Interview: Saphy Vong (Chinabot, LAFIDKI)

Chinabot is a platform and collective created to change the dialogue surrounding Asian music, founded by Cambodian-born/London-based artist Saphy Vong. The platform put out three releases in 2017 which, through both the spectacular colours of the artwork and the ecstatic energy of the music within, channelled Chinabot’s celebration of what happens when tradition collides with the contemporary; collides with vibrant experimentation; challenges the limits of what the listener mind can experience in one hit. 

Among the releases of 2017 was an album by Saphy’s own LAFIDKI project, also titled Chinabot. It features collaborations with numerous Asian musicians (including Ntski from Japan and Samin Son from South Korea), and uses beat music as the conduit for bright, surreal and often overwhelming acts of synthesiser sculpture. Below, Saphy and I discuss border disputes, the interaction between act and audience, and Chinabot’s first anniversary, including a show at Cafe Oto this Sunday, 4th March.

 Chinabot is celebrating its first anniversary this month. How do you feel about what Chinabot has achieved over the past year?

We have released two tapes and a record, and some of us got together to tour around Taiwan, Cambodia and England. It’s been fantastic meeting people, hearing new artists, and gathering momentum as a project.

I understand that there are going to be some events and releases to celebrate this anniversary. Can you tell me about what you’ve got planned?

We’re having a show at Café Oto on 4th March celebrating two new releases: a compilation featuring new artists and a split release [here’s the Facebook event]. Pisitakun, a musician and visual artist from Thailand, is coming over and the Café Oto show is kickstarting his first European tour. Samin Son is also playing, as well as Ayankoko from France. Ayankoko and I met at Noisefest (Ljubljana) in 2011 as the only two Asian guys, when they subtitled footage of me playing with his name. We’ve been friends ever since.

Dângrêk Mountains is a new series of split cassettes which combine a band from one side of a border with another band from the other side.

It’s an introduction to several artists from countries in Asia which had disputes over some specific border areas in the past and present. It shows how these violent conflicts generate a greener, more peaceful area, such as a demilitarised zone, which contrasts overgrown vegetation and wires with observation posts and armed soldiers. The wildlife becomes richer because the land is unsafe for construction and less exposed to human disturbances; silence surrounds this environment. Instead of fighting, we’re recreating soundscapes and sharing a release together.

The name of this first split is Dângrêk Mountains, which the name of the border where Thailand, Laos and Cambodia intersect. The intensity of the border clashes contrasts with its nature and wildlife. Preah Vihear Temple, a contested religious site on the Thai-Cambodian part of the Dângrêk Mountains border, has become quite symbolic of the history of conflict between the two countries.

We’re having another audio/visual show at Musée Guimet (Museum of Asian arts) in Paris this year.

I’m also releasing an album by a South Korean artist. He’s got a crisp, sweet, melodic sound which is equal parts K-pop, industrial and experimental.

On the website About page, Chinabot is described as “a platform and collective created to change the dialogue surrounding Asian music.” What led to the decision to start a label as a means of challenging this dialogue?

The perception is changing as people set up their own projects. We don’t want to ghettoise ourselves, but sometimes it’s the only way to carve an initial space out for yourself in a landscape where nobody looks like you. It’s also nice to have a community where we can share some specific ideas and experiences where you know people will understand.

You’ve recently released a beautiful, thoroughly euphoric new concept record titled Chinabot via your LAFIDKI project. Could you tell me about the concept of the record?

Thanks! With Chinabot, the main thing is to make music together with other people. I keep developing compositional methods that loosely guide the harmonic and rhythmic qualities of the material people are kind enough to contribute. I like to think of a composition as a fantasy space in which the process keeps changing. As an album the music makes a linear timeline telling a story of hybridities and migrations. All the stories from a specific country are reinterpreted with an other artist from a different country. It’s about how an idea grows up with my movement and migration.


I’ve seen you mention that the album was produced across numerous locations: Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, New Zealand, and the U.K. Do you think each of these places had an imprint upon the sound of Chinabot? Would the record have turned out differently had it been produced in one location?

I think they did have an impact. Cambodia is where the album began. It has a very intense landscape of sound: pinpeat blasted through decades-old loudspeakers, street hawkers’ pre-recorded shouting over the white noise of motorbike horns, monks chanting, syrupy sweet and slow KTV love songs. All of these sounds were still in my head as I went to Malaysia and Thailand and spent some time in a monastery, which was of course totally silent. In Malaysia I was really inspired by the energy of the kids, I mainly played gigs for a metal/hardcore crowd. It was great – people were so open minded.  I was overwhelmed by the warmth and curiosity of the crowd.

The noise / experimental scene can be a bit arrogant or closed-minded sometimes. The scene can be too serious and missing in spontaneity of emotions.

In New Zealand, the Cambodian sounds were reawakened a few months later at a Khmer New Year party in a suburb of Auckland. Because of immigration following the Khmer Rouge, there are small patches of Cambodia all around the world, including my family and France and my cousins in Montreal and Boston. The central traditions remain the same, but the new country bleeds in around the edges. This was my first time meeting Kiwi-Khmers and it was really interesting to find out what parts of the culture changed and what remained the same. When I arrived in the UK, I put all the sketches, memories and ideas together to make the album.

I understand that the album was partly inspired by the evolving beat scene in the east. Are there any particular artists or experiences from this scene that inspired the direction you took with Chinabot?

It’s more about experiences about touring and sharing moments with artists, you feel really inspired when you hear the same artists playing everyday with you. Mainly Lujiachi, Samin Son and Pisitakun last year when we toured UK and Asia. One morning I was travelling on a bus through the Cambodian countryside with Pisitakun. The light was breaking over the rice fields. The bus slowed down as we passed a fatal motorcycle crash. Although these accidents are so common in Cambodia, it came to both of us as a deeply moving moment – the light, the broken bodies, a woman who had waded into a nearby pond, crying. When you witness something like this its even more powerful when you are able to share the feeling with someone else. Here is a drawing Pisitakun made about the accident. He did it on the 100 Riels note.

The album is full of collaborators. As I write this question to you, I’m listening to Samin Son’s beautiful vocal performance rise out of the centre of “Moto Doppel Gang”. Could you tell me about your experiences working with collaborators? How do you decide who to work with, and how much guidance do you provide to these collaborators as to how they approach their contribution?

It’s a great experience. I also perform live with Samin now. It’s quite easy and natural to improvise with him. I mainly work with friends, people I’ve already met and seen playing live. I trust them so they are free to do whatever they like on their contributions.

One of my favourite sounds on the record is that clanging, bell-like texture during the first two minutes of “Kniom Nahn”. How did you generate that sound? 

It’s from several recordings of Pinpeat I did in Cambodia. I sampled theses sounds.

I imagine that this material sounds incredible live. Could you tell me about one of your favourite live experiences, and what made it so enjoyable?

So my favourite lives experiences were in Malaysia for the energy and happiness of the people. Community is really important there – everybody supports each other, and the emotion is stronger because of the impact of their government. I like energy and chaos but I also enjoyed playing Oulu (Finland) with people laying on the floor. It’s just a nice interaction between act and audience.

What music have you been listening to lately?

I’m really into Catarina Barbieri and the upcoming releases on Chinabot.

What’s next for you and for Chinabot?

I’m playing in a festival this spring with Amnesia Scanner, Pan Daijing, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Lightning Bolt. I can’t tell you too much right now but they will announce the full lineup in early March. I’m releasing this split with Pisitakun and Ayankoko, then I need to spend some times for recording my next EP. I would like to release it before the next general elections this July in Cambodia.