Musician Davis Zunk
“I’m merching you up!”
Bouncing over to my table in the corner of our dim-lit cafe meeting spot, Davis Zunk brandishes his bag of goodies and takes a seat with the kind of friendly ease that you’d expect from a life-long musician. He hands me three CDs, a hat, a shirt, and we begin to discuss what all of these tokens represent – the work of someone who truly enjoys what he does.
Davis Zunk was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, and spent his summers up in Maple City, Michigan. Growing up in the Zunk family, it was hard not to fall in love with music – there was always something playing. “We just always had music on, in the house, in the car. Hank Williams Sr, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash… those are my earliest memories,” he says. “You know, like camp-fire guitar songs.”
Zunk’s father was a guitar player and his sister played drums, piano and cello, so the house was always full of some kind of sound. “We weren’t exactly The Partridge Family but we had some good jam sessions,” says Zunk, taking a sip of his matcha coffee.
As a child, Zunk had taught himself most of his knowledge about music practice and theory. He began with the drums, playing on his sister’s kit, then the guitar, and eventually a range of other plucked string instruments simply by picking them up and playing them. “It’s easy to go from guitar to bass and even banjo because they’re quite similar, you know?”
Zunk moved to Louisiana as an adult, to study music and to lose himself in the well-known jazz musician’s haven that is New Orleans. “Ironically, New Orleans is actually only about 15 percent raw, real jazz to be honest,” he says. “We had rhythm & blues, funk, anything – all influenced by jazz, but always something else.” By then a multi-instrumentalist, Zunk played the drums, guitar, mandolin, bass and the ukulele, and found his place on the local circuit.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, devastating the city. Zunk was travelling in Southeast Asia at the time and decided to stay and find work rather than return. “I had some friends in New Orleans who were commercial divers, and they knew one of the owners of Sharkies. I ended up staying there for three years.”
Sharkies, one of Cambodia’s most notorious bars, was the beginning of Zunk’s now 11 years in Southeast Asia. He soon began picking up gigs, joining a musical group of big 70s names, from Tina Turner’s bass player Billy Haynes, to Dizzy Mandjeku and Zap Mama, at the five-star establishment Hotel Cambodiana. Back on the music scene, he decided to go to Vietnam, seeking more opportunity.
Now settled in Saigon, Davis Zunk lives a double life. His day usually begins at 7am—“I always get about six to seven hours of sleep, rarely over seven, yeah…”—followed by a cup (or five) of strong coffee and a nice, solid breakfast. “I never miss breakfast.” Zunk takes another sip of his drink, chuckles and looks at me. “With coffee, sometimes I’ll go out, have one, come home and have like two more… I’m a two or three coffee kind of guy!”
After breakfast and mandatory coffee, Zunk waters his beautiful rooftop garden of plants. “Yeah I love my roof, I’ve got some basil up there… some coriander…” He leans over and shows me some pictures on his phone. Zunk lives in a town-house near the river in the centre of Saigon, and he fills his little slice of private outdoor space with swathes of green, from potted palms and hanging orchid baskets, to herbs, spices and miscellaneous ferns. “I exercise up there too,” he says. “I try to get some exercise at least five times per week.”
After that, Zunk’s workday begins. “Sometimes I have to be in at work at 9am, sometimes 11…” Zunk works as a music teacher for the British International School (BIS), delivering a mixture of one-one-lessons and group classes, and his schedule changes often. Describing his teaching work as “my day gig”, Zunk teaches an average of 10 lessons per day, often with no breaks.
Zunk runs specifically tailored lessons for his private students, teaching guitar, drums and ukulele, as well as big classes of budding young musicians. For the younger students, up to grade six, each lesson is a fun-packed 30 minutes, but the older kids need more time. His ‘School of Rock’ classes are one-hour bonanzas in which Zunk guides the kids through the process of learning, practicing and finally performing their choice of pop or rock songs. “I’m like a band-coach!” Zunk laughs. “Yeah, they pick the song and I just help them learn – it’s basically their club.” BIS runs regular school concerts, and Zunk also organises other lunchtime gigs and little school performances to keep his students motivated.
After school, Davis Zunk’s second life begins – his “night gigs” – playing with a range of musicians in restaurants and bars around Saigon, from the peaceful, lakeside Boathouse to the well-known Buddha Bar. As a true muso, Zunk enjoys trying out different genres and combinations. “Yeah, I have three main bands: The Wanderlusters, Zunkbomb and a kind of changeable band called Baby Love and the ‘somethings’. It’s different all the time.”
The Wanderlusters play a mix of country, bluegrass and Americano. “We play a little bit of everything, I mean we play surf songs, rock – we play Aerosmith! – but with country instrumentation.”
I remember one final question I wanted to ask him. I turn the straw in my ca phe den da – so what’s next for Davis Zunk?
“2016 is the year of the Zunkbomb! I plan on recording my original tunes, featuring top musicians in their genres – a combination of Rock, Rap, Pop, Jazz, and Traditional music.”