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Conversations With Sarky: Going Solo

This is Part Two in an interview series on Lao American music artist, Sarky Mekmorakoth. You can read the first interview, “Conversations with Sarky: The Early Years (Part One) here.

I feel like I need to lighten the mood, so, I’m gonna ask, what are you most proud of during your career?

Teaching. It’s an amazing feeling to be a guitar instructor because it’s something I love to do so much. So, to get to share my passion, knowledge, and love for music to a new generation? It’s like seeing yourself back then, when you first started and the progression. It’s cool what these kids are able to do. I get to share everything I went through, learned, and some of these kids really have it. That doesn’t happen everyday but when you see it and hear it–it’s an impact. I’ve been very blessed to get to do what I love and pass it on to more people. And to be able to do it for this long. It’s a dream.

Considering how many of us wander through life trying to find a job that fulfills us, it’s pretty amazing when you find the folks that love what they do. You can really tell. So, speaking of generations and the impact a teacher or a previous generation has on the incoming musicians and music, do you believe music can still be new and creative or is everything just a copy or evolution of something that came before?

That’s, I like that question. You know, I think it’s an evolution of something that came before. We’re all influenced by the past. I teach my students all the stuff I loved and love–that’s a lot of old stuff. So when they write their own stuff–it’s stuff that they’ll already have inside them. All that knowledge and exposure to the music I taught them or worked with them on, it’s all inside of them. It’s hard to be original. You know, something too original might not even be called music to the first people that hear it. They might consider it noise until they get used to it. I think what I try to do is make my own version of it. Put what I feel inside to music and lyrics.

I love it. I think it’s a touchy subject and yet, one that’s a very big deal in the industry considering how many lawsuits there have been and whatever else. Speaking of big deals, do you ever think about your place and impact in the Lao music scene? I mean, you’re kind of our first superstar. Not to put anyone else down or whatever, but it wasn’t like there was any modern music coming out from Laos until very recently. And for them to make an impact here is a completely different set of expectations. You filled that gap. I remember a few other names but no one has had your longevity and reach.

Wow. Thanks. Yeah. I mean, being here and now–it feels unreal. Especially hearing a cover of yourself. It’s humbling. To be able to impact the younger generation with my music is stuff you never think about when you start or play or anything. Even now, when someone messages/emails me about my music or how they like it, it’s unreal. But I can’t think of that too much. It feels weird and I’m not really sure how to handle it. So I just keep playing and play what I love.

That’s solid. I don’t think I’ll ever experience what you do, but I think you’re handling it very graciously. I mean, everytime I see you I ask for a selfie and you’ve never been anything but nice. Out of curiosity, do you have a favorite Lao artist or group or anything?

(laughs) No. I love music. I don’t have one. I like them all. Wait, though, there’s this really old song that I love. Mostly for the meaning and everything, but it really spoke to me. It’s called Ngeun. I don’t know who did the original, but my older brother did a cover of it, so I decided to do a cover of it, too.

I’ll have to look that up. I have no clue what that song is. Okay, I’m trying to pigeonhole you a little, but you aren’t very cooperative. Let’s try this: What’s on your current playlist, right now? Give me the 10 at the top, no cheating!

(laughs) You’re not going to like this. I don’t have a playlist. I don’t even own anything that could do that. I’m a radio guy. I like variety. If something new comes out that I’ve never heard before–it’s the best feeling. I love it. Back in the 80s I’d just watch MTV and there was no rewinding available so you really enjoyed the time you had listening to those songs you loved. So the radio lets me recreate that feeling a little. Instead of just hitting repeat or something.

Okay, you’re slightly old-school about it all. But I appreciate. You’re right. I think with technology at our fingertips, we forget to let go; and, instead of controlling what comes to us, let whatever comes to us play to its conclusion. Speaking of which who and what do you count as your musical inspiration(s)? Who would you love to meet, dead or alive to collaborate with? Who influenced you in the past and who influences you now? Like, I was a band nerd growing up. Some things never leave you: my favorite artists are Mozart and Glenn Miller or anything from the Big Bang Jazz era. I can and do listen to Christmas music year-round. I know that’s weird. I also love the development of the straight 8th notes of the 50s aka what basically defines the beginning of rock and roll. The beat just makes me happy.

(no pause) My musical inspiration? Eddie Van Halen! He’s a MONSTER guitar player, past and present! No expiration date. At all. Everything he played and touched and put out was magic. That guy is a genius–the sound of what he was playing? He was meticulous. He has a company that builds amps the way he wants it. That’s someone that really knows their sound and stuff. I can’t say enough the depth of how amazing he is. Just, wow.

For a collaboration, wow: Mozart, Michael Jackson, and Sarky. Can you believe that? I love Mozart. How amazing would that be to work with them? I don’t even care if they dictate to me what they want me to do. I’ll just do it. I mean, it would be the most incredible experience of a lifetime. I’d want to just soak everything in and, wow. It’s like insane to think you could be in the presence of all that greatness. The father of modern music as we know it and the King of Pop. And somehow, me–Sarky working with them on something. It’s flattering to even joke about putting my name next to theirs!

I think that would be epic! Melodies and the composition of modern music is definitely based off the catchy work of Mozart. Some classical musicians might have been controversially considered better–but not many of them pumped out the volume of music he did–that was also enjoyable to listen to. Don’t get me wrong, a more macabre feeling of someone from the 20th century like, Shostakovich, also makes my hearing happy, but there’s nothing quite like Mozart. So do you have any songs you particularly like right now of any genre?

I’m really into traditional music right now. There will also be a more reggae beat to the new album. Something a little funky. I was inspired by the khaen and all these traditional old instruments. I’ve always wondered how they might work with more modern beats and rhythms and sounds. I hope it’ll be successful! I think it can really change how Lao Americans view these old relics when they hear them against something they’re more used to. So another one I’m planning on covering is Kup Toom Luang Prabang. My dad has his own version and I plan on doing it with a reggae twist. I think morlam and reggae really share a similar feel. I just have to lengthen certain notes and beats.

I think you’re right. At first glance I’m like, really? But when I start twisting it in my head, elongating certain beats like you said, it works. Okay, enough about the new album for now, since that’s meant for the 3rd part of this interview. So, what’s the biggest challenge for you, right now?

Right now, it’s really about making this new album. Changing stuff around. Getting out of my comfort zone. I’m always looking for something new and trying to be creative about it. With all the advancement in tools and technology we have access to now–it’s crazy that this is the one that I’m finding hardest to write and record. Hopefully the outcome will be rewarding. Every moment I have free, right now, goes towards this album. I teach during the day, 4 days a week and the rest of the time is about this album and making it something I can be happy putting out. It’s not enough to have 3-4 quality songs and a bunch of stuffers. It’s about making each song sing on its own. I’m nervous. I feel the pressure. It’s a lot of pressure.

I can see how that could manifest. You’ve had some huge success in the past and to continue that streak means producing something your fans can still follow you with, but as an artist, to challenge yourself so you don’t feel stale. So I know that every musician might have their own process, but for you, what comes first: lyrics or beats? Do you think that’s common?
A little bit of both but the beats definitely come easier. I think it’s normal for the industry–probably. In my work with other artists and musicians, you can do step one before step two, but it’s pretty standard. Then you start humming along and you zone out a little. And you hope after all the changes you make along the way, that, that initial idea you had is realized and makes sense and is even better.

That’s probably a process only someone that has been through it can understand. But this gives the rest of us, some idea. Speaking of which, how many instruments can you play? What is your favorite?

I’m a studio musician, as well. So if a solo artist wants backup or needs backup on an album, they can hire me. That usually means I can play the main four: drums, bass guitar, guitar, and keyboard. I’ve always wanted to learn the khaen but for some reason haven’t had the time for it. I think it would be great to have in an album! Even on this album I thought about it but just haven’t gotten there yet. But how fun would that be to have an album using all of our traditional instruments.

I completely agree! I think it would be pretty amazing to hear traditional instruments used in a whole new way. It’s one of the more unexplored reaches of modern music, I think. So, I hear you’re working on a brand new album, right now. That’s exciting! Give us a preview: what makes this one different?

You know, it’s funny. Now I’ve actually got fans. (laughs) When I made Sao Online–I never ever thought it was going to be this big thing…that I could even have exposure and fans from it. And then with the second album…

And then to follow it up with what is basically the Lao national anthem, Hao Pen Khon Lao, right? I mean, it’s huge for us.

Exactly! I never thought that was going to speak to people as much as it has. It makes me happy. So the major difference from all that before and this one–fans. Now it’s something in the back of my mind–will they like it if I veer too off course? Will it resonate still? There’s a lot on the line. More pressure than I’ve felt…ever for an album. But it’s not really even about whether or not I’d disappoint anyone–it’s that pressure of just wanting to create good music. I don’t have a specific genre in mind but I want every song to be great, you know? So I’m taking more time and adding some reggae beats to it. I’m aiming for 10 quality songs that hopefully relate to people and, you know…I just want to keep innovating and getting better and creating even more magic. It’s less rock, so it’s not a rock album. I know I want to include a few old songs that speak to me–but just put my spin on it, you know? So I’m including Kup Toom Luang Prabang in the album. I’m really trying to merge going back to our roots and traditional music with reggae. But there’s going to be something for everyone.

Well, when you put it like that, you’re right–that’s pressure. The marrying of traditional to reggae is exciting. I can’t wait to hear this album!

I’m really shooting for the end of July and no later than August. It’s still the early stages right now, but it feels good to be back at it. I’ve got 7 songs written and produced but the process is always changing. Some songs are natural and get done faster. The beat is good and the lyrics flow. Some songs…there are no words sometimes how difficult it can become. A couple of weeks and nothing.

That sounds frustrating…and slightly fun. For would-be fans–where can they gain access to all your music?

That’s a good question. I’m still in the process of setting something better up. For now, everything is on Youtube. You can also download my music off Apple ITunes and Amazon Music. Following me on Facebook gives you a glimpse into my daily life and, when I’m making music, some of the process I go through. This upcoming album will definitely have more access.

That’s awesome. Hey–thanks again, so much, for sitting down with us and letting us dig into your life, music, history, and future.

For our audience and those interested in this interview series with Sarky, Part 3 of this interview series resumes during the launch of the new album. Don’t forget to check out Part One: The Early Years, to gain a deeper insight into Sarky. 

For now–let’s end with MY favorite song from Sarky.

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