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Far Eastern Freakin' Out

Local Compilation Brings Cambodian Psychedelicrock to the U.S.

Uli Loskot
ORIENT EXPRESSION: Jack Moore's vacation souvenirs wound up as an album.

By Chris Landers | Posted 11/1/2006

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The bar starts filling up at about 10 p.m., and by then the music is coming in heavy from the dual turntables by the window: "Sonic Reducer" by the Dead Boys follows "Teenage Caveman" by Blag Dahlia follows something DJ Jack Moore has to spell out phonetically because his copy is in Japanese. "This'll clear the bar out if you don't have the right crowd," Moore says as he pulls the next record out of its sleeve.

But he does--and it doesn't. It's Friday the 13th down at Lulu's in Fells Point, and as he does every 13th, Moore spins records. In the milk crates full of vinyl next to him, and in his narrow El Suprimo record store two doors down, he houses the physical manifestation of a lifetime of searching through thrift stores, flea markets, and used-record bins.

"I will go through records that most people will not go through," Moore says. "I think I have that divining rod in my brain that can sense that there's something in there somewhere."

In his store earlier that day, he told a couple visiting from London, "I've got somewhat of a good memory for records," before putting a seven-inch back on the shelf. "I can't get rid of that," he says. "I had to dig through all these musty 45s to find it. Even though it's got scratches, now I know it exists." The couple left with an armful of records, but not that one.

They did, however, grab a copy of an LP Moore put out himself earlier this year, what can only be described as a labor of love. It is called Cambodian Psych-Out and features two artists who, while well-known in their native land, are all but unpronounceable here: Srei Sothear and Sin Sisamouth.

Sothear and Sisamouth were, respectively, the queen and king of Southeast Asian psychedelic music from the mid-'60s until 1975, when, according to Moore's research, both were killed along with more than a million other Cambodians when the country fell to the Khmer Rouge. Their music, preserved here, is a sort of combination between the manic breakdowns of the Count Five and the music that plays behind the credits of a Godzilla movie. Some tracks, an off-rhythm version of "Wooly Bully" for instance, offer useful reference points for Western ears; others, like the guitar-driven "Maxy Maxy (Pretty Woman)," take on a life of their own. The album, which is currently available on vinyl only with plans for a CD version in the near future, was years in the making.

After becoming friendly with a local gamelan troupe, Moore was invited to a wedding in Bali in 2001. At the time, he was obsessed with Cambodian architecture--"I like old temples in general," he says--and figured as long as he was going to that part of the world, a side trip to Cambodia was a good idea. He went to work on the six people traveling with him, showing them his books and pictures of the temples. Eventually, he says, they came around.

The interest in the temples was genuine, but Moore had another mission as well, one that has driven him for almost all of his 40 years. "I remember being a little kid, listening to the radio and thinking there was some kind of, like, high-tech way to transport bands through the little wires inside the box, and I'd try to look in there all the time," he says. "I was just obsessed with musical recording. And ever since I was a kid I've been collecting records. And I always want to hear something new, so that I'm just never happy with anything for any huge amount of time. I always have to get the fresh fix."

And so, Moore found himself in Cambodia, armed with a small-label comp called Cambodia Rocks and his divining rod, humming tunes to strangers and looking for that fresh fix. He met some locals who spoke English, played the music for them, and they pointed the way, sending Moore on a tour of the market areas of Siem Reap.

At the center of the city was "this bizarre kind of roofed open-air market that was just . . . " He pauses. "Otherworldly. You could see in from the street and you could just see a mass of smoke disappearing into nothingness. You weren't too sure you wanted to go in there." At another store on a side road, he found a wall of cassettes and a two-deck tape recorder. You could listen to the tapes, and then the owners would dub them. Moore walked out with about 50 hours' worth of music.

"We'd ride around in Cambodia and listen to this stuff as we drove into the jungle to check out the temples," Moore says.

As they drove, another thing struck him: Amputees and land-mine warning signs were everywhere, a legacy of the Vietnam War's spill-over onto Cambodian soil. So, after five years of mixing, editing, and compiling, the profits from Cambodian Psych-Out are going to United Nations Association's Adopt-A-Minefield relief fund.

Moore found that the music of Sisamouth and Sothear creates a kind of dividing line between the older and younger generations, those who remember life before the Khmer Rouge and those who do not. "The people who were older all revered them," he says. "They were the greatest, most popular figures in Cambodia, the way we heard it. Everybody knew them. They were household names. Maybe some of the younger people would giggle about it. The way the country was torn apart, the younger people would be listening to some kind of Asian drum-machiney pop stuff, and any reference to music that was made before 1985 would be laughable to them. But the older people held them in the highest esteem."

Cambodian Psych-Out may be done, but Moore isn't. On a recent trip to Egypt, he found himself on a "little mucky side street in Giza," trying to communicate through charades that he was looking for records.

"[The vendor] had about 50 of them, and they were scratched to hell and back and moldy," Moore says. "He had this little suitcase record player turned up to 10 and was playing these things, and it was just blazing loud. It had this amazing presence that just cut through the mold and dirt and scratches. So I said `All right. I'll take them all.'"

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