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Intense and cathartic: How object blue's creative fixation ignites her groundbreaking music

London-based object blue is one of the boldest new artists in electronic music

  • Words: Patrick Hinton | Photography: Iga Drobisz, Natalia Podgorska, Theresa Baumgartner
  • 26 June 2019

Constraints have never sat well with object blue. She grew up in a restrictive family - with parents who once grounded her for four years as a teenager because she was caught sneaking out to a bar - but this upbringing only fanned the flames of her defiant disposition. “I've always had a rebellious personality. I was always a pain in the ass,” she says.

This drive to push against confines surfaces in her musical interests. It has done since childhood. She played piano from a young age but gave up upon reaching her teens, frustrated by the restriction of practised repetition, finding improvising to be more appealing.

Unearthing music object blue enjoyed in her youth wasn’t easy. She was born in Japan to a Chinese father and half-Japanese mother who had no strong interest in music, before moving to a suburb of Beijing aged six, where government control mostly blocked the import of records. The general big city commotion of East Asia had some aural impact: Beijing’s "endless construction noise", the "symphonic bleeps" of tech-filled Tokyo. But most influences came from further afield.

Education helped a bit. object blue attended an English-speaking Western school which taught a world music class, and through exposure to styles such as Bulgarian folk and drumming from Côte d'Ivoire she found a love for polyrhythms. Yearly trips back to Tokyo to visit family were crucial. There she was able to visit internationally stocked CD shops and discover styles like r’n’b through Aaliyah and, eventually, electronic music through Björk.

London is where object blue’s passion for electronic music really took off. She initially moved over in 2011 to study English Literature at King’s College and became involved in the poetry scene, but seeing Björk perform at Alexandra Palace towards the end of her degree was a light-bulb moment in deciding she wanted - needed - to make music. After graduation she moved back to Beijing following the expiry of her student visa and immediately started looking into grad school options, finding her passion for writing poetry had subsided into an overwhelming desire to write music.

She applied for an Electronic Music course at Guildhall and earned a spot, returning to London for the 2015 term. That’s when her musical education really began - but it was largely outside of the classroom. object blue found the historic music school, founded in 1880, struggled to teach its more modern, electronic-focused courses. But in her classmates she found a like-minded community and began clubbing regularly for the first time, delving deeper and deeper into dance music. “I spent like every week in Corsica Studios,” she recalls, specifying a Janus showcase with Kablam and M.E.S.H. as a “defining moment for me”: “M.E.S.H. was playing loads of melodic pretty stuff with PAN stuff spliced between and I really, really liked it. I didn't know you were allowed to play a DJ set where you mix genres so much.”

Soon object blue’s production became increasingly experimental, with feedback from friends, and one influential professor named Nye Parry, valued above her formal education. SIREN booked the first object blue DJ set in early 2017 and her first live performance followed at Cherche Encore a month later. A handful more gigs followed that year, including for London party and label Let’s Go Swimming. Together they drew up plans for her debut release, although this was pipped by the ‘Do you plan to end a siege?’ EP on TT in early 2018 after object blue scrapped the initial demos she had submitted to LGS and started from scratch, eventually releasing ‘REX’ that summer. Each EP made a marked impression upon release, incorporating influence from the syncopation and broken rhythms of jazz and sampling the likes of Cardi B, Aaliyah and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in pulsating, transfigured techno.

In 2018 object blue’s touring schedule also took off. She took her daring, improvised live shows and frenzied DJ sets across the UK and further afield, including sets at Atonal, Unsound, Lux Fragil and a homecoming gig at Beijing’s DADA. This year she completed her first Asian tour, with debuts at Dekmantel, Dimensions, Houghton and more locked in this summer, and a new release incoming.

Always bold, object blue is one of the most exciting new names in electronic music. Check out her Impact mix and Q+A below.

Your first gig was a live set, and your debut EP on TT was born out of a live set performed in Corsica Studios. In a radio interview last year you said live sets are the more taxing side of your artistry and DJ sets are like a “spa day”. You’ve been DJing more frequently of late. How do you view your relationship with live and DJ sets now?

I first started doing live sets because it was the only thing I knew how to do. I didn't know how to DJ and I always felt like a more capable producer than DJ. It's still true. I listen to other DJs and I am far less technically capable and my selections aren't as gripping as other people's, but it has gotten really stressful just playing a live set every other week. With DJing, I do it because I really love other people's music. I almost never play my tracks when I DJ. Sometimes I drop 'Act like it then' as a sort of fan service. But for me, it's an outlet for my nerdy side: I think these tunes are great and you have to listen to them.

Live sets are more taxing; all the parameters are under my control. I also have a bad habit of writing a completely new set on the day of, or the day before, the gig because I'm afraid it will be boring if I use my old material. I kept setting aside lots of time to make a completely new set that I was never going to play again and that really interfered with my ever increasing workload of preparing this DJ set, doing this mix, writing my releases.

In that same interview you mentioned how your debut live show was a 45 minute slot and you accidentally completed your planned set within eight minutes. And when you came into play The Lab LDN recently, you said you had well over an hour of music planned but blasted through it in 20 minutes due to experimenting with the four deck setup. I was a little surprised when you said that, in a positive way, and respected it as a very bold approach, especially in The Lab which was being live streamed. Do you think your DJing style mirrors your production style in terms of always driving for experimentation?

More simply than my drive to experiment, I get really worried that the audience will get bored. If I don't mix something new in after three minutes I'm like: 'oh my god I bet they think I'm so boring'. I think that's common for producers. People say ‘this track you made is amazing’, but as the producer you've listened to it 1000 times and think of all of the flaws and room for improvement which they don't hear. When I DJ I think that side of me kicks up: ‘I've heard this track so many times, let 's change it’.

You just completed a residency on Rinse FM. How did you find that, and how did you approach it in terms of the music you played and the guests you invited to join you?

I'm always amazed at the amount of quality music that doesn't get enough recognition. I wanted to highlight that. Rinse is a big platform, and I was thinking about the people who don't have that. I started playing my friend's music, or weird artists I discovered with one release on Bandcamp.

My first few shows on Rinse were two hours long, which was a good timeframe to invite a live set onto it. I will always feel like a producer who just stumbled into the DJ world. I think DJing is its own art which should be respected, and I understand the gripes DJs have when a producer who isn't that into the art of DJing itself gets more bookings. But I want to stand alongside producers and show live sets can be just as exciting and varied as DJ sets. That’s why I invited Loraine James and Hence Therefore, whose live sets are amazing,

You’ve used a lot of samples and field recordings in your music. What are some of your most interesting selections?

I was recently on the way to Hong Kong to play Sónar as the last show and only live set of my Asia tour. I was waiting in a van at the Shenzhen border as suitcases were loaded in the open trunk and could hear construction noise, birds chirping, people's speech outside. I really liked it so recorded it and played it in my Sonar set unedited. I found it beautiful like that, and I thought it was nice to record the regional sound and play it.

That Asian tour in April also saw you play parties in China, South Korea and Japan. How were your experiences playing out there?

It was amazing. I never thought my life would draw a full circle like that. I always thought I had to leave Asia, my background and my previous life behind to go into a completely new world. So to be able to bring a piece of that back with me to where I'm from is such a crazy feeling.

I never thought I'd ever really fit in in Tokyo - and I still won't - but the fact that I have Japanese fans really moved me. I've always felt uncomfortable there. I couldn't really have genuine relationships because I was such an outsider. So it was really nice to be able to not compromise who I am - still be this object blue from London - and find Japanese people who are fine with that and appreciate me for who I am.

You said it makes you cry when a Chinese fan sees you play and says they’re proud of you, which is lovely.

It's so cute!

But recently you posted on Twitter about starting to cover your face when you perform to get away from being judged and objectified for how you look. It’s sad, and must be frustrating, that negative responses occur more often and you can’t just be yourself at gigs.

It is. I find it amazing that people are still in denial about the power of misogyny in our world, because women are confronted with it everyday. Before I became a full-time musician I was experienced with the grievances of being a woman just as a woman, but now I also experience the grievances of being a woman artist. People can be well meaning but condescending, or people will just have malintent to begin with and be really angry at the fact that a woman is in ‘their’ domain.

Naturally, I wish we were all in a much more progressive world where no one would have to cover their face or identity to feel more safe or accepted. But the truth of the matter is, guys try to hit on me after I play a set, they try to touch me while I'm DJing. They somehow think it's acceptable to come up and say 'oh you are so adorable' like I'm a fucking puppy. I'm like, I'm probably older than you!

[A cover for my face] is something I'm really looking into. I want to get a veil made. I also kind of want to look a little bit scary, you know?

You would probably be labelled as ‘outspoken’ as an artist, but you don’t kid yourself that DJs discoursing on Twitter is part of some grand political movement, and you’re quite wary of the conflation of an artist’s sense of self and their public persona. In an interview during Ljubljana Pride you noted it’s “quite dangerous to treat artists as the best thinkers of our times” and to “dilute politics with celebrity culture”. Do you think the swirling chaos that is the discourse around dance music can be made productive?

I don't think it's that helpful honestly. I think everyone should just pull their head out of their ass and recognise that we are in a tiny, niche scene. It may not feel like it. I understand that we have celebrity DJs and that might seem huge, but in the wider scheme of things we are really niche artists and I think being self-obsessed about our scene and ourselves is quite an ignorant and unproductive way to be.

What I do think has been helpful is the fact that, for example, we now have Safer Spaces policies on club walls. It's not enough to stop harassment but maybe it does help dancers feel safe. I have found the courage to have people kicked out of clubs by the bouncer because clubs say on the wall that they treat any kind of harassment seriously. Whereas before, I remember going out dancing way before I started producing, being groped, and leaving the club in tears because I didn't think it would go anywhere.

You've gotten involved in discussions that other people aren't willing to. Straight, white and male are three of the highest privileges in the West and are often rightfully cited as such. You fall into none of the above, but haven’t shied away from talking about your own class privilege and how beneficial that has been for your work in music. Do you think there are important conversations in dance music that are being overlooked in the main currently?

People are so uncomfortable talking about class. That's really struck me. It's good that we're talking about sexism and racism now - although we still have a long way to go - but I don't think we've even started on class. It feels like people think it's uncouth to talk about money, and yeah it is, but while talking about class I always link to this article by a writer called Anne Bauer. She writes about how her writing is basically sponsored by her husband who has a good job and makes her coffee when she starts writing at 7am. She says she knows this because she used to be married to a drug addict, had no money, raised three kids by herself, and during that time produced zero amount of writing.

People harp on about how ‘pain is essential to and makes interesting art’, and I kind of get this suspicion that people like to harp on that adage because that way they can protect their bourgeois status. Thinking: 'You know what, I got very far, and you're still there, because I'm just simply more talented than you/I'm extraordinary/my work is seminal', and not wanting to consider that the fact that, maybe I got here partly to do with my talent, but also because I had money which buys time when you can write music. Because if poorer musicians and artists knew that, they might think you're not as extraordinary as you like to think, or they might think 'this is really unfair, we should revolt'.

I became a communist long before I started making music. People say 'now that somebody's an artist they think they're suddenly so interesting, and have important things to say, and think they have influence'. But that's not why I'm outspoken. I always have been. I've been in leftist groups since way before I started making music. It would just be dishonest to shut that side of me up just because I make music now.

You've spoken about how you don’t think your music in itself conveys political messages, and tend to talk about it in quite emotional and physical terms. One quote in your tinyletter is: “what's happening today is that I am painstakingly and joyfully laying down this dear track of mine. and I feel like a thirsty plant being fed for the first time in days”. Is making music catharsis for you? Or a more intense drive?

It's intense and it is cathartic. It's something I really, really have to do. It as natural for me as eating or drinking a glass of water. If I don't write music I start to feel incomplete and like an inferior version of myself. I'm most at myself when I'm making, playing or listening to music. If I didn't find any success as an artist then I'd probably just be starving on the street, working temp jobs, badly.

It is an emotional experience but I don't tend to use music as a vehicle to convey emotions, just like how I don't use music to convey political thought. The only exception is my next release - more details soon!

How did you approach your Impact mix?

I started at 140 because I've really been feeling 140 recently. The mix is very reflective of my current DJ sets: playing spooky half-time tracks at a high tempo with lots of cheeky melodic elements. it's the kind of sound and rush you can only get at late night on massive systems!

Tracklist:
De Grandi - Cable
Esgar - Extract
Xao - Hydroxyapatite
Bonaventure - Colony ft. DEBBY FRIDAY
90 Process - Give Me Dat
DJ Melania 666 - CASTLE III; auto-accelerative movement of the Spirit departs from Mongolia; 新朋克VTSS - Sensor 150
Loraine James - +44 - Thinking - Of - You - Hence Therefore’s Outta My Element Version
Lisa Frank & Rez Ekbatan - Whisper (AZ Remix)
Doubt - Return
Charli XCX - I Got It (Avbvrn Advisory Bootleg)
Dynkur - Errrare
Intentionally Cold - PUSH IT
Hornsey Hardcore - The Wiz
Splash Pattern - Up Next New Season
JAY GADIGAN - JE T’AIME
D.Dan - Suspicious Frozen Products
Lighght - Love, Life and All of the Above

Patrick Hinton is Mixmag's Digital Features Editor, follow him on Twitter

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