What do a graphic designer, a high school student, a national taekwondo athlete and kick volleyball (sepak takraw) player have in common? For the four members of SmallWorld SmallBand, it’s a desire to revolutionise contemporary Cambodian pop rock music.
“Maybe we can call it fate that we met each other and do something big together,” says vocalist-lyricist Lomorkesor ‘Kesor’ Rithy, 23. Kesor, along with 28-year-old bassist Riemsok Phearun, founded the band in 2012 with high hopes but little more than Phearun’s family home in Phnom Penh to practice in.
Along with Phearun and Kesor, the band features 18-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarist Morm Picherith (also known for being the producer for Khmeng Khmer) and Rong Sophy David, 20, on drums.
Post Weekend joined the four members last week in their makeshift rehearsal studio as they prepared for their debut album release concert tonight at the Black Box Theatre.
The band came together and first entered the national spotlight five years ago with their hit original Khmer Flag Song, a patriotic ode to the country. From there, they have amassed a youthful fan base of 70,000 on Facebook. The album’s eponymous track, 2x5, recounts the origin story of the band.
“In the chorus we’re talking about how this is our second step, this is our dream, so we’ve created a small world, a Khmer small band,” Kesor explains, the first “step” being their respective primary occupations: student, graphic designer, athlete.
The ‘5’, meanwhile, represents the four band members as well as the essential people in the background: family, friends and supporters.
For Phearun, this support was as simple as his family allowing them to play on the ground floor of their home.
“My parents wanted to see something new from [us] . . . For their free time, teenagers go out and sometimes they get drunk – they do something useless – but we have free time and then we make music, we have our studio, we have our place, we have our band,” he says with a laugh.
Despite the “garage band” cliché of playing at mom and dad’s house, SmallWorld SmallBand have big ambitions to redefine what contemporary Cambodian music is about.
“We try to use more casual language . . . Cambodian slang words. I think there’s something about it,” Kesor says. There’s also a subtle use of traditional instruments in backing tracks that Picherith has produced.
“If you’re talking about the music industry in Cambodia right now, we’re one of the people trying to find a Cambodian voice . . . When people put on our track, I want them to think, ‘Oh, this is a Cambodian song,’” Kesor says.
While there are inevitable love songs among the eight tracks on the album, they’ve tried to avoid the sappy, melodramatic Khmer pop romantic ballads that dominate the music industry.
Picherith, who wrote the song Love Alone about his first experience falling in love – something he says he questioned at first – says the message is aimed at young people who he believes often take romance to an unhealthy extreme.
“They take it too seriously,” he says, adding that he sees far too often a simple heartbreak having an overwhelming effect on his peers, who will let their studies slip over unrequited romance. “They haven’t thought far,” he says.
“You have to control yourself; don’t overdo something,” Kesor adds.
For them, Cambodia’s music industry is in part to blame for promoting that behaviour through the music it popularises.
“I think the word is ‘move on’,” Kesor says with a laugh, adding that “before you love someone you gotta love yourself first – I think that’s the message in every love song we’ve got here, but we try to explain it in different ways.”
Despite this, the band doesn’t avoid heavy emotions entirely. Closing the album, the song Dear Father takes a darker tone as an elegy to an absent figure in one’s life – in this case, Picherith and Kesor’s fathers.
The young guitarist occupied by school, work and music only realised how absent his father had been from his life when he passed away last year. “For me it’s that I wasn’t able to say anything and he was gone,” Picherith says.
Kesor’s father, meanwhile, left her mother when he discovered she was not carrying a son. “He decided to find another family and leave me,” she says. “I really don’t know what that [paternal] love is about.”
The band also breaks with tradition in their live shows, telling stories between their songs instead of the usual MC banter, in what Phearun calls a “music and story-telling concert”. “We’re going to see how Cambodians react to this kind of system,” Kesor adds.
Central to the whole concept of the band is nonconformity and following passion rather than social pressure, much of which came from the members’ parents when they first started the band.
“In Cambodia, the old generation’s perspective is that you’re not gonna have a future if you don’t have ‘X’ hours of work per day in an office,” Kesor says, which isn’t the case when you work on musical projects. These social expectations are “a wall” they’ve all had come up against.
For Kesor, it takes on added dimension as a woman.
“As a woman you only can work at the bank, accounting or as a cashier, dressed up nicely seated in an office . . . I can say I was affected, but I fought hard for it, I told myself that my family was going to be disappointed in me but I won’t follow them, but now I’ve proved to them that I can do it,” she says.
Facing pressure about her raspy voice or her skinny physique, Kesor says at first she was afraid.
“I put those words aside . . . I found people that understand what I’m doing,” including her “soulmate”, her sister Lomorpich, with whom she’s worked in setting up the annual Bonn Phum music, arts and culture festival, as well as the arts collective Plerng Kob, which is also the band’s production label.
“This album is very important because it’s proving to my family that I can do it,” she says. “After five years, they’re accepting me. They understand what I want to do in life.”
SmallWorld SmallBand is playing a sold out show tonight from 5pm- 7:30pm at the Black Box Theatre, International School of Phnom Penh. 2x5 will be available for download from the Smart Music Store on Saturday.