Interview: Dave Liang of Shanghai Restoration Project

Dave Liang

Though I’ve been an avid consumer of music for as long as I can remember, eagerly gobbling up sounds from every genre and era, it wasn’t until recently that I realized I had a major musical blind spot: China. I assumed that every country in the world enjoyed some sort of local sounds, but what music in China sounded like wasn’t something I ever considered. Despite the country’s massive, ever-increasing population, nothing had ever leaked into my playlist. And it wasn’t just because I had an Amerocentric ear — I enjoy plenty of music from Europe and the occasional act from as far east as Japan. But for some reason, Chinese music was something I realized had to exist, but had never witnessed — kind of like a Cleveland Cavaliers fan, pre-LeBron.

As I came to find out, there were two upsides to this accidental ignorance: first, I had no idea what I was missing. And second, I was the perfect audience for the eXpo, a collection of electronic music put together by the Shanghai Restoration Project and Neocha. Neocha is set to play a pivotal role in spreading the popularity of Chinese music across the world, as the web site is the top internet community for independent Chinese artists. eXpo, which will be released May 4, is a 10-track survey of the artists Neocha serves, bringing together a diverse field of music, with everything from upbeat techno to smooth hip-hop.

Though names such as iLoop, Red Red Mushroom and B6 may not be household names outside of China, within their home country, such artists are widely known and respected. The idea behind eXpo is that these musicians will be able to reach an international audience, sharing their unique, regionally-distinctive sounds with those who have never heard anything of the sort before. While the much of music on eXpo has a Chinese feel to it, it’s not hard to imagine audiences from all over the world enjoying the collection.

From the funky, Gameboy-influenced sounds of Qiu Yu’s “Zero” to the laid-back, chill vibe of Jinbaobab’s “Democracy Oatmeal,” the eXpo collection is a veritable who’s who of independent Chinese musicians representing every style under the sun. Perhaps more impressive than the music is the stories behind those producing it — folk artist Red Red Mushroom is actually an elementary school teacher by day, while MHP is a graphic designer who just happens to have a knack for creating moving sonic landscapes as well.

So whether you’ve been actively trying to expand your horizons or never really thought about it, picking up eXpo will bring a whole new world of music to you. Your perspective and notions of what you like and don’t like may radically shift as you take a trip to Beijing and back with these 10 tracks. And even if eXpo doesn’t change your life, it will bring some fresh music into your consciousness, and the international exposure may very well change the life of one of the talented independent artists featured on the disc.

Daniel: Where did all of this begin for you?

Dave: The original idea for The Shanghai Restoration Project was planted back in 1997 when I visited Shanghai for the first time. I was in the Peace Hotel watching a jazz band comprised of old Chinese men and was amazed that a Western genre had become the musical signature of an Eastern city. After my trip, I started listening to more 1930s Shanghai jazz and found myself drawn to the fusion of Western harmonies and Chinese melodies and vocals. Soon after I decided I wanted to create a similar fusion in a present day context, combining Chinese instruments with the modern sounds of hip-hop and electronica.

Daniel: How did you get into music and work your way towards where you are right now?

Dave: Growing up I studied both classical and jazz piano, which gave me a terrific foundation for writing music. Not long after graduating college, I decided I wanted to become a composer / producer and started working with renowned R&B producer / artist Ryan Leslie, who had been a classmate of mine. After a brief apprenticeship with him, I decided I wanted to focus more on music that reflected my own experience as a Chinese-American. That’s when I decided to combine all of the styles to which I had been exposed (jazz, classical, Chinese music, hip-hop, etc.) and create a hybrid genre that eventually became The Shanghai Restoration Project.

Daniel: From where do you draw your inspiration for music?

Dave: I find I’m most creative when I’m traveling, whether it’s to far away places or just the town next door. There’s something about being on a plane, train, or subway that really frees up the mind.

Daniel: Who are your major influences in the musical industry?

Dave: My primary influence has always been the French impressionist composer Claude Debussy. Secondary influences include Miles Davis, Moby, and The Neptunes.

Daniel: What’s the idea behind the “The Shanghai Restoration Project”?

Dave: It’s a musical “restoration” of the amazing fusion of Eastern and Western music that defined Shanghai during the 1930s. With The Shanghai Restoration Project, the traditional Chinese instrumentation stays the same while the harmonies and rhythms have been updated with the modern sounds of hip-hop and electronica.

Daniel: When listening to your track Miss Shanghai I became an instant fan, and bought all of your albums, what is your favorite song you have composed or produced so far?

Dave: My favorite song is probably “Miss Shanghai” or any one of the derivations (“Miss Shanghai Close Up” or “Miss Shanghai Revealed”). It was the easiest to write (everything came together in about twenty minutes) and seems to appeal to just about everyone. The video really captures the essence of Shanghai too, featuring the talents of a well known model (Masson Ge) and designer (Lu Kun) from the city

Daniel: What type of music do you mostly listen to?

Dave: I listen to all types of genres and artists. I listen to jazz for the colors, classical for the emotional connection, folk and country for the melodies and lyrical concepts, hip-hop for the beats, R&B and opera for the voices, and rock for the lyrics. I also dig a good pop song every now and then.

Daniel: Do you perform live? Do you perform as a soloist or with the artists?

Dave: My live performance consists of both a DJ element (all of the songs are mashed up by my good friend and MC Natural Fact) and live component (I play keyboards). The music is synchronized to high quality footage of past and present day Shanghai shot by friends of mine who have produced films for Sundance or won photography awards in National Geographic.

Daniel: In your own words can you describe to our readers what eXpo is all about?

Dave: eXpo is a partnership between myself and Neocha.com, a leading online artist community website based in China. Sean Leow (the founder of the site) and I decided late last year that we wanted to find a way to bring more exposure to Chinese electronic artists who had difficulty being heard for a variety of reasons (language barrier, lack of developed music market in China, etc.). We felt the best opportunity to share their music would be during the World Expo in Shanghai, when increased attention would be on China. The album will be released on May 4th, 2010 and will be available on iTunes, Amazon.com, Rhapsody, and other fine digital retailers.

Daniel: Can you tell us a bit about the artist featured in eXpo, what it was like working with them, any special story in particular you would like to share?

Dave: eXpo is a compilation of ten Chinese electronic artists, most of whom do not make their living as musicians. Some are graphic designers, some work at video game companies, and one is an elementary school teacher. Since most of these artists have never been exposed to a developed music market, it was quite a challenge to compile the tracks. Some artists had thrown away the original data files for the track we wanted, some didn’t understand why the process of making an album had to start months in advance, and many had never been paid for their work. With that being said, most of the artists had been making music just for the sake of making music, which is a beautiful thing. Many of them are excited to finally have the opportunity to share their work with audiences outside of China.