As bonecrushing as it is beautiful, Ian Chang's music tremors with pure percussivity. On Spiritual Leader, his debut solo EP, Chang employs groundbreaking Sunhouse Sensory Percussion to bring a distinct physicality to beat-based music: what bangs throughout the record are splices of sound collected by Chang and played—virtuosically—on his hi-tech setup. Before Ian Chang unleashes his explosive live set September 27 at Baby's All Right, he took a moment to speak to AdHoc about musical geographies of taste and his innovative process.
Spiritual Leader is your first release as a solo artist, but, in addition to this project, you play in Landlady, Son Lux, and moonlight in other bands. How do you approach these projects compared to this new solo material?
For me, making music with others is a form of empathy, while playing solo is more of an introspective meditation. Collaboration has always come very naturally to me. I love inhabiting and contributing to other peoples' artistic visions. Embarking on a solo project has been a great challenge. I haven't made any music of my own since high school. The thing that I couldn't find was a good seed—a central concept from which everything could grow and flourish naturally. With this EP, I have found a seed, and, hopefully, with the right attention, it can grow nicely from here.
How does your work in a band inform how you think about solo work, and vice versa?
Being in a band can be an intensely beautiful and all consuming thing. My taste, sensibility and how I navigate the world are all deeply influenced by my bandmates. These are people who inspire and challenge me in every way. It's hard to say how my solo work feeds back into collaborative work. I know that I've definitely grown as a producer with my solo work, so that has helped me contribute to bands and other projects in a more multifaceted way.
Your drumming is, to me, very off-kilter and experimental, both in terms of the sounds you construct with your kit and the complexity of your rhythms and beats. What draws you to this kind of playing?
I think we're all drawn to what we connect with. So for me, it comes from getting goosebumps whenever I hear something that pushes the boundaries in a soulful way. That is the kind of music that shakes me to my core, and it's what I strive to embody in my drumming and music.
You came to the US from Hong Kong. Do you feel like you still have a musical connection to where you came from, and if so, how would you describe it?
The interesting thing is that my musical upbringing in Hong Kong was completely western. I was born when Hong Kong was still a British colony, so the influences are still extremely prevalent. I learned music in a very academic, western-classical way. I don't feel much of an emotional connection to it now, though I'm grateful for the tools I've gotten from it.
I imagine that the musical landscape of HK differs from that of NYC. Do you know how your music is received back home?
Unfortunately, I haven't had much of an opportunity to develop visibility for my music back home though I am eager to. I'm also very curious about the rapidly growing culture for beat music and hip hop in China.
You mentioned in a past interview that, when you came to the US, you saw a Jimi Hendrix poster and didn’t recognize him. Now you’ve been part of the scene for a while, and have, I’m sure, seen and heard hundreds of musicians new and old. Can you take us through your musical influences and favorites over time? Can you name one album that you were listening to as a kid in Hong Kong, as an NYU student, and now?
The first CD I ever owned and listened to a lot was Now That's What I Call Music 5. I was all about top 40 when I was in 5th grade. Dirty Projectors' Rise Above blew my mind in college, and most recently I've been loving Serpentwithfeet's Blisters EP.
Let’s talk about your video for “Spiritual Leader.” You’re using a Sensory Percussion rig in the vid; can you talk more about your process of creating sounds for the system? How does the system influence the way you think about drumming and making music?
This whole project is born out of me beta testing and playing around with Sensory Percussion. It truly opened up a fresh and untapped creative avenue for me. It is the first electronic drum system that is sensitive and smart enough to translate the subtleties of acoustic drumming to data. This allows me to call upon the skills I've been developing my whole life as a drummer and apply them to any sample based environment that I could dream up. It's been a liberating and mind-expanding process that has helped me find my "seed" that I mentioned earlier.
You tour a lot with various bands, but, to me, Spiritual Leader sounds like a studio release through and through; each sound and idea seems slowly and carefully constructed. Between playing live and recording, which do you prefer, and why?
I honestly can't say which I prefer, but I love this question because a big part of what I am exploring with this project is to disrupt the common perceptions of what a live and studio release can be. On one hand, it is a completely electronic studio project; every sound is a manipulated sample, and there are no live takes of any acoustic instruments. On the other it is a live album; every track is an unedited performance of samples using sensory percussion with no overdubs.