A Conversation with The Consulate General (Alex Chen of Boy in Static)
I recently had the chance to interview Alexander Chen of Boy in Static as well as his new solo project The Consulate General. His new album under the Consulate General moniker is entitled “Person Number” and has many down tempo melodic tracks that blend orchestral and electronic elements as well as Mr. Chen’s excellent songwriting about life longing and a little old place called Sweden.
Why the name “Consulate General”, did you feel like you were representing a foreign country’s interests when you moved to Gothenburg Sweden?
I was in the middle of relocating when I had to name this new project. We had to call Sweden’s “Consulate General” office in the US repeatedly to get our questions answered. It was pretty difficult getting someone on the phone. I think it was when I was writing a check out to “The Consulate General of Sweden” that I decided it would be a good name. Your interpretation seems about right. It sounds very mysterious, old-fashioned to me.
What was it about Gothenburg, Sweden that inspired you to write the songs on “Person Number”?
These songs are very biographical, and moving and live abroad definitely inspired some songs. I tried to stay true to the situation though, not over-romanticize it. For example, “What Time Is It Now” was written when I was in the thick of these mind-numbing logistics, so I wanted the lyrics to be very inhuman and technical. The title itself comes from one of those “What Time is It Now In…” time zone websites. Lots of acronyms (SWIFT bank codes, NTSC/PAL DVD conversion, things like that). When we were warned about these “TV Controller” people that come knock on your door to make sure you don’t own a television (you have to pay a tax if you own a TV), I had to include that too. A couple other songs were written while I was still living in Berkeley, CA so there are quite a few references that area too (like “Lonesome Sunday.”)
Your debut album for Boy in Static “Newborn” was released by The Notwist singer Markus Acher’s record label “Alien Transistor” has The Notwist’s music influenced your songwriting? Who are some of your influences that you look to during the songwriting process?
The Notwist definitely had a big influence, especially when I was recording my first Boy in Static album “Newborn.” I owe a lot to Markus for getting me started, with the album release and then touring with 13 & God. As far as influences, I try to move around album-to-album. “Violet” was very atmospheric and ambient; I think I was listening to a lot of Slowdive at the time (so it was a real joy to collaborate with Simon Scott for the new album). For The Consulate General, I was actually listening to a Roy Orbison compilation when I decided to put a set of new songs together. The original versions of “Half-Day Honeymoon” and “Sweet Solano” were written in that vein. It veered into more comfortable territory as things progressed, but I think it’s a good way to go – to start out with a really far out inspiration. My wife actually wrote “Cole Porter” on my hand yesterday.
Your Song “On The Run” was written on a battery powered Casio keyboard (Which are pretty awesome I agree), was this an experimental way to write a song for you, or something that you do fairly often?
I do that often now. Over time, I’ve gotten very comfortable with the production process on the computer, but it can sometimes work against you. I found it very refreshing to sit with the battery-powered Casio in another room, just to not stare at a computer screen. Simplifies the variables.
There are some great little interlude tracks on your album “Person Number”, but the one that stands out to me is “Liesa Lietzke”, it’s got so much character, how did this track take shape?
Those interludes were originally created for this collaboration project with my wife called “Studio Masters.” It was for an art show, where we created 46 two-minute songs, each based on a specific artist in the show. Then we loaded them onto MP3 players, like a museum audio tour, so people would have a soundtrack for the tour. Liesa Lietzke’s is one of my favorites as well. I think the drum sounds are samples of cabbage being peeled apart. Those are mellotron presets singing the doo-wop bits. You can hear longer versions (as well as all 46 songs) at http://studiomasters.brindalyn.com
The Notwist has a bunch of cool sound interfaces on their page for “The Devil, You + Me” was your sound interface on www.theconsulategeneral.com done by the same people?
I actually built that myself. I do animation and interactive stuff for work. Those ducks gather at a pond near our place in Gothenburg, it’s a pretty incredible sight. I thought it would be fun to turn them into a musical instrument. The audio samples are all from the song “On The Run” (track 2).
How did the collaborations with Montag, Misha, Simon Scott of Slowdive etc. on your album come about?
Each case was pretty different. Antoine (Montag) and I have remixed each other’s songs (I did “Alice” and he did Boy in Static’s “Young San Francisco). We’ve only met once in real life, accidently, in a hotel lobby in Japan. John Chao (from Misha) just randomly got in touch, but his track “Lonesome Sunday” was one of the most in-depth collaborations. I sent him some bare vocal and drum tracks and he transformed it into a full production, even putting a twist on chords. Ryan Fritch (from Sole & the Skyrider Band) met at a hip-hop show in San Francisco, Ceschi Ramos introduced us. He was living nearby in Oakland and hammered out these nice clarinet and double-bass tracks. Simon Scott emailed me a few years ago, mentioning he liked the first Boy in Static album. As a big Slowdive fan I was very flattered, and our schedules finally clicked into place to collaborate on “17th Street.”
In your music, there are both electronic and organic elements, how important is it to you to have a blend of those sounds in your music?
It’s odd, I often start out telling myself I’m going to record an entirely acoustic track with all viola, or an entirely synth-based electro track. But I’m often not really 100% happy with it until I blend the acoustic and electronic. I guess I just gravitate that way.
Have you discovered any great Swedish music that you can’t get out of your head?
I was surprised when I looked at my iPod and realized how many Swedish bands I was already a fan of before I moved out here - Jens Lekman, The Radio Dept, The Knife. After I moved out here, I would randomly look up some bands I liked just to find they were actually from Sweden, even Gothenburg – like Fredrik, Suburban Kids With Biblical Names, Boy Omega. Coincidentally, I’m subletting the apartment of the drummer from Love Is All.
What’s next on your agenda over there in Gothenburg, Sweden?
I’d like to collaborate with some local musicians while I’m out in Gothenburg. I’ve been emailing with Boy Omega and I might sing a bit on one of his new songs. I’m also collaborating remotely on a few tracks with the guys from Blue Sky Black Death that I’m pretty excited about.