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The Axeman Cometh

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DB musician and teacher Jay Javier Apungan is ready for the spotlight again, whenever it returns. Elizabeth Kerr reports

Jay Javier Apungan paid HK$10,000 to see Guns N’ Roses.On the notorious rock band’s last Hong Kong stop in 2018 Jay was getting ready for the night out with his wife, Kris Perry, and lost his wallet on the bus on his way to meet her.

“My auntie called me so I answered the phone and put my wallet down beside me,” he recalls with a hearty chuckle and a shrug. It just so happened he was travelling to the Philippines the next day, so he’d just withdrawn a considerable chunk of change from the bank, after putting the HK$2,400 tickets in his wallet. The couple trekked out to AsiaWorld-Expo anyway and bought fresh tickets. “It’s one of the most expensive concerts I ever saw. But it was worth it, even if Axl Rose can’t hit those high notes anymore,” he finishes with a laugh.

Jay greets visitors at his DB studio looking like, well, a rock star. The space is what you’d expect of a musician: there’s a double-tiered keyboard, a dozen guitars – his baby, a\ Fender Telecaster, and a Gibson Les Paul – are visible, and there’s a book (a gift) about living like Keith Richards propped behind the desk. Jay is rocking Black-era Kirk Hammett locks. Sadly, there’s no rock star attitude or Jack Daniels-littered sitting room. Or perhaps, fortunately. But there is a Christmas tree – in October.

Effortlessly good-natured, Jay perches on a stool, flipping his hair every so often between sips of sparkling water. He’s alone these days; Kris and his eight and 12-year-old daughters Neve and Mia headed to her hometown of Indianapolis four months ago when the consumer electronics executive was offered a plum job. He hopes to see everyone near the end of the year, but he’s happy the girls are finally settling into life in a sleepy US suburb.

“They were born here. They can’t deal with the quiet, and being unable to walk off to Starbucks on their own,” he says. But they’re making new friends – and one has joined a band. Jay still has the family cat, Daisy, an SPCA adoptee, and of course the kids that come through three times a week for music lessons.

Stay tuned
A native of a town about four hours south of Manila – “one hour without traffic” – Jay started singing and playing music at age nine. His father had gone blind, and he was acting as the man’s eyes, and when his dad picked up the guitar so did he. The family discovered Jay had quite the singing voice and before long he was singing at parties, in church choirs, and anywhere that would help him contribute to the family.

By the time he turned 16, Jay was getting a reputation around Manila for his guitar skills –and harbouring ambitions to travel, initially to Japan. He got side-tracked, however, by local band Stay Tuned.

“I believe in luck,” he says. “I was hanging out, having some beer with friends, and someone in the bar’s band recognised me from around town.” Stay Tuned was on the verge of losing its guitarist and so asked if Jay would be interested in stepping in. One jam later they told him where to show up the next day to start. “I was very early,” he says, laughing again. He was 18.

Jay stuck with Stay Tuned for eight years, touring in Penang and Singapore before the group disbanded following a series of minor tiffs. It was then he got offered a contract to work at stalwart Hong Kong nightspot Insomnia. He landed in 2003, and for seven years he ripped through personal and fan favourites there, and at the Hard Rock Café and Adrenaline (at Happy Valley Racecourse) among others. He cites influences including Carlos Santana and the Eagles’ Glenn Frey.

Jay gets animated when he talks about music. He describes the Telecaster as having a “brilliance” to it, and the Les Paul as “fat and rock.” He doesn’t quite understand
the enduring charm of Hotel California, but admits “the solo is unbelievable.” He’s working on mastering AC/DC’s Thunderstruck – Australians ask for it all the time – but he has a dark secret.

“To be honest? My favourites are oldies: Johnny Mathis, The Platters and the crooners from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.”

Local shredder
Insomnia was a good career move both professionally and personally: Jay met Kris almost immediately after arriving. “I’d been here about two weeks, and we met at a gig I was playing. At Chasers. That was one of the best bars I’ve ever played. I loved that bar,” he recalls of the old Knutsford Terrace haunt. The bar may be gone but the couple flourished, relocating to DB after the birth of their first daughter.

“We were living in Hung Hom, and there was no place for kids. I was teaching a friend of mine guitar, and he lived in DB, so I came here to teach him,” Jay explains. Interest piqued, Jay saw a realtor and looked around – then told Kris, who didn’t need much convincing considering the space they could get for their money.

Still gigging at the time, Jay relished the change of pace, and he still does. “After work it’s always nice to get on the ferry and just… let it all go and relax,” he says.

His daughters were also the reason he opened JK International Music Production in 2012 (www.jkmusicint.com). The late nights and boozy venues were getting to be a bit much, so he turned his attention to JK – producing, booking and teaching during normal business hours.

“I wanted to reduce the nightshift work because it left me no time during the day. I’d finish a gig at Dusk till Dawn at 6am, my ferry would be at 6:30am, all my kids’ teachers would be on the boat, and I’m out of it,” he says with a shake of the head. “Sometimes they’d have to wake me up. It wasn’t good. I started the business so I could be home more, and pick the girls up from school.”

Though teaching is keeping him busy, ask if Jay has missed playing live during the pandemic and the answer is an instant, “Oh god, yes.” He can’t wait to get up on stage again, pooh-poohing the idea of retiring, and laments the loss of The Big Picnic this month.

“That’s one of the best events in Discovery Bay. I love it. It’s very freeing. There are whole families in the audience, and your kids can see you play.” For now though, he relies on low-key Sunday shows at Hemingway’s to scratch the performance itch, something he chalks up to his typical Filipino upbringing, where singing is part of everyday life.

“We sing all the time. We’d sing carols in October. Did you notice my Christmas tree?” He points out the aforementioned tree with a cheeky grin. “That’s Pinoy style!”


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