Uk Sochiet, singer and guitarist of folk rock band Kampot Playboys, founded the group in his hometown of Kampot with bassist Mark Chattaway in 2011. In late May, they released their debut album Garuda. Matt Surrusco talks to Sochiet, 36, about how he started playing guitar, recording versus playing live and what the future may hold for the band. Photo by Enric Català.

How old were you when you started playing music?

I had my own guitar I think in 1999. I really liked playing music. I played with my friends and my uncles. In high school, every time we went out I always brought my guitar and we had small parties. I played music for them and had sing-alongs and had a great time.

What kind of songs were you playing back then?

Some of the songs that I still play right now, actually. The classic 1960s and 70s, old school [Cambodian] rock and roll. When I was young, I listened to all kinds of music on the radio, English, Khmer. Anything that’s good, I will listen to it. 

How did you learn to play guitar?

The first time I started to play guitar, I couldn’t afford to buy even a small, old, rusty guitar. One day my brother brought this guitar from [Phnom Penh] and I saw it and said, “Hold it there.” I stole his guitar and I kept it with me. Back in the old days – that was 1999, 2000 – there was no YouTube or anything like that. At my house there’s no internet so I had to learn with my neighbour. He played guitar really well and played in a wedding band. He showed me, but kind of taught me as well. After that, I pretty much taught myself.

One of the two original songs on the record, ‘Riverflow’, has no lyrics. What’s that song about?

I played this tune a lot on my guitar. One day I brought this up with Mark [Chattaway], and we played with the drummer and it just sounded good, man. It can be used as one of the warmup songs when we start playing a gig. After that we just got this tune and we were like, “What should we call this song?” and we’re on the riverside [in Kampot] so we just said, “OK, ‘Riverflow’.”

How does recording compare to performing live?

It’s a different experience. I had never recorded before, this was my first time in the studio and yeah, I think I prefer to play live more than as a recording band. But we can record some. At some stage, we have to record. But I prefer to play live. It’s much more fun.

I like seeing different people as I’m playing or just jamming with different people in the band, with the fans. After playing, I go around and meet and talk to different people. This is one of the good things. I can play our music for people to listen to and if they like it I’m really happy with that.

People often call the Playboys a “fusion” band because the music is a mix of Western rock, traditional Cambodian music and 1960s and 70s Cambodian rock. What do you think of that description?

We always say this is a rock band. But the music we have all put together, I think it comes from our kind of style, but is also inspired by the old music. We just mix it up. I mean old school fiddles and English bass players and English drummers and a really traditional tro, two strings, and then my style becomes a weird sound.

You sing mostly in Khmer. Do you think this will limit the audience for the new record?

Music is the kind of thing that makes people come together. It’s universal. I always say that when I’m on the stage and we have a crowd made up of locals, tourists and expats, pretty much everybody. They enjoy it. They just feel it, man. They feel the energy, they like the music. And I say to them, if you don’t understand [the lyrics], it doesn’t mean anything bad. But if you really want to know, we can translate it for you.

What would you like to do next with the band?

I want to get bigger. I want to be able to play pretty much any place where they would like us to play. It doesn’t matter, anywhere. Europe, America or Asia or other places. That means people like us if they want us to play more here or anywhere. Maybe it sounds pretty good for us as well to make a bit of money from our own kind of music, Cambodian music, rock and roll. We should be proud of that. Also, if people really like it, we’ll keep playing.

Download Garuda at iTunes, Apple Music, Amazon, Spotify and other major streaming sites.