Raymond of The Idiots, and DJ Valerie, break from their night owl schedules to dish with Mimi Wu on the fall of the music industry and how they hope to save it, one original song at a time.
I meet Raymond and Valerie at 1:30 PM for our interview. Mind you, this is when most people have finished their lunches, but we are sitting down for breakfast. It is hours before Raymond usually wakes up and hours after Valerie has come home from practicing her DJ sets. To say both are sleep deficient is an understatement but surprisingly, I do not witness a single yawn.
Perhaps that is why these two are Tuborg Funbassadors, a program that “engages local hip artists from different music genres (rock, hip hop, DJ) to work with Tuborg to create music, arts, and fun activities to connect with Myanmar youth,” said Phyo Min Soe, the Danish brewing company’s Brand Manager.
They have the energy to keep going. Or perhaps it’s because Raymond knows after this is done, he can go back to sleep for several hours before he meets his bandmates to “record with my band and chill with my band and record with my band” and so on.
Raymond represents the heavy rock genre as the lead singer and multi-talented instrument player of The Idiots, famous among Burmese youth. Together, they have been in the business for a decade, but music runs in Raymond’s blood. His mom, who he calls a teacher and partner, was a singer turned music tutor and his dad was a famous composer in Myanmar.
“She sang at hotel parties, clubs, and some restaurants to make a living. I was always beside her while she was working. So that’s the main point that I had enough experiences with live music bands and recordings. I grew up with hundreds of English songs that she sang.”
As his mentor, “she taught me music notes and how to sing harmony, and she also taught me well about my behaviors and how to survive.”
Raymond began singing professionally with his mom’s harmony group in eighth grade and eventually moved onto playing covers.
“I formed a band in 10th grade in high school, then I made it into [The Idiots] along the way,” he said. “My guitarist is my roommate since 7th grade; he’s a bookworm kid with glasses. And my bassist is not my roommate but same batch in school.”
Unlike his mom, who was “doing old school stuff”, The Idiots have a Linkin Park vibe, “screaming and loud thumping stuff”, he sums up.
With a completely different sound is Valerie, one of a few female DJs in Myanmar, who gets her kicks from electronic dance music (EDM).
“It makes me so hyper,” she breathes. “I’ve never had a plan to DJ professionally, but I always loved EDM. When I go out, when I see people spinning, I’m really interested in watching them.”
Valerie began honing her skill when she was 16, shadowing DJ Ye Ko from Brave Bar in Yangon.
“I never learned how to play, I just ask random questions about it and they just teach me.”
Aside from her gig with Tuborg, DJing is strictly Valerie’s hobby, though one that takes up a lot of time.
“We’ll go [to a private club for DJs only] around 9 or 10 PM. There are some other DJs who have been in the industry for so long. We just chill, listen to how other one plays, and give comments where we should practice more. If I go there, I come back at 7 AM.”
Raymond is also self-taught. For his band, “I’m the vocal and play guitar and write songs. And I play drums, bass, everything when I do demos. I didn’t have a teacher; I bought a book from a guitar store and read it and self taught.”
His time apprenticing with his mother has expanded his repertoire beyond singing and playing instruments. “I do sound engineer, [I’m] a vocal guide…everything that makes a sound,” laughs Raymond.
The Idiots may be his own personal choice of music to perform, but Raymond composes a wide range of music from funk to R&B, jazz to dance (“you name it, I write it”). Even his sister has jumped on the bandwagon as a pop rock singer under the name La Pyae Gabyar and of course, Raymond has been helping her compose music.
It is only natural that he composed the main frame of the music and lyrics for the Tuborg collaboration. “I named it ‘New Experience’. The lyrics are about starving for new experiences, to have fun with friends and people around the world, to chill because Tuborg is a brand that has an image about youths, fun, and experiences.”
He continued, “My band played it, but [Hlwan Paing, a famous rapper and third Funbassador] wrote his own rap part, and Valerie did her DJ part. We are going to do at least three versions of the song, combining our different tastes of music. It also includes some English words referring to Tuborg’s slogan.
The Tuborg contract has been fun partnership and lucky break for Valerie. “I’m really happy to work with Tuborg long term. It’s the only thing that I’ll go for professionally. […] What I believe is tha
t I love the music and I love the time when I’m spinning. I don’t have to become a club DJ or be known by everyone, as long as I can play and have fun, I can enjoy it. But if I become successful and get to the stage where people know me, I’d be happy, too.”
Raymond knows firsthand that making it in the music industry can be difficult, and it was a small remark by famous rock star Lay Phyu that drove Raymond to chase his passion and launch The Idiots into the mainstream market.
“It took us three or four years before becoming mainstream. We were playing free concerts and sharing our demos. It was very hard for me because producers didn’t accept loud, screaming music. At first, nobody listened to loud music, no loud drums, no loud guitars, just easy music.”
“[Lay Phyu] said at an interview that he liked us and when I heard about that, I tried to reach him and showed him our demos. We’re still with him now [as a producer].”
With a new album coming out before the end of the year, Raymond and his band mates start recording at 7 or 8 PM, sleeping at 10 or 11 AM. “I’m more creative at night because nobody calls you at night, there’s nobody to meet.”
Despite the growing acceptance of heavy rock music, Raymond says not much has changed in the music industry from his mom’s time.
Most artists in Myanmar sing along with a CD, karaoke style with the same pop-beats and piano accompaniments.
“Everybody sings cover songs, they don’t have their original songs. We don’t have copyright laws in Myanmar. You can be put in prison for copying CDs but for only one month, so people will keep copying and take that risk. They don’t see piracy as a crime.”
Valerie backed him up. “Original songs take a lot of time. [Artists] see the profit and take the risk [of violating copyrights].”
“Most of the mainstream artists don’t really know about notes, they don’t know about music. They know about auto tunes,” laments Raymond. But “these days, people [are starting to] write more original songs and [performing] more kinds of music like hip hop, dance, metal, rock. It’s changing because it’s boring to listen to the same old shit.”
Though Raymond is frustrated with the slow evolvement in the music industry, he is passionate about staying in the game simply because he hopes to change it.
“We’re trying to make it different. We want to give people something new, something better, something creative.”