Each week, RBMA Radio’s First Floor explores the newest releases in the world of electronic music. On the most recent episode, the industrial techno producer Tzusing speaks with Shawn Reynaldo about his unique entry point into electronic music in Taiwan, making a surprise connection with Ron Morelli of L.I.E.S and the dynamics of underground electronic music in Asia. Read an excerpt below and listen to First Floor on RBMA Radio here every Thursday at 1 PM EDT.
Your first album came out earlier this week on L.I.E.S. The title is in Mandarin, so I was wondering if you could tell us what the title is, because I imagine most English speakers aren’t able to read it.
The title is 東方不敗 (Dongfang Bubai). It’s a character in a novel by Jin Yong called 笑傲江湖 (Xiao Ao Jiang Hu). It’s not a very big character in the novel, but a very unique one. It’s a character that I always thought was super cool since I was a kid. Actually, the music is kind of influenced by the soundtrack of a movie that was made about this character.
What I always found interesting about Dongfang Bubai is that he is a person that was fighting for this sacred scroll with the secret of becoming the most powerful swordsman in China. A few people actually found this scroll. After they read it, for some of them it was like a joke, because you have to cut off your balls and become a eunuch to learn this martial art.
What’s interesting about that is that to become the most powerful man, you have to sacrifice the thing that’s a symbol of power and masculinity. Negating power makes you the most powerful. I just really like that idea.
Could you tell me a bit about where you grew up, how you got into making music, how you wound up in Shanghai?
I was born in Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia and then I moved to Singapore, then Taiwan, then Shanghai, and then the States for college. I got into electronic music specifically when I was living in Taichung. I remember being in 7th grade at the time when the Prodigy came out and electronica [was] on MTV, and we could get that in Taiwan. We could get that in Taichung, even though it was still hard to find the CDs – the more mainstream stuff you could find.
Then I met this guy that had just moved from the States. He was in my brother’s class, like two years older than me. He was from Dallas and he had gone to raves. He had these CDs and he told us about this music called underground techno. To me at that time it was really weird that there was music that existed outside of MTV and there’s this thing called underground music.
He had Josh Wink’s “Higher State of Consciousness,” the single, and he let me hear it and it just blew my mind. I was very fascinated with this stuff. In Taichung, Taiwan it was really hard to find. I started buying records from online shops like Satellite Records in New York and Groovetech in Seattle. When I moved to the States for college, this stuff was a lot more easily accessible.
How do you feel like your time in the States shaped your musical outlook?
That was huge because coming from Asia, especially Taiwan and China at that time, these producers seemed so far away. This music seemed like, “How do you make this stuff?” It just seemed impossible. Coming to the States really made me realize that it’s actually doable. I think there’s a really big cultural difference. There’s this kind of idol worshiping in Asia that you don’t really see in the States as far as underground music is concerned. Everybody feels like they can do this. It’s not that hard, it’s not that out of reach. I guess that’s actually the big difference.
Why did you decide to move back to Asia after college was done?
I actually really wanted to stay in the States to do this music thing, or maybe go to Berlin. That was the fantasy, but being Chinese there’s this kind of familial responsibility to come back home, to be close to family. It was pretty painful, actually, because I really wanted to pursue this music thing. I was already DJing in Chicago at that time, some parties here and there. I actually even got to play Smartbar a few times.
I actually ended up starting a company in Shanghai, and I still do this business now. I started a bike parts company. It did pretty well. I had a few products that became staples in the industry and [the business] started becoming more smooth. Five years into running that company I decided I wanted to go back into music.
Was it at that point that you connected with L.I.E.S.? How did that connection come about?
Before, I was actually in the industrial zone an hour outside of Shanghai, then I moved into Shanghai and I started to DJ and do parties at [a club called] Shelter. At that point I got to know a lot of the promoters and the club owners in Shanghai.
There’s this guy, Sacco, that used to run this club called 390. He had booked Doug Lee for a disco set at 390 and that’s when the An-i record first came out, and that record blew me away. That record’s so good. I went to dinner with Sacco and Doug and I gave Doug this one compilation I was part of, Dark Acid. Doug went back to Berlin and listened to it. He hit me up two weeks later and told me he was really into the track and to send him more music. I sent him maybe five, six songs. Three weeks later he hits me back. He told me he sent it all to Ron. I was like, “What? Ron of L.I.E.S. Records?” I had no idea that he was friends with Ron, so it was very nice of him.
What’s your relationship like with the label nowadays? Is there a back and forth conversation between you and Ron Morelli, or do you just send him music and he puts it out?
There’s a little bit of back and forth, but it’s actually pretty easy. Ron isn’t a guy that wants to tell you how to make something sound. It’s pretty straightforward, I send him the tracks, he likes it or not.
For the most part the Shanghai music scene, and Asian music scenes in general, continue to be something of a mystery for most people outside of Asia. Why do you think that there’s such a divide between Asia and the rest of the world when it comes to music?
Because this is new for Asia, except for Japan. The market isn’t that big yet. Shelter was actually mostly expats up until like the seventh year it was running. It was maybe 10% Chinese and 90% expats. In the last year we’ve seen that change to maybe 80% Chinese, 20% expats. That’s really good. There wasn’t so much interest in underground electronic music before so I think that’s why there’s this kind of divide.
You mentioned earlier that when you were a teenager discovering this music that it seemed so far away and there was an element of idol worship. These days, with the internet letting everyone know everything, has the perspective changed from the Asian side of how Western artists and Western music scenes are viewed?
It’s different depending on where in Asia you are. I was living in Taiwan when I was younger. Taiwanese people, I feel, have more of this Confucian value, where it’s like you have to be very humble almost to a fault, where you don’t think you can do these things. Whereas in mainland China they don’t give me that vibe at all. The young kids here remind me of the people I was hanging out with in the States. The worship element is a lot lower, but they also feel a lot more empowered.
Do you think that the scene will continue to grow and eventually be on par with some of its Western counterparts?
As far as the size of the underground music scene, yes, absolutely. I think we’re just starting to see that now. Just the last two years have been crazy, to see how much interest there is in this music. You could tell a lot of the kids still don’t really know exactly what they’re listening to. Maybe they can’t tell the difference between all the genres, but there’s just so much interest and enthusiasm for this stuff.