Interview and photos by Chris Frape
Photographer Chris Frape recently caught up with his long-time mate, the musician Shannon Kennedy (Ozi Batla), for a beer and a chat about Shannon's band Astronomy Class, appearing on Cambodian national TV and being an artist in residency at Campbelltown Arts Centre, plus a whole lot more...
Chris Frape: Could you give our readers a brief description of Astronomy Class? Your style of music, the who’s who of the band?
Shannon Kennedy: Astronomy Class is myself (Ozi Batla), crate digging king Sir Robbo and producer Chasm. We come from hip hop, reggae and post-rock backgrounds respectively, and our albums have drawn on dub, reggae, Motown, soul and now Cambodian rock and psych from the 60s and 70s. We've got pretty eclectic tastes, obviously! Each of our three albums has had a distinct flavour. Our latest record, Mekong Delta Sunrise, garnered our second ARIA Award nomination, but in the world music category this time - a first for us, our label and Australian hip hop.
Your performances and studio recordings often include guest musicians and vocalists - let's call them extended family. Who have you worked with previously and who are you currently collaborating with?
Our main man, who has played on record and live with us since 2006 is bass maestro John Maddox. He's been a fixture on the scene for 20 years, with Gauche, Mr Bamboo, Tooth and a thousand others. He can play anything and anywhere.
Sloth (Martini Club, Metabass'n'Breath) had played horns on all three albums. Bongo Caveman has been a long-term contributor since his days with Robbo in seminal outfit Atomic Hi-Fi. DJs Skoob and 2Buck have helped us on the cut.
Vocally, we've worked with Gina Mitchell, Jane Tyrrell, Ash Grunwald, Diafrix, Urthboy, Hau, BVA, The Tongue, Lotek, Kween G and probably more!
Our two main ladies are Vida Sunshyne and Srey Channthy.
Vida is hands down one of the best MCs in Australia. She's probably better known overseas, where she is constantly in demand from people like Sizzla, Busy Signal, Capelton and heaps more on the rap/reggae tip. She's an explosive live performer.
Our latest addition is Srey Channthy, most famous for her work with The Cambodian Space Project. She's been at the forefront of the Cambodian music revival. Channthy hails from the rural Prey Veng province and from very humble beginnings has become internationally renowned. She has a spectacular voice, blending traditional Khmer styles with a 60s rock and go-go twist. She'll be joining us at Anita's in June.
Your latest record Mekong Delta Sunrise celebrates a unique bond with Cambodian music from the ‘Golden Age’ and features Srey Channthy (singer from The Cambodian Space Project). It’s a seemingly unlikely but ultimately harmonious combination of genres, tell us how this all happened and educate us on what the ‘Golden Age’ is?
We travelled to Cambodia in 2012 to perform with Preap Sovath, a proper Cambodian superstar. We were teamed up to do a hip hop cover of a classic tune by the legendary psych rock group Drakkar Band. While we were there and after some digging missions to Cabramatta in Sydney, we were turned on to the 'Golden Age' tunes of the 60s through to 1975, when the rise of the Khmer Rouge put an abrupt halt to the amazing Phnom Penh scene.
We began writing an album that paid tribute to the many amazing musicians who lost their lives at the hands of the Pol Pot regime. It didn't feel right without to tell those stories without a Khmer voice on there, so we reached out to Srey Channthy, who in 2013 made her way to Sydney and recorded five songs for the album. Since then, we've played all over Australia with her, including the WOMAD festival early this year, and recently in Phnom Penh as well.
Astronomy Class has visited Cambodia twice, what was performing there like, including appearing on Cambodian national TV? That must have been something special!
Cambodia is an amazing country. Life is hard there for most Cambodians, but they manage to enjoy themselves nonetheless. We were there most recently just after Cambodian New Year, and Chasm and Channthy went back to her village for the celebrations, which were raucous and went for a week! The gig was great and the vibe in Phnom Penh is awesome, heaps of little bars and food on every corner.
Yeah, the TV appearance was pretty surreal! It was a huge deal for Channthy, all of her friends and relatives were watching and it was an incredibly proud moment for her. We met the Cambodian equivalent of Maurie Fields, who is Astronomy Class' spiritual guide, so that was huge for us too.
Mekong Delta Sunrise has been released across three formats - record, CD and cassette. The cassette is the only format with instrumental versions, how does it sound on a tape player? Is cassette culture big in Cambodia?
It sounds great on cassette! We had it mastered by the one and only Danielsan from Koolism fame, and he is also a connoisseur of tape, so he did it up proper. Cassette culture is still pretty big in Cambodia. In the 70s, the Khmer Rouge sought to destroy all evidence of the culture that came before them, in a campaign called 'Year Zero'. So, even owning a copy of an album by Ros Sereysothea, Sinn Sisamouth or Pan Ron, three of the greats from the pre-Khmer Rouge era, could see you end up in jail or worse. People went to great lengths to hide their beloved music, and dubbed a lot of it onto tape. Nowadays, pretty much any music you will hear from that era has probably be dubbed and dubbed and dubbed again.
You have an upcoming gig at Anitas Theatre in Thirroul, it’s great to see you guys playing a local gig. Joelistics and A-Wyre will also be performing, both are artists you've shared the stage with previously. Fill us in on who they are and the kind of tunes we can expect?
Joelistics is a very old mate from way way back. I think we first met in the late 90s at a makeshift bar on the back of a ute in the campsite at Bellingen Global Carnival. We have always been kindred spirits, in it for the love and the laughs and (back then) the ladies. He's one of the most effortless storytellers on the mic in Australia. During our heyday The Herd toured heaps with Joel's old band TZU. He's bringing his acoustic set to Anita's, which will be dope.
A-Wyre is one of Joelistics' old schoolmates from Fort St in Sydney which produced so many great bands, including A-Wyre's Good Buddha, also Unkle Ho from The Herd and Sandro who produced my solo record Wild Colonial just to name a few. He's taken a turn towards neo-soul in the past couple of years, as well as playing in Jim Moginie's guitar orchestra. He's got an amazing voice to compliment his playing and matched with electronic beats, it's a really unique sound.
You moved to Austinmer over a year ago, how are you finding life on the Coal Coast? Have you had a chance to see many local artists since relocating?
Loving it on the Coal Coast mate! I've lived down here before, but not with the right person or mindset. We've just had our first child, and I can't imagine a better place for a grom to grow up. I grew up in Sydney, mostly Bondi but a few years in Mascot as well. It's just changed so much, it's not the place that I loved when I was young. Sydney has just become a bit of a shitfight. The friendliness and sense of community here is just unbeatable. I guess the only downside is that there's no good surf breaks. At least that's what I tell everyone haha!
I haven't really had a chance to see as many bands as I would like, raising the boy and all. It really does hinder the whole out-on-the-town thing. I did get to hear a bit of The Pinheads at Yours and Owls festival while I was running the Prickly Pair taco stand. I love what 'the Bird' (Shining Bird) are doing and all the affiliates, I really enjoyed the last Le Boogie Records compilation. Like what I hear of Broken Bodies and The Strides as well. It's weird, moving from somewhere as supposedly "happening" as Bondi and finding there's a lot more interesting stuff going on along this tiny strip of coast. It's great.
Astronomy Class have just completed a week long artist in residency program at Campbelltown Arts Centre where other local artists such as Jim Moginie and The Strides have also worked and performed. How did your residency come about and what did you get up to while you there?
We were invited by Matt Steffen, another Austi resident, who is the contemporary music coordinator at the centre. To tell you the truth, it was a bit surreal to be paid to write music for a week! I've been in the music game for 20 years and I can honestly say it's the first time. We had an amazing week, working with Vida Sunshyne and Srey Channthy on the same track. Al Young aka A-Wyre came in and laid down some guitar, John Maddox was there on bass and Sloth on horns. It needs a bit of work still, but we put down the foundations of what will be a sick tune I think.
Last question – what’s your favourite album at the moment?
As you would probably know, because it's on every time you get in the car with me, I can't stop listening to Emma Donovan and The Putbacks' album Dawn. An instant classic of Australian soul music, beautifully captured by Hope St Recordings, probably my favourite label in Australia right now. They also do Bollywood supergroup Bombay Royale, afrobeat with Public Opinion Afro Orchestra and latin with San Lazaro.
To find out more about Astronomy Class hit up Elefant Traks - you'll find CDs, records, cassettes, tees and hoodies.
You can also check the freshest track from Astronomy Class, inspired by a residency at Cocoon Floatation on SoundCloud. It’s a sublimely smooth track that is a trip away from the stress and strains of daily life, particular good to play on a surf trip. In Shannon’s words:
"A further example of the tight sense of community and generosity on the Coast was Megan Sproats from Cocoon Floatation messaging me the day we were moving down to invite us to participate in her musicians in residence program. We went and had a float and wrote the tune "Drift Away". I really like that vibe, of being contacted out of the blue to collaborate - everyone's very supportive of each other around these parts.”
You can also check Bong Man Business, an hour long mix of golden era tunes from Cambodia. It’s comprised of musicians and music that was silenced by the Khmer Rouge, so tune your ears in and celebrate some amazing music - let it live on!
Last (but not least!) make sure you see Astronomy Class joined by Joelistics and A-Wyre at Anita's Theatre on Saturday, June 6. Black Gold has 5 tickets to giveaway. To win send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject "Who doesn't love free tickets?!?" and you could be heading along to the show for free!