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13.11.2019 | Words by: Susanna Li

When 李超 (Li Chao) first began making electronic music, one of his friends asked, “Are you still making that 破迪曲 (lame dance music)?”. Our conversation unfolds in mandarin on Wechat with pleasantly familiar Chinese mannerisms submerged in a Beijing drawl. Darting around with all sorts of analogies and hard-to-translate idioms, he describes his changing fascinations and navigation of the music world. Growing up listening to 洋垃圾, what dregs of foreign music he could find, forming a metal band, then leaving to pursue a solo ambient project. In the last few years, he continued to pave his own aural space as Zaliva-D, together with visual artist Aisin-Gioro Yuanjin, in the fast emerging Chinese electronic music scene with raspy, ominous vocal cuts and skulking melodies. After EPs released on SVBKVLT and Knekelhuis earlier this year, Li Chao comes to De School on Friday as part of their first European tour.

Q: As someone who entered the music world as a lead singer in a metal band, what influenced you to make this shift into electronic music? What do you think about the greater influence of metal and noise in clubs and festivals in Europe?

I can’t speak for the metal influence in Europe as that’s certainly not the case in China. My transition from metal into electronic music was a solitary venture. Here the boundaries between artist circles for different types of music are very clearly defined, so artists in metal or rock bands will think pop, or electronic music is beneath them. but I had some friends in industrial circles who introduced me to electronic music in the early 2000s, and I was immediately fascinated by unlimited possibilities and the sounds of early German EBM, with bands like Das Ich. At the time no one cared about what I was doing, but it didn’t matter because I wasn’t making music for the people around me. It was compulsive, I was addicted to the feeling of being in a studio alone and being able to authentically express myself without needing to consider what vision the other band members had.

Q: You call your music 东方黑暗 (dark oriental). How do you incorporate these motifs in your music?

I don’t intentionally construct Chinese melodies or use Chinese lyrics. It’s like this: you can get a foreigner who loves and listens to a lot of Beijing opera to sing something, they might almost be able to imitate it. But if you get someone born and raised in Beijing who doesn’t like it at all, they could still sing a few lines willy-nilly. My environment and my experiences are in my blood and bones. It comes through quite clearly in my work because I’ve never studied music before, I learnt by doing. So when I write music it’s an improvisational process, I could make tens of clips or demos in a day and then delete them all the next. I still see some artists, Chinese or not, who will forcefully stack 民族 (minority, traditional) music and electronic music together superficially. Instead of two elements running parallel to each other, I want them to fuse and emulsify into a new entity, where each element is dependent on the other. This is how it becomes a reflection myself, and when I feel I’ve made something special. At the same time, I believe that if someone likes the dark and extreme strands of music, they wouldn’t differentiate between whether it is from a particular country. They’re attracted to a particular feeling.

Q: Some artists perform with the intention of storytelling, or taking the audience on a journey. Do you aim for the audience to arrive at a specific emotional point when listening to your music, whether at home or at a club?

I try not to tangle my mind with the listener’s to tell them what to feel, which is why I use vocal samples for adding texture instead of Chinese or English lyrics. I can’t help but to record voice to capture the unobstructed, raw intensity of human sounds. In performance, I am very aware of my engagement and interaction with the audience because of my time in the metal band, but I prefer that my communication with them is not too explicit. My visual element is only a support, to add a hue to my music and to give the audience an emotional reference point.

Q: What do you think compels people to make or listen to darker music?

This is something I’ve thought about a lot. To me, this type of extreme music should come out of environments where people are under a lot of pressure. But that makes China an anomaly. Even though it’s a high pressure environment, there is very little of this kind of dark music being produced or enjoyed, as a result of cultural and political barriers. The levels of music consumption are pretty dismal. I’d say at least two thirds of the population only care about sleeping, eating and working. They wouldn’t give a drop of thought to music.

Q: In the environments I’ve been exposed to the presence of music is taken for granted because of over consumption and exposure, which is also a problem.

It’s also a question of proportions, there are too few people here who make music or are interested in attending these shows to make the scene grow with new labels and new events. For consumers, In Beijing, I can probably count only 15-20 artists who are actively releasing 成熟 (well thought out) electronic music in a city of some 20 million. Similar numbers in Shanghai, but even fewer in the rest of the country. The Chinese electronic music scene is really going through a period of 大乱斗 (dissenting chaos). The emerging scene is still gathering its wits as things get shaken up, but everyone’s supporting each other.

Zaliva-D plays our basement this Friday alongside Vladimir Ivkovic and Mark Knekelhuis. Tickets are still on sale here
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