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Producer wunderkind Dave Liang is the architect behind the MSN-chart-topping Shanghai Restoration Project, an album blending hip-hop with electronica with classical Chinese instruments. APA spoke to Liang about '30s Shanghai, the possibility of hip-hop and country music joining forces, and the state of Asian American art.
His credentials read a little something like this: number one on the MSN Music Top 100 Electronic Album charts. Featured in the top 100 downloaded electronic albums on iTunes UK, Germany, U.S., and Canada. Worked with Bad Boy Records. Worked at a consulting firm called Bain & Company. Graduated from Harvard. The key to Dave Liang's success is no secret: dabble first, ask questions later. And if it's indeed true, that art is the mirror image of the artist, then Liang should have no reservations about his latest, the ambitiously titled Shanghai Restoration Project. It's the sound of an old world ('30s Shanghai) trying to reinvent itself without relinquishing its core principles -- mainly, Chineseness.
Well, that's what Dave Liang is: Chinese-American. Born in Lawrence, Kansas to Taiwanese parents (one of whom was an amateur singer), Liang was always full-bent on defying the parental standard that music is like any other form of extracurricular discipline, meant to be practiced rigorously and faithfully. Though he adhered to the Suzuki method of rote memorization and technical aptitude as a youngster, he was more interested in improvisation and stylization. This would come to fruition when he attended a jazz program at the Berklee School of Music in high school, which only confirmed to him that genre is but a state of mind.
Next came Harvard University and his subsequent employment at Bain & Company, the very antithesis of the anti-establishment credo that most cutting-edge artists embrace early on. So Liang opted to start from scratch, quitting his job, and becoming -- you guessed it -- a full-time musician.
The gig at Bad Boy Records yielded mixed results, though most artists would gladly take a credit on R&B hitman-at-the-time Carl Thomas' Let's Talk About It. Still, it was his work with independent acts that gave him the most gratification -- and the most credibility. Pop star ingenue Kristine Sa was one of his beneficiaries; Georgia Lee's indie-film cause celebre Red Doors was another. (Liang produced two tracks for the soundtrack.)
And then, there's his Shanghai Restoration Project, which is where Liang racked up the aforementioned accolades. It's also where APA finds him in front of the camera, thinking-cap on, and sunglasses off. The rest, as they say, is history... -- Chi Tung
Video: Watch the interview with Dave Liang.
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Interview with Dave Liang
February 9, 2006
Interviewed by Brian Hu, Chi Tung, and Christine Chiao
Transcribed by Chi Tung
Video Edit by Oliver Chien
Video: Coming soon!
Allow me to introduce myself...
My name is Dave Liang, and I was born in Kansas, believe it or not, which is a weird place for Asian-Americans to grow up. My father was a professor; he taught math. When I was three, we moved to New York, Upstate area, Kingston, spent some time there; spent my high school years in Chappaqua; went to college at Harvard in Boston; graduated in 2000, and moved to the city. I actually worked at Bain & Company consulting firm at the time, and eventually moved over to music. So I do music now full-time.
On 1930s Shanghai and the inception of the Shanghai Restoration Project...
When I was in college, I visited Shanghai twice. I visited once in '97, right before the handover in Hong Kong, and once again in 2000. When I was there for the handover, one place I went to was the Peace Hotel. I remember going there and watching this old jazz band play, a lot of these old Chinese guys playing, but they would also intertwine jazz with Chinese instruments. Digging around in the history, talking to people, it sort of hearkened back to a day in which it was the perfect fusion between Eastern and Western culture, which was 1930s Shanghai, in my mind, right before the Japanese invaded, right before WWII and the Communists took over. This unique fusion of Western jazz and Asian insruments set in a colonial European hotel on the bund in Shanghai. That blend, in my mind, disappeared when the communists took over and throughout the late half of the century, where you didn't have that unique blend anymore. Recently, Shanghai has gotten hot again; since the handover, China's been able to gradually shift the economic focus from Hong Kong to Shanghai. When you go there, there are great clubs everywhere and a great expat community. The idea was I wanted to revive that sort of unique musical blend from the '30s into today. The way to do it was to keep those traditional instruments that make China so remarkable musically, but blend it with what westerners are accustomed to listening to, like hip-hop and electronica. So that's where the name came from: Shanghai Restoration Project.
On his musical background...
I tend to like a lot of different kinds of music. I grew up exposed to a lot of classical music; I did the whole Suzuki thing, did a lot of classical piano. I was really fidgety when I was younger, I never really liked sitting down and practicing everything perfectly; my mind would wander and I wanted to improvise, so I got into a lot of jazz during high school, started to listen to Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, a lot of these great jazz guys. When I got to college, I started to explore all kinds of different music -- pop music in the late '90s, for example. After that I became exposed to a lot of different kinds of things. Hip-hop and R&B was something that I was exposed to because I actually worked with some Bad Boy producers. I produced a track for this guy named Carl Thomas; I would be running up to Harlem every few days a week, and it was a totally new experience for me. Recently, I got into country and electronic music, so in terms of my tastes, I like a little bit of everything.
On the goal of the Shanghai Restoration Project...
You can hear that in the album -- there's a little bit of jazz, a little bit of hip-hop, there's singer-songwriter stuff. In terms of bringing its appeal to western or eastern ears, the focus is definitely on western ears. I think when most people hear Asian instrumentalists perform in the subway, it is a very unique sound, and not something that people are accustomed to; it's different harmonically, there's a pentatonic scale, and a different scale, and rhythmically, at least in China, there isn't a big rhythmic focus like there is in India and Africa. So the whole goal of this project was to sort of make China and Shanghai and Asian instruments in general palatable to the western ear.
On the recording process...
The instruments are predominantly samples, and I had to pay and clear all of them. I do not play any of the instruments on there, I was limited with the budget. Believe it or not, I recorded everything in my bathroom -- hopefully, you can't tell -- and the instruments were samples that I bought online, or I would write people and clear everything. It cost me a pretty penny, but not as much as it would've taken to hire everyone to play these actual instruments. What I normally do is start with the drums, put together a drum beat that I think is gonna be catchy -- it's usually something that's consistent with a modification of a beat that somebody's heard, whether it's a Britney Spears beat or a Reggaeton beat, or a slow R&B groove. Start with the beat first, then introduce the Asian instrument, see how it fits. After that, I usually layer everything else -- the guitar, the keyboards, the bass. I play all those instruments, so usually I can set where all the chords are gonna be, and after that, I go back and sprinkle all the different things; sometimes I bring in an Asian vocal, sometimes I bring a little sound here and there; usually at the very end is when I put the vocalist on.
There are a few good sites like houseofsamples.com, and bigfishaudio, that actually provide sample CDs from all different countries. There are a ton of sites that I remember scouring on the Internet, and I have a list of them.
There weren't specific artists, unlike, say, Kanye West using Ray Charles for "Gold Digger." It wasn't like that, these guys actually create samples to be used exclusively for production purposes. What's interesting is when you first hear these samples, it sounds pretty foreign if you have a western ear on; you have to cut them up, and set them in a rhythmic and harmonic soundscape to fit the western palate. So the next project will definitely have more live players.
On marketing the album...
What I was trying to do was to broaden the audience as much as possible, and try to appeal to the different segments of the market that exist in American music today -- hip-hop and R&B, electronica, singer-songwriter stuff. So I decided that a good chunk of the project would be hip-hop and R&B, some of it pure pop, some of it pure dance. Some people respond more to certain tracks, and some to others, and that's fine with me; I just want to be able to open up the audience as much as possible.
What the album sounds like...
The best tracks are by far, the ones with the Asian instruments. Going forward, I'll probably shift more in that direction; it was more that I didn't know what would happen, so I'd slice it down the middle and sometimes have the erhu or the pipa prominently featured, and then other times a zither plucked here and there.
Keep in mind that this is a production-oriented project; it doesn't come from a singer-songwriter perspective, even though that's a perspective I appreciate, and something I'll definitely tap into the next time around. But I really wanted to focus on the soundscape rather than the lyrics. "Ms Shanghai," however, had all the elements I really wanted to strive for, which are that it opens up with the Chinese guitar, the pipa, set in a nice harmonic context. And then Des, this beautiful Dutch singer, comes in with this soft voice, and then says something pretty unique about intimacy, exploring the different senses. The first lyric is "Up close, this is how I feel with you/Real close, this is how I dance with you." Love is very universal and something that people can feel quite a bit, and "Ms Shanghai" is structured the most like a real pop song. So that's probably the single I'd lead with.
Who he listens to...
In the electronic sphere, I think Moby is a fantastic example of someone who isn't at the forefront, at least not initially, but he had the good idea of combining a lot of these old spirituals with interesting beats. I think the Neptunes are great, as cliched as it sounds -- there's actually an Asian guy in the Neptunes, Chad Hugo -- they had this interesting thing where they would just pick any sound in the world, whether it was hitting a chair, or glass breaking, and throw it into the song.
On artists in Asia...
I usually listen to a lot of the tracks from Asia for the songwriting and the lyrical content. I'm not perfectly fluent in Mandarin, but the bits that I can catch, I think their voices are great. I listen from a singer-songwriter perspective; the production is interesting, although for production, I generally like to listen to hip-hop and electronic, stuff that's floating around top 40 radio. When I listen to those guys, it's more for the stories they're telling and the melodies and the pure songs. I've always noticed production differences between the songs out in Asia, and the songs here too. So coming from a production standpoint, I was sort of more in contact with Western producers and artists.
How and where to listen to the album...
It's sort of a subtle introduction to Asian-American culture; it's partially what I'm doing. You can have it in the background at any party, and in New York -- and in L.A. too -- there's a nice fusion of East and West in their food. It goes along with that. Independent movies are a great place to set that soundscape as well, something that's a little different to the ear. There are so many Asian-American movies that come out, like Red Doors, that celebrate Asian-American culture, so that's a good place. Itï's also good driving music, from what I've been told. The problem is it's not like Madonna's album; you can't listen to it from beginning to end. You won't feel the same way throughout the album. That's a generalization, but rhythmically, Madonna's album is a dance album that plays in dance clubs very well, whereas this album is more of an experience; when you're driving or sitting at home, there's a musical journey that you can follow. Or you can just put it in the background when you're eating hors d'oeuvres or hanging out with friends.
On broadening horizons...
I want this sound of China's instruments and Western beats and harmonies to touch more and more people. The way to do that is actually start permeating more major label artists. So hopefully in the next five years, when I work with the next Carl Thomas, it'll be with Asian beats that I want to spread around. The other interesting thing is not only to touch the easiest targets, like hip-hop, R&B, and pop -- but also, I'd like to see how country would do. And I'm a bonafide country fan, I went to the Country Music Awards -- I think it's great music, and I just think it's interesting to see what would happen.
Advice for the next Dave Liang...
The funny thing is that this is something I tell everyone going into the music industry; when I was putting all this stuff together, I thought this was the best stuff in the world. I will never think that again, but when I was going to these meetings, they'd say, "This is ok, but there's always someone that could do it better," but while I was going to these meetings, I would pick up little pieces of feedback. Artists and producers have to believe their stuff is the best out there to drive your career; Alanis Morrisette is a classic example, she had finished Jagged Little Pill, and brought it around to all the record labels. And everyone passed until Maverick said, "We'll take it on." You have to believe in yourself obviously, but you should pick up tidbits of feedback along the way, especially the feedback that's consistent, and say, "If I make this tweak, this'll improve my music." The feedback I was getting early on was "Your drums need to get stronger," so I took that to heart. And the other thing is your titles need to be unique, because no radio program director will ever take a chance on this song unless it sounds interesting.
On the struggles of the Asian-American artist...
That's the thing; you see Asian-American artists just give up after awhile. I don't think that'll happen with me, at least not in the next five years or so, and I don't ever plan on giving up. Thankfully, there's been some degree of success, so it's been very encouraging.
What's funny, I think, is that Asian-American culture is very risk-averse. When you have options to become a doctor, a lawyer, or a businessperson, and have a good family and not worry financially, that's a very appealing track to take. But in the world of arts, if you want to break through, you have to go through a huge period of struggle, and you have to go through not having that consistent paycheck that comes through.
At the end of the day, being Asian isn't the only thing that'll get you one over. Because frankly speaking, no African-American artist or very few is like, "Because I'm African-American, you should listen to my music." Eventually, you have to tell a story that's unique enough to make people say, "I don't care if he's Asian or not." I think that's how you draw in the non-Asian-Americans.
Now for Asian-Americans themselves, this might sound controversial, but I don't think we're as cohesive as a culture when it comes to supporting the arts. The best-selling Asian-American artist is William Hung, and he's not even Asian-American; he's from Hong Kong. And that's embarrassing. Nice kid, but he shouldn't be the best-selling one, there are far more talented artists; he was sold because he didn't have talent. It's interesting because we grow up, and part of that discipline of being the best is there's a competitive spirit that's instilled in all of us. When I went to college, the Asian pre-meds scared the shit out of me, because it was very cutthroat, and frankly speaking, it doesn't create a very cohesive culture. Socially, it's fine, but then when it comes to academics and the arts, we're always one-upping each other. That has to stop for Asian-Americans to rally around an Asian-American artist. The fact of the matter is when Jackie Robinson was playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in '47, he breaks through the color barrier because every African-American supported him. Or when Motown first started up or Louis Armstrong -- every African-American went out and supported him. When Ricky Martin, or when Rico Suave came out, or Shakira these days, they sell all of their albums to people who look just like them, who grew up the same backgrounds.
Asian-Americans have not been that successful in doing it; it's alarming, but at the same time, it's a challenge, and it's what's interesting about our culture. What I speak of is that we're not as uniform as people think Asians are; in fact, we come from very different social and economic backgrounds. Especially in California: there are people that came from academic scholarships, but there are also people who come to start their own businesses. And by the way, there's Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc. It speaks of the fact that it's harder to unify because we come from different cultures.
I think a lot of Asian-Americans are more comfortable with seeing what's more popular and going there, or what's consistent with what they're growing up with. Because when you grow up and you don't have a very well-defined art for your own culture, you have to end up following another culture. You go this way in hip-hop or this way in pop or whatever. But that'll definitely change over the next however many years.
On what's next...
The next thing I'm working on is actually a remix project of some of these songs. I'm approaching the remix a little differently, it'll probably be five or six songs from the project. I haven't decided which one. The whole goal is to broaden the appeal. Right now, I'm capturing people who like something a little different, but some people might find this a little off-putting at first. So what I'm going to do is make some of these songs acoustic, and singer-songwriter-oriented, and actually have somebody play a live Chinese instrument and go into a studio and create something as if someone were playing at a bar. It's sort of a different tweak on the remix, because usually remixes make things more energetic, and I'll probably experiment with some dancey-type stuff. I was a jazz piano player growing up and I want to bring that back. But I couldn't tell you, honestly. I'll get home one night after hanging out with friends or watching a movie, I'll think of something, and I'll go in and take it that direction. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, and hopefully, the stuff that works is the stuff I'm putting out there.
Date Posted: 3/9/2006