Meet Steven Lee - New Mix & Music Chat
This week's musical host features Steven Lee, record collector, poet, teacher, scouser, dandy, dad, blue nose, resident of Hong Kong, friend and many things besides.
Our beloved Music Director Tim Overill sat down with Steve for a deep chat about Japanese music, the therapeutic effects of music and the absence of a Hong Kong music scene.
by Herb Essntls
A year ago
Welcome Steven, thanks for the wonderful mix. Can you tell us a little about your inspirations going into it, any setting (real or imagined), and any standout records you know you wanted to include from the off?Hi mate - thanks for the kind words. It’s more like a set of mini-mixes or music idioms which have put a bug in my ears over the last few years. I think of longer mixes as a series of pods or chapters - each 3-5 records long, before moving onto something else. I remember talking with Johnny Hiller (Lasermagnetic and now head honcho of Potato Head Music room here in Hong Kong) and he told me how David Mancuso had told him that’s how he programmed his Loft nights.
It’s how I like to listen to music at home or play music when I’m out - a flux with interesting mood transitions or juxtapositions. Or maybe I just loathe to beat-mix!
There’s no specific standout records - they felt right because they touched different bases and I wanted the mix to surprise people a bit. They also fit into the old adage - ‘they don’t sound Balearic, they ARE Balearic’. There are records I chased for years (e.g. Yumi Murata ‘Desire’), ultra rare ones which I got turned on to by other collectors, some oddball gems, old faves and a bit of charity shop tat.
There’s a few Japanese records in the mix, which is something I know you’ve been collecting for a few years now, is there a specific sound you’re looking for? What’s the common thread? How do you join the dots back to a childhood spent in Liverpool, and your formative musical experiences?The mix has a fair few of the Japanese production touchstones I like - Fairlights, synth washes, syncopation, fretless bass. There’s a Hosono production here, a Sakamoto production there, but there isn’t a specific sound I’m after. I did a radio show for a while called ‘Naive Sounds’ which is the closest I can get to describing what I like. For all the excellent musicianship and tight arrangement a lot of these records have, there is also a naivety to their sound, a playfulness. They’re quite poppy I suppose - the thing is that 80s Japanese pop was open to such interesting influences - from exotica, fusion to classical and new wave.
It’s hard to trace a line back to growing up in Liverpool - seems so long ago. I guess you can take the boy out of Liverpool but yada yada... I suppose the style of this mix fits with how I did mixes as a teen - on tape, played from start to finish. I used to love the Pixies when I was an indie kid (and still do) and they have that quiet-loud dynamic in their records. I like mixes that use that dynamic range too - so I often play things from start to finish. You know, mixing isn’t just beat mixing - which I totally get in a mind altering dark room with a sweaty crowd and a kick drum thudding in your cranium - but away from that, there’s sequencing, juxtaposition, call and response… There’s tonnes of better beat-mixers out there than me, so I feel I need to go the other way and vary tempo, volume, genres.
I know you're a frequent visitor to Japan, much of it for digging purposes. I know from experience that record shopping in Japan can be a uniquely rewarding experience, regardless of genre. Tell us about some of your memorable experiences, or people and places yet to visit.Yeah, well I’ve done a fair bit of digging in Japan when I can - it's the Mecca when you’re living in Asia. I go for the whole experience - the culture, the food, the social life, the people. I learned basic conversational Japanese so I could strike up a conversation in little izakayas with locals. I particularly love Osaka and Kansai - there’s a warmth in the people there that reminds me a bit of the north of England, whereas Tokyo is more like London.
It’s been great to meet some of the record dealing legends and find they’re nice, generous people with, of course, immense knowledge and great taste. People like Eiji and Norio in Osaka, Willie in Coconuts Ekoda, Dubby. They’ll pull something out and there’s no need for faltering Japanese or English - just drop the needle on the record. Pure mindmeld.
I also love the music bars and kissatens - small places built around a devoted owner and a top notch vintage sound system. It might just be able to seat a handful of people - it could even be just you and the owner sharing a whiskey before shutting for the night. There was a jazz place I went to in Namba, Osaka - I got into a big reminiscence with the owner about Oscar Peterson - getting introduced to him by a mad jazz nut at school. He pulled out ‘Night Train’ and a bottle of Hibiki and we whiled away until the early hours. It’s wonderful that Japan has these public places where the interaction with the music and people is so intimate - almost like home listening, but someone else’s home. These places are sadly declining, though.
You’re resident in Hong Kong for about 15 years now. What's the music scene like in HK?Is there a scene? I’ve always been wary of such descriptions, but no, I don’t think there is much of a scene. Hong Kong is a harsh, pragmatic city with sky-high rents - so the music scene struggles to get much of a hold. If I’m brutally honest, much of Hong Kong’s music and social scene has lived off the back of it being the most amenable Asian stop-off for expat bankers. It’s exotic Asia but not too Asian. Most nightspots that break even cater to this subgroup, who I’ve frankly not got much interest in.
There were more interesting places run by local Hong Kongers, often in the rundown parts of old Kowloon, clubs like ‘XXX’ but they got run out by a mix of intolerant neighbours and local authorities. Most of the music they played was not my cup of tea (Hong Kong kids love their grime), but the raw energy and enthusiasm they had! Give me that over a Credit Suisse away-day dancing to four four in an overpriced concept lounge.
I briefly had a DJ gig done in conjunction with a local post-rock band who had opened their own restaurant which doubled as a live venue. I brought my own decks and a primitive set-up, but it was very liberating to play what I wanted to a mixed crowd. They had to close up when the landlords looked to double the rent. That’s Hong Kong for ya. There are some good DJs, music collectors, curators, movers and shakers - people to be admired for their persistence in such a stifling environment. But a scene, it ain’t.
What kinds of records are you finding locally?All sorts - it’s hit and miss in most of the digging spots, but that’s quite interesting. Hong Kong in terms of vinyl was a weird spillover point for different genres and scenes. Japanese pop obviously, US soul and funk (the Filipino influence in Hong Kong), 80s indie dreampop and Italo disco, believe it or not. Pickings are slimmer now. I remember once getting a haul that included Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tuxedomoon, a US press JBs record, an ultra-rare Cocteau release and Gaz Nevada. In one outing!
There’s some interesting locally produced stuff I dig- but mostly digital release only. Stuff that’s like a dreamy mix of shoegaze and citypop. Oh, and there’s 80s Cantopop which threw out some camp outré gems (Leslie Cheung, Roman Tam, Prudence Lau) amongst a lot of really bad power ballads.
Throughout our series of interviews, the therapeutic effects of music have often been mentioned, especially considering the periods of isolation we’ve all endured in recent months. How would you consider your relation to music from a wellness perspective?Yeah, I was actually nervous about this being just another ‘corona’ mix - haha. But, well, there’s a reason why so many mixes have come out.
Music is an escape. Think about it - stuck in our cramped homes, a bunch of sound waves can fill the air with sounds from another time and place; it can compress an idea, emotion or story into a tiny finite space. That’s liberating when we see our world reduced to four walls. I think it’s always played that role throughout human history and different cultures. Music was a solace, a balm to people’s daily struggles and strife. Well, of course, it would do the same thing now and do the same in future. Maybe this is part of the small good that comes out of this pandemic - that we start to appreciate music and the role it has in our wellbeing.