C.Spencer Yeh

C.Spencer Yeh

スペンサー.jpgInterview by Kanako Yamamoto (offshore)

Discovering cassette MTR in a rock band

- Can you tell me about your background briefly?

I was born in Taiwan. I moved to the United States when I was five, lived in Montreal for a while. After that I spent most of the 1990's in Ohio. I studied film at Northwestern University in Chicago Illinoi. I had always liked films since I was a child, so in college I mainly studied experimental film.

- When did you start playing the violin?

What directly inspired what I do today is when I discovered a four track cassette MTR at the end of high school. My friend showed it to me. At this point I was also playing the violin but it was separate from the music that I was into. I was playing the violin from around seven years old but it felt like I was given homework, and it didn't feel right. There have been moments where I have had special ideas about sound, but now that I look back, maybe playing the violin was what inspired me to break rules and experiment. In high school I spent less time with the violin and started to play guitar and bass that I borrowed from school. That's when I was introduced to the MTR, and I found my way of composing. It is similar to sculpture or editing video.

- Do you remember when you first saw the MTR?

My high school band mate showed it to me. We were bringing in many ideas, and the MTR was just one of them. Some of us weren't so good at playing so we tried overdubbing.

- What kind of music was your band playing?

It was minimal rock. Maybe this diverts a bit, for me at the time the most important thing was the music, but for my friends it became more about the band's name, image, and titles of the songs. I wanted to focus on the sound, but everyone was concerned about what kind of band we were. I wanted to play something purely rock but that didn't happen.

Getting into noise music

- How did you get into noise and improvised music?

I think the very first was when I was still young and watching TV. I was watching TV shows like Night Music with David Sanborn or shows that had Sonic Youth on. Sometimes I would hear music that I thought sounded weird and I would try to find it. I would be like "what is this band, where can I find their cassette." In high school, I would make lists of music that I wanted to listen to with a friend who new a lot of music. Thurston Moore was introducing Masonna on MTV around that time too. If I think about it, these were some of things that lead me to where I am now. I also found out about John Zorn around this time. I would read liner notes and research, try to find as much information as I can. I read a lot of magazines too, horror film magazine as well.
Alternative magazines at the time had ads for distributors from around the world. Seeing these would make me think like "I want to listen to a band called Whitehouse" so these ads gave me lots of pointers. I found out about Merzbow releasing from Relapse Label on a magazine. It said: "The sickest electronic music ever made!" That would make me think "I really want to listen to this" and I would go looking for it. I also had a really good experience when I was in Chicago for college. I was studying film, but was getting more into experimental film, and started to intern at a radio station. I was assigned to a rock program but it also featured some crazy stuff. The DJ at the time, John Corbett, was introducing free jazz and improvised music, and Jim O'Rourke was also a DJ on this program. I also became friends with Peter Kolovos during this time and we talked a lot. He went on to re-release P.S.F records catalog on vinyl. Peter and I were really into SKiN GRAFT label, and we were checking out releases by Melt-Banana and Zeni Geva. I was working at the radio station everyday and discovering new music.
Also at the Tower Records in downtown Chicago had a ton of this kind of music in their sales section. Nobody wanted buy this stuff so they were on sale. There probably was someone working there who knew a lot about this music. I wish I had more money at the time.
This was a really fantastic time for me. There were other vintage record shops in Illinoi. I met Whitehouse member, Peter Soto in Chicago, and it was a time when everything was happening at the same time around the city. It was a very special environment.

- When did you first perform?

In college, I played a kind of drone music a couple of times at parties with friends. I remember someone from our University newspaper wrote about our concert and complained about it. My friend who I played together when up to him and said "Don't you know there is a history to this kind of music?" I remember telling my friend that there were good moments to the concert and let's not try to justify what we did later. This was one of my earliest performances and I remember it well. Electronics, Violin, and Voice

- So after college you starting working as an artist?

 You can say that. I wasn't really thinking of what to do with my film history degree. I was trying to find something. I was in Chicago between 1993 to 1997 for college. After that I had to return to Ohio due to family reasons. I wasn't in Ohio for a long time so I first wanted to checkout what was happening there. I made a point of meeting many people. It's a small town but there is a history of people doing post punk and weird experimental music. For example John Bender. He was making underground music with a low-fi sound using a synth and tape. I would see him in town all the time. At the time we were both into rock. Recently we have hooked up again, and are re-issuing some of his music and also perform together.
 During this time I met many important people. I was provided with a space and learned how to organize events. There was a studio that told me that I can stop by anytime and I dug into their wonderful record collection. I discovered Taj Mahal Travellers and Masayuki Takayanagi, and I listened to sound poetry and Fluxus related works here. This was a different kind of exploration in music than when I was in college. When I was a student I was into noise and Japanese noise.

- Did you also record at this studio?

 Yes, this is when I started to record my own music. It's funny to think about it now, but at the time, my recordings were influenced by Brian Eno. I think Brian Eno makes wonderful pop music that is different from your typical pop. I was inspired by Eno and making naïve music that was pop but also using tape collage. It was noise but also a song, a song but also noise. I was trying to make music that didn't chose where it had to be played.

- When did you pick up the violin again?

 I think it was at some party and someone said "you used to play the violin right? I can lend you one, can you play?" I hadn't played for a while and I was like "hmmmm, but maybe I could still play." When I picked it up I actually remembered a lot. This made me think that I could do something with the violin. At the time I was playing electronic instruments, but with the violin I could play acoustically. That's one of the reasons why I reconsidered the violin.
 For using the voice as an instrument, like I mentioned before, when I was getting into noise and noise rock I learned about Ai Yamatsuka, Masonna, and Joan La Barbara. There were so many styles. I tried many things with the voice to find my own style and spent a lot of time trying to establish my own method. At the time there many people using voice. Some used it as an instrument and others did spoken word. Everything that I do I am never satisfied with just trying out something. When I combined electronics with the voice, I challenged myself to many different things. I asked myself what was the purpose of using the voice. I also make a lot of drone music but I think about what this music's functions is.

The United States and Asia: A home for identity and a home for music.

- Can you tell me about your impression Asian Meeting Festival as a participant? Although you were born in Taiwan, you grew up in the States. How was it meeting artists from Asian countries this time?

 It's nice to have opportunities for artists to meet in groups or as communities. When I was in Ohio, I had a lot of interactions with other artists from Michigan, Kentucky, and Northwestern states, well let's not talk about the past too much. Let's focus on the now. It's very interesting for me to find my relationship with these Asian communities. I immigrated to the States and grew up there. As a child I tried to process it, but probably my parents dealt with it on another level. I can speak a little bit of Chinese, but I have spent most of my life in States. Participating in the Asian Meeting Festival made me think if I have ever contributed anything to the Asian region. In a way it had called upon my identity.
 When I travel, I also try to listen to other people's stories. If I find something interesting, I try to learn more about it and have a deeper connection. Coming to the Asian Meeting Festival, I am very interested in how communities in Asia relate to each other and how each individual artist thinks. And it's wonderful that there is a situation where artist from different styles and genres can come together and play music.
 There are many countries in East and Southeast Asia, but I see it as one big community. It's the same in the United States where each area has their differences. This occasion is like a homecoming for me, but in a completely different sense than a home like somewhere you are used to or comfortable with. It is a great opportunity for me to make connections.
 At the same time, Asian Meeting Festival in terms of music is completely my confortable home. An environment where a diverse group of musicians are thrown into and can play without being ordered what to do. Therefore, I see this festival not as an opportunity to connect with a completely new community but rather meeting with new people in my community in Asia.