Blast From the Past: Luk Haas and Tam 89 Records
A few months back Luk Haas visited Maximum Rocknroll for the first time in his long history of writing for the magazine. We were lucky enough to sit him down for an interview.
Interview by Cissie Scurlock, Layla Gibbon and Justin Briggs.
MRR: How did you discover punk?
Luk: I think I first listened to punk in high school. I had a bunch of friends who were listening to different kinds of rock stuff that was coming out. Sometimes during our lunch break, we would play records. At some point, someone brought the Sex Pistols LP. That would have been back in 1979 or 1980. It did not impress me very much. At that time, I was listening to a lot of different bizarre kinds of rock music, including metal and prog rock and stuff like this. However, I went to some kind of live, open-air concert, I think it was in 1979. I hitchhiked to a place close to the border of Luxembourg, called Rettel. The Clash were playing that night. Still, I was not a punk at that time. When I went to the concert, the open field, there were a lot of punks. I think it was the first time in my life I ever saw punks. I was kind of scared, because they were wearing swastikas and spitting on each other and fighting. I was like, “uh-oh.” I was a kid, like sixteen. And I was on my own. So I was trying to stay away.
Later on, I went to Poland in 1983, when I was twenty. When I went there, I visited some Polish friends, who introduced me to Polish rock music. It was the explosion of Polish rock music in the early ’80s. There were a lot of different styles. It was going from punk to new wave to metal to alternative to any kind of rock music. So they introduced me to all the current Polish bands that were releasing records. Among them was one punk band called Brygada Kryzyz, which used to be called Kryzys. They had just released their famous black LP. My friends told me, “Listen to this, this is Polish punk.” I was like, “Hmm, very interesting sound.” It was not like rock ’n’ roll like the Sex Pistols. It was something else, something out of the ordinary. At some point, there was also some kind of mix between punk and reggae on the record, which I liked very much, because at that time I was already listening to some reggae stuff.
This was the first punk band in Poland. Then there was the coup by General Jaruzelski, and they banned the Solidarity movement. Then it became underground, and most people were arrested. It was then a state of emergency in Poland. When I was there it was still the state of emergency. Then, because this band had been organizing gigs to support the Solidarity movement, they were banned by the authorities. They could not play anymore, and the record was not available. The record was out, and the authorities probably destroyed whatever was left in the shops.
I was following what was going on in Poland, with the worker’s movement, the mobilization against the regime. I was very interested in all this kind of political stuff. I had already started to be involved with local minorities’ issues, where I’m from. I come from a region where there is a minority language, a German dialect and minority culture, so we are not like the real French guys you may meet in Paris. We have a dual culture—we speak German and we speak French. We are very small, it’s just a few thousand people in France, so we are a very small minority and we are not recognized by the State. So I had, very early when I was a teenager, this idealism and political attitude that we are a minority, we should be recognized by the State, etc. I was a conscientious objector at the same time, I refused to go to the military. At that time it was still compulsory, and I refused, so I had to do civil service. I was already very politically active.
So when I was in Poland, I was like, wow this is fantastic, these punks, they are doing good stuff, and they are banned. I was really into it. There was something going on in Eastern Europe, which was very different from what’s going on in the West. Rock in the West was music, it’s entertainment. In the East, it was political. They were moving forward, they were going to confront the regime. They were going to jail for their ideas. I said, “Wow, this is the stuff.” Poland opened my eyes.
When I got back from Poland, I had all these Polish records, including Brygada Kryzyz. I listened to all this Polish stuff. I started to be interested in what’s going on in the other countries in the Eastern block. So I started to dig out, to do some research about Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia. I found out that there were quite good rock scenes, but also some punks. I contacted some guys in Paris, Patrice from New Wave Records, because someone told me, “This New Wave Records in Paris is going to do a Polish punk compilation LP.” I was very excited, so I called him, I went to Paris and I met him, and he said it’s not true. But someone in Paris was doing a Hungarian punk 7” compilation, the famous Vilag Lazadoi Harcra Fel, which is the first vinyl with Hungarian punk. Very revolutionary stuff. Then he told me, if you want to get more information about Polish punk, and punk in general, you should read Maximum Rocknroll. That was in 1983.
In the summer of 1983 I was in Poland, in the fall I was in Paris and I met the guy. He was distributing Maximum Rocknroll, so I bought a copy. That’s the first copy of MRR I ever had, from the fall or winter of 1983. I bought this magazine—it was in English. I was like, OK, let’s see. There were all these scene reports from Brazil and stuff. I was like, “It’s blowing my mind! This is the shit.” I subscribed. It was really expensive for me to send the dollars to the US. It was really expensive for Europeans to subscribe to Maximum Rocknroll at the time. I had no job, just some small jobs here and there. I was preparing for my civil service entry. Every month I was getting the issues. I was like, wow, fantastic stuff, Hungary, Germany, Brazil, Argentina. I was starting to buy some music. I was still not so much interested in Western punk. But, through Maximum Rocknroll, I saw that some of the bands in the West were also political, which was new to me. That made it interesting.
The first US punk record I ever bought was Let Them Eat Jellybeans. I bought it in the shops in France. The first French punk record I ever bought was maybe, I’m not sure, it’s hard for me to remember, something like Collabos or Chaos en France, early French punk. That was less interesting because it was not really political, songs about getting drunk, fucking around, fighting, and being working class. For me, the lyrics were a bit stupid, but the music was good. I was in my 20s, I needed to rebel a little bit. I thought, it’s quite good, maybe it’s shocking.
Next, I discovered some German punk—Slime. I went to some party in Germany—I was studying in Strasbourg, which is right on the border—where there were a lot of German students, and we were invited to a party. During the party, there were some different kind of young guys, French and German, hippies and punks and whatever, and someone put on Slime. I said, “Wow, what’s this”? The music was really good, it reminded me a little bit of Kryzys because it was really good punk, but sometimes a bit reggae. I looked at the cover, and it was all in German. I speak German, so I could read the titles, and it was against the army, the state… It was like, “Yes! This is me. I see myself in this. I’m a conscientious objector, I refuse to go to the army, this is exactly me.” It was in a language that was directly speaking to me, because I am from a German minority in France. I was like, these German punks, they are the guys playing this German political punk stuff. That was it, I was a punk. I was a punk without looking like a punk, because at the time I still had a big beard and long hair. I was dressed in old military clothes, more looking like a hippie. I didn’t care at all. What I saw in Germany, everybody’s mixed. You don’t need to look like a punk. You can have long hair, whatever. You are a young guy, you are with your friends, and this is the shit, and that’s it. Nobody cares. So I went to some punk gigs, and it was OK. I met some punks, and I liked the guys—they were friendly. I met some skinheads, they were nice guys—most of them, not all of them, some of them (laughs). That’s it. A bunch of friends, we are having fun, we are making music, going to gigs, this stuff is kind of political and provocative, it absolutely fits me in my life and my ideology and what I want to do. So it was fitting me. It was just the clothes I was looking for.
I was reading Maximum Rocknroll, and I’m getting a buzz on because I need more. This is not enough. It’s always Poland, Poland, Poland—that’s nice, it’s great, fantastic bands. I was like, “Nobody’s ever talking about Czechoslovakia. What’s going on in Czechoslovakia”? I want more, I want more. So in the summer of 1986, I decided to go to Czechoslovakia, and check out if there are punks, and if there is a scene or anything. At the time, I had just bought the cassette by Mykel Board, World Class Punk, which had one Czech punk band, and there was one address on it. I thought there must be punk, and I do not understand why there would not be a scene report about Czechoslovakia in Maximum, and if nobody’s doing it then I am going to do it. So I went, and I had only this address of these guys, the manager of A64, that was the band. The guy was called Petr Zikmunt. I took my visa, I took the train, and I traveled to Prague. I went to the address of this guy and I rung the bell, there was nobody. It was in the neighborhood of the Prague Castle, a very nice neighborhood. I went several times, and at one point the guy came. I said “Are you Petr Zikmunt”? He said, “yes.” I told him I got the contact for A64 from this compilation out in the States. He told me A64 split up. I told him still I would be very interested to learn about punk [in Czechoslovakia], because I would like to start writing something for Maximum. The guy said, “I don’t know, I’m not in the scene anymore. I’m managing another band that is kind of avant-garde stuff. They are called Ser Un Peyjalero.” He didn’t want to have anything to do with punk anymore for some reason. So I decided to find it by myself.
I was in Prague, a town new to me. I did not speak the language. I was hanging around town, looking for any punks. At some point I met a Czech guy, Pavel Veverka, who was a kind of hippie type—the generation of Czech people who were listening to Plastic People of the Universe from the first underground wave of Czech music, like prog rock and avant-garde stuff. The guy said, “Well, I can connect you to some underground musicians, but I don’t know about punk, but I know some guys who might,” and so on. So this guy was very friendly, and he connected me to some people of the Jazz Section of the Union of Musicians of Czechoslovakia. At that time, the Jazz Section, Jazzova Sekce, was the underground union for dissident musicians in Czechoslovakia. They were being watched by the police. Actually, it was not about jazz, it was about being rebellious. All the avant-garde stuff, all the provocative stuff, and all the really weird musicians were there. So I went to their headquarters, and I got a bunch of information, contacts, and I met some more bands. I found some really interesting avant-garde stuff.
I met Mikolas Chadima, who was one of the first punks in Czechoslovakia. He was playing with Extempore, the band that was making the link between Plastic People and punk. Some of their stuff was like Plastic People, prog rock/avant-garde stuff, and some of their stuff was really punk. He was a very interesting guy. He spoke only German and Czech, so we could speak in German, which was very nice. He gave me some of his cassettes, he introduced me to more musicians, and so on. So I started to have a network of underground and avant-garde musicians—people who were experimenting, but still, I didn’t have my punk stuff. It was extremely interesting. It was a rich context and rich discussions, good stuff.
But I kept hanging around in the center of Prague. At some point, I saw some punks in the very center of Prague, Narodni St. It was close to a restaurant that’s no more, I don’t remember the name, but at that time the restaurant was the headquarters for punk. They met there usually to drink beer. There were some young punks hanging around, with mohawks, red hair, ripped clothes, and stuff, so I went straight to them. I said, “Hey guys, you are the punks I am looking for. They were like, “Ack, sorry, who are you”? They were nice guys. They were nineteen, twenty, and I was like twenty-three, so we were the same generation, there was no gap [laughs]. We hung out together, and they said, “We have a band, there are so many bands here,” and they gave me all the information as they were very well connected. They were sometimes given a hard time by the police—they were beaten up, and some of them went to jail. They were also kind of self-destructive, and many of them were taking drugs, whatever they could get in the local pharmacies. They would take pills or cough syrup and mix it and shoot it straight in their arms. I had some really crazy weekends with these guys. I spent several days staying with them. Moving from one flat to another, and spending the night there, talking through the night. Many of them did not speak very good English, so we had to use a Czech-English dictionary. One of them spoke a bit of German, so we could communicate. They became my friends. I took a lot of pictures, I brought a lot of cassettes and stuff. When I came back, I had all this material, photos and stuff, and I started writing my first Maximum Rocknroll scene report. I wrote, this is the first ever Czechoslovakian scene report in Maximum, I hope you will print it. It was printed! Yes!
MRR: I bet we still have the photos.
Luk: It was my first ever. I thought, it’s done, it’s working, I like it, it’s great, it’s fun, I meet people… I started this underground DIY cassette label, called Ukrutnost Tapes, to release this underground Czech stuff I had brought with me.
MRR: How do you spell that? What does it mean?
Luk: [Spells it] It means “atrocity” in Czech. I was releasing all this Czech stuff. I sent cassettes to Maximum for review. One cassette reviewed was the FPB live. FPB was one of the great punk bands of the time, from Teplice in the north of Czechoslovakia, on the border with East Germany. They are now Uz Jsme Doma, which is a famous punk-ish, avant-garde-ish band. They play in the States pretty regularly nowadays. They are really punk guys, still punk!
In 1986, I had just finished my civil service, and I started to work in a school. I was planning my next trip. What’s next, what’s missing in Maximum Rocknroll? I was always fascinated by China, so I thought, next year—I could only afford one trip a year—I’ll go to China. So, in 1987 I flew to Hong Kong. Out of nothing, I met some bands in Hong Kong, some punk bands like Creeping Jesus,. I met a guy who was a manager for different bands. It was difficult, but somehow I got in touch with this guy, who introduced me to some bands in Hong Kong. I got a few recordings, and I took some pictures. I wrote my Hong Kong scene report for Maximum Rocknroll in 1987, the first one ever.
Then I moved on to the People’s Republic of China, and that was really crazy. I had no plan. I was in Guangzhou, and I had a huge culture shock, wow. I was not really ready. I had never been in Asia before. Hong Kong was OK, because it is like the West. But being in Guangzhou in 1987…there was not much rock ’n’ roll going on in China, and there was absolutely no punk. I ended up playing in a Chinese movie. Someone saw me on the street and came up to me and said, “You’re the kind of guy we are looking for.” Then I moved to Beijing, and I checked the record shops. I bought a lot of Chinese cassettes. Nothing was looking like rock ’n’ roll, but I bought randomly. I took the train through Mongolia and Siberia to Moscow, then the train to Berlin, then back to France. I started listening to all these tapes. It turned out that out of these Chinese tapes was the first rock/pop compilation ever made in China, including one song by Cui Jian, who is the godfather of Chinese rock ’n’ roll. ’87 was the year he released his one hit song in China, called “Yi Wo Sui Yao,” which means “I am nothing. I am worthless.” The attitude is there. It became a big hit, because all the young Chinese saw, yes, this guy is telling me something that is touching me. He is saying we are just nothing, and it’s true.
Cui Jian is the godfather of Chinese rock ’n’ roll. Before that, he was playing trumpet in a state orchestra. Then he met some foreign students in Beijing—they gave him some rock tapes. He liked them, he got a guitar, and he started to play rock with some guys. He’s made many albums. The music is good. It’s rock, sometimes with Chinese influences or blues influences. The lyrics are absolutely brilliant. Cui Jian is from an ethnic minority of China. He is an ethnic Korean of China. Thanks to him, there is punk, and there is everything else in China.
At the same time, in the Soviet Union, there is one guy who kind of started a new generation of rock. This guy is Viktor Tsoy. He was the singer of the band Kino. This is the first Soviet rock band that played a punk song on their LP in the Soviet Union. The song was “Mama Anarkhia“ (“My Mother Anarchy” in English)—it was released by the State on their first LP. They made it like they are making fun of punks, but actually they mean what they say. They managed to get through the censorship because they said that it’s a song against punk. Viktor Tsoy, the leader of Kino, died in the late ’80s. The young people all over the former Soviet Union, they really worship him like the godfather of Soviet rock ’n’ roll. He was an ethnic Korean in the Soviet Union—a Soviet Korean. These two guys, in the Soviet Union and in China, were both Korean. And the Koreans are very proud of this! The South Koreans, they know about this. There is a connection, when you look at it. It’s crazy!
MRR: The outsiders…
Luk: Outsiders were doing it. That was China, my scene report of 1987. It was only Hong Kong, because I found nothing in China. I did some small trips afterwards. I was very fascinated by East Germany, because I was still fascinated by Communist countries. I wanted to check their underground, so in the winter of 1987, I think, I went to East Germany, to Leipzig. I met punks there—L’Attentat, who did an LP later in West Germany. I did the translation of lyrics into French. I smuggled the picture for the cover out of East Germany to West Germany in my luggage. I was not caught, thanks god [laughs]. I stayed with the guys for some time. They were good friends, and we had some good times. I did an interview with L’Attentat for Maximum Rocknroll. It was my third contribution—a two-page spread.
In 1988, the next summer, I went to Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. At that time, 1988, they had one punk band in Singapore. I had written a letter to Maximum Rocknroll, saying I was going to Singapore. It got printed, and I got a letter from a Singaporean student in the States who was into punk. He said, “I will be back in Singapore during the summer. I know of one band in Singapore, and if you want…I can introduce you to the guys.” I was like, “easy”! I just wrote a letter to Maximum and I got my contact in Singapore. There were never any reports on punk in Singapore, so it was completely new. I went there, and the guy met me at the airport. He was a very nice guy, Mike Teo. He was friends with a guy doing a fanzine in Singapore called Big O. It’s a rock fanzine. They knew most of the bands, and they introduced me to this punk band called Opposition Party. They were real punks, really nice guys. They were starting to play music— they had a very poorly recorded demo, and we did an interview with them. It was my fourth Maximum contribution, a two-page spread with Singapore punk band Opposition Party.
Then I moved on to Malaysia. Nobody seemed to know about punk in Kuala Lumpur. In 1988 punk had not yet reached Kuala Lumpur. It was still on the East Coast. The birthplace of punk in Malaysia is the Terengganu state. There, it was a bunch of kids in high school, and a guy named Joe Kidd, who is a very good friend of mine now. They got to listen to punk through some British expatriates who were working the region in some kind of mines. Because of this British community, the local shops were carrying up-to-date British music. Somehow the local kids also got access to this, through the shop, and they formed a kind of punk club, exchanging tapes and writing about punk. Later on, some of them would move to Kuala Lumpur, the capital, and start the punk scene there. I was there too early, there was nothing.
Then I went on to Thailand. When I was in Thailand, there seemed to be nothing, until I came across some really weird looking guys on the street. They had dreadlocks and a lot of jewelry and stuff. I was asking, “…Do you know any punks”? And they said “Yes, we know some punks. You can meet them at the weekend market in Chatuchak, in Bangkok.” So I went there, and there were some punks, with mohawks and tattoos and everything. And that was Dok Mohok. I met with them, hung out, we did a few things together. We talked a lot. They didn’t seem much aware of what is punk music, but they didn’t really speak English, mostly Thai, and I don’t really speak Thai. So it was lots of smiling and back-patting and stuff. They were nice guys. When I came back, I sent in the Opposition Party interview and the Thailand scene report, the first ever. I think it even went on the cover, ’cause of the crazy photos of the Thai punks, with the huge Mohawks and stuff.
’89, I went to the Indian Ocean, with Mauritius and the Reunion Island. I met some punks in those places. In the Reunion Island they even had bands, one punk band called Acid. I found them by searching very hard. They were high school kids and it was the summer holidays, so the high schools were closed. I was asking around saying, “Has anybody ever heard about punks here”? Someone told me, “Yes, I saw an article in the daily newspaper of the Reunion Island Communist Party.” There had been one article about the punks. So I called the Communist Party newspaper, and asked to speak with the journalist who wrote this article. They said, “No, we can’t tell you, it’s confidential.”
Someone told me it was written that it was kids from such-and-such high school, so I decided to check the high school. It was closed for the summer, but the door was open, so I went inside. In one office, someone was working, sorting out the papers of the final exams. I said, “Excuse me, there was an article about punks in the Communist newspaper, and it seems the guys were studying in this high school. Could you help me to get in touch with them”? The secretary told me, “Yes, they were students here, but they’ve moved on. I don’t know if I can give you their address… Maybe they would not like it, or their parents maybe would not like it.” But somehow, she gave me their name and address. So I went to the phone book, found some phone number and called. Of course, they were high school kids, so I got the parents. I said, “Can I speak to…” The parents said, “Who are you”? I said, “I’m doing a report about punks.” So I got to talk with them. The kids were kind of shocked that I had done this kind of investigation!
We met up, and it was cool. We went to the rehearsal place, and I recorded some of their music on my tape recorder, which later I released on my Last Call for the Lost Scenes compilation, Volume 1. That was it, I was hanging out with the punks of the Reunion Island! This is a French overseas territory, a tropical island full of volcanoes. In the capital city, there is this road along the seaside, with all the palm trees and so on, and these guys had spray painted all the palm trees with anarchy symbols!
Then I went to Mauritius. I met two punks there, but there were no bands, just some guys. But still I wrote a report about this, an Indian Ocean scene report. I liked to see my stuff printed, and other people seemed to like it too. Maximum seemed happy to print it.
1990, I went back to Thailand and I went to Laos. In Thailand I met with Dok Mohok again. In between he had gotten in an accident, and he was blind. [Dok worked as an extra in movies, but a light exploded and blinded him, leaving him with no way to earn an income—ed.] We started to raise money for him. We did a compilation with Katz Seki in Los Angeles from Gothic Gospel Records. It’s called Don’t Forget the Punks of Bangkok. We made some money with it, and I brought it to him in Bangkok.
In Laos, I couldn’t find anything, just some metal guys. ’91, I went to the Philippines. I had some contacts, because there was already some information in Maximum. I did quite a lot of interviews. I interviewed the Philippine Violators, and the former boss of Twisted Red Cross tapes, Tommy Tanchanco. Then I went to Taiwan. There I was very lucky, I met the vocalist of the first ever punk band in Taiwan, Double X. They made one album, on cassette. I got this album. The guy’s name is Sissey Chao. This is kind of his English name, his real Chinese name is Zhao Yi Er. I don’t remember how I met him. It was difficult, because in Taiwan there were not many punks at the time. He had already moved on from Double X. He was doing solo stuff, and it is kind of interesting—it had some punk-ish stuff, not all of it. I went to some rock bar, where they had live bands, and I met another punk band called Dragon Head. I hung out a bit with them, and then I did the first Taiwan scene report, in ’91. After Taiwan, I went to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, I met with Blackbird, this anarchist punk underground band. Punk, funk, blues—they play everything, but they are really political guys, anarchists. They are nice, nice people. I met the vocalist and guitarist, Guo, and I met Casi, his wife, the bass and violin player. I did a very long interview with Blackbird.
MRR: When you featured these scenes and bands in Maximum, was there any kind of response from the countries that you were covering? Did it generate anything?
Luk: Not much. At that time, I was always taking copies of Maximum with me. I was giving them to people in the hope that they would be interested to write and contribute, like planting the seed, you know? Giving out tapes and Maximum, making interviews, getting the guys interested, excited… I think that most of the time, it went to nothing. There was once, a response about my Hong Kong scene report. Someone from Hong Kong complained about my scene report, saying, “What is this bullshit? These bands he is talking about, everybody knows they are poseurs. They are not the real punks…” [everyone laughs] The first ever letter to Maximum from Hong Kong was a complaint letter! I thought, why didn’t this guy write the scene report instead of complaining?
MRR: Out of everywhere that you’ve been to, what was the most surprising place that you found a punk scene or punks?
Luk: Maybe Thailand in the beginning, but it was not really a scene. It was a few punks that really didn’t know much about punk. It was the attitude, and the image. I have a lot of respect for all the punks I met in the Eastern Block countries—Czechoslovakia, East Germany. It was great people, great music, great times. Just to come back to what you were asking before, much later, many years later, new scenes would appear, and those people would contribute sometimes to Maximum, but it wasn’t connected to what I did. In Czechoslovakia, one of my friends that I met in 1986—Petr Bergman, who was playing in the band called Pivny Mozoly—at that time he did not speak English. A couple of years later, he spoke perfect English, and he would send stuff to Maximum. To this day, he’s an activist of the scene. He went from street punk, doing drugs with his friends, to an activist of the scene. He’s on his second or third project. He created a kind of alternative cultural center in the middle of Prague, with music, theater, workshops, women’s groups, and a lot of stuff. Then it was destroyed by the city, to make a parking lot. He’s now running an alternative cultural center somewhere in the countryside, on the border with Poland. He doesn’t have blue hair anymore. Last time I saw him he had dreadlocks, and a kind of skirt.
MRR: Is it strange going back to countries like Czechoslovakia, where there was such oppression?
Luk: When I go back nowadays, it’s like going somewhere in Western Europe. I have all these bad memories, from the time I spent there, with punks, hiding from the police. Going to flats far away in the suburbs…
MRR: A secret society.
Luk: Yes. It’s weird. All the musicians I met, all these underground guys were struggling, they went to jail. Now you can find their CDs everywhere. I met a guy a few years later, Mikolas Chadima, formerly of Extempore, who is now with MCH Band. He has done a lot of new albums, and he has released his old stuff on CD, which was never released before. When I met him some years ago, after the fall of communism, he said, “It’s weird. We used to struggle in the underground. We used to be at the control of the State, of the police, all the time. We were threatened,”—he had a police car in front of his house. “When we did organize underground gigs, just by word of mouth, hundreds of people would come. Some from far away in the countryside. Now, everything is possible…and nobody’s coming to gigs. Everybody’s listening to American music. The CDs are not selling. What’s the point? We were doing all this stuff under communism, and now that everything’s possible, everything’s dead.”
MRR: They have to figure out a new way to resist that.
[Talk about how there is also a generation gap between older folks and the kids coming up today who want to hear something that’s not reminiscent of the old times. Also how hip-hop is popular with kids in part because it’s more accessible—you don’t need instruments.]
Luk: In the new scenes, where punk is appearing, like Laos, it seems like all the young kids are into it. If punk is the old stuff here, go to Laos, where it’s new.
MRR: What’s the story with that Cambodian band you played on the radio show?
Luk: This band, Vealsre, is made up of two Cambodians and two French guys. They don’t exist anymore. The French guys were working as French teachers, I think, in the country. The Cambodians were guys…connected somehow to the French community. They decided to do some rock in Khmer, something which was never made before, at least since the mid ’70s. From the ’60s to the ’70s, they had rock in Cambodia, before the Khmer Rouge took power. Then, everybody was killed. Now they are re-starting the scene. So Vealsre does not exist anymore, but they did two CDs. It’s not straight punk. The song I played is really punk, but the rest is a mix of different styles of rock. They went on to do another band called Teuk Mate, with one CD. That band split, and now they are called Thom Thom. Thom Thom is two Cambodians—one girl playing bass and one guy playing guitar and singing—and one French guy playing the drums. Thom Thom has a very interesting website you can check out. They say they are a Cambodian garage band. Vealsre was a little bit soft, now they want to do something really [makes noise, indicating aggression, I guess-ed.] They are touring like hell in the Cambodia. They go to the countryside, where nobody had ever heard of rock ’n’ roll, and they jam for the people in the villages. It seems like Cambodians like it, because it’s really noisy and there’s rhythm. Somehow, they are starting some kind of scene. It’s too early to tell. They are one of the only bands doing this kind of stuff.
Last year, when I was in Phnom Penh, I heard about another Cambodian band called Substudents, that would be pop-punkish. I didn’t manage to find them. The people who told me about them weren’t able to put me in touch with them. I met some American punks in Phnom Penh, expatriate punks. One guy was doing a band called Betty Ford and the GT Falcons. It was an American punk band in Cambodia. They played for one or two years, then they split up because some guys moved on. They played regularly in some bars in Phnom Penh, including the bar called Zeppelin. This is the rock bar of Phnom Penh, it’s very small. This bar was opened by a Taiwanese guy married to a Cambodian woman. He’s a rock fan, and he moved to Cambodia because it’s cheaper to live and do a small business. He opened the bar, and he brought his record collection with him. So in the bar there is a wall of vinyl. The guy DJs every night. He’s into ’60s and ’70s rock, mainstream stuff, but he lets the bands play his bar whenever they want. So that’s the place where the punks play. American punks, and maybe Substudents, have played there, and Rambo played there when they did their tour of Southeast Asia. Vealsre, Teuk Mate, and Thom Thom are not connected to this scene. They are more connected to the French community. They should meet, though. They should work together.
MRR: Do they know about each other?
Luk: I think so. The American guy from Betty Ford and the GT Falcons told me he knows of them, but not much about them. When Thom Thom plays in Phnom Penh, they play at the French Cultural Center. Who goes to the French Cultural Center? The Americans won’t go. It’s a small country, it’s a small scene, but people are still split.
MRR: So you started out being politically motivated, and leaning towards being an activist.
Luk: I was a member of Greenpeace at the time, and I was a member of Amnesty International. I was a conscientious objector, and I was a militant for my culture and language. I was very much anti-state. I refused to go to the army, because at that time didn’t recognize the French state. They don’t recognize me, so I don’t recognize them! It was really politically motivated, which I could not tell them, of course! If I were to tell them, “I don’t recognize your state, keep it for yourself,” they would have sent me to jail. I was not that crazy!
MRR: Do you think that affected what you do for a living?
Luk: Yes, I think so. I never had a job, a real job, until now. So I was doing odd jobs, working student jobs.
[Talking about how he got his current job] I was traveling in Vietnam, and some guys I met told me they would probably hire me. I was reaching the end of my situation—I couldn’t get the dole anymore. I was tiring of looking for money, doing moving jobs… After a couple of months, I applied. I was hired like this [snaps]! So I’ve been doing this for twelve years. I still have thirteen years to go before I retire!
MRR: How has your work affected your worldview?
Luk: It’s difficult to say. I’m probably more sensitive about a lot of stuff. Everybody knows a lot of shit is going on in the world. When you are dealing with this shit from day to day, and it’s part of your job to try and clean up a bit of this shit…I’m more pessimistic. I don’t believe too much in human beings, when you see what they can do to each other. That’s awful, isn’t it? It’s a bit difficult.
MRR: I can’t imagine some of the stuff you were saying, about the situation in Africa.
Luk: This work makes sense for me, because I feel useful. In my life, I never wanted to work for a boss. If the purpose of the job is to make money, I find that very stupid. I don’t want to waste my life helping someone to make money. I wanted to do something with a purpose… It’s like a reality check. You are always in the middle of action, in the middle of conflict, big events happening. Sometimes you can make a difference, not always. You can really help people to get on with their lives.
Sometimes it’s very basic. You are in Uganda, and there is a conflict going on, and the rebels just attacked some refugee camp. You get a call saying there is a lot of wounded, and nobody dares to bring them to a hospital. It’s twenty kilometers, but it’s too dangerous, because the rebels might still be around. They call us, we take the car, and we go. We take the stretchers, pick up the wounded, and bring them to the hospital. Maybe we save some lives. Maybe it’s a drop in the ocean. But it’s better than nothing, I think. In this specific case of picking up the wounded, it feels like a drop in the ocean.
In other cases, like in these programs, for the displaced, we distributed seeds and tools. The timing was so they can plant the seeds and be self-sustainable. It worked, which was wonderful. In the bush land of north Uganda, there is not much growing, and the people live in refugee camps because they are afraid of the attacks by the rebels—people had been becoming dependent on us. They were waiting for food to be distributed. In an emergency situation, there is no choice. You give them food until you find another way. It’s not good for anybody to get assisted. If the people are sitting all day long in the refugee camps, waiting for food and doing nothing, they feel like shit. If you give seeds and tools, and it’s well-planned and it works, you see the cornfields growing up like crazy because it’s raining like hell and the soil is good. These people, all of them are farmers. What they know to do is work in the fields and grow the food. You help them regain their dignity, it’s fantastic. The people are so happy. They prefer this to being given the food.
MRR: How do you handle situations where you need to negotiate between different groups? Especially when you’re dealing with rebel organizations that don’t necessarily have the same world or moral views as you do?
Luk: You always have to go back to the basics. You have to explain, we are human beings, you are human beings, some of the people around here are suffering, so it would be good if we could alleviate a little bit of suffering. Sometimes it works, people will say, “Fine, you can assist these guys, as long as you do your work and nothing else.” Many times, people in armed groups, or the army, they are suspicious of foreigners. They think maybe you have a double agenda, you are here for spying. Most of the time, it’s OK. If you do your work correctly, openly, without discrimination, they will trust you. Sometimes it does not work. You have to keep on meeting people and explaining and trying to get their agreement. It’s a lot of networking.
MRR: It’s funny—it’s exactly what you were saying about finding punks.
Luk: Yeah, except instead of talking to punks, street kids, or rock musicians, you talk to officers of the army, guerilla combattants, ministers of the government. From being a punk reporter, I became a humanitarian worker. Sometimes, I have to wear a suit and tie because I have an appointment with the Prime Minister’s office. You have to play the game, otherwise you will not achieve anything. I never wore a tie before.
MRR: One thing that we talked about before…the fact that when you’re dealing with situations where extreme violence and degradation of humanity is a daily reality for a lot of people, figuring out how to keep your dignity is incredibly difficult. As a punk, when you see records that have images from wars…
Luk: When you work in a war situation, and you’re dealing with people who have lost everything, the most important thing they want to gain back is their dignity. The basic line is, everybody has a right to be respected. So when I see a punk record with images of dead bodies, which is just there for the shock value, or because it’s trendy and punk to put this stuff on covers, I find it very stupid. This is not respecting the dignity of the people who are featured on the records. For me, this is against punk. It’s been done, redone, and done again. People don’t even notice it anymore. So it’s maybe a kind of race to be the most shocking, gross, and disgusting. People should get a life, and try to be a little bit creative and artistic. After all these years and experiences, I cannot accept this. Punk supposedly had a purpose and a kind of meaning, an attitude that should be progressive and open-minded and respectful… If they use this kind of imagery for their covers, it’s not.
MRR: It’s like we were talking about…the reporter in South Africa, who was filming the fleeing immigrants. That situation is really sad, in a country that is one of the wealthiest in Africa. Most of the surrounding countries have been exploited by bad leadership and lack of infrastructure, so people are starving, and they can get work in South Africa. To film somebody who is dying as the result of an anti-immigration attack, although it’s not in the context of punk, it’s similar…
Luk: It’s the exploitation of human suffering. Sometimes the journalist will think, “OK, thanks to my pictures, people will know what’s going on.” You can’t shoot pictures of the dying and wounded and sell it to TV to show all over the world. What’s the point? You can do your job without going that far. As a human being, if you see someone in this situation, your first reflex should be to drop the camera and help them.
MRR: Apart from America, where you are visiting now for the first time, where was the last place that you traveled and ran into punks?
Luk: I guess it was Tajikistan, or Uzbekistan. I was based in Tajikistan, but went many times to Uzbekistan and met punks there. No, actually, it was Cambodia last year.
MRR: You were talking about the Moroccan punk scene. What is the story with that?
Luk: The Moroccan punk scene I stumbled upon on the internet, even though I did the Moroccan scene report back in 1991. In 1991, I went to Morocco and I met some kind of metal guys, but there was really not much of a scene. I still wrote a small thing for Maximum. I’m a bit ashamed when I think of it now, because there was not much substance. Nowadays, there is a big rock and underground scene in Morocco. Every year they organize a festival, called L’Boulevard in Casablanca. It’s usually around June, an open-air show. There are always several stages. One is for the local bands, and one is for foreign bands. Usually there is a competition for new bands. There is some kind of vote, who is the Moroccan band of the year. Last year, this punk band from Rabat won. They are called Zlak Wella Mout, which means Skate or Die. Sometimes they just use ZWM. You can find a lot of their stuff on the ’net, even videos. They are on MySpace. There are more bands—one band called Anarchy in Rabat, they are more like grunge stuff. There is a very good band called Hoba Hoba Spirit, which is a kind of ska-rock-punk band. They have already three albums. The latest one is available on their website to download for free. Morocco is witnessing an explosion of underground bands.
MRR: Is it kind of a mix of North African music and Western music?
Luk: Not so much with punk. With the other styles…there is a mix of reggae and gnawa [tradition Moroccan music]. You can find a lot of bands mixing this stuff. One is very good, called Amarg Fusion. Some of this stuff is beautiful music, but it’s not punk. They are experimenting, and there are very rich musical traditions. I think Morocco has a bright future in terms of music.
MRR: I have this whole thing of punk being an idea, feeling, and a spirit, rather than a set sound, necessarily.
Luk: This is true, and it’s proven by history. If you listen to the early compilations of punk, there was not one sound. Even the early-’80s stuff, you listen to Let Them Eat Jellybeans, and so on, there is a lot of different styles. Punk has always been something original and creative, and going against the trends. This is the way my compilations are, different styles. I don’t want to have everyone sounding like Green Day or Black Flag. What’s the point?
MRR: What you were saying about the Eastern Block punks made me think about how what they were doing was what people in the ’60s wanted to do. All those rock bands that had songs about revolution, but just did lots of cocaine and groupies. The Eastern Block punks are actually living this resistance.
Luk: You should look at classical punk bands in Russia. For example. Grazhdanskaya Oborona, whose singer Yegor Letov died about three months ago, they were the real revolutionaries in music in the Soviet Union. They started in the mid ’80s in Siberia. Yegor was from Omsk. He recorded about thirty or forty albums in his home, with his friends. Everything was completely underground, clandestine, DIY. They duplicated some cassettes. They had their own style. Really good lyrics, in Russian, fantastic lyrics. It’s very Russian, it’s inspired by the history of Russia. Mayakovski, for example, is a reference for many of the punks in Russia. They are anarchist. These bands are not known by most people in the West. I think Grazhdanskaya Oborona played in San Francisco. On their latest album, the band is featured on the corner of Haight and Ashbury. I think they played here for the Russian community only…I guess the punk scene missed it completely. That’s the Russian legend of punk. They played here, and probably nobody knows.
MRR: What you were saying about Maximum covering the Polish scene, and how you’re “Oh, the Polish scene,” [said reverently]. When Armia came to the US and played in Brooklyn, people from here went, and they said everyone at the show was Polish. People knew about the Polish band, but nobody knew about the Russian band.
Luk: Somehow, I get this feeling that Maximum is getting cut off from a lot of stuff going on in the world. It used to be more spread, and now it seems to be reduced a little bit, to a kind of niche, no? Europe, US, a bit of South America sometimes, Southeast Asia sometimes, and Japan. The rest of the world is moving on! They are creating thousands of punk records, which is fantastic. There is no connection.
MRR: The idea of Maximum, it does move and shift with whoever is in charge, but we only collect records, we’re a print magazine. It’s a different world from when the magazine started. The internet has opened up the world to ideas. People can learn about human rights abuses in five seconds, instead of five weeks.
Luk: For sharing information, you can get anything in a few seconds. That’s fantastic; that’s probably why you have punk in Iran and places like this—because of the ’net.
MRR: Maximum does serve a purpose, but it doesn’t quite serve the same purpose.
Luk: Somehow, it almost went from global to local.
MRR: Well, people in Cambodia don’t need Maximum to validate their resistance.
Luk: They don’t need it, and they can’t afford it. Print is too expensive, and to ship it to Cambodia, forget it.
MRR: We ship to a lot of Southeast Asian countries, but one problem we have is that customs seizes the magazines, so people don’t get them. There are a few countries, like Malaysia is really hard to get the magazines into.
Luk: After the cover price, plus the shipping cost, it’s still quite expensive for many countries where the people are not wealthy. Even for me, in the early ’80s, it was really hard to spend that much money on my subscription. I did it because I needed it! In many countries, people cannot afford it, but they can stay on the ’net for a dollar an hour.