Today I’m really pleased to follow up my interview with Wang Menghan that came out a few days ago, with a short interview with Sun Dawei, one of the most influential experimental electronic musicians out of China. Sun Dawei started producing music in his hometown of Beijing in the late 1990s, emerging from a punk background to become a full-fledged electronic musician by the early 2000s. At the same time he founded the record label Shanshui, which continues to be a great resource for experimental electronic music. Early on he became internationally known for his chiptune/8bit releases and performances under the artist name SULUMI, but his music has always been diverse, moving into the fields of electronica, techno, or ambient, reflected by the particular artist name he used. In 2010 he moved to Osaka, Japan where he has continued producing music. He was recently back in Beijing to take part in a residency at the M WOODS Art Museum, with a number of other contemporary artists from China, responding to the Museum’s current show of Buddhist cave paintings from the Xinjiang region of China. The following interview was done by email, and I want to thank Dawei for being so accessible. In the near future I hope to be able to present a more detailed interview with him, so keep checking back!
27 July, 2018 by Email
Edward Sanderson (ES): Your release “半音飄東半音西” seems to be a collection of field recordings, and the track titles appear to be map coordinates for locations in Japan and China. I haven’t seen you release any previous field recordings, so why did you choose to create these recordings and release them as an album at this point?
Sun Dawei (SDW): This is a collection of unedited recordings published under my name “Sun Dawei”. I have three musician names now, “Sun Dawei”, “SULUMI”, and “CTAFAD”, and they each differ in their concept and musical style. I have participated in many collections before under the name of Sun Dawei. Basically, this one is partially for music related to art, and a quiet style of music. Over the next year, I will publish an album under each of my three musician names.
I have been doing electronic music for 20 years now. 半音飄東半音西 translates as “Half-Tone East Half-Tone West”, and means something like, “half of the sound drifts to the east, and half floats to the west”. The concept of unedited recordings that I am using here is not unusual, and many musicians or artists, scientists, or amateurs will use this. I was also like these people, because the music I was exposed to in the early days was experimental music in a lot of different styles. But I have never made a full album in this way – I didn’t think I could control this concept enough for a whole album. I made some singles using this concept, but it is only in the last few years that I have started to have a stronger idea to make such an album.
ES: What is the significance of the locations for you?
SDW: The concept of the album is very simple: I want to express that China and Japan are both related to me. Different cities and places express emotions and beauty for me. The sound has not changed. The titles of the tracks are the latitudes and longitudes of the locations. You can search on your computer using the title and find out where the recording was made. Actually, this year Sigur Rós also published a new album using the same concept for their track titles. However, my album was published two months earlier than them, hehe…
ES: What opportunities does field recording give you, and how does it relate to your other music productions?
SDW: The next Sun Dawei album (which is actually the first real album under this name) will use these recordings. I will do some environmental music.
ES: What is the background to your most recent release, “僧侶與藝術家 / Monks & Artists”?
SDW: I recently collaborated with the M WOODS Art Museum in Beijing, who are currently presenting archaeological material and cave paintings from the Kizil Buddhist grottoes in Xinjiang. The Museum invited several contemporary artists to spend time in the galleries and produce new works. I was one of these artists and I created this music that is related to the exhibition
ES: The music of 僧侶與藝術家 is very different from your early releases in the Chiptune style in the early 2000s for which you originally became well known. Obviously a lot of time has passed since those early releases, so can you describe how your music progressed from them to Monks & Artists?
SDW: This particular work is still presented under the name of Sun Dawei, because I use this name to participate in art activities, for example I used it for some electronic soundtracks before. This art event is related to the ancient cave culture of China, and the M WOODS Art Museum integrated the cave paintings into their exhibition. For this event I created my music that I feel also expresses such art. The five track names are "Red", "Cliff", "Trace", "Replace", and "Rebirth". “Kizil” (the name of the grottoes) means red, so I took this as the first track title. Then the caves are on a cliff, and the traces are the remains there. Now we are replacing them with a new form, so that this culture can be revived – these are the ideas behind my creations.
I express my feelings through different musical styles, and basically these pieces are a form of quiet music. All the music was created over a ten-day period at the M WOODS Art Museum a few weeks ago. I had not prepared anything beforehand, and this lack of preparation was one of the concepts behind this cooperation. The mp3s are free to download at https://sulumi.bandcamp.com/album/monks-artists
ES: I would also like to ask you about your upbringing and background. How did you got into music? What musical education did you receive?
SDW: I am not from a musical family, but I wanted to learn guitar and rock in junior high school. Then I went to music school for a year, but I thought it was very boring! After that I began a period of free creation, and then I began to create electronic music in 1999.
ES: How did you learn about the specific styles of music you were making (like Chiptune)?
SDW: In 1999 I heard the Patric Catani album, "The Horrible Plans Of Flex Busterman" [one of the first chiptune albums] and I liked this very much! Then in 2003 I discovered this was the Chiptune style, bought the Nanoloop software and taught myself to create 8bit music. In fact, Chiptune is just a stage along my musical road. I used the game console to make music, but at the same time I was using the computer to make music as well. You could say that Chiptune was almost my post-punk period; I felt it could express a passionate mood, but later I gradually wanted to do more mature music. That’s how it went.
ES: What artists and bands influenced you?
SDW: I listen to any style of music, including pop music. At that time I was listening to the music of Alec Empire and that made me want to start making electronic music. But Aphex Twin is my god! In my bands I am influenced by punk music.
ES: What was the Chinese music scene like when you began, and how did you get involved in it?
SDW: When I was doing electronic music, there were maybe only 5 or 6 people in China who were already working in this way, and one of them helped me a lot. We communicated and performed together. At that time, there would also only be a few people interested in electronic music performances. If they played in a band, they didn’t really know what to do. By 2007, on the 4th anniversary of my record label, Shanshui, there were about 150 people who were interested. Now I can get about 400 people along to my own performances.