There’s something brewing over there in otherwise sleepy Warsaw, Indiana. Something musically inventive and experimental from its core, but devoid of any pretense one might expect to go hand in hand with such a … something. Cambodia Highball is the name of the “something” in question, a project based around the musical interaction between John Hubner and Shane Darin Page. Leaning heavily upon feel and improvisation, Hubner and Page build progressions and riffs into imaginary cinematic scores that ebb, flow and sometimes soar. Largely instrumental, the material is often peppered with found sounds and even field recordings.
“I’d say 95 percent of what we do is improvisation,” says Hubner. “We may have a single riff or chord progression that is a starting point, but that’s as far as the planning goes. We’ll record the drums and guitar live, then go back and overdub more guitar, bass [and]noise, and on a couple songs I did some impromptu vocals.” He adds, “We’ll follow the muse as far as she wants.”
So far, the muse has led Cambodia Highball to complete their debut album, Odd Geometry, and the duo shows no signs of slowing.
Page and Hubner go way back, as they say. How far back?
“We’ve known each other since the third grade, when Shane started going to Leesburg Elementary [in Warsaw],” says Hubner. “From there we bonded over Star Wars, Transformers, music, guitar and copious amounts of beer.”
The kicker here is that two friends since childhood would stay close to home and still make the kind of music you might expect to hear at, say, the Knitting Factory in New York City. Where did the interest in this musical approach originate?
“Shane and I have always had a shared interest in this sort of music,” says Hubner. “Mogwai, electric Miles [Davis], Explosions in the Sky – anything that has room for you to explore within the confines of an eight- or nine-minute song was always good with us.”
“After 27 years of acknowledging similar interests we eventually shrugged our shoulders and said, ‘Eh… let’s see what happens when we collaborate,’” Page adds.
Hubner, perhaps better known in the area as a prolific crafter of indie-pop gems under the Goodbyewave and Sunnydaymassacre monikers as well as under his own name, enjoys Cambodia Highball as both a chance to be collaborative and as a chance to channel his creativity into other directions.
“For me, it’s a chance to do something completely different than my usual music trip. I’ve been a fan of more experimental and instrumental music for years but have never really had the chance to explore those sides of my own musical personality. A couple years ago I had begun to listen to Explosions in the Sky quite a lot, as well as Damo Suzuki-era Can. I really wanted to try and make an album of that sort of music – something kind of funky, something kind of vast.”
The process, as such, is intuitive and free flowing, and that’s just the way the two players like it.
Explains Hubner, “I don’t go into a Cambodia Highball song with any sort of vision, or solid finish in mind. With the pop songs, I know where it’s going to go from start to finish before I even hit the record button. I’m very much set in my ways when it comes to verse/chorus/verse types of songs. With CH, I’ll have an idea I want to work with, but that’s as far as I go with it. I’ll show Shane a riff and melody line and that’s it. We’ll play around with it for as long as it feels good.”
“As far as I’m concerned,” he says, “improvisation will always be at the heart of Cambodia Highball, whatever the motivation or inspiration.”
Hubner also enjoys working with both analog tape and digital recording gear and using elements of the recording process as instruments unto themselves.
“I like mixing those mediums,” he says. “I like recording on an analog four-track and then being able to manipulate it in the digital realm. With Cambodia Highball, I used the four-track more as an instrument than as a recording tool – manipulating tape speed while bouncing tracks to my digital recorder, recording an out-of-tune piano and then adjusting the speed so the piano would be in key with the rest of the song. It’s like a 1960s version of a space age machine.”
Cambodia Highball’s rejection of classic pop structures and methods extends to the way Odd Geometry is sequenced. Listeners get four “sides” of music, rather than more bite-sized song nuggets.
“It’s me wanting to give the listener the feeling of a classic ‘70s basement listening experience,” Hubner explains. “I wanted it to feel like a double vinyl LP. Ideally I would’ve loved to have had this available on vinyl, but that just wasn’t in the cards. So the next best thing was to sequence it and master it like the album was a four-sided LP. I didn’t want any harsh cuts between the tracks, as my vision was to have songs flow into one another. So that’s what I did.”
He adds that a version of Odd Geometry split into eight tracks will eventually be available on the band’s Bandcamp page which Hubner currently favors for distribution of the project.
“The internet is our best friend at this point. We have a Bandcamp page where the album will be waiting to be downloaded. Cambodiahighball.bandcamp.com is where we’re at on the web, and you can download either the single-track version or the vinyl mix version,” Hubner says. “You’ll be able to order a physical copy on the site as well. You can also grab it from Karma Records in Warsaw, and I’m hoping to have some copies at NeatNeatNeat Records on South Calhoun Street in Fort Wayne. The goal is simple: get people to listen to the album. Open their minds up a bit and freefall for an hour or so, existentially speaking.”
What’s in store for Cambodia Highball, now that they have a debut album under their belts?
“What’s next is that we keep recording,” Hubner says. “There are no set goals, so there’s no limits to what we can or can’t do. Cambodia Highball is something we do out of love for music and love of creating music. We aren’t trying to pay the bills here, so that pressure to succeed isn’t there. We’re improvising in my basement studio on Saturday afternoons and wanting to share these jams. What’s next is another volume of the two of us having a blast making music on the fly.”
Page sums it up this way: “At the end of the day, satisfaction is knowing I have a new song to enjoy.”