Fusing rap, hip- hop, R’n’B, ska and even some punk rock, Hypnotic Fist Technique is making waves in Phnom Penh with its frenzied live performances.
Crammed into the fluorescent-lit practice room at the Japan Guitar Shop near Russian Market, the six members of Hypnotic Fist Technique rehearse for their weekend concert. Even for an audience of one, they bring their characteristic bombastic energy to each number.
“Oh! Oh! Can you feel it? Are you with us?” demand vocalists Michael Bridgett and Gaurav “Initial G” Raul, as they perform their eponymous song “Hypnotic Fist Technique”.
“We’re big superhero buffs ... our band name is Iron Fist’s special move,” G explains in between songs, referring to a Marvel comic character specialising in martial arts.
The eclectic mix of expats, some of whom, like Indian-born G, have resided in the Kingdom for over a decade, only came together as a band about six months ago.
But in that time they’ve developed a following and made a name for themselves - performing at the Golden Street festival in Phnom Penh and touring in Vietnam last month.
A mix of rap, hip-hop, R ‘n’ B and punk rock, with elements of reggae and even ska thrown in, the eclectic style is a reflection of the unlikely mix of musicians in the band.
Originally from outside of Houston but most at home in Austin, Texas, where he lived since his university years, Bridgett came to the Kingdom just a year ago – originally to teach, but that was “not for me”, he says with a chuckle.
Back in Austin, Bridgett played in a few bands, most recently the ska band Benny and the Beast, which appeared in several local festivals, including playing the South by Southwest festival. In Phnom Penh, however, he found music – and eventually the band – by going to the Wednesday open mic nights at Show Box.
“I arrived in town, was working a job that was kind of stressful for me and someone told me about Show Box and the open mics there,” he says.
“I would sing, get free beer, meet people and that’s how we all sort of met – just jamming together at Show Box.”
So with Kuzey Ekrem from Turkey on drums, Tunisian-American Aymen Ghali on keyboard, Londoner Damani Kelly on bass and Filipino Iain Francisco on guitar, Hypnotic Fist Technique was born out of the expatriate music scene of the city.
“We all speak the same musical language,” Bridgett says. “For me, it’s special – Phnom Penh-specific.”
Alongside G’s higher pitch is Bridgett’s booming voice, which makes for a dynamic lyrical assault on the audience.
Thematically, Bridgett describes the music as “hyper-realistic life”, covering subject matters as disparate as “the essence of money in life or driving across the city to get to your girlfriend”.
“We run the gamut in terms of subject matter including political themes here and there as well as just opportunities to just show-case lyricism,” he says.
In their process of writing a song, Hypnotic Fist Technique manages to deliver musically while not taking itself too seriously.
“Should we try to unify the theme on that one?” G asks after running through a song at rehearsal.
“Nah, let that one just be dope s–t being said about whatever,” Bridgett replies.
Describing their writing approach as akin to “writing a comic book”, Bridgett says that superheroes are a cornerstone of his cultural backdrop, along with 90s films, music videos and the martial arts and kung fu influence that permeated early hip-hop.
“The same guys creating what we know as modern hip-hop come from that whole [martial arts movie] legacy,” he says. For him, a lot of the musical influences he grew up with in the 90s are “more superheroes than storytellers”, he says.
The superhero “vibe” – and a lot of bombast - is something that comes across in his stage presence for the band’s primary “mandate”: live shows.
“Everything in the band is sort of ratcheted up to a heightened degree,” he says. “We’re not writing for an album, we’re writing for the show.”
Having originated as a freestyle band, Bridgett says the idea is to make each show feel different.
“We want it to feel [like a] block party every time you come out,” he says.
Nevertheless, the group does have a dozen or so original songs that they’re planning on releasing as an album before the year’s end. They’ve already begun laying down a few tracks. “We’re looking to really dive into that this summer,” he says.
For now, the focus is on the weekend’s show – tonight at the recently re-opened Raqia Republic – which he promises will be different from any other.
“One might be more rock-y, one might be more soulful,” Bridgett says. Either way, they will be inviting the audience to try something completely different.
“We shouldn’t just canonise and cannibalise the canonised [with our music],” he says. Or in other words: “The only times you go to the theatre shouldn’t be to see Shakespeare.”
Hypnotic Fist Technique will be playing tonight from 8pm at Raqia Republic Lounge & Restaurant, #6Eo Street 102. Free Entry.