US Alt-Rocker Thrives Off Cambodia’s Tougher Crowds

On the surface, it would seem as though Conrad Keely isn’t keen on playing live in Phnom Penh.

“Playing here is really tough. It’s one of the shittiest f—ing audiences you could ever hope for, they’re completely not paying attention,” Mr. Keely said in an interview on Thursday.

Conrad Keely (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Conrad Keely (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

However, the frontman of cult U.S. alt-rockers …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead thrives off the apathy of the city’s bar patrons.

“It’s great because what it means is that when you go and play Europe it’s so much easier. I think it’s a great testing ground,” said Mr. Keely, who is launching a new solo album at a concert in Phnom Penh tonight.

Formed in 1994, Mr. Keely’s band—referred to by fans as simply The Trail of Dead—has released nine albums and played sold-out shows across the world. But in 2012, following a trip to Cambodia with his Thai father the year before, the 43-year-old singer-songwriter decided to turn his back on the New York music scene to set up shop in Phnom Penh.

Though Cambodia’s capital is not exactly known as an alt-rock breeding ground, Mr. Keely said he found a far closer-knit musical community here than in the bars of Brooklyn.

“All of those bands that live in Brooklyn—at the time it was Yeasayer, Dirty Projectors, Santigold—everyone knew each other but there was nothing close to us all hanging out and playing music together and collaborating. That just doesn’t exist,” Mr. Keely said.

“Here is the complete opposite. Anything you want to do, you can do, and if you want something done, you do it yourself, you create it,” he said.

Splitting his time between Phnom Penh and Kampot, Mr. Keely traded packed venues for open mic nights and jam sessions in dive bars—an experience he found liberating.

“The thing I loved about Kampot was that we would just play every night. We didn’t have a set; we’d just walk downtown, agree to meet at one bar, then we’d just sit there and just start playing,” he said.

“I’ve toured a lot. There’s nowhere else I know that’s like that…. I couldn’t imagine a place that offers more freedom,” he said.

Although his band is still very much active, Mr. Keely has spent the past year working on material for his upcoming solo LP Original Machines, which has a more acoustic, stripped back sound—a shift from the distorted electric guitars of his previous work.

Tonight’s show at Meta House will be the first time the songs will be aired in public and he is not sure whether everything will go to plan, but that’s fine with him.

“The most nerve-wracking thing about it is the level of entropy in this country is insane: amplifiers not working, guitars stop working, cords stop working, nothing works properly,” he said.

“Out here it’s like being back in a garage band…but that’s kind of the fun of it.”

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