15 years ago, after paying his dues on the streets as a busker and releasing several lo fi cassette classics, local folk rocker Azmyl Yunor recorded his first home-studio EP, produced by and at the residence of Ronnie Khoo of shoegaze band Furniture. Primarily folk and minimal in instrumentation, the Tenets EP was more than a fresh breath in a sea of rock-dominated local acts. For one thing, the 6-track EP starts off with ‘Charity Lane’–a homage to the homeless of the streets he busked on; and ends with the hidden track ‘Makan Gaji’–a witty take on the Malay idiom and a ‘hit’ that Azmyl still performs today. As the days of big fat rock came to an end and electronic retro-hipsters took over, Tenets remained a testament to honest songwriting amidst a constant bandwagoning scene. We spoke to Azmyl about the re-releasing of Tenets, Malaysia Baru/Lama, cigarette burns and his latest alter-ego, John Bangi…
It’s been 15 years since you released Tenets. What’s the difference between the social climate then and now?
Politically it was still post-Mahathir and the general public had the perception that the ISA (Internal Security Act) could be arbitrarily used on you for having dissenting views. Pak Lah was a breath of fresh air hence certain level of political paranoia felt lifted off especially to those in the performing arts circles. I began organising gigs the year before, and had been collaborating with some interesting theatre productions and performances which gave me some exposure outside of music. 2005 was a turning point as I was helping out fellow singer-songwriters Jerome Kugan & Tan Sei Hon (we formed Troubadours Enterprise in 2006 & organised more shows) organising the first KL Sing Song (the first of the annual singer-songwriter showcase that ran from 2005-2009). My other band projects – Ciplak & Ben’s Bitches in particular – were doing pretty crazy, noisy stuff, saying things that most bands (outside of the underground circuit) were too chicken to say and we were recording albums too. So it was an exciting time. Social media wasn’t a bane yet (it was the MySpace era) and we had real music writers whom had been around since the ’90s who knew and were curious on what was going on and gave us some important publicity, coverage and reviews, which people actually read. Seeing this, I felt it was ripe to release something in conjunction with KL Sing Song since I was already recording songs with Ronnie in his bedroom. I was planning an album but only had about 6-7 songs and 5 of the songs felt like something cohesive. That eventually became Tenets EP.
Tenets was your first time working with a producer (Ronnie). Did you guys make a conscious decision to keep the sonics lo fi?
Three songs were newish ‘Bone Dry’, ‘Serotonin Blues’ and hidden track ‘Makan Gaji’. The other songs – ‘Charity Lane’ was from my 2001 cassette The Photocopy Album (in a very different arrangement); ‘Coming Home’ was from 2003’s ends; ‘The Taps in My Shackled Home (Are Leakin’)’ was from my first cassette album Whatever in 1997. I was pretty disillusioned with a lot of stuff when the songs came around and it was dark period of my life too – I had just recovered from a life threatening disease (tuberculosis) and was navigating myself through clinical depression for the past 6-7 years. The songs and cassettes were therapy to me. Around this time performing was therapeutic – it forced me to go out and make new friends. I started bands with most them.
How was the local music scene like back then?
The music scene, I think, was in a dip in 2003 when I got back from living abroad. The whole excitement of the late ’90s and early 2000s (when I first started gigging whenever I was back) had slowed down. I missed all the good stuff – Fugazi playing KL, for instance – and I would hear about it from friends who would email me or read it on a blog. No major international bands were passing through around 2003, so you had to make your own excitement. Youths were still being scapegoated by politicians unlike now where youth is the flavour of the day. There was a healthy sense of dissent too, some of us weren’t taking it sitting down and the arts community (music, film, theatre, visual arts) was still small enough that we got to hang out with each other and do some creative stuff together. ‘Indie’ became a buzzword and suddenly some realised they could make a career out of it especially when Indonesian indie bands became popular. In typical Malaysian fashion, most just copied. I wasn’t interested in that. I was interested in the craft.
I was part of the experimental scene too and we toured, really odd spaces – alleys, galleries, old cafés in pre-gentrified George Town – and it was liberating because we weren’t out to please anyone. It was an important phase for me. All of these experiences led to Tenets.
Why did you call it Tenets and what’s with the cigarette burn on the cover?
A tenet is defined as a principle or belief, so each of these songs, while thematically dark, represent a particular sense of holding on to a particular principle or belief about the world with a strong sense of conviction, whether it’s holds true or not. It was also how I felt strongly about the world at that point in my life.
The cigarette burn could represent an imprint – you can’t unburn a burn, it’s permanent, turned to ashes – representative possibly of the convictions of the stories and characters in the songs.
What do you think of ‘New Malaysia’?
Different, but some things will never change, to quote Meat Puppets’ ‘Backwater’.
What can we expect from you this year? We heard you have a new musical alter-ego…
I’m working on my next solo album called John Bangi Blues co-produced with Ariff Akhir which was recorded live as an electric trio on one afternoon in November last year with Ammar Khairi (Vega, The Maharajah Commission) on drums and Kristopher Chong (Salammusik, AYOP). 10 songs, 3 hours, done. We’re mixing it now and it’s loud, getting it ready for a July release. The Malay songs outnumber the English ones and thematically you could say it’s about my neck of the woods: south of KL in Selangor, ‘redneck’ territory according to PJ folks.
I’ll be releasing several tracks on YouTube soon. I wanted to make a raw rock n’ roll album with just the basics – drums, electric guitar, bass, one vocal – no overdubs, minimal takes. All the songs were written in 2019 so it’s the freshest album I’ve ever done song-per-song straight into the oven.
2020 is also the 10th anniversary of Warga and mini live album H.I.D.U.P. (Hari Ini Di Ukay Perdana) so I might do a show to commemorate that. I’d like to do smaller shows outside of the Klang Valley to spread my gospel, and also continue touring out of Malaysia in countries like Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand like I did last year. I’m playing in Manila, Philippines at on 1st February, my first trip there too, so I’m excited. I might do more videos and collaborations with filmmakers (if they got the time, ’cause times are hard) since I’ve got tonnes of songs they can experiment and be playful with. Most important is to try to stay healthy. Keyword is ‘try’.
Catch Azmyl Yunor (solo) this Sat 18 January at Lokacipta@PJLama, Petaling Jaya, his set starts at 9.30pm.