In Tokyo: i am robot and proud
I hung out with Shaw-han Liem in Tokyo this weekend, which is cool. The Mississauga native and Toronto electro-pop artist, who performs under the name i am robot and proud, flew into Japan's largest and best-lit city, my new hometown, for a performance collaboration (which I missed) and an energizing solo show (which I didn't).
A curious combination of live instrumentals and dude-and-his-laptop-ness, i am robot and proud has been quietly working the Toronto scene for five years. His latest album, Uphill City, was released in the fall on darla in Canada and & records in Japan, where he's been booking consistent gigs up and down the country. I caught his show at SuperDeluxe in Roppongi to snap some pictures, and caught up with him the next day at a live performance at Tower Records to talk about his work, his teamups, and inevitably video games.
You've been spending a fair amount of time over here recently. You toured Japan in October, and you're coming back to Tokyo in September with a new band. What are some of your favourite places to play here?
Shaw-han: The festival shows are always fun cause it's just a total experience. You're just one of 20 bands that are playing so it's kind of relaxed. The festival that we played last summer was in a nature area, it was close to Mount Fuji and we played in front of thousands and thousands of people. It was actually our first show of the tour and it was a new band. It was myself and a guy called Jeremy Strachan who plays with an avant guard jazz duo called Feuermusik in Toronto. And then Jim Guthrie who does his own solo stuff, he played guitar.
For an electronic artist, you work a lot of improvisation into your sets. You started the show at SuperDeluxe by handing your Tenori-on over to the audience. When did you start working that in?
The first time I did that it was kind of an accident. I was playing a show on my last tour at Tower Records. I started playing a song and then something broke, so I had to restart the computer. So it took five minutes for the computer to come back alive, and I had already kind of started and there was this awkward silence, so I decided to take the Tenori-on and let people play it while my computer was rebooting. And I realized that that was a really effective way to start the show, because especially with a guy and a computer, people don't really know what you're doing. They can't connect what they're hearing to what they're seeing, so it's kind of nice to be able to give somebody something in their hands and say here, this is how it works, you can do this too.
It sounds like you enjoy the physical, mechanical side of making your music. Is that true?
The computer is a great tool for composing. But the keyboard and the mouse are designed to do clerical work. So now there's a lot of different people and companies that are starting to explore this idea of creating new musical interfaces for computers.
You're in Tokyo for a collaboration with media artist Daito Manabe. I hear you did some pretty wild things with people's faces and electric currents.
Yeah. Public/Image.Method is a design conference. The theme's creative collaboration, so my session was a collaboration with my music and Daito's physical hardware installation stuff. We did a couple of pieces that both involved me using music to control physical bodies through Daito's tech. We lined up a bunch of people and put LEDs in their mouths and connected that to my keyboard.
I think ours was the most hands on. The rest of the stuff was a lot of talking, people talking about ideas, but ours, there was wires all over the fucking place, all kinds of weird cyborg stuff happening. I think it went over well.
I was reading on the internet that you're collaborating with Jonathan Mak, the creator of Everyday Shooter. Was it easy to change tracks for your show with Daito?
Me and Jonathan were friends for a while before we started working together officially. With Daito it was very short and focused and we were doing a lot of communication before hand over the internet. He would send me little bits of code and patches to demonstrate the system.
We definitely hit it off. We're both basically geeks and we're both programmers. We had a common vocabulary. He also DJs and VJs some stuff, so he has a musical background as well. I went out to his office in Omote Sando. He has a really cool workspace that he shares with two other guys, and it's just full of people hacking circuit boards. So yeah it was pretty cool to get to work with him. I kind of knew his work before, and he knew me as a musician too.
We talked with you in February during Wavelength, as well as way back in 2005. I'm going to read you what we said about your music 4 years ago and you can tell us how your style has evolved, or disagree or whatever. I think it's pretty bang-on.
"He produces beautifully warm, electronic music in which quirky, offbeat pentatonic melodies and weird instruments combine to create very lively sounding organic textures."
It's always weird to try and describe what any music sounds like, but it's even weirder to try and describe what your own music sounds like. If I could describe it in words I wouldn't have to make music, I could just tell you what it is. A lot of those adjectives are words that I hear. There seems to be consensus around the idea of warmth.
I guess there's a perception that electronic music is generally the opposite of all those things. I mean, cold, sterile, technological or mechanical, so when people say that about my music it's not so much that the music has all these qualities, but maybe it has different qualities compared to other electronic music.
I'd rather be playing a keyboard than clicking with a mouse.
Closing thoughts on Tokyo vs. Toronto?
There's just a lot more stuff going on in Tokyo. So even like the small, weird niche things will have a following of people. Toronto is a smaller city so there's not enough people to go around. But what's nice about that is that in Toronto the game people and the music people hang out together, cause there's not enough people for the game people to have their own thing. Everyone in Toronto who's doing creative work kind of cross-pollinates, cause it's such a small community. Whereas in Tokyo every niche thing has its own position.
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