Meet Yukes: The American Guzhengist Making Waves in China (Interview + Debut Music Video)

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8:15 PM HKT, Mon July 10, 2017 4 mins read

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“So now, I play about 20 instruments.”

Musicians who play more than one instrument are painfully quick to make it known. But Yukes (government name Justin Scholar) tries to be low-key about it.

“I’m not masterful at all of them, by any means. But instruments are like languages – once you learn three it’s not so hard to pick up more.”

A few of Yukes’ string instruments at his cabin home

Yukes’ repertoire could be called intimidating. From ukulele, trombone, bass, and piano, to more esoteric offerings like the mountain dulcimer, Maschine beat pad, Filipino bandurria, and Chinese bawu, his musical pedigree is a two-sided document in its own right. His cabin studio in the forests of upstate New York is littered with bizarre tools of music-making. He puts the “multi” in “multi-instrumentalist.” But the instrument that connected with him most came as a total surprise:

“I traveled to Shanghai to discover myself as an artist. I was studying at Tisch, one of the greatest film schools in the world, but I was too wrapped up in being a technician – a professor told me to seek the old arts, brush and paper, if I wanted to feel like an artist.

“When I got to NYU Shanghai, I was encouraged to participate in a small cultural outreach program, where they had cheap rentals of an instrument called a guzheng. As soon as I got my hands on it, I could swear I knew it from a past life. I’ve never learned something so quickly – within minutes I could play the angelic music I’d always wanted to make.”

But he didn’t last long as a member of the formal class. Picking scales along with his classmates felt like a disservice to the instrument that had stolen his heart so abruptly. He would rather spend the hours alone with the guzheng, exploring the range of sounds he could squeeze out of it. He left the class, and went back every day to meditate, practice, and develop his own relationship with the instrument.

“I don’t play it properly. I tried going to class, but I wanted to play the instrument on the opposite side, and I didn’t like using the finger picks. Eventually I stopped going to class and learned my own way. A year later, I’ve got my own guzheng in New York, and another in Los Angeles, and it’s replaced the ukulele as my primary instrument.”

After spending a few years developing his guzheng capabilities, Yukes was able to incorporate the millennia-old instrument into modern music, in ways that had never quite been explored before. In his first year of study, he was already headlining contemporary guzheng performances at huge venues, and selling CD’s of his playing. But recently, Yukes has been spending his time wandering all across the United States, focusing in on the intersection of the traditional Chinese sound and his own folk roots. When asked about his specific genre, he pauses to think.

“It’s hard to say. I’ve listened to so much music growing up, and even my favorite artists have a hard time describing their own music. Chamber Pop is a good one, I think. Bon Iver is my biggest influence and they pioneered that.

“I was trained in jazz, but old jazz like Benny Goodman, and Glen Miller. The trombone was my first primary instrument, and I played in a big band for six years. In high school I listened to lots of bright indie pop, like Passion Pit and Freelance Whales. I loved music that felt excruciatingly happy, but in retrospect was really sad and somber.

“In college I started to get into ambient soundscapes & post-rock, like Brian Eno and Explosions in the Sky. I try to build complex and beautiful textures like that in my music. As I get older, I really like listening to folk from around the world, and any modern music inspired by old stories and mythology. The Decemberists do that best, though Annais Mitchell’s ‘Hadestown’ is my most-played recently.

“If I had to give myself a genre, I think I’d be considered a fusion of Chamber Pop, Post-Rock and American folk. But it’s hard, because even I don’t understand it.”

Yukes’ latest project is a culmination of his eclectic musical origins. “Thinkinbout” is his music video debut as a guzheng-based singer-songwriter. The song is a lofty, multifaceted jam session, that fuses the instrument’s classical Chinese sounds with airy, washed-out vocals, plus modern drums and production. It’s world music, folk, post-rock and pop all at the same time. The video features Yukes alone in a dark room with the guzheng, delivering a stirring vocal performance while the Chinese characters for his English lyrics flash across his face.

“Thinkinbout is a song about the fear of losing your mind. As I get older, I’m getting more eccentric, and sometimes I’m afraid of going too crazy. It’s not always bad; sometimes it’s good to experiment with your mind.

“At my first folk festival last year, I was offered an opportunity to perform two songs on the guzheng. I only had one. That night, I shared more than a little absinthe with my neighbors – I thought it might give me some new perspective.

“The next morning, I woke up in a strange state of mindfulness. There was a beautiful little grove at the festival, with hundreds of people all nestled in hammocks in the morning. I hiked there, set up my guzheng all without a single thought. It was then & there that I wrote Thinkinbout in its entirety. My greatest fear – losing your mind – isn’t always so bad. It’s the fear itself that’s the problem.”

Yukes at the Philadelphia Folk Festival

In the wake of his solo artist debut, Yukes isn’t wasting any time. Flipping through his phone, he rattles off a list of respected Chinese musicians, social media influencers, and media figures who have all been closely following his journey. He describes his next steps with firm conviction:

“In November, I’m returning to Shanghai. I’m terrified and enthralled, because it feels like the necessary leap into a full-time musical career. My film career in New York is steady and growing, but my heart is in the music. I have a few fleeting leads to CCTV and other performance opportunities in Beijing and Nanjing, but I really hope this article finds the right people who may know how to guide me next.

“I’ve got a small team of powerful artists in Shanghai, and between the four of us, we hope to be a force to reckon with, in that intersection between Chinese and American culture.”

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