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Dronetonics Interview

Dronetonics

By Philip Brett

Dronetonics are a two piece synth band from Taipei, Taiwan. Having performed together for 3 years they’re coming to Korea for a nationwide tour. With one EP and one full length album already released they boast a strong collection of catchy pop that seems to come from another era. They’re also bringing a VJ who transforms their live performance into another world that is hallucinogenic and sinister.

Dronetonics play Sticky Fingers on Thursday, May 14th. Doors are at 9.00pm, with a 5000won cover charge.

Tell us about your music or performance history, both individually and as a band. What other projects have you been involved in, and how did you meet? 

Lars: I started out being forced to take piano lessons. Piano recitals in churches, Royal Conservatory exams and all that – so I grew to resent the instrument; years later, while studying at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, a band friend passed along a Roland D-70 synthesizer, which I mainly played in my bedroom through home stereo speakers after some weed. It was fun, but not too serious. Skip forward to Taiwan and a friend and the lead singer of Auto Da Fe, a Ramones-ish band I played in, picked me up a microKORG while he was in Tokyo ‘round about 2006. That microKORG became the master of my MIDI setup and I began writing songs with it. Various drum machines came into my possession, the ubiquitous Roland SP404 sequencer and finally a lovely mixer. My previous band was a two-piece guitar-synth project called The Okay Cars that released a six-song EP in 2012. Crystal and I have been Dronetonics now for three years.

Crystal: I started learning classical piano when I was just four and then for the next 10 years studied composition and theory. But because of a teacher who I didn’t feel any connection to, I got away from piano for awhile. I didn’t stop doing music though. In primary school I was in the school choir and then at 16, in junior high, I started a punk band. But that band fell apart when everyone went off to universities in different cities. Then in university, a friend introduced me to a jazz cover band and I started to sing for them. This led me back to the piano after I graduated. At this point, I began to learn jazz piano, which I continued for another couple of years. The Novation X-station I use for stage at the moment was given to me by my ex and previous business partner. For three years we also ran a Taipei-based recording studio – Soundkiss. How did Lars and I meet? We were both in other bands; he was in a two-piece guitar/synth band that went by The Okay Cars and I was in a WEEN cover band called Skycruiser. He and I ran into each other at different venues in this small indie music scene and we started to talk about jamming with our synthesizers. That’s how this project started to come along.

What’s the music scene in Taipei / Taiwan like? Do you feel like you’re carrying the flag for electronic music? And what local bands would you recommend?

Lars: There’s no flag carrying going on here. Of course I think we’re unique, but every project (on a micro level) is totally unique from others. I think where creating music on synthesizers differs from more guitar-driven projects is the bizarre range of sound that can come from messing with oscillators and LFO patches. But this is a tangent. In the six or seven years I’ve been involved in Taipei’s electronic scene the scene has grown immeasurably (and outward in suitably amoeba-shaped extensions, which match the weirdo imaginations of all the different types of synth-o-nerds). I love what’s happened with the electronic noise scene here. These projects are the guts of the scene. Translation, WWWW, Sonic Deadhorse, Modularzhi and (the sadly moved on to Korea!) Yearning Kru. But there are so many I don’t know how to say in English. And there are micro scenes surrounding a lot of the small experimental music festivals that have bled into existence. Smoke Machine’s “Organik”,  Lacking Sound Festival, Future Proof Sound Festival and the many events that The Wall’s underground club Korner throws. These scenes constantly subvert, fold inward and are reinvented as members migrate between projects – so the scenes feed one another.

Crystal: The indie music scene in Taipei is not big. How I define “Indie” is that most of the musicians in this scene are not full-time musicians. They could be working in a shop, a restaurant, or even an office in the day time and they do music at night. Sometimes you can see some of them are even in more than one music project. Since it’s a small scene, it’s very normal to see musicians and different bands getting together to organize events and festivals. It’s all quite organic, which I find it very fascinating and inspiring.

It’s funny to see people find it not easy to define Dronetonics. We are a two-piece electronic project and  we’re “a band”. We make music with synthesizers, so some organizers don’t know where to put us. Over the past few years, we’ve played in all kinds of events and festivals all over Taiwan with both bands and DJs. In terms of local bands I recommend, WWWW is one that always inspires me. Forests, Skip Skip Ben Ben, and Goosander are all bands that I think are pretty well-developed.

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I’ve read other interviews where you spoke about changing from a solo project to a full on collaborative songwriting team. What is the most difficult part of the songwriting process for you?

Lars: It’s really hard to start writing a song because I think about things too much, when really all I need to do is get started. Crystal has a keen sense and is very good at hearing what I’ve worked out and she is much more of a musician than I am in some ways. So after I have a bit of a song sorted, I jam it out a bit with her, mumble some phrases and press record. We listen back all the time and rewrite. Sometimes it’s fast; sometimes a song just sits there like a beast in cage for ages before we know how to tame it. I think the interview you’re talking about was back when I was still proud of myself for giving up control and realizing that by stepping back and letting Crystal’s creativity step up that we could go much further as a band – and this admonishment has never been truer than now.

Crystal: I write songs with my emotions and my moods change from day; this means my feelings toward a song can be quite different from one day to the next. I think the most difficult part of the songwriting process would be the writing of lyrics. As I said, I write songs with moods and feelings, but sometimes I am not sure if there are any actual words to express the feelings I’m having in the moment, so I use sounds, murmurs, shouts – lots of sublingual sounds that express emotion.

No one likes being asked to narrow down a list of influences…but I’m going to ask you anyways. Can you make a top 5 list?

Crystal: It’s a tough question. In terms of influences for Dronetonics’ songs, here are some artists I’ve been listening to quite a lot, starting with number one: Bats for Lashes, Grimes, Bjork, FKA Twigs and Anika

Lars: Great Scott! Top lists evolve so quickly. A top five list with whipped cream and melted plastic on top: Viet Cong, Grouper, Ariel Pink (especially Haunted Graffiti), Bibio (especially his instrumental albums/songs) and always going back to Kate Bush. Sorry there’s no way to put these in chronological order, but these would all (at least momentarily) be up there. But Panda Bear figures mightily as an influence, as well as iamamiwhoami (mainly just in terms of production and full use of synths to create amazingly moody soundscapes). I have also been revisiting the 80s in a rather more music-student-kind of fashion. What a pleasure to listen to Peter Gabriel, Devo, Suicide, Kraftwerk, The Slits, The Fall… whilst realizing their electronics weighed about 10-times what the gear a drag around weighs. I think top 40 might have been easier to answer.

 

Tell us about your releases to date. How do you think your sound has changed between the EP and the album and what should we expect from the next one?

Crystal: It’s quite a big change between the EP and the album. In fact, we change all the time. The most obvious change for me is that the way I sing and how I use my voice to express the songs. I get to know my voice better and better after all these years playing with different bands and it’s really exciting to me. Our albums are for sale via our label 22Records, our bandcamp site and we’ll be selling physical copies at each one of our shows.

Lars: The first release was a three-song EP. It was recorded, mixed and mastered by Alex Ives of the former music production business, Soundkiss. Commenting on it now, after the fact of its release seems pointless though; as an artist I am basically never really satisfied with anything I’ve already done. Recording captures a freeze frame of a process and thus documents an evolution, but evolutions never cease, so recordings are like notes and reminders that that process exists. The next release this past September was our first album, Sentiments. It was recorded and mixed in tandem by Alex Ives and a close friend and producer, Cam Scherman. It was then mastered by a friend in Sweden, Robert Vadaddi. The album is lusher and wetter than the EP. Spacious and moody. A lot of the beats where recorded in a way that allowed us to overdrive them, so that they sound clubby – and snares on some tracks possess a splattered sound that somehow sound jagged and angular. Cam is also an electronic musician and he had a lot of comments as we recorded and even made some melodic/rhythmic decisions that changed a few songs significantly. Crystal and I both learned a lot during this process.

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What brings you to Korea? What’s the reputation of the Korean music scene in Taiwan?

Crystal: Korean pop culture has grown rapidly in Taiwan through all the K-pop music, idols, and those soap operas. It’s quite a main thing for lots of people – from teenage girls and office ladies to home makers. You see people watching K-pop music videos and Korean soap operas via their smart phones when on the way to school or work. I don’t have a TV in my apartment and haven’t watched much TV for nearly 6 years now so I got to say I know very little about the most popular Korean stars and idols. But I saw a show at a restaurant here called台北月見ル君想フ from a Korean female singer-songwriter called Lang Lee about a month ago and it was a lovely surprise. 

Lars: What brings us? Ha… well honestly. Mark Lentz of the Seoul bands Nice Legs and Henry Demos has quite literally made this trip a reality. Besides Mark’s organizational prowess, we are driven by genuine curiosity to understand a place that both of us know very little about. Taiwan is visited by a lot of Japanese bands, but Korean bands coming here is much less common. We hope to change that this year by getting some Korean/Taiwan indie exchanges happening. It’s all about bridges, connections and forming genuine friendships with other musicians, really.

How would you describe your live performance? How much is live versus how much is pre-set? Does your performance style limit you or allow you to jam out if the mood hits?

Crystal: We usually think hard in terms of making the set lists for each show. It depends on the bands we play with, the venues, the audience-types, or even the cities we play in. Every performance space has got its own vibe. I always try to feel the vibes and get them involved to my live performance. We sometimes use some paper lanterns with LEDs for our stage decoration to create a certain creepy, weird, dreamy or cold-kinda ambience.

Lars: Live performance description: Electronically warm. A battle between machine and human sentiment. We don’t use computers is one thing – and when creating sounds, I allow for as many pathways for change as possible. Dronetonics “jam outs” occur more in transitions between songs and are more like kind of maybe ambient jam outs. But rooms make songs sound completely different and both Crystal and I react to the differences in acoustics of rooms when we play, which also effects how we mix our various synth sounds and effects.

Opinions on use of visuals with electronic music is mixed. Some people say it distracts from the music while others feel that performers of electronic music are so fixated on all the knobs and dials that another visual element is needed. What made you first start including a VJ in your shows?

Crystal: We started with an old-style slide projector from Lars in the early stages of this band. After this we built some paper mache lanterns and started to add them to our live performances. I think we really started thinking seriously about a having a VJ when we be were booking the tour for our album,

Sentiments. We contacted the VJ, Poppy or VJ Dolcevita – and old friend of mine. She is a fabulous graphic designer and a freelance VJ. We met up a couple of times and exchanged some ideas over coffee. From that point forward, we have been working as a team.

Lars: I suppose like many electronic bands we were concerned that the inherent need for both of us to be quite – let’s just say, attentive to our machines – might be somehow boring to watch for our perception of  today’s somewhat more visually-oriented concert goers. The go-to remedy was a VJ. And also, as Crystal discussed, the use of weirdly shaped paper lanterns. Visuals create more of a division between audience and performer – in the sense that the stage is more clearly a place divided from the audience. A place of artifice. It’s hard to say whether is good or bad. As a band, however, through more experience performing I think I can speak for both of us when I say that newer songs are easier to feel – or somehow more real, and thus easier for us to both move to. I have always enjoyed subtleties in any form of art I consume. And use of visuals would be no exception.

What would you say are the 3 most memorable shows you’ve played?

Crystal: Tough question. I would say the number one would have to be the Formoz Festival in the summer of  2013. That was our first time getting to play in a big festival. It was thrilling to share the day with The XX, Suede, The Soft Moon, Deerhoof and others. Number two was at a live venue called Legacy here, in Taichung. I was pretty impressed by the visuals our VJ did that day after seeing all the photos of the show our friends showed me later. Recently, we got invited to record a song for a compilation and played at the album release party, otherwise known as noWhere – just last weekend. The album was recorded and the event organized by Jon Du, who is also the lead singer/guitarist from the band Forests. This gig would have to be my number three. Such a good night and everyone was so into the songs and the whole party.

Lars: I am going to stick with Crystal’s answers; my memory for individual shows is quite limited based on certain factors. I do remember the sound check at Formoz and how the entire stage vibrated when I began triggering the bass synth; that’s when I realized this shit be real.

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Your show in Ulsan is a Thursday night. What would you say to convince people to come out on a school night?

Lars: Shenanigans don’t wait for the weekend. The next day is Friday, which is a school day – but not really. It’s Friday. And we’ll implant hangover-suppressant synth tones that will get you through the afternoon. We can make other arrangements at the show. There are all sorts of subtle and alluring features that we can’t describe in words. We are really excited to play in Ulsan. See you soon!

“The re-emergence of such analog music trends have helped shape bands such as Dronetonics, who are eager to emanate vintage sounds using their own modern dialogue. This duo successfully channels the cool attitudes of Cold Wave, the catchy quirks of synth pop, and the pulsing beats of drum machine-driven tunes in their forthcoming album.”Gigguide (TAIWAN)

“This two-piece released its debut EP this year and has a full-length coming out at the end of the summer. Their minimal dark-synth sound is peppered with vocals that oscillate between poppy and eerie to create an at times challenging but consistently engaging sonic experience.” POP Montreal (CANADA)

“Dronetonics debut album, Sentiments, a noir mix of stripped-down synths, noise and distortion, eerie and spaced-out melodies, and lyrical hooks that are by turns sweet and alluringly melancholic.” Taipei Times (TAIWAN)​

Philip works endlessly promoting the indie music scene through DIGIT or the art scene through Angle Magazine. You can probably find him at the local galleries or anywhere live music is playing

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