Passion is occasionally too insufficient a word. This is one of those times, discovers The Editor.
I met Zack Yusof before I’d even heard his music. I’d occasionally spotted his byline several times over the years, though, in an English daily. And it was only the night before I sat with him and the beautiful curly-locked Shaneil Devaser, in a greasy spoon café on a dusty Tuesday morning, that I learnt of his hosting the 33RPM radio show.
This was deliberate, though, my information blackout on Zack. It doesn’t taint the experience that is the musician’s Mustang-speed speech and that musical hunger and immersion barely restrained by his buttoned shirt.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and muddy some peer perceptions.
Though he “trained as a journalist”, I’m going to say he’s not a journalist. He’s a musician with a bit of the journalist in him.
Wait, I stand corrected.
He’s a songwriter who plays the guitar and emotes into the mic as he sings original self-crafted music.
“I am a poet,” he says, with some flourish, while Shaneil adds, quick as anything, “He’s a journalist because he writes songs.” This one-two Zack/Shaneil verbal volley is a recurring feature and it is endearing.
When Zack’s not taking up space centre stage on all manner of stages, he’s writing stories to help with, as he adds later casual as you like, “the two mortgages and school fees.”
Mortgages and other tough landscapes don’t faze him. As the lead vocalist of Mystery Tapes, the post-punk folk rock band strumming and drumming their way through a thirsty music scene, Zack is more focused on what drives him than a lot of other buttoned-up types I know. It’s not easy to discern that separateness between Zack and his music.
Shaneil and I alternate between munching roti bakar and smoking (he, roll-ups, me Reds – “A lady after my own heart!” proclaims Zack. It’s so sweet he thinks I’m a lady. I decide not to correct him.)
Zack is off on his own verbal rollercoaster. I sit back, letting him run free with his story and only once in the entire hour do I muse how unfair it is that he looks a decade younger than me even though he’s not.
Don’t let the emo-black-frame spectacles or the taut physique fool you. When he speaks, that deep, almost-growl with the embedded British accent fills the air on our side of the greasy spoon. The other diners thankfully pretend we’re not as loud as we actually are. They also ignore Zack’s liberal use of some piquant words that punctuate and flavour his sentences. I expect nothing less of a person who lives and breathes the creative life on several planes.
By his own admission, he’s been hosting the longest-running independent show on BFM. “I say independent because I don’t work for BFM,” he explains, “and it’s been going on for about five years,” he grins. “Pretty cool, yeah?” Totally, as is that oh-so-London inflection at the end.
He’s on the airwaves Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10pm (“it’s a nocturnal thing,” he drawls, “but you get to play grown-up music,”) with an eclectic musical menu. His show serves up morsels of Japanese bands and Brazilian music and singers singing in Portuguese.
“It’s doesn’t always have to be in English, right?” he grins, much to my delight. All it takes is for me to mention my love of Andrea Bocelli even though I don’t understand a word he sings, and Zack deftly inserts a non sequitur involving Bocelli and Leicester City. (As it is with all of Zack’s anecdotal tangents, this one includes Leicester’s recent, unexpected win and victory-ownership appropriation by way of Claudio. Look it up.)
I should know better than to think footie references won’t be plonked into the chat; some time ago I was jokingly told by his brother Ross that Zack is “probably the only Everton supporter I know in this country.” (I paraphrase, of course, but that brotherly mock-jock jocular jostling is par for the course for these two football-obsessed brothers.)
And speaking of brothers, Zack is full of nothing but love for his big brother, not just because “if it weren’t for him having a car, I wouldn’t be able to get around London; I mean, how can you be a musician and not have wheels, right?”
That dry, deadpan delivery when he references Ross is laugh-out-loud funny.
“He told me you were in a band and he said you’re quite good,” I say.
“He’s a good man. The cheque’s in the mail. I keep him sweet and he says nice things,” Zack lobs back.
At this point my explosion of laughter rings farther back into the greasy spoon. I’m not a tough audience, clearly.
The two brothers used to share pocket money to buy 7-inch singles (vinyl, dear, vinyl.)
“He used to get them on weekends and I got them on weekdays,” he huffs jokingly.
“’Cos he’s three years older than me! And I was f***ing stupid!”
Zack delivers this with inadvertent and impeccable comic timing.
He freely rattles off how he started off as a “pop kid” who thought Radio Luxembourg was the best thing ever, before his musical tastes evolved into more divergent, less saccharine genres. “Academia was all f****d-up the minute I got into rock and roll,” he declares unflinchingly.
Zack has been in a band, whatever the semantics of its identity, since he was 17.
He “missed 1977” and “missed the punk generation,” he tells me, “and when I was 11 it was 1980.” (He has refused to reveal his age up till now. “Age is relative.”)
“So you can do the maths,” he teases.
“So you were born in 1969,” I shoot back.
[Apparently my quickness impresses him and Shaneil no end. Not a tough audience to please, either, these two.]
When he returned to Malaysia (“I feel so out of place here,”) his wife told him he was miserable and suggested he play some music, he bought a guitar and that was that.
No formal training?
“I’ve been to about a thousand rock and roll shows in my life,”
he grins, and Shaneil adds, “It’s self-training; it’s experience.” (Again, that one-two.)
“I know how to put bands together and I know how to convince gullible souls to follow my fool’s quest,” he jokes. Except that it’s not a joke and this is what defines him. That complete absorption into music radiates off him like a low-decibel hum.
Punk was, for him, a way for people “in the sticks, the county, with no culture” to make music even if nobody really knew their way around chords, notes and arrangement. “It was great,” he smiles, “and I thought if they can do it, well, then…”
His brother was on the cover of his first ever album and he sold these tapes (cassettes) for 50p.
“Music is in my heart. I knew chart positions and which records… and I knew A,D and E.”
“That’s all you need,” laughs Shaneil.
How long has it taken him to master the guitar?
“F***ing years, man,” he laughs, “and I’m still a sh** guitarist!”
I half-expected some beneath-the-surface note of louche insouciance from weathered independent musicians who pursue the thankless gig circuit but instead I am faced with a man who is accommodating, polite, outright funny and straight-talking, without brashness and without agenda.
“I was up in Shropshire (in a boarding school), Ross was in London, I took a year off and convinced some friends to come with me down to the Big Smoke,” he remembers, “to try our hand. Yeah. So. It’s what I know,” he adds with the slightest of shrugs.
“It’s the thing I do.”
Street music is what he calls it, “and the people who listen to it can’t afford guitar lessons. So we do what everyone else does: we buy [music] books and learn from there.”
“I got married (in 1999); I tried to be a respectable member of society,” he chuckles at the recollection, “but music’s in my blood, you know?”
“I’m in my element when we play gigs.”
That sureness of tone leaves no room for argument.
London, with its acid house and Britpop waves, consumed him from 1989 until 1997.
“Playing; surviving.” When he wasn’t eking out his niche as a full-fledged musician, he propped up the necessities of living in London with a roll-call of odd jobs that included a market stall, café work, burger flipping and record store work.
“Did jobs to buy strings and amps,” he recalls.
But he was 21, he says, a touch of defiance bubbling just below the surface, “What was I going to do? I wasn’t going to work as a lawyer or in the corporate [sector].”
“My parents were not rich.” There is an almost-discernible dip in the atmosphere as he looks down briefly. “They divorced when I was 17. I was on my own from then. And I made this pledge to take this thing as far as I can go.”
He almost made it in the industry, he relates, but he just couldn’t hold on, so he left, “with my tail between my legs.”
Zack re-immersed himself in band life in 2004 (“I was in a band with JonBoy from Hitz,”) after returning to Malaysia. There was a record deal with PonyCanyon (only some of us are old enough to remember this name, I think silently); the band was called Trafford.
“My brother [Ross, a Manchester United FC supporter) named the band, not me.”
Zack wrote the tunes and sang them, even though “it was meant to be a vehicle for [Ross].”
And now, Zack continues to collaborate while creating.
28-year-old Shaneil Devaser (and his wiry, muscly sexy forearms) plays bass with Zack in Mystery Tapes, a collaboration that began when Shaneil’s own band, The Endleaves, “shared bills” (playing alongside one another during an event) with Free Deserters.
Neither one can remember when this bromance happened, but there were rounds of five-dollar tequilas involved on a Ray Charles night in a suburban bar.
“We bonded over cheap tequila,”
“We never fight,” Shaneil murmurs smilingly, turning to Zack, as if they’ve only just become aware of this fact. And then follows a five minute recollection of that night, replete with details like green tiles, between the two. C’est très cool.
“The escalators were full, the mall had closed for the day; the place was full of people, listening [to us.]”
“Cheap booze and rock and roll, you know?” Zack grins.
What’s clear is these two men will not be told what to play and will play what they want to. No compromises.
Maybe they’ll do some covers at a wedding gig (“they pay well, I hear,” chuckles Zack) but as Shaneil asserts, (while I try not to be distracted by his long lashes and penetrating gaze,)
“We will never let anyone dictate what we can play. We don’t go and ask money for gigs: we create gigs.”
Zack reiterates this sentiment of independence (not interchangeable with the ubiquitous term ‘indie’) and tells me how they run everything themselves: the music, the financial management, the marketing.
There’s only one type of party Zack will not play at, he tells me when I slip in a question. I won’t name names, but I will say it’s the kind of party that involves propaganda and politicking rather than pleasurable intoxicants.
This creative backbone and self-determination (in both senses of the term) underscores their desire to touch audiences from Jakarta to Japan, and maybe one day, Stateside.
Mystery Tapes is only two years old. Before it was born, Zack nurtured Free Deserters for six years until 2014. The change – in music type and band identity – took place in a month from the death of the former.
He plays in a David Bowie tribute band called Diamond Dogs, too.
“This month alone I’ve had five, six gigs. My wife, she understands. I don’t see much of my family,” he says.
Then he lobs over to me, “You know that joke? What do you call a musician without a girlfriend?”
“Homeless,” deadpans Shaneil.
“It’s not like I had a choice,” he continues. “Some bands are lucky, some are slow developers. What was I going to do? I love football but I was never going to make the grade.
I don’t treat music as a hobby, it’s what I f***ing do.”
Stay in touch with Mystery Tapes here and here. You’ll often find them at Gaslight, Merdekarya or at Live Fact when they’re not in Singapore but they will also be part of Sofar Sounds’ rounds of secret, intimate gigs in May, but Zack can’t tell me where yet.
Shaneil Devaser leaves his other digital footprints here, here and here. When The Endleaves are not being nominated in the VIMA Music Awards 2016, their lead vocalist has a different past involving suits and money. You should ask him about that and the girl in the corner who wants to tap her foot.