Boy in Static
hese days it seems that being snowbound in the middle of the night in your bedroom with only the company of a laptop and a bunch of instruments can lead in one way or another to beautiful music.
From Boston to Germany and back via Abbey Road, Boy in Static does things his own way. Bostonian Alex Chen found his home-recorded album a home at Alien Transistor, where his evocative fuzzy shoegaze laptop-pop floats on warm drones, crackly beats, cellos, guitars, and glitches. Sharing an electronic kinship with Mum, Slowdive, and The Notwist, his acoustic sounds mix with synthetic tones to communicate the first flush of freshly blossoming love.
How would you describe the music that you make?
Boy in Static is obsessive, internal, and overwhelmingly personal. It's about the view from my bedroom window, the blood in my veins, my pulse, my dreams at night, my memories, the names of people stuck in my head.
Your music mixes “real” instrumentation with the digital options made available by the laptop era, what are your thoughts on this?
I try to feed off the endless options. In my room, I'm surrounded by things that make noise—whether it's the air organ, a set of wine glasses, a guitar pedal churning out empty line noise, or a laptop spitting out processed mellotron samples. In the end, all the sounds are equal to me, reduced to this mass of sound waves in the air. Somewhere along the way, they pick up this unexplainable emotional resonance. That's the part that matters to me.
What is it like working on the music on your own?
On Newborn I played all the instruments (except for the live drums and bass on “Epilogue”). To me, that's a part of Boy in Static—leaving my fingerprints on every sound on the album. I'm in the middle of recording my second album (entitled Violet) which I am recording the same way. (I'm recording right now, in fact. I am on a break, so I can turn on the heat in my apartment for a few minutes.) Playing everything is completely exhausting; obsessing over every detail in my head, with no one but myself to argue with. But for the same reason, it's that much more rewarding when it works.
Is that a harmonium or an accordion I hear on some tracks? Do you use old keyboards you find in thrift stores?
It is actually a small air organ that I bought on eBay. It has an electric fan constantly pushing air through its reeds. It has this volume control that is supposed to dampen the air flow, but I think it's broken. At low volume, the notes seem to whimper. I actually just bought a Casio SK1 for the new album. I also have an old Jaymar toy piano here, and a melodica. For this next album that I'm recording now, I was looking for an instrument that felt like the sun's ultraviolet rays: a pure, piercing quality. I recently read about an 18th century instrument called the Armonica, which is made of a set of rotating glasses. (Apparently, people who used to play this instrument would all go insane. They think it was due to the lead absorbed from the glasses). But the Armonica is too expensive, so I recently spent a few hours sampling wine glasses instead. They make this beautiful, flawless, resonating tone, like a natural synthesizer. They will probably be all over the next album.
Do you feel a sense of community with other bands in Boston?
My friends in Boston form this intertwined circle of various bands and projects. In the Boy in Static live band, there is Sean from Freezepop, and Kenji from The Medicine Line. Aubrey from Skating Club has also played with us. It's a pretty broad spectrum of styles.
You recorded Newborn at home—what do you like about this approach to recording?
I've never recorded in a real studio. I'm sort of afraid of them. I could see myself doing a different project in the studio, but I feel like Boy in Static songs need to be recorded in pajamas, next to my bed. I can record the moment I wake up, or the last hour before I fall asleep. Street noises and winter sunlight bleed in through the windows. My windows are completely without sound proofing. I live across the street from an elementary school, and every morning at 9 AM, school buses empty out packs of screaming children like clockwork. Church bells chime every Sunday. These noises lurk underneath the recordings. I need them there. My actual recording setup is very minimal: one mic hanging over the school chair (that I took from the elementary school across the street) in the middle of my room. I just bought my first 4-track for some experiments. Staring at a laptop screen can get pretty exhausting.
How did you hook up with Alien Transistor?
I had recorded three songs for the first album, and was sending them around to labels as a demo. I read that The Notwist had started their own label, and being a big fan, I found the address and sent them a demo. A few months later, I was buying tickets for an upcoming Notwist show in Boston. That same day, they sent me an e-mail saying they liked my demo and would like to meet sometime. We met at the show. I talked to Markus Acher mostly. Apparently he had gotten a big crate of demos, and mine was at the very bottom. He told me right there that they wanted to release my first album. Alien Transistor sent me to Abbey Road to master the album. It was pretty surreal. The mastering engineer was apparently remastering some of The Cure albums and had the originals sitting there.
What was touring with 13&god; like?
It was inspiring. Touring Europe and the US with 13&God; was our first time playing outside of Boston. At first we were overwhelmed, but once we had settled in, it was like summer camp. It was funny being stranded at a strip mall in Montana with The Notwist and Themselves. Everyone on that tour bus was all about making music. The sheer cumulative amount of side projects was inspiring.
What was the “Sonata for the Unaware” project?
I do work in experimental, interactive art projects. Sonata for the Unaware was probably my biggest undertaking. I went to train and subway stations in Philadelphia (where I was living at the time) and filmed commuters in the morning. Then I did some video analysis programming that converted the film data to music. In one scene, for example, I translated a row of idle commuters into a sort of piano keyboard, using their position to determine the notes to play. I basically wanted to take this really mundane, routine event, and try to extract some beauty from it. Another related visual project is the video for Bellyfull. I will probably be making more of these for songs on the next album.
Are books and film an influence on the music you make?
I watch too many movies and don't read enough. I like pictures. I usually write lyrics describing a picture in my head, like a frozen still from a film.
Hopes and dreams?
More music, more animations, maybe a short film sometime. I'm constantly making things, I will probably just keep doing that.
Newborn and “Lifetime Achievement Award” / “Stay Awake” (Alias remix) 7” are out now on Alien Transistor. Buy the former at Insound.
By: Keith Wallace
Published on: 2006-05-31
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