Interview with Hameer Zawawi

The Importance of Serendipity, Originality and… Airbnb !

Hameer Zawawi is an independent singer-songwriter from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A self-confessed video game and movie aficionado, Hameer draws takes draws inspiration for his songs from the world of fiction and fantasy. The result is what he calls ‘Theatrical-folk’ or ‘Fantasy-folk’… a highly atmospheric blend of esoteric, Anglophile acoustic music which evokes influences such as Muse, Radiohead, Syd Barrett and Jeff Buckley.

Hameer’s musical background and intense personal sense of drive have propelled him on tours around Europe, America and South-East Asia and seen him record one full-length album (‘National Fantasy’) and an EP (‘Plug Out The Machines’). As Zawawi told Leng Pleng:

“My story is of an indie musician travelling, trying to make things work. Hustling every day and night, trying to play original songs in places I have never been to. Not a story of a signed musician. Serendipity plays a big part in it.

I’ve been performing as a singer-songwriter, playing original music, for six years. In Malaysia, venues have cropped up for artists to play original, English-language songs. Merdekarya in Petaling Jaya [in Kuala Lumpur] was the first. It’s about breaking the cycle… stop playing covers, start playing originals. I believe everyone can be original it’s just a matter of harnessing it. Now in Malaysia, all the smaller cities are starting to pick this up… venues have opened up in Penang, Kuching… indie festivals. We didn’t get to this point overnight, it took many many years. In Kuala Lumpur there are venues like Gaslight, W_are_house, BoBo KL. It’s a totally different scene.

At the end of 2016, after pretty much wasting that year, I thought ‘I have to get out’. I had a good Malaysian friend touring in London, he got management during his second year there and eventually a record deal by his fourth year. Ariff AB. He has been persuading me for years to get out of Malaysia. Finally, in the beginning of 2017 I had contacted a friend of mine from Leipzig who had booked two shows for me in Berlin. As I landed in Cologne in the West of Germany, the two shows were cancelled! I was stranded in Germany with no gigs… What the hell do I do? Then immediately the next day I found shows in Cologne, followed with Berlin and Leipzig in the coming days and weeks. From there to London… played a show in Brighton. A connection I made at the show in Berlin got me two shows in Glasgow, Scotland. When I was in Glasgow I met this other [gig] organiser… he has toured around the States too and would eventually help me with a show in New York later on. After the UK… within two weeks I had five shows in Los Angeles and one in Anaheim, California!

New York City is great. There are lot of people there really open to my music… genuinely interested in my music. I won a competition, a recording workshop competition that has run for the past fifteen years in New York – giving different people from different backgrounds the opportunity to record. I took it as an opportunity to record as well as connect with people.

Airbnb has played a big role (laughs). When I was in NYC during the first two weeks in June, I was looking for a place to sublet. By the second week my roommate had arrived. He had just moved to NYC looking for a job in video editing. We became good friends – I didn’t even know that we would ever play music together. There was no hint that he also played drums!

Fast forward two months later… When I finished my recordings, I was looking out for a drummer and a bass player. He said: ‘yeh dude I play drums for my band in Florida’.

I went to an open mic I always went to… another guy there, I’ve known him since my first two weeks in NYC but I didn’t know he could play bass! By August I had a band. Organising shows in Manhattan, four shows as a warm up band. Touring around Long Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, radio shows as well.

After a short trip to L.A. to see my brother [composer Rendra Zawawi], returning to New York had me look for another Airbnb again… this time stayed in a house of French film graduates, clicked immediately with all of them. Ended up staying with them next three months. One of them, Emile, was an audio engineer, he had worked at Electric Lady studios in NYC – he ended up playing second guitar, he gave a nice twist to the songs. He played on three songs which are on the EP. Some of the parts [in my music] are pretty progressive and can be a bit ‘out there’ for the layman. I would bring these complex parts but Emile would reduce them to a simple melody. …Airbnb man!

The ‘Plug Out The Machines’ EP was launched in NYC last October. We immediately went on tour around NYC and Boston till the end of November and I went back to Malaysia in December. Four months later, I had brought down my bandmates from New York to Malaysia and Played in Kuala Lumpur, on the border of Singapore, borders of Indonesia and Thailand.

I’ve been fortunate, I came from a family of musicians. I’ve been with the music scene ever since childhood. I’m now 28. My Dad [Dr Wan Zawawi] is an anthropologist and a singer-songwriter, he used to write protest songs for the indigenous people in Malaysia, is very involved with the indigenous population, the proper natives. Basically he started off as a songwriter, he wrote a lot of songs for a few famous singers. The circle of friends he used to write songs with, i grew up going to those concerts. Those days, in the 1990’s, music in general was… very much within the pop-folk type of thing. I remember going to the Rainforest Music Festival in Sarawak (Borneo) at the age of ten or eleven… they had so many crazy acts, crazy melodies… guys from the Lion King singing theme songs… a band called Deep Forest – I listened to their album for a year-plus.

Coming from a Malaysian Muslim family, when you recite the Koran there is a melody you have to follow – a very minor kind of melody. In Malaysia in general there are a lot of influences. Malay, Chinese, Indian. These cultures, over 60 years of independence, fused a mix of cultures. All these influences we all grow up with.

I always say yes… I’ve always had that principle. Any small gig, open mic. You might not be making a lot, it might seem like a not so welcoming event… but just do it! Be positive and open.

Last April we promoted the EP with a tour in Malaysia, playing as a band. Audiences in Malaysia have always seen me solo. They were surprised to see me with the band. From me doing this progressive theatrical folk… with the band it sounded more post-rock. A lot of people were into it. I was thinking of going to Europe, I was supposed to be playing in Berlin on the 29th May, but I postponed that to August. I didn’t have time to organise the European shows. Promoting the EP in Cambodia, that is the plan for this tour. Most recently the music video for a song called ‘Deaf Ears’ was launched. In Malaysian Culture, Wayang Kulit, translated as ‘skin cinema’,  uses traditional puppets made of cowhide. I had an idea : why don’t we do shadow puppetry for this video? …without realising it’s a South-East Asian thing. Now I’m coming to Cambodia. Serendipity… gluing things together without me planning it.”

At the end of June I will play the Porch Stomp festival in NYC. This will be the fifth year of the festival. Its on Governor’s Island – which is more of a tourist place than a living space, so there are lots of unoccupied houses. All these houses in a circle with each other. You play literally on the porch of these houses. Last year, 60 singer songwriters… this year 82 ! Porch Stomp was exclusively folk roots Americana music, now its expanding to include my kind of music – progressive folk kind of stuff. There are so many indie festivals happening –  not backed up by the government or huge [record] labels… just a bunch of guys volunteering, trying to make a big event happen. Everything is crowd-funded.

How did I connect with the music scene in Cambodia? I had met Olivier [Roulin – Siem Reap-based muso and owner of The Harbour venue] during his two weeks here in Malaysia and its just awesome how random meet-ups can turn into crazy ideas and trips. When I came back home to Malaysia, my brother’s room was free, my sisters room was free… I decided to do an Airbnb! Olivier came and Airbnb-ed with his family… he was like dude, you’ve got to play at my place in Siem Reap! Olivier scheduled some shows at The Harbour and put me in touch with other venues in Phnom Penh and Kampot. I’ll be playing at Olivier’s place in Siem Reap this 7th and 8th June, Counterspace and Top Banana in Phnom Penh and then Karma Traders in Kampot. “

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