Kai Luen on babies, ghosts and grime

Producer, aka Soulspeak, discusses his new album

Through his work with fellow Beijing residents J-Fever (aka Xiao Laohu) and DJ Wordy, not to mention last year’s solo album Flux, US-born producer Jeff Liang has established his Soulspeak moniker as a mark of quality among China- based beatmakers, renowned for a sunshine-imbued ’90s hip hop-influenced sound at once dance floor-friendly and worthy of repeat listens at home.

However, this month sees Liang eschew Soulspeak in favour of his Chinese name Kai Luen for a release on Shanghai’s SVBKVLT Records that inhabits an altogether different sonic world. The Hollow Ghost features ten tracks which explore ‘decay and consciously destroying old ghosts’ through a grittier, sparser sound that, as much of a shift as it might be from the former LA resident’s work as Soulspeak, feels at home with some of the darker releases from the label.

This release has a fairly different sound and feel to your other records. Is that why you're not releasing it under the Soulspeak name?
The overall feel of the music felt really different than the other stuff I've been releasing so I released this under a different name. I'll still use both names to release music.

I like the idea of using different alias to release different projects. It makes it more interesting to create different names of real or imaginary people or just to rather reflect different sides of the same person. People like Chris Marker who constantly used different names to do different art and film projects or Madlib for that matter who created imaginary jazz bands with different names for both the group and the imagined instrumentalists. In my computer I have five or six projects with different names to work on various projects. Most probably won't see the light of day but it just makes it more interesting than doing the same shit over and over.

Where did your inspiration for this record come from?
The Hollow Ghost is a line from a Matthew Arnold poem titled 'Growing Old'. The poem is pretty much about what the title is. While I was making this record, I had a lot of family related changes. My partner gave birth to our second child and I found myself all the sudden a lot 'older'. My energy drained and I was pretty much running on four to five cups of coffee with very little sleep every day. I would almost feel my 'youth' floating out of my body, almost hear my bones gradually decay and grow weak. But through this process of change I found a lot of interesting things to keep me moving and creating.

This Hollow Ghost to me is representative of a system of beliefs or codes that you once have put your faith in whether that's religion, a political system, or a cultural set of values. As you grow older these beliefs grow stronger or decay, morph and fuse into new systems or are all together destroyed. I'm really interested in trying to deliberately burn some of these codes in order to build something else. Once these 'ghosts' change they still linger around appearing in your daily life reminding you of their existence.

How big an influence has China been on this record? Do you think you would have made a similar sounding album if you were still based in LA?
China has had a huge influence. One, LA is sunny most of the time and you kinda are constantly in this dazed, brain damaged from sunshine, chill but hustle mode. Being in Beijing, a lot of the time you can't even go outside because of the pollution. Rather than bring my kid to the park to play, we end up staying indoors and making weird sounds and recording them.

Another important aspect is that I've been exposed to a lot more specific kinds of music in China from expats and local producers. Music like UK bass stuff and grime. When I was in LA, there were no kids being like 'Yo, you hear the new Wiley record!' Grime wasn't even on our radar. It was Dr Dre, Sun Ra, Flying Lotus, and Parliment. Music was easily accessible through alternative radio, cheap vinyl, etc. So I've been exposed to more music from the UK out here than i was in LA.

Thirdly, the shear amount of noise pollution in Chinese major cities has been such a huge inspiration for this project. Walking down any street in Beijing for five minutes with a recorder gives you enough sample fodder for an entire project.

How long did it take from conception to you feeling ready to put these tracks out?
I had a few songs stored for a while, just rough ideas. Gaz from Subculture heard a few of the demos and wanted to release it. From that point I finished the rest of the record rather quickly. Just spurts of intense focus with bouts of utter procrastination. But overall the process was rather smooth.

You're associated with a number of different projects with varying sounds. Are you constantly working on different sounds or do you go through phases of focusing on specific projects?
Mostly I try to do different projects with different sounds at the same time. To me it keeps me from getting bored. It helps me focus on each project more when I have something else I'm doing that has contrast with it. At the same time, the techniques I learn from each project always inform the other ones.

I guess I get bored doing the same things over and over and I see new projects as a form of practice. Maybe they suck shit to the listeners, but the process of creating it is an important learning tool for me. I would love to focus on only one thing at a time but I always feel time is not on my side.

Do you prefer collaborating with other artists or working solo?
I like both. I like collaborating with people with challenge you to do stuff that is uncomfortable to what your used to. It makes it interesting especially if there is an established trust between two or a group of people. Working solo is fun too, but can be challenging because you are the only person that can push your own limits.

What led to you releasing this record through SVBKVLT?
Gaz is friend. I was supposed to release an ambient project of lullaby music with his label, but he heard these demos and wanted to release it. I like SVBKVLT's vibe. I respect Gaz as a DJ and his taste in music. He always plays the craziest shit, is willing to challenge the listeners, and is unafraid to clear a dance-floor (in my opinion an important aspect of a good DJ). The music seems to be a good fit for the vibe of the label.