In a city full of unlikely pairings, one of the more interesting is the creative partnership between Vanntin Hoeurn (generally known as Tin) and RJ Marshall – their latest project is an all-original blues style duo called Phnom Devils. Phnom Penh born Tin first came to notice in the local music scene as the exuberant lead singer of black/doom metal band Sliten6ix, and RJ, while English, is most often identified by his Americana and country styles. I met up with them before a recent set to talk music and history.
“We met up at some parties and stayed up and just jammed, the two of us,” says Tin. Their common musical language? The blues. “Without blues you won’t have rock’n’roll, you won’t have punk, you won’t have metal. It’s the blues that brought us together, without it I don’t think we’d be playing anything together.”
“That’s what we started out doing,” says RJ, “It was me and Tin getting together and trying stuff out, and coming up with songs. That’s what we’re doing again now, but it’s a new thing.”
Their initial efforts brought together the four-piece band Phnom Skor – at their opening performance at Show Box I well remember Tin announcing from the stage, “We are Phnom Skor. If you don’t know what that means you should learn some more Khmer.”
The new band has made a conscious return to the earliest of rural blues for inspiration. “Taking it back down to stripped down blues roots, one man, one guitar. We both love Robert Johnston – it’s just amazing what one guy can do, and it makes it sound somewhat better than some bands are,” says Tin.
Both express some frustration with the limitation of genres and labels. “I think both of us are curious about stuff, that’s why we’re willing to do new stuff, and it just happened to be blues, and we happened to meet each other, and really like each other a lot in terms of playing and as mates as well,” says Tin.
“Obviously I have done periods of doing mainly Americana stuff,” says Richard. “Of late I’ve been playing piano a lot, regularly dredging up something that I used to do a long time ago. I’ve always written songs for the last 25 years, and they certainly haven’t all been country. Doing that is a relatively recent thing that I’ve done since I’ve been in Phnom Penh the last few years.”
As a song writing partnership, how do they do work? “I think we’ve done it all the ways around you can do it,” RJ explains. “Tin writes a minute and a bit of the song and sends it to me and says it needs something else. And I go, oh yes, I listen to that and think of something. Then we get together and play it. And the same way there’s a couple that I’ve written where then we sit down together and we sort of know we’re going to do it slightly differently.”
The Phnom Devils will be performing on Sunday 31 March as the latest of the Original Sessions, a Sunday afternoon concert series put together by Joe Wrigley – a community based project that seeks to put together more intimate performance opportunities for local and visiting musicians in unique locations. Previous performances have included Vartey Ganiva, Miserable Man and Metta Legita.
I asked Joe: why the Phnom Devils this time around? “The short answer is I’ve been waiting for Tin to be ready!” he says. “He was one of the first artists I approached with this series in mind. He is an absolutely key part of the alternative Cambodian music scene both in terms of his performances and projects, and in a more figurative sense in terms of what he represents: he is one of the very few artists who truly crosses over between the Cambodian and Western scenes. And RJ is a very good singer-songwriter in his own right. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
There are two more Original Sessions to come in the current series, and the plan is to push the envelope a little further. “One thing we have learned from producing these concerts is the further away that we get from the idea of a ‘normal’ concert in a regular venue the better the results seem to be,” says Joe.
Phnom Devils will be performing at CrossFit Amatak gym on St 470, Tuol Tom Pong on Sunday 31 March at 6 pm.
It’s limited seating so get your tickets early.