DJ and producer Tzusing has certainly had a ‘journey’ in both the musical and physical senses. Born in Malaysia he then grew up in various countries which he details chronologically as “Singapore, Taiwan, China, then the USA and I now live back in East Asia between Taipei and Shanghai.” That’s quite an uprooting on each occasion, but it does possibly explain the melting pot of sounds, textures and moods that prevails, not only through the music he produces, but also in that which he plays out when he DJs.
You can give Tzusing’s own output the coverall label of ‘techno’ if you like – it is a gloriously wide genre after all, so does just about cover Tzusing’s ambition. But even that is not a truly safe description as is he is trying to bend any rules, such as they are, within the genre, or at least is on a mission to explore every inch within it. So in his music you’ll find dramatic detuned lead sounds over industrial beats, frantic basslines with processed bagpipes, and other heavily treated samples alongside Asian instrumentation, citing some – his own label included – to call it ‘World Techno’. So maybe we’ll go with that definition for now.
It was during Tzusing’s meandering upbringing that he got into DJing while living in Chicago, and he decided there and then that music would be not just be a passion but a career choice. But after taking some fatherly advice, he set up a successful bike parts company back in Shanghai – something to fall back on if the DJing and production didn’t take off. Luckily for him, though, all three of his career choices have exploded. Tzusing ended up with a DJ residency at legendary Shanghai hotspot The Shelter and the music production really took off with a treble EP collection that appeared between 2014 and 2016 and a debut album called 東方不敗 (meaning Invincible East and based on a character called Dongfang Bubai from a Jin Yong novel) on L.I.E.S. Records. The bike parts business is doing pretty well too.
With his involvement in the #remixChina competition over at Metapop, which you can enter here, Native Instruments sat down with Tzusing to talk genres, DJing and gear, though not necessarily in that order.
Great to meet you Tzusing. Let’s get one thing out of the way first – it’s not that we like to pigeonhole music but a lot of people seem to struggle to label your sound.
Yes me too! When I’m organizing my folder for DJing I never know where to put my own tracks so I put it under ‘Tzusing Productions’ on my USB. I guess my tracks stand a bit outside of genres because I have a wider set of influences beyond the EBM/industrial frame. I don’t feel the need nor see the point in being a purist.
Let’s get another thing out the way. You run a successful bike spare parts company on top of everything else, so how on Earth do you find the time to do that, DJ and produce?
It’s very tricky and I constantly feel like I have early-onset Alzheimer’s because there are always small things on each side that I’m forgetting to do. ‘Mark as unread’ in my email program is a good way to keep tabs, but I think I should probably update this method!
You grew up in a lot of different places, so when did you start getting interested in music, either playing or producing?
I knew I wanted to make electronic music the first time I heard a proper techno tune in the 8th grade. I was dabbling with guitars before but this electronic music seemed so mysterious and far away, it was much more captivating and attractive to me.
When my first EP came out on L.I.E.S. towards the end of 2014, I was happy with the reception. My latest release, is pretty straightforward. It means ‘in a moment a thousand blows (hits)’. I’m mostly referencing Asian pop culture from the past that has stuck with me. People might be interested in this record because not much out there sounds like it. It’s unique enough but still utilitarian for DJ use.
Talking of DJing, we hear you got your first gigs at The Shelter after actually clearing the dance floor there.
The co-owner Gaz (Gareth Williams) enjoyed what I was playing at another club called Dada, so he invited me to play his own night at The Shelter. The actual moment the floor started emptying Gaz sensed my distress and came over to me and literally said, ‘fuck these guys’. He knew I could play stuff that people would keep dancing to, but appreciated that I was taking chances. After that I started playing the Shelter regularly and eventually became a resident promoter/DJ.
The music I play now is still wide ranging as always. I have been playing a lot of new club tracks that are mostly on Soundcloud and Bandcamp – they are very Kontakt sound-bank sounding, ha ha! I have been digging into some early 2000’s hip hop and I always blend in industrial/techno or early Chicago/acid house tracks. Depending on the city, I’ll know I can get away with playing K-pop, trap or old Taiwanese/Chinese pop songs. I couldn’t play Taiwanese pop in Europe ‘cos it wouldn’t have the same emotive effect – it would be more gimmicky than emotive. I do try to sneak in one or two of my own tracks at international gigs too.
Is there a typical way that a Tzusing production comes together? Do you lean on the side of making it as you go, or do you like to start with a plan?
Its all about going into the track with a feeling – I never do random jams. I like to go into building something with a basic blueprint or else it feels like I might waste a lot of time. Sometimes I’m inspired by another track and I can use the feeling I get from that track and interpret it my own way. My remix for Yen Tech actually came from listening to ‘Peace in Pieces’ by JK Flesh. I took the ‘start-stop’ feeling of the drums, the way the breakbeat plays with the kick, and put my spin on it. You wouldn’t be able to tell the influence if I hadn’t mentioned it – even JK Flesh himself wasn’t able to tell. With this track I started building it with the drums first as it was the most prominent thing. Other times it could be just an arpeggiated bass line that I write first and it drives the whole track (as on ‘Nonlinear War’). I might not even put a kick into the track until a lot later.
What about the gear behind your music, how did your setup start out?
I pretty much buy the same gear over and over, I’m not so much interested in gear for gear’s sake. I have very specific tastes and just buy the gear that goes along with that. When I got back into production six years ago I acquired a Korg MS-20, Dark Time sequencer and Metasonix S1000. I was trying to recreate the Charles Manier/JTC (Tadd Mullinix), Liaison Dangerous early EBM kind of sound. The Metasonix S-1000 is a tube synthesizer and even though it only does one sound, the sound is very unique and distinctive. It sounds really organic, like the machine is trying to speak to you.
The studio slowly built up with a Sherman Filter Bank, Thermionic Culture Rooster, Roland SH-101 and an Overstayer Saturator. I was also using Native Instruments FM8 and Kontakt plus the u-He Diva. Now my main components are Ableton and my MacBook Pro. The way I produced has really changed in the last two to three years.
You seem to love processing, whether that be samples, beats, basslines. What are your favourite techniques for sound mangling?
I’m really into saturation. I have both the Thermionic Culture Vulture and Rooster, an Overstayer Saturator, Niio Analog Iotine Core, Sherman Filter and a TLAudio 5013. Saturation adds a layer of warmth to the sounds and sonic characteristics that I’m really into. It was something I found lacking with an all in-the-box environment.
In software I use Kontakt and all the amazing samples made for it. It’s a good place to find unique sounds and within the environment it offers a lot of options for adjustment and manipulation. Native’s Transient Master also allows you to have more control of samples and drum sounds too.
I have the Komplete Kontrol S25 keyboard for its browser capabilities. It enables me to quickly scroll through NKS enabled presets and the colored lights on the keyboard let me know what and where the samples are loaded. The ability to quickly preview and scroll through all the sounds you have in your computer regardless of developer or format – it’s one of the most significant developments in digital music. I hope this standard gets picked up by everyone because it can really speed up your workflow.
I also think that Kontakt and its sound banks have marked a pretty big shift in sound for electronic music. It has brought what was previously very high-end Hollywood sounds to a more prosumer market. The access to these sounds has been a key part to a lot of newer styles.
What advice have you picked up on your incredible musical journey so far that you can pass on?
Get focused on the song you want to make and don’t feel the need to put too many ideas into the track. When you find the right sound, go with it, don’t get side-tracked, you don’t need to run through all the presets in the world. For more technical stuff, keep in mind the balance of your bass/ kick with the mid and high-end frequencies. When you hear your own music in the club for the first time, usually the mids and high frequencies tend to be a lot louder than they need to be. It’s because bedroom studios generally don’t have the kind of low-end like a club, so newer producers often don’t realize how much low and sub are in the tracks they play out. A lot of my early productions suffered from this.
You’ve achieved a lot so far – what remaining ambitions do you have?
I want to continue making music that I can feel proud about. It would also be really cool to serve as an inspiration to younger producers like some of my favourite producers have done for me.
photo credits: Shen Li