Kromming of age

By : Mark Coles

I first came across Krom when a friend of mine, Sean Hocking, who runs Metal Postcard Records in Hong Kong, forwarded me a YouTube link to a Krom video with the message: ‘Think you might like them.’ I did. I like Krom a lot. I loved the blend of Khmer vocals and Christopher’s melancholic bluesy guitar.

I always check with artists before playing a track by them on my weekly music programme, The Shed, so I started trying to track Chris down. Sean told me Chris was quite reclusive, but from the start he seemed anything but. He was keen to get Krom wider exposure and warmed to my comments. Ever since, he’s been in touch sending me demos, early versions, instrumentals of tracks asking my thoughts and advice and giving me first airplay of new Krom material. We also recorded an interview prior to the release of the last album, Neon Dark.

The band have come on in leaps and bounds since their debut. Neon Dark fulfilled all the early promise of the first album: a gorgeous mix of delicate vocals and almost jazz-like impressionistic playing. I compared it to John Coltrane in places – and I don’t do that lightly. What I love about Krom is they seem to be doing something other Cambodian bands/musicians aren’t. Cambodia is unique: it sadly had a whole generation of musicians wiped out by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, but until Krom I’d only heard musicians trying to resurrect or adapt what there had been before Pol Pot. What I get from Krom is something new: a new direction, a new take on Cambodian music; a mix of Cambodian soul with influences from elsewhere in the world, such as the blues.

Krom are an acquired taste. Not everyone likes them. For some they’re a tad too melancholic, too noir, but I’m a sucker for a sad song and it speaks to me. Somehow the band seems to communicate something universal and profound. There’s a political agenda there, too, with criticism of sex tourism and the country’s sex trade, but those more polemic tracks work less successfully.

Krom deserve a wider audience. They’re a breath of fresh air, an unexpected from a region I didn’t expect to hear this sort of music from. That’s why I’ve been singing their praises. That’s why I’m trying to get people interested in their music. And that’s why I handed Peter Gabriel a copy of Neon Dark at Womad (I was asked to introduce and interview Peter live on stage). I know from previous conversations with him that in the past he was sent demos by acts he then signed to his label, Real World. I just thought: ‘Here’s a band that deserves to be on a label like Real World. I’ll give it a shot.’ He took the envelope; he was still clutching it as he left the stage. I just hope he listens and he likes it.

Bottom line: Krom aren’t going to be mainstream; they’re not going to unsettle Justin Bieber and Beyonce at the top of the charts. That’s not their thing. They’re niche listening; acquired taste. But they are original. Chris has a vision and what he’s done by marrying his subtle, gentle blues guitar with the Chamroeun sisters’ beautiful – at times, haunting – vocals is second to none. It’s refreshing, it’s unusual and it’s unique. More power to his elbow, as we say in Yorkshire. I’m always on the look-out for bands who take a risk, do something different, and Krom are doing that and improving with every recording.

I’d love to see them at Womad next year. I’d love to think Peter Gabriel will listen to the CD and recommend them for Real World. Realistically, it might not happen. He probably gets thousands of demos. I’ve talked to lots of bands over the years who sent him demos and never heard back. But whatever happens, what you’ve got with Krom in Phnom Penh is a one-off band, doing something distinctively their own and that should be encouraged and championed.

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