The experimental music producer talks us through 00s grime, Taipei’s FINAL, and beyond.
“I’m in this weird place that isn’t a place. Liminal, I think, is the word.” personalbrand’s Kai is describing the gaussian–blurred square he’s currently inhabiting in his corner of our Zoom call. But, on a more macro level, the producer–slash–DJ’s also speaking to the transitional life phase he’s presently passing through. Having just left Taipei, where he held a long term residency at FINAL, with his sights set on Berlin (“a very difficult, more challenging environment”), Kai is now posted up in his native London. An extended, pandemic–induced layover of sorts.
This, however, is only one of the many transitions that have punctuated Kai’s life. Born in Germany but raised in a so–called 'new town' in Southern England, the producer discovered West Coast hip–hop at a young age and began making beats on a keyboard gifted by his grandfather. Years later, his love for the genre brought him to LA, where he produced within the city’s gangster rap scene before returning to London to catch the beginnings—and endings—of grime and dubstep. After shelving the drum machines for a period of ten years, during which he studied Psychology, completed a Ph.D, and participated in the 2010 student protests, Kai picked up and moved to Vietnam. Then Taipei, where music came calling once again. This time under the moniker of personalbrand.
Meeting Kai not quite face–to–face, but Facetime–to–Facetime — mediated by a pixelated interface and separated by time zones — seems appropriate. The personalbrand producer’s latest EP, Shared Unrealities, explores the disconnect and dehumanization that precipitates from our increasingly digital lifestyles. Despite this, however, Kai’s frenetic, post–apocalyptic sound is also very much plugged into the global underground. And further: into an undying sense of collective and humanism, tapping into the anxiety and ecstasy that unites us all.
Zoë: When you first started making music, what sort of genres were you experimenting with?Kai: At the beginning, it was hip–hop. I was into G–funk, early 90s to mid 90s West Coast hip–hop. I was making beats, using a lot of melody, harder drums, slower tempos. A lot more instrumentation. I kind of hit the limit I had with hip–hop and then the experiences I was having with that genre weren’t fulfilling to me so I took a break from it.
Z: Could you tell me a bit more about your experiences with hip–hop?K: At the time, I was producing for some gangster rappers in LA and then, when I came back to London, the grime scene was happening. This was turn–of–the–millennium. There were lots of people who were in the streets and making music in both of those locations. In LA, you had people who were in the streets but when they were making music, everything was good because I think that there was money in it. But in the UK, there wasn’t. So the streets would enter the studio all the time. That would become difficult and it got pretty hot, let’s say. My studio was broken into and everything was stolen, including all my work, all my discs. And that was the point I realized it was time to give it a break. I just didn’t want to make music after that for a few years. It was one of those situations where I was perhaps going in a different direction anyway and that was the big push.
Z: Where else was life pulling you back then?K: I ended up studying Psychology at Goldsmiths and then at Cambridge. I’m always someone who’s been interested in reading and intellectually stimulated but I didn’t go to university until quite late. Psychology was something I was into on a personal level. When I started, it felt like the most fascinating thing to me for about ten years until music said, “Don’t forget about me. I’m back.”
Z: Could you describe your relationship with music?K: It’s about expressing something very genuine.
Z: How would you describe the kind of music you’ve been making in the last few years?K: The name for the genre is deconstructed club, as people are calling it. It’s dance music, but with very technical aspects and a future–looking, dystopian feeling. I think, personally, I’ve been exploring this idea of apocalypse through club music; it’s like dancing through the end of the world. And, through that, exploring feelings of anxiety about things that are happening in the world: our lack of control over it, climate anxiety, precarity or precariousness. This feeling that everything is changing very quickly.
Z: Could you speak to the concept behind your latest EP, Shared Unrealities?K: The title, “Shared Unrealities”, refers to how we’re all creating our own realities through our digital online lives. Not to say whether it’s a good or a bad thing, it’s just something that’s happening. In this world where we’re all seeing the world in the way that we want to, is it still possible to connect with each other? Is the “unreality” that I’ve created so different from yours that we can’t actually communicate on some things or find common ground?
Z: What does it sound like?K: One of my friends told me that it sounds like the leg of a big corporation stamping on the world. It sounds quite dark and scary. I guess you could say it sounds like the end of the world, but it’s just a virtual world, so maybe that’s a good thing.
Z: “9 Grand” samples sounds from the 2010 student protests. What does that track mean to you?K: When I came back to London from LA, I was staying in Bow in East London and the grime scene was happening. I was also a student at the time of the student protests. So with “9 Grand” I was looking back on all of that, which was about a decade ago, now. It was interesting because some of the protesters were using grime music, which is a genre that’s quite political in its own way, but then it’s also being used in this overt political way to motivate a protest. There’s this sadness when you look back at it, because after that grime moved on to other genres and the protest ended up being a failure. It was the death of free education, at least in the UK. The track is about how protest can feel very passionate and exciting, only to end up failing. It was fun to make, and kind of nostalgic and sad, in a way.
Z: Your musical moniker is personalbrand. What does it mean to you?K: For me, it’s really difficult to come up with a title or a name, especially when it’s attached to your identity. I guess, at its foundation, it’s about the idea that we’re all commodities now, the idea you should have a personal brand. And then if you’re a creative who’s putting out creative work, this notion is exacerbated. It’s referencing that in a silly, meta way. Like, “If I have to have a personal brand, it’ll just be ‘personalbrand’.” The idea of having that silly name also gives me some freedom. I don’t have to stick with one identity or even my real name. I can play around with it to a degree.
Z: You’ve been based out of Taipei for the last 3 years. How would you describe the music scene there?K: Small and tight–knit. There’s a really nice nucleus of people who really care for each other and want to support each other.
Z: You recently had a DJ residency at Taipei’s FINAL. Could you describe the atmosphere at FINAL?K: I went to FINAL’s unofficial opening on New Years Eve, going into 2019. And when I went down there... there was just this moment of, “Oh... This is perfect...” I was really smitten with it. It was very cool, very cold and cool. You know the movie Blade where there’s this blood rave and it seems a little bit scary but you want to be there? There wasn’t any blood at FINAL, but that same kind of feeling.
Z: So what sort of atmosphere are you trying to conjure when you’re DJ–ing?K: I want a feeling that everything’s about to go wrong and someone’s just keeping the train on the tracks. It’s that feeling of tension, a very frenetic feeling. Anxious, but also energy, energy, energy.
Z: You held the launch party for Shared Unrealities at FINAL. Could you speak to the format of the launch?K: I kind of went overboard with it because there are so many creative, interesting people in Taipei that I wanted to involve with the launch. I knew the DJs and performers I wanted to be there, but we also had some artists who made the decor and special objects for the night. We had special lighting; we made FINAL green for the first time. We had a lot of video artists who contributed some of their work. It was a really beautiful feeling to bring all these interesting people together. Even though it was my launch party, I was happy to take a step back and just watch what everyone else was doing. It was a warm feeling and I’d like to do more of that. Lots of people say it, but community is so important, especially in music. So, coming out of the pandemic, hopefully, at some point, we can start building those communities properly again in an offline and online setting.
Z: A lot of people talk about doing it for the community or the culture. How does one do that as a musician and what does it look like from your perspective?K: That party was as close as I’ve gotten to it. It’s not doing things for material benefit, not for fame, or ego. Involving others and finding shared ‘unrealities’ with other people feels way better than having a little bit of success or glory by yourself. I think it’s difficult, and even with technology it still takes as much work as it ever did. You have to meet new people, talk to people and put yourself out there.