Ian Chang’s first full-length album: 属 Belonging
Ian Chang is one of the earliest adopters of Sensory Percussion. Spirtual Leader, his critically acclaimed first solo record released in 2016 is composed entirely of Sensory Percussion performances. He has since toured internationally as a solo artist, performing the EP on stage and controlling a spectacular light show all from his four-piece C&C mesh kit outfitted with Sensory Percussion. On April 24, 2020 he released his second solo album, 属 Belonging. We recently caught up with Ian on video chat to discuss 属 Belonging and his evolution as a solo artist.
How was creating 属 Belonging different from Spiritual Leader?
With Spiritual Leader I set rigid parameters on how it was made, and that came about from beta testing Sensory Percussion. I got really excited about the possibilities of making electronic music that came completely from my hands.
I was also kind of a novice when it came to electronic production at the time. So I wanted to have the process be pretty straightforward, and I just made it so that each piece was very much a straight performance on Sensory Percussion with no overdubs and no edits.
But between Spiritual Leader and 属 Belonging, I wanted to hone my production, sound design, and mixing skills outside of Sensory Percussion. And there was so much for me to learn.
the learning was twofold because I would get to look at people's stems and see how they put their music together
So the way I did that was collaborating with different artists on things and growing in that way.
I started doing remixes for people. I think I did about eight to nine remixes between the EP and the album, so I was pretty much constantly working on some remix. And that was a huge challenge because I had to finish the mix myself. And the learning was twofold because I would get to look at people's stems and see how they put their music together.
And then on top of that, I started redesigning environments and trying different production techniques. On some of the remixes I’d use Sensory Percussion a bunch, and some of them I didn't use it that much.
That same range is present on 属 Belonging. There's a song called Swarm where I just designed a Sensory Percussion kit and recorded that for a few minutes, found a little excerpt that I thought was cool and made that a track.
But one thing that I did with 属 Belonging that was different from Spiritual Leader was to create things within Sensory Percussion, record them, re-sample them and then put them back into Sensory Percussion.
And actually from the Swarm improvisation I grabbed a few samples from there and then, used them in creating the in the opening track, 舞狮 Lion Dance. On 属 Belonging there's a lot more layers of things.
So what was the process like then of taking the finished tracks for 属 Belonging and turning them into something that you can then perform?
It was a slow drag. Something that was really strong about the projects leading up to 属 Belonging was the live show and the way that it was. People have described it as one-to-one: you see the stick hit a drum, you hear a sound, you see a light. And with 属 Belonging I knew I had to sacrifice that to some degree. And it’s tricky and still evolving and I don’t think I’ve perfected it yet at all.
But one main thing I started doing this time around was I added a couple of extra devices. I have an SPD now in the setup, which I use as a kit switcher and for simpler sounds that don’t need to be expressive.
And I'm also using a MIDI controller keyboard. There’re some bass lines and other parts that I'm playing.
The way a new song starts is always pretty different. Many times I create a sample that I’m really excited about or there’s a new process that I want to investigate.
And then the third thing that I've been doing that I didn't use to do before is live looping. Right now I'm only live looping things that I'm doing on the SPD and the MIDI controller. I know I can do it with Sensory Percussion as well, but I haven't, yet.
I do have some backing tracks. They're pretty minimal for the most part and sometimes they're almost not there: it's more just about having automations that happen in the background that I'm not performing over the course of a set form.
So I’m playing to a click for that and for the live looping. And that’s pretty different from Spiritual Leader, but at the same time, I tried to carve out moments in the set where the click stops and it’s like injecting some of the same energy from the old show into this show.
It's all like a huge puzzle, and I feel like I've gotten it to a place where it works right now. I can play it, but there's already things that I want to improve at some point.
What was the recording process like? Obviously it was a lot more complicated than just capturing the right performance of the song.
Yeah. It was my first time engaging with vocal features. And since there’s not too much of my work out there for people to get an understanding of my sound I wanted to have the track fully formed before sending it to people and then see how they responded to it. So, with KAZU, and Kiah, and Hanna we talked about the tracks and they would come back with some ideas.
The workflow was straightforward: I worked on the thing, then they worked on the thing and they’d send it to me. Then I’d fully incorporate their vocals into the track.
But for me the way a new song starts is always pretty different. Many times I create a sample that I’m really excited about or there’s a new process that I want to investigate.
So take Zoetrope as an example. The way that one started is I have an acoustic guitar at home and this little tape recorder. I recorded some chords on the guitar into the cassette tape, and bounced that into Ableton and started messing with it. Then I created this instrument out of that and mapped a MIDI controller to it. And that turned into the basis for the song.
Or like on Food Court. I had gotten a bunch of upright bass string samples from my friend Jackson Hill and I was messing them. So it often starts with some sound I’m digging into and goes from there.
A more technical question: how do you use controllers in Sensory Percussion to control kit switching and just to shape sounds in general?
For recording 属 Belonging I let go of the idea of trying to play as many things at once at the same time in the tracking phase. I think there is an integrity to that, but for 属 Belonging I was more interested in a layered approach. So rather than setting up a kit and complicating kit switching I would sometimes just set up one drum during tracking.
For example, on the song Comfort Me there’s this really weird flute thing that’s like a 15 step cycle that I sampled from playing Sensory Percussion. And I remember that was actually one of the last things that I added. I tracked the kick and snare separately, and then added the flutes later. So it was very piecemeal in that way.
And one thing I developed on Spiritual Leader, on songs like Romeo and Inhaler was this “gating” thing. So I basically have a drone backing track that the listener doesn’t hear unless I hit a drum which opens a gate on it, letting the sound through.
The way I like to describe it is it’s like two people playing one saxophone where the computer is sort of like the hands and it’s changing the notes, but the mouth is like the drums and that’s what actually sounds the notes.
That’s how I made Audacious, one of the first tracks I made on this album. It’s just a slightly expanded version of what I was doing on the EP with the gate sidechaining textures. In Audacious the kick drum is connected to a bass sound. If you listen back to the song now you’ll be like “oh yeah, that bass never happens unless there’s a kick happening.”
On the last track of the album, 醉罗汉 Drunken Fist you worked with a guzheng player, and on Spiritual Leader there’s even a track named Guzheng. Can you talk a little bit about what that instrument means to you?
Yeah, and there’s another track I have that I did a video with you all called 琵琶 Pipa, that’s another traditional Chinese instrument.
The guzheng is an instrument that I just heard in the atmosphere growing up in Hong Kong. And it’s one of the ways I merge the different cultural influences. Guzheng on the EP was one of the first things I ever did on Sensory Percussion, to me it felt like the most immediate and obvious way to explore.
And there’s a lot of other producers, both Asian and not, who use these instruments in their productions: creating electronic music that combines elements from different places geographically and culturally to create something new. And it is a bit “on the nose,” but I think it’s a beautiful instrument with a beautiful sound.
I happen to have met this wonderful Guzheng player, Wu Fei, who lives in Nashville. She’s originally from Beijing. And what struck me about her is that she's an amazing improviser.
So the way that collaboration went down is I just sent her the track that I had and just had her improvise a bunch of different passes. She sent it back to me and I found some moments and sculpted it into the song.
On the album a lot of the tracks have both Chinese and English titles. And the English always comes second. Do you think anything is lost in translation? Or do you think of it as a dual title?
I guess I think of it as just one title. And the English is the translation. And all of the titles are based off of things that exist in Chinese culture, so that’s why I lead with the Chinese.
So 舞狮 Lion Dance, that one's obvious. 雀舌Bird’s Tongue is a type of Chinese tea that I was drinking a lot at the time when I made that track. And then 醉罗汉 Drunken Fist is the only one where there's actually a little bit lost in translation.
It's almost like with Spiritual Leader I was learning vocabulary. And then with 属 Belonging, I learned grammar.
I actually discussed it with my parents. So it was originally what would be more of a direct translation to Drunken Fist, which is a style of martial arts, but they had an idea that it felt a little bit too basic. So they suggested a title that is a more specific subset of those martial arts. And it actually means Drunken Arhat, but no one really knows “Arhat,” which is an enlightened buddhist. So that’s the only one where it’s not exactly the same.
Can you tell us anything more about the album title, 属 Belonging?
The Chinese title is 属, which is a Chinese character. A lot of times when Chinese characters stand on their own, they can have -- I wouldn't say multiple meanings -- but it's a little bit different than just a very specific definition. It's almost like a feeling or a concept.
属 is used when you're talking about saying that you're related to someone, you use that word. Or if you want to say that something or someone belongs to you or that you belong to someone else, you'd use it.
But for me, I'm always so “lost in the sauce” when I'm working on stuff. So this wasn't conceptually fully fleshed out when I was working on it. I think in retrospect the title came to me because the process of working on the album was very much discovering what my own creative voice is as a producer.
And especially because I've spent most of my time working with and for other projects. So trying to figure out what I wanted my sound to be.
It's almost like with Spiritual Leader I was learning vocabulary. And then with 属 Belonging, I learned grammar. How to put things together with my own sonic perspective on it. And I would also say that I was navigating a lot of different influences in my life, both culturally and with people I’ve worked with, and also trying to figure out what it is that my music sounds like.
Especially as someone who’s moved around a lot throughout my life -- in the process of making this I left New York where I'd lived for ten years and I consider New York to be where I belong in a lot of ways.
So leaving and moving to Dallas (which is where I live now) is almost like I got to process what my life was like in New York creatively, and even though there is some collaboration on the album there was a lot of hours just sitting alone, like staring into a mirror.