Chris Minko, 60, a black-clad, chain-smoking Australian songwriter, has a dog named “dog” and a mostly Khmer musical group named Krom (which means “group” in Khmer). They play a genre of music that Minko calls “Mekong Delta Blues”, which is also the name of their third album released last month on Musik and Film records.
Minko, whose “noir” songwriting focuses on the seedier aspects of Southeast Asian life – drug addiction, sexual exploitation, human trafficking – is accustomed to calling a spade a spade.
With songs possessing such titles as Buckets of Blood, Taliban Man and Prison of Sobriety, unwavering blatancy is, for better or worse, Minko’s calling card (“If you don’t like us then you can f— off and listen to something else,” he said). Mekong Delta Blues continues with Krom’s darker impulses, but with a more refined approach to the music making.
“We really took our time and let the songs evolve,” explained the songwriter this week at his regular haunt, the Psar Kab Koh Restaurant. “I think it’s the best album we’ve ever done.”
After hearing Minko’s somber baritone, lower even than his role model Johnny Cash, Minko’s quite normal-sounding speech is striking. So is his warm geniality.
And though, like Cash, Minko wears all black, he is no copycat. The songwriter values ingenuity and originality above all else, he said. He makes sure to distance himself from the so-called Khmer Golden Age revival, which he sees as kitschy and backward-looking. “We don’t want to be a part of that,” he said. “We are simply Krom.”
Mekong Delta Blues took 16 months to record. The five-piece band, which recently took in a new keyboard player, James Sokleap, recorded the 12-track album in the pianist’s home studio.
Apart from the three instrumentals, songs deal with what Minko describes as the essence of noir, stories about people who, for one reason or another, have started “down a path of darkness with no way out”. Two of the songs, Lil Suzie and Sin City, Big City (“Things ain’t pretty, in the big, sin city”), deal with human trafficking, a topic that Minko, a widower with a daughter, feels strongly about.
“We do have a message that needs to get out there and that’s what we’re doing. I don’t compromise,” he said of his lyrical social commentary.
But not all the songs are so harrowing. Cambodia, an uplifting, rousing ballad with wonderful harmonies from singing sisters Sophea and Sopheak Chamroeun, is “purely a beautiful song for Cambodia”. Mekong Delta Blues is a love song (though a “sad” one).
This month, a short film on the band was released on YouTube, Krom: Songs from the Noir and the Mekong Heart, but there are no shows yet planned in support of Mekong Delta Blues. Ultimately, Minko hopes to tour abroad.
“The objective with Krom was always to reach out internationally,” he said. “We are not a pub band.”
Mekong Delta Blues can be purchased on Amazon and iTunes in digital formats for $6. It will be available next month in CD format at Monument Books.