Interview: Daniel Wang

By , Oct 5 2009
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“My name is Daniel Wang. I’m known for making leftfield disco.”

Daniel Wang is one of the most influential dance music producers of the past 20 years, his retro-ahead-of-their-time 90s productions inspiring the likes of Morgan Geist, Lindstrom and DFA to pursue their own eccentric visions of “nu-disco”.

Born in California, Wang spent a sizeable portion of his childhood in Taiwan, before returning to finish high school. His university years were spent in New York and Chicago, during which time he immersed himself in nightlife and night music, hanging with old-school voguers and DJs alike. The seeds were sown.

While based in NYC in 1993 Wang set up his own label, Balihu Records, on which he released his debut 12″, The Look Ma No Drum Machine EP. It contained the groundbreakng acid-fried italo jam ‘Warped’ and ‘Like Some Dream I Can’t Stop Dreaming’, a song which took the relationship between repetition and rapture to new heights. ‘Like Some Dream’ sent shockwaves through the dance underground and these days is regularly covered live by Hercules & Love Affair; you can hear it’s legacy in the tweaked disco-house of Soundstream and even Thomas Bangalter.

Balihu grew to accommodate not just Wang’s productions but those of his friends Brennan Green, Ilya Santana and Massimiliano Pagliara; over the years Wang concentrated less on loop-based productions and began to concern himself more with original arrangements and instrumental textures. He once described Balihu as “a fanzine on vinyl”, and certainly this was a label that existed explicitly in relation to the past; but this only served to accentuate Wang’s originality as a producer, and his best work displays an admiration for, but not a subjugation to, disco’s glittering past.

Following a series of four highly acclaimed 12″s for Morgan Geist’s Environ Records, Wang relocated to Berlin, where he’s been based ever since, releasing sporadically on labels like Ghostly International and Playhouse and building a reputation as one of the finest DJs in the world. This month Amsterdam’s Rush Hour Records release The Best of Balihu: 1993-2008, a CD and limited vinyl set which really underlines the importance and the charm of the label’s material. For a taste of what to expect, download Tim Sweeney’s megamix of Balihu classics here [tracklist is here]. Daniel is on hand to tell us more about Balihu, and explain how Tim Burton’s Charlie & The Chocolate Factory is an apt metaphor for the decline of quality in electronic music…

Hello. Please introduce yourself for the benefit of the uninitiated.

“My name is Daniel Wang, I‘m known for making “leftfield disco music” from the mid-90s til recently, and now I earn my living mostly from DJing at parties big and small around the world. I was born near San Francisco, grew up there and in Taipei, lived in New York for ten years and moved to Berlin in 2003.”

What are your current obsessions?

“The truth is, since I moved to Berlin, the open space and lower cost of living have changed my view of life quite a bit. New York was so crowded, dirty, expensive for the average citizen.  Thats a result of massive inequalities there in general – anyone who still thinks that USA is the best country in the world needs a reality check! I bought my own little flat a few months in Berlin for not much money and keep a pile of Architectural Digest magazines next to my bed. So I’ve been obsessed with what colours to paint my walls!

“I got into houseplants too, and have amassed a small collection of Aloes, blue succulents, palms and gorgeous Aglaonemas. My German boyfriend bought a canoe and we go paddling on immaculate lakes in the summer. I still love music of course, but find myself moving away from beats and getting into Debussy, Ravel.. trying to learn the finer differences in classical music, find out what tends toward dogma (cult of Wagner for example) and what really moves me, elegant poetic pieces, like Maiden with the Flaxen Hair, and Chopin of course…”

What prompted you to compile a Balihu retrospective, and why now?

“To be honest, i had wanted to do it for a while, but didn’t have the time or means to do so. The material was all there, but I don’t have an office or a team of employees, nor huge cash reserves in my bank account! Rush Hour always supported my releases in Europe, and they also have a much better idea of what DJs really want – I’m kind of lost in my own little dream-world sometimes. So when Christiaan showed up at Alexanderplatz with his graphic designer and this proposal, I said yes right away.”

How did Balihu come into being? What made you want to start the label, and to release the kind of music on it that you did? Was it a product of environment?

“It’s very simple. Around 1992-93, I was going out in Chicago and New York, and the music I heard in the clubs seemed increasingly rigid, humourless, and unmusical to me. I mean all those assembly-line Masters At Work remixes, the screaming-diva tribal house music from Junior Vasquez and the like…I heard Danny Krivit playing gorgeous old disco and soul records, i knew there had to be something better. So I strung together 17 obscure disco samples, without 909 kick drums or cheesy filters, and made a kind of joke out of the first release – but of course it had to be groovy too. This was exactly the opposite of what every label in New York was doing, so i had no choice but to take a loan from my Visa card and press it by myself.  You could say it was a reaction against the environment I was in – but then, isn’t everything a reaction to or against the times?”

I love your description of the label as “a fanzine on vinyl”…can you elaborate on this?

“It means just that, I think! A fanzine is a publication which points you toward the perceived Holy Grail – maybe it’s krautrock, maybe it’s Japanese cult films…Balihu was often kind of an ‘in-joke’ for people who already thought like i did, who would rather hear a nice Fender Rhodes piano loop or synth arpeggio than yet-another „bitch track“ complaining about boyfriends and welfare checks.  Seriously, in retrospect, maybe I unconsciously used the vinyl medium as a kind of message network to like-minded DJs who build their view of the music world through the vinyl which they buy (this happened long before Myspace, after-all). Also, I’m not sure any single Balihu track is as perfectly produced as some of the Giorgio Moroder or “Loft” classics which it referenced. Hence, label as fanzine.”

“I adore CDs. I adore the Repeat Mode so I can let Satie play 20 times while I take a bath.”

Do you ever envisage releasing new material on Balihu again, or is the imprint well and truly retired?

“Not retirement, but hiatus perhaps. Pressing vinyl is just a lot of effort for little returns nowadays: we feel lucky that we sell 600 copies when we once sold thousands within two weeks.  Morgan Geist from Environ has helped me set up my legal affairs and publishing, however, so I don’t feel I have to press vinyl to release new music now. Personally, I adore CDs. I adore the clean sound without hiss or scratch, I adore the Repeat Mode so I can let Satie play 20 times while i take a bath…The new music I’m working on is very melodic, with theremin and vocal harmonies, so maybe it will find a new and different audience. The DJ world has stayed somewhat constant since the early 90s, but maybe I’ve changed a lot inside.

Did you ever feel restricted by Balihu?

“Oh never! I could always work with other labels when I wanted. Balihu was just my little podium to tell the DJ world ‘Hey, here is something new to check out’.”

When you put out This Is The Final Balihu Release: BAL-010, did you really believe that this would be the final Balihu release [it wasn’t]? Or was it a joke?

“It was not a joke! I didn’t know things would keep developing. We pressed 800 or 1000 of Balihu 010 (the previous releases had sold at least that many), and barely sold 250 at first. My friends also remember me slipping small quantities of Balihu 003 and 004 secretly into the garbage dumpster night after night, because we couldnt sell what we had pressed at the time.  After Balihu 010 i thought, ugh, these people wont buy anthing without that stupid techno-house beat, I’m giving up!  Even when i moved to Berlin in 2003, i was ready to give up DJ’ing and just take a job as an English teacher, if things didnt work out. I really worship composer Wendy Carlos, she would say ‘Life is more important than just making music’. If I had to make shit commerical music to get by, I’d rather change jobs.

What for you were the pleasures and anguishes of running a label?

“No anguishes really, I lost money only a few times but this was always earned back eventually. And the pleasure is of course enormous, making friends and working on tracks together with all these people…for me this was also a learning process of course. I’m still trying to reach my Holy Grail, but without releasing your own music and watching it interact with the world at large, you can not reflect on what it all means.”

Could you see yourself ever founding or running another imprint, or do you feel your career as label-owner is done?

“What career as label-owner? Ha ha! There was never an office, never another employee – it was just me, some DAT tapes and CDs, and my credit card.  Even the label graphics were scrawled by hand onto photocopies. I don’t see it as a serious imprint like Blue Note or CTI. It was just something I did to reach a larger goal of learning about music and production, of helping others get into the music which i was into. I hope that my career as a musician and producer, however, has more days ahead…”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’ve been rather quiet on the production front of late…are you working on new material?

“I just did a remix for Dieter Meier from 80s Euro-synth band YELLO. The fact is, I can’t work on anything until I get my new flat and studio in order, so it’s going to take a while. And as I’ve often said, my standards have changed somewhat, so it will take longer until I’m happy with what I’ve done. But I think it will see the light of day eventually. Less disco, more Carpenters-Singers Unlimited-Amanda Lear-electronic easy-listening perhaps. Maybe I will end up sounding like that first Royksopp album! Who knows.”

How would you say your motivations have changed with regard to music-making? What about the actual approach to composition and recording?

“Really, I was very, very naive when I started. In all objectivity, probably much more clever than all of these DJs who are still making minimal blah-blah on their laptops after years and years (I mean, if they even knew what an arpeggio was, they might use one… right?), but i wasn’t totally aware of EVERYTHING you need to know to make proper music. And in fact, thats just about the entire history of music and production – because all that music from the 70s was the summation of great jazz musicians, percussionists, singers, engineers…and today we are mostly solitary musicians at home, albeit with unlimited digital capacities. The BARE MINIMUM is to get a great bassline, great set of chords, a decent voice or solo somewhere, and proper production values with regard to EQ, panning, compression and so on. I can only say, away from the typical DJ approach of beats and bassline, I’m more interested in the overall structure – first planning that out, then filling in the details like rhythm guitar after the macrostructure is written. So, more traditional, isnt that?”

You used to work at the Dr Sound [music gear] store, right? Did that experience feed into your early Balihu productions, or did it come after?

“Oh, without Dr. Sound i would be nothing.  Besides, I owe being able to get by in Japanese also to that shop – I had studied it for two years in college, but without speaking every day to my co-workers, all that grammar was useless! Our technician, Takeshi Kawana, was a keyboard genius, he owned a real Hammond Organ and serviced ARPs and Rhodes for Ryuichi Sakamoto, Joe Zawinul, etc. Joe Zawinul even put us on the guestlist for his live shows at Blue Note twice! As I’ve often mentioned, over five years we opened and looked inside every Moog, every vocoder, every obscure machine ever built. Then, the clients who passed through our doors – not just meeting Bob Moog, Brian Eno, Grandmaster Flash, Florian Schneider (Kraftwerk), Randy Muller (Brass Construction, Tamiko Jones), Paul Savoy (from A-Ha, who wrote ‘Take On Me’) but also talking to them personally about their instruments…And also to many serious ‘real musicians’ in New York who never had a big pop hit, but who lived their life through music. This is more inspiration than most people get in a lifetime, and even if I never made a record, I learned a ton from this amazing period in my life.”

Have you reached an optimum studio set-up, or are you always looking to add new equipment?

“I am truly happy with my D3200. 32 tracks of digital audio, individual faders, the black & white screen measures 2 by 3 inches. I wrote a Thank You note to Korg in Japan, and the engineers personally wrote back with a Christmas card and two Korg T shirts! I have more ‘cool’ mono-synths than I can really use, I’d like a few more guitars, but much better records have been made with much less gear.

“Really, I hate laptops, I hate looking at these Disneyland colorful editing screens, i look at all these producers with all their vintage gear and 256 tracks and no ears for a decent harmony, and thats everything wrong with modern music. They remind me of an old Chinese metaphor: ‘ Using a butcher’s saw – normally for pigs and cows – to slaughter little chickens’. All that power used for such trivial purpose. I mean, the Carpenters did most of their work on 12 tracks or less. Admittedly, Salsoul Orchestra is the justification for a massive studio setup, but I’m not inviting them to my house!”

“Over five years we opened and looked inside every Moog, every vocoder, every obscure machine ever built. Then there were the clients who passed through our doors – Bob Moog, Brian Eno, Granmaster Flash, Florian Schneider…”

How has your attitude to re-edits and recycling old disco loops changed over the years? What do you think of the current “booming” re-edit culture that’semerged in the wake of Balihu, Black Cock, etc…

“I think each case is individual – although mostly I think that re-edits now are riding on a trend to promote would-be DJs who otherwise can’t create anything original themselves. Many are not necessary, even an insult to the original.  I won’t mention names – some are my friends and DJs whom I enjoy listening to! – but when you add these cheesy effects, and ESPECIALLY when you change the song structure, you also destroy the magic of tension and anticipation. I prefer to hear music as a stream of chords and motifs, but many of these people don’t understand this, they only hear the beat. They make a great song into a mechanical DJ tool, which is just like what people did in the early 90s, minus the overbearing 909 kick drum. Even the Balihu re-edits dont sound so great to me, but they were done with naivete, and also in a time when the machines didn’t allow for much more. Again, that’s why i feel that those Balihu releases were a ‘fanzine’. I always preferred playing the originals anyway…”

The Balihu retrospective includes productions from Brennan Green, Ilya Santana and Massimiliano Pagliara alongside yourself. How did you first hook up with these guys and decided to release their music?

“Separate questions and circumstances: I met Brennan through DJ circles in New York, and we just became friends…He was young and cute, very funny and energetic and a bit cheeky.  Incredibly funky on any instrument. Carlos was my co-worker at Dr Sound whom I’d just stare at in awe when he started playing bass or live drums. We would argue if The Beatles could even compare to Cole Porter; now he works in an architect’s office but he really should be on tour with some band. Ilya sent me an e-mail around 2004 asking me about music production techniques, and when he invited me to the Canary Islands to DJ, I brought my synths and effects and it became ‘classroom’. But clearly he had all those musical ideas in him already.  Massi and I are best of friends in Berlin – he is the only other gay person of all these four very handsome boys, which has nothing to do with me releasing their music, but maybe they’re only handsome to me because I feel their talent and honesty, and Balihu was a way to push them to go further, like I pushed myself.”

How has your attitude to disco changed between 1993 and 2009? Are you still discovering new and exciting things?

“Wow. Thats a heavy question!  I think I still enjoy it just as much, but from pure physical instinctual enjoyment, I’ve developed a more formal understanding of how all this music functions. I remember i used to enjoy just beats and breaks more (for example ‘Sweet Summer Suite’ by Barry White), whereas gradually, I developed the love for anticipation and dramatic textures, for example ‘Sumeria’ by Alec Constandinos, which goes on some mystical journey from 1978 to 2000BC at the end of the song…And I’m more into tight pop-groove composing now, especially Rod Temperton, for example ‘Razzle Dazzle’, which he wrote for Heatwave. I discover MUCH less which excites me now, but I dream more about what is possible, and I hear those new possibities in my theremin and other instruments too.

What have been the profoundly important clubbing experiences in your life?

“I think it never ends! Honestly! I thought that those years at voguing balls in Harlem, house clubs in New York would be the end…but here in Berlin, I know lots of gay boys involved in modern dance, we have artist friends who create bizarre, amazing installations in clubs, sometimes the dance floor is full of gorgeous guys coming from Bulgaria, Argentina, Japan, every corner of Germany and Europe, and everybody is moving, kissing, dancing. And the music is some perfect CHIC song, which ironically I never heard in New York! I miss the black people I knew in America who lived for their bodies and for dancing…but I’m getting a different view in Europe, something less competitive and neurotic, something more profound, more connected to beauty and the passing of time.”

You’ve been in Berlin for several years now, right? What are your feelings towards the place? Has it directly impacted on your music?

“Obviously I LOVE it. Surely there are those who don’t love Germany or Berlin too much and who move back to the UK, USA, wherever. It is different for each person. But knowing the language helps, and my German improved a lot after my handsome boyfriend bought a digital-TV Antenna box for me…Just the fact of this sweet, quite innocent blue-eyed man who grew up playing in forests in East Germany seems to me kind of a miracle – you dont meet people like that who grew up drinking CocaCola and watching MTV. I don’t know how long Berlin can keep being an affordable hippie-hipster paradise, things are getting pricier already… but whatever changes your soul and your perspective on life has to change what you produce. That said, maybe aggression and crassness in music is more marketable (just witness hip-hop and Lady Gaga), but gentler, more harmonic music makes you happier. Ha ha.”

Another big question, I know, but what are your thoughts on the current electronic music, disco and pop culture?

“I think that is maybe one of the only questions to which I can offer an honest and correct reply. In the big picture, and summarized in one phrase, I feel people are getting lost in surface texture over substance.  This is obviously true for electronic music but even more so for movies, not to mention video games or other genres. And digitally retouched fashion magazines, oh dear! The anorexia pandemic can only get worse. Around the early 90s i started noticing a stream of movies which young people now seem to adore, whose scripts seriously lack internal tension or logic. By these I mean specifically Dancer in the Dark, Amelie, and endless sci-fi and special-effect films like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (with Johnny Depp). It’s all about the image, but the characters on the screen dont have motivation or reason. The Bjork character annoyed me to no end. OK, fabulous cinematography, we all feel sad. But if this mother loves her child so much, why is she behaving in such a ridiculous way so as to lose the child?  Just awful films. And awful electronic music.

“The better music from earlier eras, like film scripts, had internal logic – i.e. composition. Parts fit together, chords lead somewhere, each character had specific motivations and faults and virtues… So if we keep this up, we will truly have a generation of digital zombies. Every surface is slick and pretty, and the content is a big zero, without nuance, human effort or ingenuity. I hope this is not the face of the future – I’m seeing some signs that the pendulum is swinging back again.”

You’ve said before that you get sent a lot of slick demos from young producers that just don’t impress you. What are you looking for in new music? Are there any contemporary artists with who excite you?

“Yes, and I dont mean that we all shouldn’t keep trying, but the ‘slick demos’ really weren’t doing it for me – as I said before about slick productions with no human nuance. I’m not sure I can reply correctly to ‘who excites me’ because I’m not in a position to see all that is new and exciting. I dont work at BBC Radio, I don’t even have internet at home! Like, when all the tabloids were reporting on Amy Winehouse, I thought ‘Oh what a mess’. But then I saw a video of her live concert and I just loved her. She is just so real. Her whole body and every phrase just say SOUL.

Then again, as much as I love Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald…I saw videos of ‘new jazz singer’ Michel Buble and thought, ‘He can definitely sing, but this feels like some kitsch parody of Frank Sinatra, there is so little here which is original or coming from within his soul’. As for nu-disco…I like some of the earlier tracks by Norwegian Lindstrom of course, and i admire Maurice Fulton’s bass and percussion on all his tracks, but the most intense pleasure still comes from older music. You just cant compare our little year 2007 synth productions to those jazz-funk session players from 1980 who had already mastered all their chops 10 years BEFORE that.”

What do you feel the legacy of Balihu is? What did you learn from it?

Again in one simple phrase: it is easy to criticize others or dream of making great things, but only when you’ve tried it yourself over and over from beginning to end (a song, a building, a meal, a garden), you learn wha’ts involved, and you learn how hard and rare it is to make something that lasts for more than a fleeting moment. I’m not sure if I’ve gotten there yet – I’ve gotten close two or three times so far.”

The Best of Balihu: 1993-2008 is out now on Rush Hour Records on double-CD and two limited 2×12″s, available from all good record stores. Click here for more information.

Kiran Sande

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