Douban.com is bringing MHP to town for their eighth "Beyond the Billboard" performance series spotlighting out-of-town talent, which happens tonight at XP. (MHP's also playing later in the night at Dada if you're more of a getting started after midnight kinda person.) Ahead of the gig, Zhu Wenbo did a really deep interview with MHP about his process, his influences, his history in the Shanghai music scene, and his future moves. Read that in Chinese here if you're so inclined. Otherwise, SmBJ has the exclusive English translation hookup. Settle in, it's a long one. -Josh Feola
SmartBeijing: Hello MHP, let's start with electronic music in general. It's been 13 years since you first started making electronic music. Where do you usually find your inspiration?
Ma Haiping: Inspiration comes from the accumulation of daily experiences. Other than listening a lot of music, I also spend time reading stuff related to music. I think many of the futuristic emotions and expressions in techno are influenced by sci-fi literature and movies. I've gotten a lot of inspiration from new-wave sci-fi writers like Vernor Steffen Vinge and Philip K. Dick. Techno could be seen as part of the entire sci-fi culture because of the themes it treats and the visual identity it adopts. I want to think about my music from a more diverse point of view; that makes it more interesting.
It's different with making experimental music, though. Both Arnold Schönberg and John Cage have been strongly influenced by Oriental philosophies. It's fair to say that their music is a variety of Oriental culture molded into the Western mindset. So suddenly I realized that it was important for me to go back and learn more about traditional Chinese culture! This would help a good deal in terms of understanding and creating experimental music. For a long time, I wasn't interested in performing experimental music at all. That only changed when I saw it from this point of view.
SmBJ: Your major in university was actually fine art. Do you think this background has any influence on your creative process in music?
MHP: Yes, for two reasons. First, because I came from an art background, things like harmony or tones aren't my priority when it comes to making music. I think the structure of a song has many similarities with the composition of a painting; it decides the arrangement and direction of the whole song. Whereas tones are similar to colors, they decides the style of a song. Rhythms are like strokes, they expresses emotions. Second, it's about the mindset. Electronic music is an integral part of modern culture, closely linked to the development of technology and art. If you are able to put yourself into this big picture, it's easier to see where you stand.
SmBJ: For those who have a better understanding of Shanghai underground music, they remember you as part of the industrial / ambient band Aitar, and avant-garde/No Wave band Junkyard. Both fall into the "experimental" category. Why did you switch to techno? It seems so far away from where you started.
MHP: Following the last question: I've gotten into these different types of music purely because I'm interested in modern art as a whole. Ten years ago it was simply harder to be exposed to electronic music. You had a couple of magazines that with reviews, or you might hear something from other people. It was only later that Soulseek came along.
Interestingly, at that point, like most of the rock youth, I had a strong dislike for electronic dance music. Only later did I find out, that like all other sub-cultures, dance music has its own individual identity. Sadly, to this day, media mainly focuses on the pop and fashion side of it. This loses us a lot of electronic music fans. I believe many people, if only they knew this rebellious and uncompromising side of electronic music, would fall in love with it too.
Music like techno didn't come out of nowhere. Many of the bands I knew then were connected with industrial dance groups. Front 242, Skinny Puppy, Nitzer Ebb had direct influence on the creation of House; Detroit's Carl Craig has mixed a Throbbing Gristle tribute album. Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk all had strong impact on the music of Juan Atkins, Jeff Mills, UR, Dopplereffekt, etc.
Let's talk about avant-garde music next. In recent years, techno is leaning closer towards experimental electronic music. You will see artists like Rrose, Silent Servant, or Function trying to introduce many modern art concepts into their music. EchoSpace is trying to turn sound art and samples into dance music. I no longer care much about genres of music because they are all related. And you can learn something from all of them.
SmBJ: Your music, whether deep house or deep techno, is always quite melodic. This is not an usual feature in the typical house / techno masters. Do you think this has something to do with your Chinese or Shanghainese background, or your personal cultural background?
MHP: Many personal friends would know that I have strong techno works too; it's mainly the works I put online that are more melodic. I think audience are more open to these more accessible works.
But this is a valid question. It has something to do with the genre and context of music. Volume doesn't decide the style of music. Someone who like '90s Jeff Mills might also like gentle, melodic Larry Heard, and he would never even touch the obnoxiously loud Skrillex. Even though they are both loud, they come from completely different times and mindsets.
Because dance music serves a function as a background for dancing, people usually think that beats are more important than melodies in dance music. But at the same time, deep house or deep techno are very soulful, able to move you emotionally. Musically speaking, they came from the same roots as Funk. It really is more listenable than people think.
House and techno are very urban styles of music, too. They are very different from folk music. I think its easier for young people from bigger cities to relate to them. For the last 20 years, I saw with my own eyes how Shanghai was transformed from an old town to a brand new metropolis, and this makes me love techno. The aura of this type of music just perfectly suits what I see in front of me.
SmBJ: The party brand you co-founded, V/O/I/D, stresses that it wants to promote "pure" techno. What kind of musical qualities do you think are "pure"?
MHP: "Pure" means no compromise. Being commercial is always a double-edged sword. It might get the musician some opportunities or cash, but the payoff would be compromising your music, and that in turn would mislead people who listen to your music. This is the conundrum many Chinese electronic musicians, including techno artists, face. You might look very cool at times, but then compromise. The music is different. It's hard to define pure techno. You could point to Detroit, Tresor, Berghain or Sandwell District. They've all got this uncompromising, non-pretentious quality.
V/O/I/D as a party brand is trying to communicate to techno fans with real techno. It's that simple.
SmBJ: You've worked with techno masters like Juan Atkins and Scan 7. How did you get in touch with them and how did you collaborate? What's the strongest impression you got, or what did you learn from such experiences?
MHP: V/O/I/D has just celebrated its 7th anniversary. We've always invited oversea artists to come to Shanghai, and Juan Atkins and Scan 7 are part of this tradition. We usually get in touch with their agents or agencies first. From the artists' personal point of view, they are very interested in the development of Chinese electronic music, and they want to achieve something here too. They are usually surprised to find out that there's such a culture in China too. Same thing if we found out that some foreigners are actually familiar with Peking Opera masters like Mei Lanfang and Cheng Yanqiu. It's a great thing, it's about cultural integration and exchange. Chinese musicians are desperately in need of communicating with brilliant oversea artists and vice versa. You can learn a lot from them, from technical production skills to how to manage a performance, especially a live set. Everyone has different equipment and skills. Watching them perform is far more convenient than going over the firewall to watch youtube videos. Other than live shows, my vinyl records are co-released by V/O/I/D and Cratesavers International.
SmBJ: Most electronic artists are obsessed with gear, hardware and software alike. What are your recent favorites?
MHP: I think one misunderstanding about electronic music is that you have to update your gear all the time. I've known so many people who have a roomful of equipment but never finish a full song. Once someone asked me what crazy gear did Plastikman use to create that weird snare sound sound "kaarrrr". I told him go find a TR 808 snare drum sample that everyone has, lower the pitch and add delay. For techno and house there are only several pieces of perfect instruments: Roland TR 909, Korg Ms10, Roland SH 101, Roland TB303. If you don't know how to use these well, there's no point in changing into newer toys. Same thing with guitarists. Buying all the new effects and guitars is not as effective as knowing your Les Paul inside out. I think it's true for all types of music. For all the big companies, although they are putting out new products all the time, there's a very limited range of new equipment that can pass a three-year market test. I prefer stuff from companies like Native Instrument, Arturia, and D16.
SmBJ: Junkyard has disbanded for quite a while, but all the members are still active in the Shanghai music scene (including RunningBlue, who will be performing with you at XP), although in completely different areas. Do you still remember the Shanghai scene back then? How different is it from now? How has did your music experiences then influence your later music career?
MHP: I'm not a people person, so I can't really say that I ever belonged in any scene. I think ten years ago, some Shanghai bands were quite adventurous, willing to try stuff nobody was doing. They covered a lot a ground, from punk, post-punk, and post-rock to No Wave, experimental noise, etc. We were strongly influenced by the information about experimental music provided by people like Sun Mengjin. There were very few performing opportunities but many fans. An avant-garde noise show might attract 300-400 audience. This is unthinkable today.
Back then musicians were motivated purely by love and passion. Right now musicians in Beijing and Shanghai are more professional, they are more focused on how to be successful. I think both are great. Different times, different attitudes. That experience definitely has had a huge impact on me, I think my understanding of music might be deeper than those DJs-turned-producers. I view music differently.
SmBJ: We heard that you want to establish a vinyl-only label for electronic music. How is this project doing at the moment? Can you share some details with us?
MHP: Records are the core of the music industry. But this is a content-is-worthless, merch-means-everything age. There are so many electronic music festivals every year, big and small, and so many parties. But there's one thing people easily overlook: if a DJ plays music, who's producing this music? Who's releasing electronic music? In Europe, if you are not a producer, it would be hard for you to just be a DJ and still get gigs. So they have to make sure that they have decent releases every year. I've been trying to release vinyls. Besides my record The Chinese Connection, I will be releasing another vinyl record overseas shortly. Indeed, I want to create a label of my own, too. I hope there are trustworthy partners and friends to help me achieve it.
SmBJ: At tonight's Beyond the Billboard show at XP in Beijing, you will be collaborating with free jazz artists Peter H. van de Locht and Manuel Bandelli. Although people know your Junkyard background, they still see you mostly as the "Techno Kid", so it's quite surprising to hear about such a collaboration. How did you meet these guys, and how have you worked together before?
MHP: I got to know Peter H.van de Locht in 2007 through work. In the beginning I only knew him as a brilliant sculptor. You can see his works in Dusseldorf, Germany. Afterwards, we started talking about experimental music and jazz and we were both surprised. Ever since the late '70s, he has released records on the renowned free jazz label ESP, and has performed with German Fluxus master and the father of German free jazz, Peter Brotzmann. And he has already incorporated strange electronic music techniques, such as reel-to-reel sampling and live feedback sampling into his performances. Now he's learned how to play bass clarinet. Although he's almost 70, he can still be explosive on stage.
Manuel Bandelli is a fan of world music. He collects weird instruments from all around the world. This time he will play didgeridoo, a bizarre Australian instrument. It's a big chunk of tree trunk hollowed by termites. The aboriginals believe that when a wizard plays it, he can talk to the dead.
SmBJ: How would you describe this collaboration? Do you have a complete concept or relatively fixed structure? How much of an improvised element will be in the performance?
MHP: This project is really simple. Whenever someone invites me to do a more avant-garde show, I always get these old friends to come along. Other than Peter and Manuel, there are a couple of other brilliant musicians in Shanghai. Sometimes I get Yang Yongliang to VJ for me. We've gone through all Shanghai art organizations, Shanghai Modern Art Museum, Shanghai Duolun Museum of Art, Rockbund Art Museum, Himalayas Art Museum... I would pick different artists to suit the venue. There will be 50% improvisation. I create a structure for each performance, and my collaborators improvise on the base of that structure.
SmBJ: How do you view "improvisation"? Many people do not know how you find inspiration for such music, how you start and develop, let alone how to judge whether it's good or bad. As an artist, what are you answers to such questions?
MHP: Improvisation might be the rawest musical way for human to express their feelings. Improvisation might appear a lot in avant-garde music, but it's by no means new. You can find improvisational elements in world music, jazz, and rock'n'roll. With the development of technology, there's more possibilities for improvisation. For example, the random sounds made by electronic instruments, record sampling, and action recording can all be viewed as improvisation.
Especially in the field of avant-garde music, improvisation can indeed be confusing. My understanding is that musicians have to communicate to teach other through music. If a person is focused on the solo performance and leaves no space for others to join in, then it's not a good improvisation piece. Good improvisation should be rich, finding purposes in randomness, complete yet without the limitation of rules, a demonstration of skill and opinions through a musical conversation. It requires intuitions on both the performers' and audience's part. Otherwise, it is hard to understand. There was a period when I really didn't like improvisation because it was hard to find good partners. So many people were just trying to take the stage themselves and not create a conversation. But after many collaborations, I'm very happy with these artists.
SmBJ: How different are such collaborations from your usual techno / DJ set? And how similar are they? How do you balance and adjust yourself in such different positions?
MHP: These two states are related to my own experience, and I try to narrow the distance between them. From another point of view, they are closely related, because both techno and house are rooted in African American music. At the beginning, techno was the little brother of hip hop, and house was the reincarnation of disco. They were both funky. It can be traced back to jazz, too. Juan Atkins has pointed that out in his famous song, "Jazz Is The Teacher." If you see it this way, they are all the same thing. I really appreciate what Carl Craig did outside of dance music. He's tried jazz, classical, and avant-garde.
I think switching between roles is not as good as integrating both roles, and that's what I'm trying to do. Performing with a band requires communication and compromise, whereas producing and DJing can be more self-contained. These are two very different experiences.
SmBJ: Finally, can you recommend some music you're listening to lately?
MHP: This compilation, The Temporary: 01. It's a compilation of the works of many current Asian avant-garde artists, including one of mine, which I made for an art exhibition in Birmingham, England earlier this year. I just got the record recently and I'm keen on finding out what the other people are doing.
Also Aphex Twin's new record. Sandwell District has many new releases too.
Catch MHP's live electronics + free jazz trio with Peter H. van de Locht and Manuel Bandelli at Douban's 8th Beyond the Billboard series tonight (Friday, September, 26) at XP. If that one's too experimental (or early) for you: catch MHP on the later end at the Do Hits party at Dada that same night.