“Without Having to Dance”: Kunming Composer Broken Thoughts

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8:05 PM HKT, Wed March 21, 2018 4 mins read

Luo Keju, who produces haunting, creeping electronic music under the moniker Broken Thoughts, isn’t exactly a household name on the Chinese indie music scene. After spending his college years in Beijing, and learning professional audio production skills overseas in Phoenix and Los Angeles, Luo finds himself back in his hometown of Kunming, and most at home in the privacy and comfort of his studio.

Though he rarely performs live, Luo’s music has begun to snake out into the world. His 2017 album as Broken Thoughts, Realign, earned the title of Most Popular Electronic Music Album from the recently announced Abilu Music Awards, an honor based directly on total number of streams and likes on social network Douban, the Chinese underground music fan’s go-to source for new material.

I’d been obliquely aware of Luo’s music before he took the Abilu award, and after giving Realign a few (virtual) spins, I got in touch with some questions about his background, how he sees the Chinese scene from his perch in Kunming, and how his more commercial audio production work interacts with his creative alter ego:

Where are you from originally? What is your earliest memory of music that you heard and thought was interesting?

I’m born and raised in Kunming. My family has no art background, and I didn’t get exposed much to “real” music as a kid. My earliest memories involve some cheesy orchestral film scores stuck in my head. I wasn’t particularly interested in music until I got into rock/metal in my early teenage years.

As a musician you’ve worked in a few different genres, including post-rock and ambient electronic. How did you get into these genres? What were some of the early artists you discovered that made you want to do this kind of music, and how did you come across their work?

I got into post-rock when I was a metalhead discovering Isis and all those post-metal bands. Going from metal to post-rock to experimental and ambient music, and then everything else, seems to be a natural and typical arc. Usually, it’s those genre-blending artists who opened whole new worlds for me that remain the most enlightening, like Isis, Murcof, Eivind Aarset, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble, etc. I came across many of them on last.fm — I still use it.

I know you’re from Yunnan — where else have you lived, studied or worked?

I lived in Beijing for five years, including the college years. Later I went to Phoenix, Arizona for a training program in audio production, and then stayed in LA for less than a year.

What’s the alternative music scene like in Kunming today? What about elsewhere in Yunnan? Do you visit nearby cities like Chengdu or Chongqing at all?

I’m almost a stranger to the local scene, but exciting things seems to be happening, and making a living as a musician is becoming more viable. I know some of the best musicians in China are based in Dali these days, but I’m not very connected either, and haven’t been there for years. I’ve visited Chengdu and Chongqing over recent years only briefly, not enough to get to know the local life and scenes.

You have an interesting list of collaborators, including Baishui, an experimental folk musician from Sichuan, and Bloody Woods, a folk metal band from Beijing. What elements — in terms of sound or philosophy — connect the different artists you choose to work with?

I didn’t actually choose in many cases. I was just lucky enough to have been offered opportunities to work with some very talented musicians at different points. For future collaborators, if I get to choose, open-mindedness and humility should be the foundation, and a good sense of humor is a big plus. When communication is fun and efficient, differences in musical background and preferences can be far less important.

You recently released your third solo album as Broken Thoughts, Realign, which you describe as being in part composed of “ritualistic drones.” Is ritual an important element in how you think about and make music?

Not at all. I just love some artists with a ritualistic quality, like the re-formed Swans, and did my best attempt. I am not a spiritual person. My approach to making music has almost always been about learning the rules and patterns and making tonal/structural sense.

The cover art for that album is quite interesting, is there a story behind it?

I stumbled upon the photo and thought, “this is it.” I asked the artist, Frédéric Fontenoy, via his website if I could license it for a moderate price. He gladly agreed, being much nicer than he needs to be as an established artist almost twice my age. I’m just grateful.

You also do commercial work for films and commercials, including a collaboration with Hollywood film composer Klaus Badelt that you began in 2014. What appeals to you about this side of your music-making identity? How does it differ from making music for yourself or in a band?

I like working with limitations — how you have to match the pictures down to the frames, to quantify and manipulate emotions, to be a little cheesy without being less stylish… All these are good challenges when the clients trust you to be yourself. Composers like Klaus can “fake” music from any genre, any period, any culture, while staying true to themselves. I admire that a lot.

Working on my own stuff is not that different from doing commissioned work, only I get to be the client myself, and judge my own outcome. I don’t believe in “I break all the rules and do my own thing.” I rely on rules and limitations to create, purposely or subliminally, and I care less about being original.

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Can you share some examples of commercial work you’ve done that you’re proud of?

This Lenovo commercial, and an animated short called Monkey. Monkey is too weird and too indie to be commercial, but I learned a lot from working with the director, Jie Shen. He might be China’s David Lynch one day.

You seem quite at home in the studio — do you also perform live? How does your approach change between recording and live performance?

I don’t perform live very often. To be honest I haven’t found a satisfying and comfortable way yet to present at live shows music that was carefully programmed in a very different mindset, and probably meant to be enjoyed alone without having to dance. I basically hacked my way into music making without ever becoming a good instrumentalist or a DJ and being on stage still frightens me. I’m working to turn that around with the equal amount of anxiety and excitement.

What are you working on next?
I am working on one commercial and two short films at the moment. I’ve been trying to make something techno-ish, might be an EP later this year. We’ll see.

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