10 Questions with Chinese American producer Dave Liang from West-meets-East electronica group Shanghai Restoration Project
How did you get into music?
I didn’t really make a choice. My mum would find different piano programmes for me. Different from a lot of Asian American parents, she wasn’t that concerned about sight-reading but about developing a feel for music. The first teacher that I can remember emphasized improvisation. In high school, I was playing all classical music, and I discovered different colours, like Jazz colours. So I wanted to go to Jazz programmes and founded a Jazz band. When I got to Harvard, there was a club called Hasty Pudding. In my senior year I got into the club and got a chance to compose more popular types of music. After graduation I went to New York to work as a consultant. But I wanted to do more with music, so I left my job in 2003. I got lucky and started working with a producer in Bad Boy Records; that’s where I learned how to make a song sound more contemporary.
What convinced you to give up your consultant career for music?
Frankly speaking, music is the only thing that I have never felt bored with. At the consultant job, I could pretend that I am good at it, but I could never be the best because I don’t have the passion for it.
But then you also gave up the producer career for your own music?
When I moved to New York, I would play Jazz at different clubs and I didn’t enjoy it completely. I realised it is really important to make your own music, otherwise you are just performing it, and I don’t really have the performing talent. Some great composers can’t really read music. It is not because they are bad at it; it is because they didn’t learn that way.
The body of work they produce defines producers. For instance David Foster produced Celine Dion. Justin Timberlake produced Missy Elliot. The problem I had was it would take too long to get there, because you have to do a project and then use that to get another project; and it is very slow. I was really impatient. The model I liked was Moby. He made a sound and then people came to him.
As an American Chinese who did Jazz, how did you come up the distinctively Chinese style that Shanghai Restoration Project is recognised for?
From 2003 to 2005, I was experimenting with all sorts of style including country music. You have to be really true to yourself and I realised doing that kind of music I would never truly reflect my background. I was then asked if I had thought about putting Chinese instruments into the music. I said no really because I always thought Chinese instruments were too traditional. But I went to Shanghai and really fell in love with the Shanghai Jazz bands like Bai Hong and Bai Kwong. They took Western Jazz and put it into Chinese music and culture. That fusion disappeared after World War II when China put the focus on inter-politics. China was being relevant again back then with the Olympics and the World Expo coming up. There was not a soundtrack to mirror that. As an Asian American I wanted something to reflect both Chinese and Western elements.
But Shanghai Restoration Project is not completely oriental sounding; it has the characteristics of Western music as well.
I decided to take Chinese instruments, but not to put them in traditional contexts. I would put them in beats and every genre that I love, including Jazz and Pop. It took me about two years between 2003 and 2005 to figure out where I felt comfortable. I like good beats and having Chinese instruments sometimes. But I like making the harmony completely different from what you would expect. Now I wouldn’t say there is a formula, but I sort of knew exactly what I want.
Which project of yours reflects this West-meets-East fusion most?
I did a project in Sichuan called ‘The Afterquake’. An American folk artist Abigail Washburn and I worked with kids affected by the earthquake and took the sound of playing basketball, ping-pong and sounds of their parents rebuilding their homes, and turned that into songs.
Any constraints to manipulate Chinese instruments?
Some instruments like Er Hu make really high-pitched sounds that are hard for Westerners to listen to and I would take out such high frequencies in production, and put them in a way that wouldn’t hurt the Western ear. Essentially the obstacles set by Chinese instruments are fun challenges.
How could you never run out of inspirations?
I always believe that you should never come out with the same album at the same time. For me, I would switch style, so actually my last album was a children’s album ‘Little Dragon Tails’. There are always two things I want to do in my project. I want to do something completely unknown to the Westerners. I won’t put out an album that is too similar to any given album. Sometimes fans are disappointed as the result, but I think: well, you already got that. The second thing is I don’t want to get bored; and the Chinese culture has so much variety that I could never get bored.
Do you visit China a lot?
Yes. I have been to Shanghai, Guangzhou, Guanxi, Yunnan, Sichuan, and Guizhou. I know China more than the average American.
What’s next at Shanghai Restoration Project?
My next project will probably come out sometime next year. I watched a bunch of old Shanghaiese movies from 1920s, such as The Street Angel, the Goddess. I am inspired by these stories.
Published in Liberty Issue