Variety and an attitude are what you get from Malaysian band The Maharajah Commission. Part punk, part rock, part Sonic Youth, The Maharajahs' new CD, Dialogue Amoureux, might even be called avant garde next to your usual metal and hardcore act.

The Kuala Lumpur group is made up of Alex Lam (vocals, drums); Azmyl Yunor (vocals, synth, harmonica, guitar); Fang Han (guitar) and Farez Jinnah (bass). Questions by Adam Md Yusop and Stephen Tan.

It is interesting to hear music from a Malaysian band that isn't metal or rock. There is also mention of Sonic Youth as a musical reference to your music. Who and what are your musical influences?

AZMYL YUNOR: It's great that people can pick out our influences. It's great that ANYONE is listening in the first place. Sonic Youth is definitely there. We all individually listen to a lot of different stuff. We are all very different characters and I think that disparity is functional and constructive though. We're a functioning dysfunctional band. The biggest influence is life. Some of my own personal music and words heroes and heroines include Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Robert Johnson, Jack Kerouac, Townes Van Zandt, Fugazi, Sleater-Kinney, My Bloody Valentine, The Afghan Whigs, Nirvana, Mudhoney… the list goes on and on… and last but not least, the great late P Ramlee.

FAREZ JINNAH: Faahhhkkkk!! You mean we ain't rock?! I personally don't listen to Sonic Youth. Never have, although I don't discount the possibility of listening to them in the near or distant future. I get asked that a lot and I do understand why people see similarities concerning the music. Me? I was into the whole Madchester thing and the worst part about getting on with age is that I'm actually digging some fine records by the Rolling Stones. Our collective list of faves is on the website. There's old Marvin Gaye, post-Bitches Miles Davis, Wilco, 16Horsepower, Funkadelic/Parliament, most fine hip-hop albums, including some quirks like Tone Loc with his classic CheebaCheeba, among the many others currently on my MP3 player.

FANG HAN: Musical influences include Pearl Jam, Polvo, a little Sonic youth (Dirty, Daydream Nation, Experimental Jet Set), Detroit Cobras, The Datsuns, Asian Dub, Neutral Milk Hotel, Pavement... I'm not even gonna mention the avant-garde minimalist shit that the guys at Monkey Records make me listen to!

How did you guys first meet up, jam and say "This is the perfect line-up"?

FAREZ: We've been doing this thing for the past eight years, and it was Alex who brought us together in various guises — there was Damnweather, Azmyl doing his own thing and then there was this beast called Amid The Mimic, and, currently, Azmyl is doing some of his experimental stuff with the noise troupe, the Experimental Co-op. We just released the album in April and it's been all right, I suppose… Everyone's been busy with their own thing, so the music's not a priority at the moment…

AZMYL: Wait a minute, music IS the priority for me! At least at the moment. I've been busy playing drums with Ben's Bitches, playing solo stuff with the Experimental Co-op gigs, released a new solo lo-fi cassette, being a hired gun… In other words, I am currently part-time employed. Back to the question, I don't think we ever said that to ourselves in the first place. We just got together. We had all been in one band or another together throughout the years and had known each other as friends above all. I wasn't particularly eager in being in a band again after seeing my first band gradually dissolve because of distance and circumstances. While overseas I busked and wandered around, went mad, and discovered the joys of going it alone.

However, I came back in 2000 depleted and we met up and it just happened. Before that I had my own ideas of how I would like a band to sound like because I had written hundreds of songs alone but I threw those ideas out the window and wanted to let things grow organically without fuss or ideals or selfishness. Something fun too... It was all about release, relief and rediscovering.... something loud but not "distortion loud." Nothing premeditated. I went away again for two years, in between that we got together and recorded this album, and now I'm back home. It's a miracle everything is still going on at all now and I'm just plain grateful for that itself. After going through a long dry spell, now I'm more eager than ever to also do more stuff on my own and with my other projects such as Thunder Coffee Club and as a part of the Experimental Musicians and Artists Co-op Malaysia.



The Commission in session... featuring (from left): Alex Lam, Azmyl Yunor,
Farez Jinnah and Fang Han.

ALEX: As for Maharajah Commission's perfect line-up, well, yes, we must have had at least a dozen other folks we've jammed with in searching for the perfect chemistry. Some of the good folks we've had encountered include Julian Cheong, a wonderful saxophonist who I last heard was gigging with Greg Lyon's Emergency Break Ensemble; Adlin Azrin of Strangedays, Chak; Haymanth Indran; Whye Kong (of Dust Components); Andy Remex; the Ben's Bitches folks (Ben and CK) before they decided to become Ben's Bitches; the amazing Monkey Records ensemble, especially Yandsen, Tham, Lee Kwang; and a whole lot of other folks out there who've offered their time and spirit. Now, you might be wondering how all this worked out, and what specific areas we were looking at. My personal goal has been to look for a certain degree of aggressiveness that can just explode. What didn't work? My take is that we missed out on having the sessions recorded. Some of those sessions have been the most expressive works that I've experienced. It's a shame that we don't have much of those sessions recorded.

One of the best sessions I've enjoyed was with Julian Cheong, whom with we covered Miles Davis's So What. It's one of the paths that I wished MC would have taken, it is like one of those comic book "what if" storylines that you'd really want to explore further. I hope our paths do cross into that section again, it would be most wonderful to work with Julian.

As to the question of how long I've played music, I would say the interest began back when I was around eight. And I bummed around those Yamaha and Technics music classes. One of the guys I met back then was Justin Joe Pang (of Naked Breed) whose perfect pitch really made me think back then that music was a natural way to express yourself. He made it seem so easy though, while I'm still looking.

How did the band's name come about?

FAREZ: I thought it had a no real meaning at first, but as the sessions wore on and the band started to feel as though it had something worthwhile that was when the name started to have some significance. Initially, we were at odds, 'cos we didn't quite know what to make of the music. It did sound different and that did add to our insecurities, but as time went by we sort of became comfortable with sticking out like sore thumbs. The band's still the same, as it was the first day, juvenile, which is a blessing since that perceived edge keeps it fresh, almost like a great conversation… no repeats, just things to talk about.

ALEX: We were sitting at the stalls in USJ (Subang) spouting names and that came up. The name stuck somehow, or else it might have been something else.

FAREZ: A few names were casually thrown about, something institutional and fuck off about it, and then it just popped out… we were like, "hey what about The Maharajahs? or what about The Commissioners? and Alex brought the two together — quite a lot of tomfoolery went into the name and its possibilities. I think "The Ma Hai La Ca Cum Mission" was one of them, so was "Maha.Com"… thankfully good sense prevailed.

You sprinkled a bit of French in your song titles. Care to explain?

FAREZ: On a band level, I simply thought the French language was a better medium when it comes to people identifying with our stuff, as the English language is too crass and rigid to explore fluid ideas like emotion and relationships (and I don't necessarily mean romantic ones). I don't think it really mattered that people didn't dig the titles. If they were curious enough to pick up a dictionary or ask around, at least that's testament to their intelligence and they, whoever they are, should be given a pat on the back for it.

As the reformasi movement is well established in Malaysia, why do you feel there aren't any bands working with them? Or involved with any NGOs?

AZMYL: Fear and love.

FAREZ: Well-established? It's merely fledgling; anyway the reformasi movement doesn't really offer a true alternative or even stand out or apart from racial politics. It reminds me of New Labour; same cack, different wrapping. What happened to Anwar Ibrahim was unfortunate but is the reformasi movement a true departure or alternative? So far I've only seen juvenile bickering from a tripartite marriage of convenience that went sour. Personally, it's ironic that we have choice, but not unlike the proles in 1984, we only think it is a choice. What would you choose between obnoxious, arrogant half-wits in Government and clowning morons from the Opposition — is that really a choice?

Bands in Malaysia tend to be apathetic about their social environment, which is a result of our fine education system. But really, most are just too tired to give a toss. It depends on which bunch of NGOs you're talking about. Loads of band people dig the very chic Suaram and it's like... chill.

Me? I just play basketball, 'cos futsal's a lame excuse for playing the ball with your feet… Five a side, huh? And that's political, too. Notice how all the big 11-a-side fields are disappearing and replaced with bloody futsal complexes that charge the earth? With FAM banking on it to bring glory for Malaysian football, you'd really wonder if we actually have a sports culture or are we just living in fucking denial…

ALEX: The next social revolution would probably come in the form of Howard Rheingold's book, Smart Mobs.

On the other hand, the bands and music do reflect the current political situation doesn't it? If not a total tit for tat, then in the major aspects.

Not many people caring about them, nobody can quote them word for word (as for the bands, not many can sing them lyric to lyric, except perhaps those grindcore bands), the usual suspects day in and day out, anti-big business, confused about which side to stand, most people not exploring alternatives…

There are just too many things to do and life is pretty overwhelming at this stage of civilisation — if you're in the urban areas, that is, there's still a few places left in the world where it's totally modern-free, but if you're reading this, chances are you're not there. It's not good or bad, it's just the way it is.

There's no quality time for gossiping about your neighbour or lusting after some familiar stranger. There isn't enough drama in our lives anymore to the point that when true drama occurs, we don't even know how to handle it.

NGOs, well, like bands, they have to communicate their drama better. I think as a band, The Maharajah Commission has got its fair share of drama as well. It's totally true! Call 10 people now and ask them what's playing on their minds and they'd probably reply that they have an episode of "Nothing lar" playing.

We're humans man, we need life. Drama now, and no, I'm not going to sit in an auditorium for that. Oi!

FANG HAN: Reformasi.... misguided as this opinion may sound, I feel that I did not join the movement or work with them because I believe they are no better than the government and I do not share their ideology. This is going to anger a lot of people, but if you look at it, I'm all for social equality and justice, but the main motivator behind many political movements is SELF GAIN. Love it or hate it, it is my political opinion. NGOs no comment...

What do you think are the main problems facing Malaysian/KL bands?

FAREZ: A distinct lack of self-respect and confidence to go at it themselves. Can you blame them, most of these bands, when they are mostly fed on a diet of staple radio rock and a limited supply of music literature? The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I'd caution young bands — in spite of having freaking ASTRO on the air and a wider variety of reading material, that artistic output and variety still remains lacking. It's always fine that the bands do their own thing but it becomes tired when they actually explain their art in relation to their influences or who they want to outright copy.

Then there are the Wagonnists — jumping on to whatever is hot at the moment. Although sometimes I do see it as relevant with the context of popular culture, it's curious that in spite of an improved access to literature and information, people still restrict themselves to some form or other of peer pressure and herd mentality.

Can you identify some Malaysian bands you either look up to or feel have potential as key bands?

FANG HAN: Carburetor Dung: the people who paved the way for a lot of us. They also played an influential role in changing the mindset of the current crop of undergrounders, who were merely young turks when they released their album or song for friends… safe to say they influenced a whole generation of undergrounders.

FAREZ: Yeah, of course this would make Joe blush to no end, but it's Carburetor Dung/Joe Kidd. With the music and the Blasting Concept column, music lovers and socially conscious people from every corner of this country had a common thread. This was where it started. It's always good to have a sense of history to be able to move on, hopefully to greater things, even some of us have to make mistakes. It's a learning curve I feel this band and many others have been privy and fortunate to be part of.

AZMYL: Rafique Rashid.

FANG HAN: Finally, the band with the biggest potential in KL, Sgt Weener's Arms — I've seen them live a few times and each time they manage to blow me away with their stuff.

FAREZ: Especially them — as a college/uni outfit, they've been changing a lot of mindsets and pre-conceptions in the local scene. They're into the whole experimental thing. The thing about them is their ability to fuse progressive elements with local motifs without sounding like a bad Malay ethno concept album. In fact, even for me to compare them does them a great disservice, they're fabulous live, too.

FANG HAN: Lyme was really good when they were around; Moxuan is a really good band, they've got a good strong DIY sense without being preachy.

FAREZ: There are enough bands out there who are making a difference — Spunky Funggy, with their main man, Wolf, he's a real "tough as nails" mutha', but that's only because he has to be, as he's driven and very focused with his band. The Moxuan/TA clan gave those, who were fortunate enough to see them, a breath of fresh air and a textbook study on living and thinking out of the box. Then of course, there's Kuchalana with their east coast ragga that tears it up. They are fantastic live, being energized, frenetic and honest on stage. Infireal's my personal favourite.. so combustible, they are THE reason Malaysia needs to have the FRU (Federal Reserve Unit).

ALEX: TA, Rafique Rashid, Julian Cheong and Pop Shuvit. I think Gamalan Rock has a lot of potential. Imagine a Gamelan orchestra with distortion... ho ho ho... I think that will fucking break the silence for sure.

Note: For more, visit www.yat.ch/mc



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