Interview: Borful Tang / Lord Tang

Photograph taken by Jin Zhu

The electronica scene feels more fleeting than ever. Genres are born, picked apart, and laid to rest in one lunar cycle. Lately, my scouring the internet for music has taken on the level of tedium one feels wading through a swamp, with the intermittent gem unearthed on occasion. That being said, when I stumbled across Cramp’s work for the first time I was completely blindsided, and I couldn’t have been happier. His music carries a timeless quality to it that is far outside the bounds of convention, and his delivery and execution can’t be likened to anybody else. In a world of ‘hit single’ artists, it’s a cherished moment when I happen upon an artist who stands out as an individual, and who cannot be defined by the sum of their works. I could say “I’m a fan” and it would be true, but it doesn’t touch on the admiration I now have for Cramp. Other musicians will know what I mean when I say “listening to this music puts me in the mood to sit down and make my own” — PD
As I listen to your works (Arthur Dent, up through Qulfus, Borful Tang, and now Lord Tang) the heavy emphasis on ‘found sound’ is readily apparent. I noticed your bio on likens your search for new organic material to mining. Are their certain ‘veins’ so to speak that have proven more lucrative than others? (i.e. are there certain sources that have produced more material than others that appeals to you) (e.g. the internet ,libraries, record stores, thrift stores, garage sales, field recordings)

They are all lucrative in their own way, It is really down to your approach and following your instincts. In terms of acquiring records, I tend to go for stuff that is cheap and/or free so it is easy to take a chance on something…if it’s a cover that looks a certain way, the way the liner notes are written, the song titles..even the logo. I have to say though, the modern, digital era has made this whole enterprise as liberating as it is overwhelming. You can now literally find something useful just about anywhere and capture it pristinely! If you hear something on the radio you can usually find the tracklist on line or download an archive, if you hear anything coming out of anywhere on your computer you can use Wire Tap Pro or something like that to grab it. Now you have the Smithsonian Archives, the Alan Lomax Archives,, youtube, the internet archive, and on and on… A lot of times though, a particluar project will dictate where I go for sounds. With Lord Tang for example, I am taking a different approach and focusing less on digging for sound sources out in the world and more on sampling my own sessions in the studio. Whereas the new Borful Tang tracks I am working on are sourced almost entirely from recordings I made off a shortwave radio on the last Evangelista tour. And in that particular situation, time and space had a lot to do with what I found. It was a European tour and I was thinking that as we would be in close proximity to so many different countries that there would be a really wide spectrum of different cultural broadcasts…which would hopefully mean a strong enough signal to be picked up well on a portable shortwave radio. And it worked out great! I got hours and hours of really interesting stuff from traditional music, to propaganda, to poetry, not to mention the neverending whooshes and bleeps that floats around the waves.

Also, would you say there are certain sources/styles/genres that you have had more success with? (lets say for example you find more sounds you’re happy with in vintage Jazz recordings than 80’s educational BBC VHS’s)

Probably more important than genre, is the quality of sound. It is different for different projects but for the most part, the more raw and undiluted the sound the better. For example, the recording of any instrument or phrase from a 60s Blue Note recording is going to be more useful to me than a more modern jazz recording that will more than likely be heavily compressed and slathered in softness, the crusts cut off etc. Which is not to say that there is anything particularly wrong with the modern recording but it is probably not going help birth a lot of new sounds. The older recording will have more headroom so you have more possibilities in how you can modulate the sound, the sound itself is more raw so the frequencies are more pliable and not buried under gloss…but more importantly, more aspects of the sound will morph as you push it rather than just the one congealed slick mass. Especially when you start slowing things down, as me and Jared tend to do quite a bit! , all sorts of surprising things start happening with these older recordings as the textures in the sound, and the pops and crackles on the vinyl get stretched out and pitched down. You just don’t get that as much with modern recordings in terms of an organic transfer.

continuing on this topic, when you’re searching for sounds/samples, do you look for things that would be conducive to an aesthetic concept you had in mind beforehand, or do you prefer to ‘take shots in the dark’ so to speak and hope something comes up that you like that can be added to your library of sounds?

Bit of both really. If I do go out looking for something specific I try and keep my instincts open to everything. As I said earlier, I gravitate to things that are cheap or free in terms of purchasing media so I will take a lot of chances on things based on gut feeling. That being said, the more you look and find things you like, you are naturally refining your instincts so I feel like I have better “luck” as time goes on. Generally speaking, if a label takes the time to pay attention to little a specific aesthetic that is consistent, an interesting logo, insightful liner notes etc. there is a good chance they also have a good ear for the music.

But you never know what you are going to find. Two of my favorite tracks on the first Borful Tang record, Root, were made from hundreds of samples taken from English language conversation CDs. Each language disk was essentially one character in a narrative with the cut-up English conversation from each disk used to make up the script. I made those tracks in 2005 but the genesis of the idea goes back to 1995 when I was at college in Santa Cruz. At the time, I was obsessed with sound effects records and realized that the library would probably have a bunch. They didn’t but they did have a whole shelf of English language conversation cassettes and I had a mini Eureka! moment. I ended up making a piece out of this idea that I would re-visit 10 years later with Borful Tang!

Then there was the last Qulfus record I did called One Day at a Time in which the whole aesthetic of the record was based on the source of the sounds, in this case another library, the Berkeley Public Library. I was on a break between tours with Evangelista and was thinking of something that I could do with a very finite amount of time. I used a web based random number generator and the toss of a coin, to come up with a method of chance operation to select seven of the numbered codes used by the Berkeley Public Library to categorize their CD collection. I then used one of those CDs a day as source material for seven days to come up with seven tracks.

Do you spend a decent amount of time ‘in the wild’ capturing sound? If so, what sort of qualities do you look for in recording equipment and what manufacturers have you had the most success with (or the least success)? (e.g. microphones, analogue-to-digital converters) Or, if you find yourself tweaking synths more often, do you have a preference for vintage/analog vs. Digital?

My preference is generally to use digital equipment to capture, arrange and edit things and analog equipment to generate the source material . I also use a lot of analog outboard gear for processing but equally use plug-ins for that too. I am mostly in the whatever-works camp! I went through a period a few years ago of collecting no-name cheap analog and early-digital delays and spring reverbs on ebay so those get used a lot. Those early digital delays get really disgusting and do all kinds of bizarre things when you push them. They were still in a hybrid state back then, transitioning from a purley analog world, so there are some interesting monstrosities out there!

A number of years ago, in an interview with Silent Records you went somewhat into detail about your Qulfus project. If I may quote you, you said “It is composed of various bits and pieces of jazz, dub, classical, blues, soundtracks, Latin jazz… but doesn’t really sound like any of its constituent parts. […] It is a very personalized sound.” (link to article) Nowadays, with the electronic scene growing exponentially over the last few years, do you find yourself more concerned or challenged with producing something easily distinguishably from others as your own? Also would you say the same genres you’d mentioned from that interview are still relevant to the artistic direction you’re taking today?

I have always had my own sound, it is naturally where I go but I am actually engaged in the opposite direction…the challenge for me is to sound more like other people! I would love to just make an instrumental hip hop record or a dub record or a techno record but it just doesn’t come out that way. That is all music I love to listen to and would be within my technical reach to make but I don’t have the time or inclination to get there. Like for instance, I saw Lucy’s set in San Francisco and a lot of it was to me, a new take on techno and I really dug it. So I went home thinking it would be a great idea to try and make some techno like that..should be simple right: a kick, bass, some atmosphere, throw in some percussive bits and some hiss..boom, done! Well of course, if you want to make a shitty dance track that’s all you have to do but to make the kind of thing that I was hearing takes first, an education in the style and an immersion in it to understand it from the inside out and then know where to go with it. Then learning all the technical sleight-of-hand and technique, the gear that gives you “the sound” and once you learn all that, then you can go and make it your own. So part of it is that I get bored fairly quickly if I just listen to one style and I get bored with techno realllly quickly! So the idea of listening to a bunch of it and studying it is totally not appealing. So I take more of a Frankenstein approach and take what I like and adapt it into my own thing which end up being bits and pieces of a lot of genres but follows, I hope, its own logic so it can communicate something to somebody.

I still listen and pull from all those genres you mentioned but without borrowing as literally as I might have in the past. That is, I would rather apply the feel of say a dub rhythm without overtly using the rhythm itself…just chop it so it breathes in the right places without literally having the snare bombs and rim feels etc.

On a similar note to the last question, many trends and fads come and go in the electronic scene. You’ve been established long enough to see your fair share. Were there any that you were particularly fond of? Also, were there any that you found to be particularly damaging/constricting? (e.g. Low vocals “R U OK”, 808’s & 909’s, white-noise, etc.)

Fond….so many! a particular highlight for me would have been checking out the drum n’ bass scene in London in the late 90s. I was lucky enough to be living there when the old Blue Note was still around in Hoxton Square and went to some epic nights there and at 333 among others . The last Metalheadz night in particular was insanely good! And probably a lifetime highlight was also at the Blue Note, seeing Aba Shanti and his full sound system in that relatively tiny space. That was fucking mind blowing! Never seen or heard anything like it since. That was a definite lesson in bass and the physicality of sound…unbelievable. There was also a consistency in the way that the power and soul and aggression of the music reflected the lives and vibe of the city that resonated with me. People moved in a way that reflected the gravity of the sound that was being created in their city and was now being played back to them and reinforcing their lives. In contrast, I then moved back to San Francisco and just completely lost interest! There wasn’t the same consistency there. You had the same music but people were dancing like pirates and nymphs and psychedelic ballerinas. The soul transfer was all wrong to me and the darkness that had been liberating in London felt more like cheap enterntainment. Plus the sound didn’t come out right. The sound systems were mostly inadequate to deliver all that power so a lot of the spectrum just wasn’t there. That has changed a lot but at the time, the London sound systems were vastly more sophisticated and dialed in.

That being said, the early rave days in San Francisco resonated in a way that was completely sympathetic to life out here. Completely different thing though. The emphasis and community was not formed out of the release of aggression and the sonic soulmayhem of the sound system but more out of the power of a mass of people with a sympathetic mindset i.e Ecstasy and “House music will save the world” etc. etc. which seems quaint now but at the time was a new, visceral and powerful experience. And the music was completely different as it reflected that ideal.

The thing that gets me these days is the speed in which genres are splintering and mutating into smaller and smaller chunks, defined by increasingly smaller parameters. Instead of something being defined by its overall sound it is defined by an element ….like a bass line and then defined even further by the tone and weight of that bass line and then maybe again by how much that bass line swings or doesn’t. I think if you get caught up in all that as a producer you might be in a world of identity pain but as a consumer or journalist it just gives you more to talk about…if that’s your thing. If I was younger I might have more enthusiasm to follow it all but I just dip in from time to time and find what I like.

I can’t imagine anything really be damaging. Things just shift.

What is your opinion on the concept of the ‘Berlin/Detroit Axis?’ Many claim that these cities are still the source for the ‘new sound’ of electronic music, do you think that statement has any validity? Have you faced any adversity coming from the SF rave scene? How about New York?

Well I am aware of the concept and that is about as far as I go! London and the UK in general has always been my touchstone for new electronic sounds. It consistently produces sounds from the future that I identify with. There is a certain amount of soul dirt in there that resonates and they just seem to be pushing forward all the time. I have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to Detroit. I only recently started getting into Underground Resistance and Theo Parrish if that is any indicator! I would say that they are all consistent sources for new sounds in the sense that they attract producers to come there and they end up forming communities and scenes that birth these new visions. That seems to be ongoing and I can’t see it stopping. You will always have your Boards of Canada, Venetian Snares etc. that have a huge impact but don’t necessarily come out of these big urban scenes but for the most part, it seems consistent.

I’ll avoid the ‘who are your favorite artists?’ question and go with a question that is less brain-wracking. Are there any artists recently that have piqued your interest? Likewise, have you found any artists who would be considered ‘under the radar’ that you think deserve to have their name put out there?

Oh yeah…let’s see Demdike Stare and that related Modern Love crew with Andy Stott etc. has been a big one recently..Zomby, Actress, Africa Hitech Really liking Paul White…just started listening to Luke Abbot who is a bit of a revelation..somehow simultaneously derivative and totally forward thinking! Listening to the new Deadbeat record a lot. Death Grips..amazing! Deadmaus 🙂 um just started getting into Mastodon, Suuns. Loads!

In terms of artists that are ‘under the radar’ there are a few Bay Area bands that I think deserve more…at least they have a fair amount of national recognition but the global radar is not pinging as loud…great band called Ex Rays who are less and less under the radar these days but formed out of an equally great band called Ray’s Vast Basement, all guided by a dude who should be a national songwriting treasure, Jon Bernson. They are affilliated with what I think is one of the most intriguing and unique bands/collectives anywhere, T H E M A Y S . We put out the first T H E M A Y S record on Gigante Sound which was essentially a giant morphing drone and they have gone on to all kinds of other stuff…mind meld instrumental hip hop, a record where the only instigator for a sound allowed is wind… Ava Mendoza is also less under the radar these days but she is an incredible guitar player with a totally unique sound who can equally kill with country blues as she can with Slayer. Pod Blotz is a psychedelic warrior sound slayer not to mention photographer, artist, fashion designer. She can transform a room and you all disappear down the rabbit hole with her.

It is fertile ground out here! and there are many more but those are the people closest to my mind right now.

What was your experience working on the Stellate Series with Stroboscopic Artefacts? The release seems to explore the elemental nature that exists under the ‘upper layer’ of music, Can you give us your own personal outlook on what you took away from the release or what it represents conceptually in your mind?

It was a great experience and inspiring all around. They were very supportive of my decisions and the work, couldn’t have been easier to work with really! They are quite fearless in their approach and I appreciate that quite a bit. The only thing that was going to make an ambitious project like that work was a solid vision and total commitment and they had that in droves. I mean, it’s a little crazy right?…put out an experimental 10″ clear vinyl box set in a custom made metal case with original art work and sell it on multiple continents. Fantastic! It obviously isn’t about the money, it’s about the art and presenting it in a way that the whole thing creates a resonating loop..which gives the music that much more power. It is fun to work with people that are carving away at the frontier rather than hiding at the mall and thinking they are making something new. I don’t have a problem with going to the mall, the mall’s a good time when you need some chilli fries or a fuzzy iphone case but it’s safe, comforting and kinda dull!