Beijing-based producer, visual artist, and Do Hits record label head Howie Lee fuses traditional Chinese instrumentation with a modern, experimental approach to sound design and composition. While his debut album Mù Chè Shān Chū and its earlier EPs explored different strains of trap and hip hop beatmaking, new EP Homeless sees Howie embrace something that’s altogether stranger in sound and more ambitious in scale.
Lead track “四海 Four Seas” is an exploration of globalisation, anti-immigration sentiment, and the meaning of ‘home’ in an interconnected world. The ‘four seas’ of the title refer to the boundary waters of China – “the surrounding waters of the traditional Chinese world view”, as Howie puts it. The track itself is a cacophony of electronic noise, synthesised vocal coos, and abstracted rhythms that reveal Howie’s unusual approach to composition.
Its surreally-rendered video is a meditation on the nature of a city and urban space. “A lot of time I feel my body is trapped in this urban cube and physically cannot go anywhere,” he says. “I feel that the loneliness created by social tension is unhealthy.”
The video follows Howie’s recent Boiler Room performance and support slots for DJs like Kode9 and Bok Bok. Watch it below and read on for an introductory Q&A with the artist.
What can you tell us about ‘Four Seas’?
Howie Lee: The ‘Four Seas’ are the surrounding waters of the traditional Chinese worldview – so the four seas emphasise the borders of the world. That kind of reflects the rising issue of immigration and globalisation (that I explore on the EP). The song was trying to infuse different sort of elements and sound designs originating from different parts of the world, from spooky drone sounds to funky bass lines to the mountain songs from Yu’Nan.
What’s the idea behind the video?
Howie Lee: I wanted to know what people think ‘home’ is. A lot of time I feel my body is trapped in this urban cube and physically cannot go anywhere. I feel that the loneliness created by social tension is unhealthy. That’s more or less what the video is trying to express, I think. It’s pretty DIY and homemade – we shot all the footage at home.
How did you approach Homeless differently to your other releases?
Howie Lee: I haven’t released any EPs or LPs since the last Mu Che Shan Chu release. I’ve been a little bit confused and have not known where to go because mainly there is already too much trap music, or beat music, out there. With this EP, I’m trying to put on more (of a) world music flavour – like more Middle Eastern stuff – rather than only using a Chinese sound.
What does ‘homeless’ mean to you in this context?
Howie Lee: Homeless, to me, is a feeling of a lack of identity, or lack of belonging. I think a lot of people now have to face this problem. I feel alien a lot of times when I’m in China because of my worldview and because my perspective is so different from the majority – but I feel the same too when I’m in a foreign country. That’s why I’m always travelling and didn’t really settle down in one place the first few years (of my career). But globalisation made this possible, you know – you can stay in an Airbnb here and there and always be traveling. What does ‘home’ mean to people nowadays? It used to mean your family who are always there, but now the generation gap is a problem too, so how do you strike a balance between traditional values and this new automated, inter-connected world?
You’re part of the Do Hits collective. Can you tell us a bit about what the crew is all about, and what your role is with them?
Howie Lee: I co-founded Do Hits. It basically started as just a small clubnight in Beijing, then it grew into a label. I’m mainly the director of the label – I look for artists and set up releases and stuff. We run events in Beijing, Shanghai, and Taipei, so there’s a lot of work.
Some of your previous releases have come out on western labels, but how has Beijing inspired your music?
Howie Lee: Beijing always inspires me as home. I’m not staying in Beijing the majority of my time right now, but every few months I go back for few weeks. Beijing is impressive in a lot of ways. For example, last time I was back there for few days, I was shocked by the bicycle sharing hype. The bikes are literally everywhere on the street, from different sharing companies, with different colours. There are thousands of them on every corner. Beijing looks modern, but a lot of people still have mad ideas. The city is pretty weird to me now – because of the pollution, people have to stay indoors, so everything is supplied on top of that. You can order basically everything on your phone and they deliver it to you in no time. It is super futuristic, but hazy as fuck.
Who or what else is exciting on Beijing’s electronic music scene?
Howie Lee: My favourite artist is Jason Hou, who’s on the Do Hits label too. Ran Music is a label to look at, they release all sort of stuff, from experimental to house and techno.
What are some of the biggest problems that musicians in China are facing right now?
Howie Lee: I think still the barrier of getting a visa, and the great firewall. But it kind of helps preventing western music domination, I guess? Everyone is trapped in trap music, and musicians are becoming more short-minded, and they care more about numbers rather than their own taste – but this is the issue everywhere, yeah?
Do Hits release Howie Lee’s Homeless EP on May 26
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