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Escape Velocity

Fear Music: Tzusing Interviewed
Christian Eede , August 2nd, 2023 12:11

Following the release of his second album, '绿帽 Green Hat', through PAN earlier this year, and ahead of an appearance at this month's Dekmantel festival in Amsterdam, Tzusing talks to Christian Eede about anxiety, shifting his focus as a DJ and why he named his latest record to "piss off" his dad

Around six years ago, in the wake of the release of his debut album for Ron Morelli's L.I.E.S. label, 東​方​不​敗, Tzusing decided he needed a refresh of sorts. With that in mind, he began to make changes to the way he DJs, specifically to the styles of music that he would showcase in his sets. "I just felt that I needed to keep things more interesting for myself," he tells me from his current base of Taipei. The techno, new beat and industrial sounds that had previously dominated his sets and online mixes – and been a key fixture of his oeuvre on EPs for labels like Bedouin and the aforementioned L.I.E.S. – remained in places, but also frequently gave way to faster, more rhythmically complex music such as footwork, trap and the 'hard drum' club sound that was being pushed around that time by labels like Her Records.

"It was upsetting some people who were used to hearing me play other things in mixes and at clubs in the past, because they were maybe coming to catch me play and expecting something more linear and techno or new beat-focused," Tzusing says of that period, reflecting on one particular set at Unsound in 2017 where he felt he had "alienated" the dance floor somewhat. It was after that set, though, that PAN label boss Bill Kouligas approached him with some encouraging words. That meeting and seal of approval set into motion a partnership with PAN that has since birthed a 2019 split EP with M.E.S.H., and, earlier this year, Tzusing's second album, 绿帽 Green Hat.

The Berlin-based imprint is a perfect home for the record. Carrying over the anxiety-ridden, industrial edge of 2017's 東​方​不​敗, its title references the green hat's place in Chinese culture as a symbol of infidelity. If a man wears a green hat, he is seen to be emasculated and a cuckold. The album's cover depicts, in part, Tzusing – who was born in Malaysia, but has spent significant periods of his life living between Singapore, Taiwan, China and the US – wearing a green hat while bleeding seemingly from the ear. "This green hat symbol – the idea of your other half screwing around with other people – is very fear-inducing for Chinese people," the producer says, "and this nervousness is really interesting to me to interrogate."

On opening cut 'Introduction', he uses a text-to-speech tool to recite a The New York Times article about the green hat's significance in China, as well as other cross-culture faux pas. Proceeding track '趁⼈之危 (Take Advantage)', meanwhile, samples Daniel Plainview's |I drink your milkshake" speech from Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 movie There Will Be Blood. A metaphor for capitalist greed and its inherent link to patriarchal societal structures, the speech became an online meme in the wake of the film's release due to the absurdity of the words when taken out of context.

The knowing nod to that meme in removing the speech from its original context on '趁⼈之危 (Take Advantage)' is one way in which 绿帽 Green Hat doesn't take itself too seriously despite the concept built around it. It also does so by barely losing sight of the dance floor, as has been the case with much of Tzusing's output to date. Cuts like '孝忍狠 (Filial Endure Ruthless)' and the aforementioned '趁⼈之危 (Take Advantage)' fold in elements of EBM as well as the screwface-inducing basslines of trap, while 'Muscular Theology' combines broken techno with the percussion-focused 'hard drum' music that has long been a fixture of his DJ sets. 'Exascale', a pummelling highlight, ups the tempo with giddy, double-time kicks and surging sound FX, and the Suda-featuring 'Clout Tunnel' pushes the guitars of the grunge and alternative rock music that the producer tells me dominated his teenage listening habits into the club sphere.

Ahead of an appearance at this weekend's Dekmantel festival in Amsterdam, I spoke to Tzusing about the role of anxiety in his music, his decision to transform his DJing style in 2017, and why he, in part, named his latest album to "piss off" his father.

Your latest album takes its name from an ancient Chinese story involving a green hat being a symbol of a woman cheating on her husband or boyfriend. Talk me through why you chose that title?

Tzusing: It's not so much a story, it's more symbolic. If someone in China was to look up, say, cuckold porn online, they would type 'green hat slave'. Nobody who believes in this symbol actually really knows the origin of it, but it's one of those things that has just developed over time, and the focus of the album isn't so much on the origin story. This sounds super fucking juvenile – I'm like a 40-year-old man telling you this – but I semi-went with this concept because I thought it would piss off my dad, and it did. I told my dad, 'This is the name of the album', and he was like, 'What the fuck!' I didn't tell him that it was because I knew it would piss him off, but he has this very rigid idea of what it means to be a man. This Chinese man's fear of this thing, of this hat and what it symbolises, is interesting to me. There's this pretence that the masculine facade will be cracked if your girlfriend sleeps with someone else, that it will make you less of a man. It's like kryptonite, it's this really scary concept to a lot of Chinese men.

Did you go into working on the album with this concept in mind?

T: It came while I was working on it. Certain things happen in your own life that make you wonder how you will react to these things. This green hat symbol – the idea of your other half screwing around with other people – is very fear-inducing for Chinese people, and this nervousness is really interesting to me to interrogate. It's really horrific and anxiety-inducing for a lot of people, and it's a very specific and unusual kind of fear. That anxious feeling runs through the record, and it feels like a continuation of my first album. It's me further fleshing out the ideas that I had on that record.

Anxiety has been quite a central emotion within your work for some time, going back to that first album for L.I.E.S.. Why do you think that comes up so often in your music?

T: It's a reflection of things I deal with day to day. It's funny because expressing anxiety through music, and hearing this representation of those emotions, is actually quite comforting to me. It's very strange. I'm quite an anxious person in general, and society is going in the direction of bringing about those feelings more than ever.

Despite anxiety being such a central emotion across this album, and the concept of the green hat running through it, the album doesn't lose sight of the dance floor.

T: Yeah, I make music that I want to hear on dance floors. It's all music that I like to listen to, so I'm happy to hear it in any setting, but I'm drawn to making music that has a really strong kick and snare, and kind of punches you in the face. That music naturally works on the dance floor, so it's always worked out that way.

PAN's a perfect home for the album, and this of course isn't your first release for the label. How did the connection with [PAN label founder] Bill Kouligas first come about, and how did you arrive at putting this album out with the label?

T: After my first album came out in 2017, I decided to start changing the way I was DJing a little. It was upsetting some people who were used to hearing me play other things in mixes and at clubs in the past, because they were maybe coming to catch me play and expecting something more linear and techno or new beat-focused. I was switching things up and playing different tempos, playing footwork, and it seemed to be alienating people – even some promoters were upset with me. After one set at Unsound, I knew I'd alienated the dance floor a little bit. I didn't clear it, but people were coming for my records and got something else. After that set, I was feeling a little weird about it, but Bill came up to me and was like, 'Dude, that was sick'. We started talking more and he was really into what I was doing, so I felt he was someone that understood where I was trying to take things with my productions too. It felt like a good step to put out an album out with the label for that reason.

The record was actually finished and ready to be released two years ago, but COVID got in the way. I was stuck in China and I couldn't tour, so Bill didn't think it was such a good idea to put it out in the middle of that. Looking back now, it was a great idea to wait.

It was ultimately only four years between working on the two albums then, but did you feel more confident going into producing 绿帽 Green Hat, in terms of realising what you wanted to achieve conceptually and sonically?

T: Yeah, totally. When I put out the first album, there were a few tracks on there where I just wasn't sure if people would get it. I didn't fully trust in myself, and wondered if I was doing something wrong. I think getting that out there and seeing it be received well was a big help, and made me realise I wasn't wrong. I'm a really slow worker though, and I won't just throw away ideas if they're not immediately working. I believe in working the hell out of an idea. Obviously there's good raw music that is done in a day, but I really like producers where you can go back, listen to tracks and pick out different details in the sound design. That stuff takes time.

Going back to those DJ sets in which it felt like you were alienating some people, why did you decide you wanted to start switching up what you were doing as a DJ at that time to play different sounds and tempos?

T: Well, it was always what I was listening to personally anyway, and even when I was playing more four-to-the-floor, I was still playing from like 100 BPM through to 130. It wasn't too narrow. I was playing new beat, '80s stuff, early acid house, Italo disco, industrial techno and house, so it was all in a fairly similar realm. When I started playing more footwork and hip hop, I just felt that I needed to keep things more interesting for myself. I didn't just want to rehash the past and be too safe, playing lots of older music. I was listening to a lot of stuff coming out of the UK at that time too that was really inspiring me, like the hard drum stuff by people like MM and Suda. That stuff was so sick, and I was also hooked on the music that people like Total Freedom were playing from labels like Fade To Mind. I just thought I couldn't go on doing what I do while ignoring that all of that great music was happening.

I know you played some sets at smartbar while you were living in Chicago in the mid-'00s, so were those particularly formative experiences for you as a DJ?

T: I played there maybe only two times, and they were Thursday opening sets. I was DJing at other bars in Chicago, and my friend Slava, who now lives in New York and makes weird footwork, was living there at the time too, so I played with his crew. I was playing a lot of vinyl, but I was a really bad vinyl DJ. Chicago was scary because everybody's technical skill level was so high. You would almost never hear a trainwreck and people didn't touch the platter – they would all ride the pitch on the turntable to beatmatch. Everybody was so good, so it made me realise how good you have to be to even get a Thursday opening slot at somewhere like smartbar. When I first moved to Chicago, I thought I was some music nerd – because I am quite nerdy and I was collecting a lot of music – but I went to smartbar and the whole club started singing along with a song that I'd just never even heard before. That was a moment where I just thought, 'Holy shit, I actually know nothing about music'. Chicago was really good in the sense that it opened my eyes to understanding that if you're a DJ, you should really dig and know your shit.

You moved around a lot while you were growing up, so did that expose you to a lot more club scenes and sounds to help build your interest in lots of different styles of music?

T: I don't know if it influenced my productions so much, but it certainly helped with just getting access to music, because this all came before we could so easily use the internet. Moving to different places allowed me to just buy actual records and CDs through visiting all kinds of record shops. Online shopping wasn't that great at that time, so you couldn't listen to all the previews for a record. They weren't importing a lot of electronic music into Taiwan while I was living there back then. One huge thing for me discovering music was through the pirate markets in China when I lived there in 1998 and 1999. The US, and maybe even the UK, was exporting garbage to China at that time, and some of it would be the CDs that were incorrectly manufactured so couldn't be sold. They were sent to China to be destroyed, but would end up on the black market and you could buy, you know, a DJ Shadow record for 50 cents. There was no Discogs at the time – or maybe there was, but it wasn't so developed yet – so I would buy things based on the artwork. It was all purely visual.

Did your first proper exposure to electronic music come when you relocated to the US?

T: No, it was while I was still in Taiwan. This kid came from the States and his sister was a goth and a raver. He had all these CDs from her that he showed me, and the first one I remember was Josh Wink's 'Higher State Of Consciousness'. He also had stuff by Goldie, The Prodigy, so I was listening to all of this stuff and getting my hands on whatever electronic music I could.

I know you've been spending time between Shanghai and Taipei in recent years, so is there a lot going on in those cities' respective electronic music scenes that excites you right now? You put out a compilation of Taipei-based producers through Sea Cucumber earlier this year of course.

T: I've permanently moved back to Taipei now but was in Shanghai for 13 years. There's this aesthetic we've been trying to push with producers and DJs affiliated with this club in Taipei called FINAL, and it feels like it's become accepted with the younger kids here. It's quite normal, and there are a bunch of DJs playing in this way here now, where they'll just put things like hip hop, K-pop and techno together. I feel like what we set out to achieve with this club, we have. The hope is that now it inspires more producers to make music that fits in with what's being played there, and some of the producers pushing that sound were featured on the Sea Cucumber release.

Tzusing will play at Dekmantel festival in Amsterdam this weekend. For tickets, click here