woman sings about leaving home to work in the city. In Mango Madness Minko pulls on a cigarette and walks street 104 with what appears to be a genuine Glock in his hand. Where does the darkness come from?
“Because I observe these things, Poppy,” he says. (Minko punctuates his statements by using your name, whether to drive the point home or grab your attention: “I believe in Krom enough through the music, Poppy”, “One of the things to understand about me, Poppy.)
“There’s a very disturbing side to life in Southeast Asia that we tend to gloss over. In Cambodia it’s all Angkor Wat and let’s look at temples and be nice and the future will be rosy, but there’s a very dark side, mate – not only in the recent past but to this very day.”
He’s talking about the sex industry: a subject that dominates both his conversation and his lyrics. Most of his songs express a visceral hatred of the trade.
“Welcome to our daughers, we breed them on our farms,” he snarls on Tango Traffic Tango. There’s a grotesque focus on the physicality of age: the “sagging flesh”, “wrinkled old arms”.
“If you’re a 20-something-year-old girl, you don’t want a 55-year-old man. This Khmer girl in her teens or early 20s, she wants a freshie boy. This is a land of deluded white men,” he says, not for the first time.
“But don’t get me wrong, I’m not an innocent man: I’ve been here a long time,” he adds and mentions a “debauched first entry into Phnom Penh.”
Now he lives in a state of semi-self-exile. Most of his time is spent playing guitar at home. “I’m probably quite unique in that I would be one of the very few single white men of my age, 56, who has chosen to be that way.”
When Minko goes out to Riverside for dinner with his daughter people mistake them for a couple. Onlookers stare and mutter: a humiliation that kept his daughter at home out of embarrassment when she was younger.
“I think it’s a pretty disgusting community here by and large. There are so many people here in very responsible positions that are indulging in things they could never do in their countries – they would be behind f**king bars. There’s a hypocrisy here that is very noir in nature.”
Conversation over and in a typically playful ending to the evening, he banters with the Khmer staff at the doorway, pecks his fist and blows in a parting gesture, then walks into the night.
Krom will perform on CTN at 5.30pm on Saturday. Phnom Penh Noir is published via Heavenlake Press. The official launch will be on November 30 at the Foreign Correspondents Club. The authors and publishers will contribute 20 per cent of their earnings to selected charity organisations in Cambodia. The Phnom Penh Post is a media sponsor.
To contact the reporter on this story: Poppy McPherson at [email protected]