The Forum: Bézier

The Forum: Bézier

Robert Yang has been one of the most prolific and recognisable figures on the San Francisco club and queer scenes since moving to the city in 2005. Musically minded since a young age, Yang is a child of the West Coast’s rave scene, whose taste quickly diverged to experimental electronics and the Warp Records back catalogue, retaining a now-resurgent DIY aesthetic while constructing and experimenting within his impressive analogue studio.

As a DJ, initially spinning as Robot Yang, he was one of the founders and residents of the city’s Honey Soundsystem crew alongside Jason Kendig, Josh Cheon and Jacob Sperber (AKA, Jackie House). Having recently been elevated to club and festival favourites across the world, their parties played a key role in reinvigorating both the queer and alternative electronic music scenes in San Francisco, hosting guests including Todd Terje, DJ Sprinkles, Kink and Optimo. Still, the focus always remains on the residents’ wide-ranging tastes, with Yang contributing ruff-and-tuff moments to their sets alongside exotic, weirdo disco and jubilant house.

Although Cheon departed Honey Soundsystem in 2017 in order to fully focus on the ever-expanding back catalogue of his celebrated label, Dark Entries, he maintains a close relationship with Yang. Indeed, on his debut LP as Bézier, Yang has contributed perhaps a quintessential DE release, rooted in post-punk electronics, hi-NRG electro, romantic synthesis and altogether beautiful noise. It’s title 'Parler Musique', means quite literally ‘To ‘talk about music’, and with a masterful approach to his machines, Yang conducts a conversation that effortlessly crisscrosses disparate genres like jungle, new-wave and synthpop with time-honoured ease.

Following a live gig at Panorama Bar, John Thorp caught up with Yang in Berlin to discuss his resolutely DIY influences, connecting subcultures and the recent subjugation of everyone’s old foe, ‘the bro’.

Dark Entries doesn’t have a particular sound, but there’s a certain DNA to the music that runs throughout the label. What would you say that is, and what in your music contributes to that?

It draws from a lot of inspirations, but I guess there’s a DIY or punk way of operating in which the music was produced. It was always out of a place of scarcity. But I think it also relates to the artists he’s released in terms of resuscitating the eighties underground. Basically, they also had limited parameters as to what access they had.

Perhaps your most significant relationship as an artist is that with Dark Entries’ founder, Josh Cheon, who as well as being one of your best friends, puts out your music as Bézier and also encouraged you to make it in the first place. Where did your paths (and taste) initially intersect?

I think I met Josh around 2007. I’d noticed him a bit on the scene, and we went to a show that Maurice Fulton and Tim Sweeney were playing. And we just kept seeing each other more in the neighbourhood and started having dinners and sharing music, and eventually, just playing together at different bars. There were certain Saturdays in which he’d show me all his recent acquisitions with records and I would also share some stuff with him as well. We had a lot of shared enthusiasm for the kind of music we were into.

Were you sharing your early music around then, or mainly just DJing?

It wasn’t until I had a birthday party at my apartment, and I had my equipment all set up. I think that people saw me actively working on music production, as I was playing all these songs for people at the party, and everyone seemed really excited. So I started sending music around and I think Josh was the one who was really enthusiastic whenever he got a new track from me. I had enough on my Soundcloud account that he just said, “I think it’s time for you to release a record. Why don’t you send all this stuff to me, and we’ll just put it out?”
I’d say your productions wear their heart on their sleeve in terms of being pure ‘machine music’. Did you ever try to refine that sound into something more accessible and ‘big room’, or was that DIY attitude what opened things up to you?

I was an English major at the university, but I also took courses in music production. And at the same time, I was also listening to a lot of Warp Records and a lot more abstract electronic music. There was a lot more experimentation to what I was doing. I barely had any gear. I just had a piece of software and keyboards, but at the time I was just learning how to record. And my mindset has always been that the recording process happens in a very small room, and that’s where I thrive. So I’ve always kept working in that mode. As far as how it relates to productions for a big room or for dance clubs, with the way I work, I’m trying not to fall into traps. I don’t want the music to be stale. I want it to have a shelf-life, and persist, and maybe resist convention.

I had spoken to Josh about his desire that Dark Entries’ music should have a timeless feel, and never retro. But I guess that’s a difficult thing to get right.

And the thing with his releases is they always sound like they’re from the future, or kind of out-of-time, really. Everything sounds like it’s been made tomorrow.

I want to discuss the eighties. You’re not making consciously ‘retro’ music, and the underground ideals and aesthetic you’re working with are very different from Pretty in Pink, or Hall & Oates, or whatever. But we’re thirty years away from the decade  now, and it hasn’t been replaced in appeal by the nineties, or the seventies. As someone who knows a lot about that period of electronic music, why do you think it has such lasting appeal, and what do people get wrong when attempting to translate that into the modern day?

I think they get it wrong by trying to imitate it; the types of sounds, the types of melodies, the types of chords. I try and overlay different kinds of melodies that may not work together, but all of a sudden I might fit. Also, they think of it as kind of a joke, and play this aspect of nostalgia too hard. Because nostalgia is just looking backwards. It’s not looking to the future or progressing to what the promise of what that kind of music would be for the future.

Perhaps the most outlandish track on the LP is 'L’orde cannibale'. It starts out sounding like a raw, two-piece punk band, then swells into a sort of New Romantic ballad, and then back again to where it started. Listening to it, it struck me as quite futurist, even if the references are from another era. The punks and the new romantics kid didn’t necessarily mix, but you’re forcing them to hang out, here in the future…

I think it’s about trying to figure out which genres superseded eachother, or where certain genres progress into other areas, or are the successors of one another. And then kind of reuniting them with the previous forms. And I think that’s very important as it continues the storyline of musical canons, and the adherence to a certain philosophy of musical theory. You know there are these rules, and you know other people are following these rules, so let’s see how those rules match up when they become absorbed into another universe.

You go on tour with a relatively heavy amount of analogue gear, even though you’ve commented in the past that you might not be “built” for touring. Is that to keep things interesting for yourself, or so you can accurately represent the experimentation and improvisation central to your work within the club environment?

I think, with regards to the live element of this music, what I’m trying to do is create a landscape for the audience or the dancers to understand this world that I’m coming from. It’s also a view into my inner-workings in regards to how I produce music. Everything is pretty much written on the spot. There’s some programming involved, but when the machines start going, it’s kind of like a meditative state in which I’m letting music play and letting different melodies combine. But I’m also adding bits to it and test driving songs in a live arena so that I have my own notes to go back to and try and make it much better. So it’s a lot of different ways of thinking for me in terms of what’s happening with the live environment. I also play live a lot in order to learn more things about how people react to music, so it also helps inform the end result of how certain tracks should sound, so I don’t have any regrets when it becomes printed and mastered.

I read a very honest quote from you elsewhere in which you broadly stated that music alone doesn’t necessarily thrill you, as much as recontextualising it. That’s you work as a DJ explained, but do you presumably feel a lot more freedom in the studio compared to behind the decks?

I think they’re both just completely different. When I DJ, I’m interested in how two songs combine and become something else and doing remixes on the fly. Whereas in the studio, it’s about what pieces of gear could combine to make something completely new that I’ve never heard before. So I think in some sense, that the way of thinking is the same, but utilising different techniques to achieve that result.

How does the sound of Bezier fit within the general sound of Honey Soundsystem, which operates as a DJ collective. Is there a ‘Robert Yang’ Bezier and a ‘Honey Soundsystem’ Bézier? One that’s comfortable playing on the terrace at DC10, and then another making the weird, sweaty machine music we hear on the album?

I definitely come in a little harder and a bit more industrial within the context of the Honey Soundsystem sound. But I think that the genre is not as defined for a lot of people. Jacob and Jason never played disco before they joined Honey Soundsystem. And then we saw the context of a queer party, and thought maybe we should bring in some disco? But even then, it didn’t quite fit as nobody was quite comfortable playing disco.

Is that because disco, or mainstream disco, was the de facto, cheesy sound of the more mainstream gay clubs in San Francisco that Honey was founded as an alternative to?

I mean, a lot of people resisted playing disco at first. But it’s still not the core. Jason comes from a more techno background, Jacob comes from a very punk background. So we’re always trying to reorganise our sound around the stuff that we like, but also move a dancefloor as well. But in the end, we all kind of fit, as there is this underlying harder sound, an edgier sound, that was all like to play and it blends together. I think a lot of people on the dancefloor don’t really miss a beat when we’re switching DJs, as I’ve never really seen a huge exodus when someone like me comes on after Jason or Jacob, and vice versa.

I know you were in bands when you were younger. Did you enjoy those collaborations, or do you relish the opportunity you have with your music as Bézier to do whatever you please within the studio?

When I was in bands, I would always change my parts out between shows, because I was kind of bored of playing things with repetition, and being forced to play the same music every single time. So for me, working by myself gave me a lot more room for exploration in terms of how that track or music would sound like. I thrive a lot working by myself and sounding like there’s ten of me working at once. But when I hit a certain point, I might ask someone to come in and give me a new direction, like working with a vocalist.

Dark Entries is probably best known for its work reissuing the hardcore porn soundtracks of Patrick Cowley. You also did some soundtrack work last year for Aron Kantor’s short film Imperial Tranz-Am, which explores and subverts a lot of signifiers of gender and sexuality in the context of cars. Do you often write with those kind of high-concept themes in mind?

The filmmaker was actually soundtracking that with a Patrick Cowley song, before I came in. I kept on throwing out things that were really fast, but he told me he needed it to be very slow. And I got it, he wanted something more ambient, retro, sleazy sound. The soundtrack itself has less drum parts as even they were a little distracting from the visuals. The version of the track on Dark Entries incorporates a little more of a hip-hop element, but still captures what the filmmaker wanted.
When I’m writing for myself, I always start with the patterns, and it’s kind of like a rubiks cube, as I’m trying to configure it to make it sound more interesting and less typical. When the beat is programmed I try and layer more and more on top of it, until some sort of unifying theme emerges and I start to picture the song. With Parler Musique, every single song has a specific story to it, according to its title. And I think it’s really important, as the way I see music making is it’s almost like you’re writing an essay or poetry. And I think that’s what missing with a lot of stuff that’s going on these days, or being heavily processed and consumed by DJs or music lovers.

We seem to have reached a point at which queer ideals and philosophy have infiltrated mainstream culture in a way that might not have been possible when Honey Soundsystem started just ten years ago. As the parties have grown better known and increasingly popular, is this broadly a positive change, or have you had to alter the party and it’s philosophy to ensure it’s still ‘underground’, if you will, as well as a safe space?

I think right now, it’s really about maintaining some sort of door policy. There’s some people who might come from a more gay circuit or world who just want to come in, do a load of drugs, do G, and then pass out. And that’s not the kind of environment we want. And we don’t want people coming in demanding bottle service. One of the clubs we use in SF, Audion, is a huge bottle service venue, but we work with them and tell them that it isn’t the kind of party that to have bottle service, and that it’s a space dedicated to dancers and people who appreciate this sort of music. Even the booking is also a filter for the kind of people who come to the party. And we’ve really restricted our outreach, so now we only deal exclusively in email and we don’t do any Facebook events for our party. So the dedicated, and the people who know what’s right, will be in attendance and we don’t have any problems with anyone.

So the idea is to foster an audience, gay and otherwise, who are primarily at the party for the music?

Yes, and this year, we’ve been sending out our event notices, but we won’t tell anyone who our guests are. So for our last party for Presidents Day weekend, we had a DJ from Bogota, Enriquee Leon, and we also had Shanti Celeste play, but we didn’t announce a single word about them. Cinnaman and Solar played in the downstairs area. The party went off, and nobody had to be so picky about who was playing, and everyone enjoyed it.

In San Francisco, you’ve worked in finance, and also been involved in the city’s queer scene for a number of years, which might have once seemed like an impasse to some. More recently, you’ve also been living in Taipei, which has a very open gay community. How do the two compare?

I finally ventured out to find out what the gay clubs there are all about, and have a listen to some of the gay DJs, and it’s pretty solid I think. It’s more about organising, and getting people into the right environments, or just enhancing the spaces that already there. A club like Korner is really good and open-minded, as every month they have a queer night called Adult Game Club, which does a lot to encourage people to come down. So if you wear shorts and arrive before midnight you get in for free, or if you come with a Cross… Which some people actually thought meant ‘wearing a cross’, but they mean if you’re cross-dressing you get in for free. So they’re trying to build this atmosphere, make it better, and also have more queer bookings on the lineups. Everybody who works there seems pretty open-minded, and I’d say pretty queer, too.

In terms of San Francisco, which I understand remains very open-minded, have those finance and tech industries embraced or just swallowed queer culture? Is there a friction that needs to exist between the two?

Yes, but I also know there are also people who come to our events who are tech workers, but they’re not millionaires. They’re not cashing out on their options. They’re still a part of this working-class. It’s more the identity of the ‘bro’ coming in and destroying things. But that rarely happens at our party.

Looking at the shifts in wider culture, I think and hope that we’ve probably passed ‘peak bro’ by now.

Yes, I think bros are declining. There’s a huge callout happening. I’m pretty happy with the progress that the world’s been making.

John Thorp, March 2018.

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