Something I Wrote is a play inspired by Azmyl Yunor. Director Mark Teh and his cast drew from the musician’s interviews, songs and writings to create the play. The performance combines musical and documentary elements, where various actors take turns to play Azmyl.
Never one to be intimated by experimental theatre, Poskod.my decided to bring things full circle. We asked Azmyl to interview Mark about the play, his thoughts on theatre, and (of course) his favourite Azmyl Yunor song. Hold tight to your minds – it’s about to get a bit Charlie Kaufman in here.
Edited by Ling Low; Photos by Bryan Chang.
Azmyl: So, how does it feel working with “me” on this thing?
Mark: It feels like a surreal journey, at some points quite bumpy. We’re going through these landscapes of writings you’ve created, whether they’re songs or academic texts or interviews from the last ten years. Being able to make our own maps – make sense of it for ourselves – has been an interesting process.
We take a lot of detours. We go around you rather than go at you. I think that’s a big part of your work: often you create scenarios where you are absent. I don’t think you’re one of those singer songwriters who writes things which are very personal. Maybe that’s where the journalism background or film background comes in.
In terms of working with you directly, it’s funny… we initially wanted to do something with you in the room. But we decided against that because it might give us more latitude to muck around, to go through the landscape and leave rubbish all over the place.
I like that idea of the detour. Like when you write, you should be doing other things.
The idea initially was we were having some drinks and you said –
A: “I’d like to interview myself!”
M: Yeah! “The academic Azmyl Yusof will interview the musician Azmyl Yunor.” And I thought, that’s a start for a performance already.
A: I like that idea of the detour. One of my favourite words in English is “detour”. Like when you write, you should be doing other things. When you’re cleaning the house, that’s when you think of shit. Not when you’re sitting and down and like “I have to think of something now.” That becomes a chore. It becomes boring.
I think the word detour has become a bad word. Sadly lah. Like, “Sorry, detour, need to take another road.” But when you go on holiday it’s one big detour. That’s what I appreciate about your work.
M: There’s a series of works I’ve been doing that looks at Malaysian artists, that kind of pirates their work. In 2007, there was this performance Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari which used interviews with two puppeteers Dollah Baju Merah and Hamzah Awang Mat. Then in 2009 we did a performance with the dancer Marion D’Cruz which talked about her life, and she was in that one. With this one I finally arrived at someone closer to my generation.
A: This brings me back to the first time I saw your work: it was Daulat in 7 TEN in 2003. I wasn’t really into theatre. But when I saw 7 TEN, I was like, “Wah.” For me, it was aesthetic equivalent to punk rock. Devised theatre. You use what you got, the bare minimum. You don’t need elaborate sets…
M: That was in the original Actor’s Studio, under Dataran Merdeka.
A: What do you feel about art forms in Malaysia? How often do they intertwine or bump into each other?
M: From my observation, more and more. We’re moving into a multidisciplinary culture… to the point where it’s no longer useful to call things “multidisciplinary”, because it is what it is. But as is often the case, collaborations need time to develop.
I’m interested in collaborations with artists from different forms – whether a dancer or a filmmaker or a visual artist. But I’m more interested in their third or fourth work together. The first work is often a flirtation, it’s polite and figuring out each other’s behaviour. I get interested when people work together for a longer period of time.
Everyone collaborates but that becomes the new ground zero. A no brainer.
Everyone collaborates but that becomes the new ground zero. A no brainer. But then how does one then look deeper?
A: In music, “collaboration” is often hype, marketing – “A collaboration with this producer, DJ”, whatever. But bands are a collaboration anyway. I never saw it as collaboration – just a new bunch of friends who play music too.
Do you feel the need to break away from norms? For me as an individual, I’m not consciously avoiding categories but if I’m too comfortable, I feel I’m not being true. That’s why I keep jumping bands. It’s not a careerist move – people say you should focus on one thing and be the best. But that’s what my day job is for.
Do you need to get out of your comfort zone after each play? Do something you haven’t done before?
M: It’s very important actually. That’s a good question. There are certain patterns in my work – like being driven by research, devising rather than writing a script. Those are patterns. But there’s a desire to expunge or rebel against your own patterns.
A: The artist Gan Siong King, who I play tennis with, made a good point. It’s important for artists to meet outside of arts. Play sport, lepak together. Does that happen often in theatre?
M Yeah. Partly, it’s the nature of the working process. There’s a lot of hanging about, waiting for shit to happen. It’s a very social art form. It’s about people being in a room together. But then I don’t really work so much with theatre people. I work a lot with designers, filmmakers. Drinking lah, I think is the…
A: The lubricant of life. It brings all people together.
M: …But I wish we did more sport together. That would be good. If we maintain the drinking but do more sport.
A: As we age we have to do more sport.
M: That’s funny you say that… the early stuff I did was physical theatre. I’d do these crazy warm ups, for an hour and a half. Performers would get annoyed with me. Now I cannot be bothered to do all this stuff. In my twenties there was this military displine. Now I’m like, ‘just make sure your voices are warm’ [laughs].
I guess that’s also part of the desire to do something different… do something an older person does. Theatre is for athletes!
A: I’m realizing myself rock and roll is physical too. I’ve got a lot of injuries. People don’t realise that!
Do you think space influences a particular practice of art? Like music: it happens in venues where people are supposed to have fun. But when I want to have fun, I don’t want to go to a bar, I’m sick of that place! How about theatre? I notice that you often occupy uncommon spaces.
M: After 7 TEN – which was in a theatre space -I decided to not to do work in the theatre. One of the early projects was the Taman Medang community arts project in these low cost flats, where we ran workshops.
We were there – people like Gan Siong King, Wong Tay Sy (visual artist), Fahmi Fadzil, Fahmi Reza. We were there and there was no space to make art with the teenagers. That alerted me to think about space very differently. How does one make space in an improvised environment?
The kids were the ones teaching us. Why don’t we do it at the carpark? In the basketball courts? Why don’t we do drama in the corridors? By the end of that, I felt… you can’t just go back into the theatre, an air conditioned room, dark space, controlled environment. So those plays, we took them to improvised spaces like colleges, universities – but the corridors and the canteens. We wanted to catch students who would not normally come see theatre.
That migrating is an interesting way of thinking of moving around different places, different audiences. Though for this play, we are actually in a theatre.
I think you’re beyond a singer songwriter. I think you’re one of our best storytellers.
A: From my limited knowledge of theatre, it started in public spaces right? Tukang karut. I think of myself like a tukang karut lah.
M: Definitely. Like in Malacca they had the Lan Tin Tang man, an uncle with a ukelele or guitar. Like buskers before busking.
A: That was before the radio had hit songs. Back then buskers told stories.
M: Sometimes these guys had other vocations. They were also medicine sellers, mystics, fortune tellers. These people who were selling something like tiger penis at the pasar. One of these guys in theatre – Khalid Salleh – was a real medicine seller and he became an actor!
That’s what drew me to your music. I haven’t said this to your face before so it’s going to be a bit awkward… but I think you’re beyond a singer songwriter. I think you’re one of our best storytellers.
As someone who looks for non-theatre text to bring into the theatre… your songs are stories that I, at least, relate to. Displaced characters. Changing urban landscape. Contradictions that exist in the city – whether it’s people, class, spaces, territories.
That’s why we’re doing this, that’s why we’re going through this landscape. To tell these stories.
Songs are strange things. On the one hand they can be disposable, meaningless, banal. But songs that mean a lot to us, they mean a hell of a lot to us.
Songs are strange things. On the one hand they can be disposable, meaningless, banal. But songs that mean a lot to us, they mean a hell of a lot to us… locations, memories, heartaches, joys… that’s what we’re trying to suggest by taking ownership of your songs and your landscape to re-present them to an audience who may or may not know them. That’s what we discovered: your songs are stories, not just expressions of a mood.
A: That’s why I never became a filmmaker. There are so many stories. When you make a film you tell one story, you work on it for nine months… I’m fucking sick of that story. Theatre is shorter, but a song is even shorter…. Jeng jeng jeng – that’s a song!
I was fascinated by the process of this play… doing a lot of research, digging up. That’s absent in music. We just listen to stuff we like.
How important is research to this performance?
M: I’m a very language based person – my first inclination is to read stuff. We’ve gone through about 40 interviews, 50 songs and that’s just the singer songwriter stuff.
A: That much stuff!
M: Yeah. Six academic texts, one speech.
A: I need get all that from you!
You as an art practitioner stumbled into theatre – same as me. I stumbled into music. For me, it was the joy of it – I’ll never forget the first time I strummed a chord. I treasure that. I refuse to be disillusioned, disheartened by politics, the industry. I don’t care about these things. The joy is that I created something, man.
M: Theatre is very intensive, laborious. You are in a room with people trying to make the invisible present. Give shape to ephemeral things. It’s frustrating and nerve wracking – and a joyous process.
With one week left to the show at this point, it’s what Alex Ferguson would call a “squeaky bum time”. You can’t sit still – you’re nervous, scared, excited. It’s that.
A: Last question. What’s your Desert Island Azmyl Yunor song?
M: Wow. Right now, I gotta say, “Coming Home”. But ask me tomorrow and it might be different. I think it’s the ultimate displacement song. It’s about return but also exile.
Something I Wrote runs at Black Box, MAP, 29 August – 1 September. Azmyl Yunor will launch his new album Revenge of the Rabak: Selected Works from the Lo-fi years 1997-2005 after the performance on 31 August. Buy tickets here.