YOU are in your car, rushing to meet someone that you’re obviously late for. The day is warm and the sunlight falls like silk on your skin, but you hardly have the time to notice. You are late, after all. You’ve taken a wrong turn and are forced to take unnecessarily long and winding highways to your destination. You don’t notice how clear the roads are and what a beautiful shade of green the countryside grass has turned into today.
To distract yourself from the nagging worry that you are failing in this hyper-independent world, you turn up the music in your car. It is quiet, except for the man and the melody. The lone acoustic guitar and the song of a man named Mat Som who lives his quiet life in the middle of Kuala Lumpur, fills the car with a strange peace. You listen to the musician sing about bits and pieces of Malaysian life that you have never lived but somehow, sound familiar like home cooking. The picture was clear, but now it fits together: the sunlight, the long drawn out roads of a Malaysian countryside and the pastoral sounds of Azmyl Yunor come together and you are calm, dreamy even.
Meeting and talking with Azmyl Yunor, one of Malaysia’s most acclaimed indie folk musicians and a personal favourite for lovers of twee-pop, was much like that drive itself. He was sunny and cheery, almost like he was powered by the day’s brightness itself. Throughout his celebrated albums like Warga (2010) and Wilayah (2012), there is no pretentiousness, just open and honest thoughts shared with an audience. It is clear this is just another facet of Azmyl’s personality in the way he genuinely shares with us his love for his craft and innate ability to “crank out songs like I’ve got a problem!” On a breezy afternoon, The Daily Seni had a chance to sit down and talk with Azmyl Yunor the way you would an old friend, about comedy, connection and capturing the world through music.
The Origin Story
Since the age of 17 when Azmyl first picked up the guitar, he never thought he would go down the musician’s path. In fact, he specialised in filmmaking during his university days and worked on experimental shorts on his own before branching out to venture into…comedy. Yes, he still wasn’t involved in the whole music business yet. “I never saw myself in music actually but I always loved performing. Even in primary school, I realised that humour is very important to work through all the feelings of anxiety and isolation I had. I realised how important humour is in our interactions as human beings.”
It was surprising to learn that many of Azmyl’s heroes were in fact, stand-up comedians like Bill Hicks, who he credits as a major influence on his worldview. But it isn’t surprising that Azmyl learnt better than many of his peers how the art of comedy was a brilliant means to engage with the world. Like comedy, his music can be considered either quirky or meaningful commentary on whatever captures his eye. ROARM is one of the many bands Azmyl formed but with a musical-comedy twist – they write songs about animals like the secret life of dogs in Anjing Kurap Blues and an ode to frogs in Lagu Katak which are frankly, hilarious.
This is where you see Azmyl at his most unfiltered and we are better off for it. “When you first start performing, you feel like you have to put on this handsome voice and play this ‘persona’ I just want to loosen up and make my crowd laugh,” he laughs as he tells of the random jokes about Bangi or the local news he puts in his shows to get the crowd stirring. This ability to engage with his audiences is one of the reasons people feel like there are parts of themselves in his songs and especially during his live performances. “I can’t stand it when people disregard the intimacy and connection artists must have with their audience and show up like they don’t care.”
Azmyl has prided himself on sticking to his own vision and authenticity, without having his brand decided for him by a big music label. In that sense, he has found a bunch of like-minded individuals in the various bands he has performed with like Orkes Padu, formerly known as The Sigarettes featured heavily on his album Wilayah. Azmyl describes this change as less of a rebranding stratedy, instead crediting it as part of his evolution as an artist. “Back in 2006, a bunch of friends and I got together on stage and I just announced these guys as The Sigarettes on that stage itself! These friends became a full band that offered to play and collaborate together and eventually, transitioned into Orkes Padu.”
His band mates include long-time collaborater, dummer and producer Raje who plays a big role in keeping things fresh and off the cuff, in line with Azmyl’s vision for his own music, Jason Ong of Ben’s Bitches (another one of Azmyl’s bands), Sadat of False Opus, Ammar Khairi of yet another one of Azmyl’s projects, Maharajah Commission, with even more from this growing line-up of about 10 musicians. He met most of his band members and now long-time friends while lecturing in Sunway University and they remain one of the many teachers he has collaborated with. “Many of the teachers are either practitioners or part-timers themselves and we collaborate with them quite often, like having film director James Lee direct our music videos.”
Azmyl has described Orkes Padu as an eclectic dynamic that comes from playing with musicisns of different backgrounds. Beyond making steadfast friends with these artists, it has definitely shown a cultivation in the man’s creative process. “I got to try new things with our latest album Was Was. We wouldn’t tell the guys what the songs were or let them even hear the tune, they would just have to come in and record. Raje and I are on the same plane about creating things without thinking too much and understands exactly where I’m coming from. And it works! Our bassist Sadat has knocked down 3 songs in one sitting. Our guitarist Jason came in just for soundcheck and Raje prompted him to play something, without even knowing he was being recorded – in the end, we used that perfect first take! It wasn’t like constant jamming, but more about creating things spontaneously and letting our music just go with the flow.”
The Music Making
It’s plain to see Azmyl’s major in filmmaking and his passion in theatre and movies have had an effect on his music: he has great talent in capturing little and special moments. “It’s not about me, it’s about what I see,” is the best self-description we can get from the man himself. Where his more recent albums have a happier groove and music you can bop to, we look back at Warga (2010) for his lyrical talent, with songs like In the Morning and Senja that describe the atmosphere and feeling you have just by experiencing a time of day. It is quintessential Azmyl Yunor, so of course we had to learn more about it.
“One thing about writing that’s constant with me is to bypass thought. The more you think about it and the more you try to control it, you lose the raw feeling you had when you first experienced it. If you’re not being honest with yourself anymore, you’re just trying to fit into something else.” It’s this self-professed ‘stream-of-consciousness’ type of creative process that allows him to document and comment on slices of Malaysian life so aptly in his music. His best tools are a trusty tape recorder and an idea. If the idea is good enough, Azmyl will strum a few chords and the melody starts to grow.
The singer-songwriter pays more attention to his melody and believes it’s what makes the distinction from his poetry and his music. The melodies are what give the song a meaning of its own and indeed we can hear the contrast from his earlier and more subdued solo acoustic work to his later noise-rock focused sound. Azmyl has a personal philosophy he calls 3 Chords and The Truth, which is to keep the chords minimal in order to let the song breathe. It’s this airy quality that lets the music pour quietly over you as ‘The Truth’ in his lyrics resonate in your head. “I do feel shy to call myself a musician though. I master music enough for me and enough to be able to write these songs. But I like that it gives me the ability to create new experiences with just these minimal arrangements.”
When asked about what his vision for his next album or musical project would be, we were delighted to hear that Azmyl is in the mood to go back to his earlier days. “I’m in a nostalgic mood, I miss things back when they were simpler.” While he definitely sees himself continuing his work with Orkes Padu, the songwriter is in the mood for a solo album or a bunch of eps. In going back to his roots, Azmyl wants to remain innovative and guarantees us something with different techniques to keep his listeners on their toes. “This is actually why I keep releasing songs. Every time I pick up a guitar, I crank out a song. It’s like I’ve got a problem!” At least it’s not a problem for legions of Azmyl Yunor fans, so let’s stay tuned for what’s to come.
“When I was younger, R.E.M was a big favourite of mine. Even though the guitarist didn’t know a lot of chords, there was so much you could learn from their guitar solos. It was the 1980s, the time when the guitar solo was everything. A big influential album of theirs was their first album Murmur. I remember even when I was studying, I would go into all the CD shops just to look for it.”
“I see myself influenced very much more by the punk DIY ethos of the 1990s’ grunge era. Nirvana was of course a huge influence on me. In Utero was quite an important album to me, sonically. I felt like there was an incredibly organic sound to it.”
“Beck’s Odelay and actually, most of Beck’s earlier work. It was this lo-fi-folk fusion piece of work and I found it very eclectic. It was also the first inkling we had into most of his weird stuff.”
“The Indonesian singer-songwriter Iwan Fals and his album Belum Ada Judul was an album I stumbled on and immediately fell in love with. He came with just his guitar and it was just the man, the voice and the sound. It was beautiful.”
“Elliot Smith’s Either/Or was pretty influential as well, in terms of its songwriting and the sound of the whole album.”
We can tell a lot about the singer-songwriter from the albums he derives his more powerful inspirations and influences from. While his songs can be considered quiet and folksy, he states numerously his love for noise rock, sonic value and heavy sounding bands. This duality in the music he loves and his own music is another reason Azmyl creates such eclectic sounds throughout his studio albums and musical side projects. But at the heart of it, it’s the lo-fi and authentic quality of the music that he loves and is at the heart of his pieces.
It’s probably what led to him often being compared to as the Malaysian Bob Dylan but Azmyl firmly believes that while he has been a big influence in his ability to marry literature with popular music, “the comparison is more physical.” He likes the sound of noise and heavy rock but admits to being Dylan-esque early on in his career. He started his songwriting by busking on the street, often with his harmonica. The instrument itself is a big feature on his album’s musical accompaniments. He would even be covering a lot of his songs and loves that Dylan initially didn’t have the look or a good singing voice but because he had things to say, the people listened. And isn’t that what we love about indie-folk music like Azmyl’s?
Azmyl Yunor leaves his final words for future musicians in both mainstream music and the underground indie scene. Some musicians he believes we should look out for are bands like Kuning, who he favours because of their spontaneity and improvisational work. Fikri of Bayangan is another favourite and Azmyl just knew that we would come out with a record and change up the music scene by making it big. Others include Hameer Zawawi, Kaya (notably for their live performances), Venopian Solitude who he firmly believes should be more celebrated than she is now, Fazz (a great noise rock band) and Brian Gomez (“You can see him a lot at Merdekarya on Friday nights. His band plays important stuff that people should really be listening to.”)
His emphasis on live performances ring true for any future musicians. He has always shown a strong connection to audiences and is likely why his songs can be intimate and meaningful when he creates the right sort of rapport with an audience. Azmyl believes an artist owes their audience a great performance and to take care of that bond you could have with them.
“My advice to younger artists is also to keep doing the open mic circuit for about a year but don’t let yourself stagnate. You need to continue gigging but start branching out and organising open mics too. Make sure you continue to take things to the next step, always. And make sure to eat humble pie! Always ask people to critique your music and whatever you work on next.”
Make sure to look out for Azmyl’s latest works like his ampang park EP (2017) at https://azmyl.bandcamp.com/ and keep supporting the music that makes Malaysia great!
Featured image credit: Joyce Soo
Look out for Azmyl Yunor in his upcoming shows
5 July @ Merdekarya, PJ* (solo)
7 July @ Atas by Bijan FX, Kelana Jaya (w/ Orkes Padu)
12 July @ Publika (solo busking)
14 July @ Merdekarya, PJ (w/ Orkes Padu)
20 July @ The Gaslight, Damansara (solo)
8 Aug @ Semarang, Indonesia*
9 Aug @ Bandung, Indonesia*
10 Aug @ Jakarta, Indonesia*
11 Aug @ Bogor, Indonesia*
12 Aug @ Jatiwangi, Indonesia* (TBC)
13 Aug @ Surabaya, Indonesia*
14 Aug @ Jogjakarta, Indonesia
18 + 19 Aug @ KLPAC -Yayasan Sime Darby Festival (w/ Orkes Padu)
23 Aug @ Publika (solo busking)
30 Aug @ Merdekarya PJ (midnight countdown, w/ Orkes Padu)
* ongoing Bersendirian Berhad Tour with Bayangan (solo
Note (5/7/18): Indonesian live dates added
Editorial Note: Spelling amendments have been made to the names Iwan Fals and Brian Gomez