Cambodian dictator Pol Pot was a monster. His Khmer Rouge political movement came to power in 1975 with twisted visions of producing a self-sufficient utopian society, a weird blend of tribalism, Marxism and pop psychology that within four years produced through execution or starvation the murder of 2 million people—20 percent of the entire Cambodian population.
Bonarath Bory and his family made it out just in time.
The guitarist and singer for OC's Stranger Death 19 was only 4 years old in 1975, but he can clearly remember when Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, fell to the Khmer Rouge.
"We were on vacation near the Thailand border when the Khmer Rouge moved in," says Bory, now 27. "My dad was in the air force, and he kind of knew that things were getting bad, so we were fortunate enough to escape before anything happened."
They made it to the relative safety of the U.S. with only the things they had with them on that vacation. The family first settled in Virginia, and by 1980, they had relocated to OC.
Growing up here, Bory became enamored of the Beatles, as well as the raw energy of bands like Dinosaur Jr, the Minutemen, Hsker D and the Replacements—so you could say that, yeah, he had no problems assimilating into the culture of American suburbia.
Bory's roots figure heavily into Stranger Death 19. He says the band's name was inspired by an art piece, a How to Avoid Strangers-type children's book that had been cut up and mutilated into an apocalyptic-looking collage. But Bory says it can also be interpreted as an acknowledgment of the anonymous victims of Pol Pot's killing fields.
And more obviously, in their music: it's loud, angry, pent-up rock & roll, yet it's also mournful and reflective, often within a few chord changes of one song. It's cathartic, Bory will tell you—as it says on the band's Web site, "a roar of emotions both joyous and sad; a final celebration of life, death and everything in between."
"Roar" is an apt adjective—the Hsker D/Dinosaur Jr/Minutemen influences are obvious on Jealous Robot, the trio's just-out CD: Bory's amped-up, distorted, dive-bomber guitars and frenzied, spastic riffing; drummer Scott Flammer's Thor-like backbeats; and bassist Wil Anderson's numbing bottom end that could implode skulls at 20 paces.
You wouldn't label Stranger Death 19 as a strict punk band, but they definitely subscribe to the music's original fuck-trends ethos. Jealous Robot, in fact, is exactly the kind of art-punk album that the Minutemen and Sonic Youth used to whip up, a smart work that's perfect for people who are burned-out on stale, by-the-numbers, onetwothreefaw! hardcore.
Peppering Jealous Robot are man-vs.-technology themes, like "Deep Blue" (about the chess-playing supercomputer in the news several years back) and "Sky Lab." But Stranger Death 19 are really more about tone and feel—pissed-off, distorted soundscapes are their specialty. "Sir Toppem Hat" and "Lap Dance #4" buzz like a zillion horny honeybees dry-humping your eardrums. Other cuts conjure up basic human emotions, like "Me & Morgan," a dreamy, evocative, dirgey sigh.
Stranger Death 19 are clearly following no one's muse but their own. That's the 'tude that Bory copped from former Minuteman Mike Watt, one of his heroes. Though he never saw the seminal LA punks live, Bory was a regular at fIREHOSE shows, Watt's post-Minutemen outfit.
"Watt would always be there in the middle of the crowd, watching the opening bands, being totally accessible," Bory recalls. "You'd talk with him, show up at another show a week later, and he'd remember you. There's no pretense about him. He was a real inspiration, with his attitudes about not really needing a whole lot of talent to play, just a lot of heart. He wasn't trained or anything; he just picked up the bass and played whatever sounded good to him, and it came through, which is a lot like what we are, too."
Those old conversations paid off last year, when Bory ran into Watt at a show and slipped him a Stranger Death 19 tape. "I hadn't seen him in about six years, but he totally recognized me," Bory says. "He liked our tape, called me up, and asked us to open a show for him at Club Mesa. He also spun us a few times on a show he was hosting on this pirate radio station in Silver Lake, which still kind of amazes me, especially when you think about all the guest stars [including Eddie Vedder and Frank Black] that he had on his Ball Hog or Tugboat? album. Everyone knows this guy, but he'll take the time out to talk to you."
Not long ago, Bory journeyed back to Cambodia.
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"Walking around, you could still see all the signs of devastation. Bombed-out buildings were everywhere. I saw a map of Cambodia that was made out of human skulls, hundreds of photographs of children who had been killed. . . . It was pretty horrible. I also had a sense of survivor's guilt, too—like, why was I able to make it out while so many others weren't?
"But, still, I felt at home."
An affirmation that hard, cold reality—like the best rock & roll—is often the purest form of catharsis.
Stranger Death 19 play with the Iron-Ons, Lickity Split and Rocket Science at Koo's Art Cafe, 1505 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 648-0937. Fri., 7:30 p.m. $5. All ages.