Marking his return to recording in a near-decade long absence, sound artist George Chua's Smokescreen is a magnificent return to form – and easily one of the year’s most ferocious releases. Packed with dense walls of sound and sheets of harsh noise seeping through alternating rhythmic grids, the album’s no wave intensity reflects an artistic statement for an overstimulated zeitgeist. As an overwhelming sonic mass, it exemplifies it in form, while his own personal experiences also give it an irreverent spirit, informed by a tongue-in-cheek attitude.
A pioneer since the early 2000s with his work in theatre and sound art, Big Duck had a chat with the re-emerging artist on the process behind Smokescreen, his experiences in various cities, religion, and how he’s been over the past few years, following his return to music and performance.
PHOTO: Nicholas Kent Tann
Hi George! Thanks for your time. Smokescreen is your first release in around 10 years – what inspired your return to art-making in general – and what went on during your break from it?
I took about a five year break from making music and art-making. But prior to that, I had been a full-time artist, becoming more active around 2002 onwards. I was really one of my first few people that did sound art in Singapore – naturally, there wasn’t sound art-related work back then, but theatres tended to have good budgets back in the day, so I began working with theatres doing sound design work, and I eventually branched out into film and composing across mediums.
I was very active in the past, but disappeared for a few years – my children were young at the time, and I wanted to reflect and just listen. But I started performing again around 2012 sporadically – it began when I was working with artist Ho Tsu Nyen for his theatre project The Song of the Brokenhearted Tiger, and the following year I was invited to Lasalle College of the Arts for another performance. Time passed, and around 2015-16, people began noticing my work again, and became more interested in the music.
Around 2016, I was invited to play in Tokyo for the Tokyo Festival of Modular. There was a sense of serendipity to it, especially because I felt like I was a relative unknown internationally. I was invited by a friend at Lasalle, Brian O’Reilly, who had played their festival a year or two ago. He had recommended me to the organisers, and so I ended up at the festival in 2016 and did two performances – one at the Red Bull Music Academy, and the other was at SuperDeluxe.
Playing at SuperDeluxe was really memorable. It’s a well-known space – you’d always hear albums namedropping the place; Keiji Haino played there a few times as well. The Japanese have a professionalism to them, and the venue had great sound – so I really enjoyed the performance. Just being able to watch various artists and attend the workshops made for a really fun time.
I didn’t have any intention of my music going anywhere – things just happened and fell into place. So in 2017, Mark from Ujikaji Records floated the idea of making an album. With that in mind, we had a performance at ArtScience Museum in 2017 for their Late program, with visuals done by video artist Wu Jun Han. That performance was called Smokescreen. It was the spark for the project – although the album didn’t include any pieces from the performance, the music was very similar – full of complicated beats and dense noise. The album was done in 2018. 2020 seemed like the most inappropriate time to release the album, but when Mark says it's time, it became the perfect time to do this.
PHOTO: Tokyo Festival of Modular
What was the recording process of Smokescreen like?
I don’t feel a need to release an album, unless someone initiates it. In a sense, every performance is a new piece of music. For the past 10 years, I’ve never pre-recorded everything and there aren’t presets and pre-loops that I prepare. In a sense, every piece of music could’ve been an album. That being said, in committing something to recording, one could be making a more serious statement – in this particular statement I am saying something beneath the surface of sonic wars: to pay attention to the softest sound in every track.
With that said, I spend a long time thinking about the music. Since I worked with a whole case of modular synths, I don’t have a particular module to highlight. I tinker with a patch for weeks on end – but when I record I’m very decisive. The process took around a year – I would make the patch, improvise within it, record four to five different versions of each console, and that would be it. In a sense, each patch becomes an instrument for a particular set of rhythmic interplays.
How do you know when a particular track is ready? Was there a specific intent to craft a collection of work with certain subject matter when you first began making the album in 2017?
The recording sessions were all live takes. Everything is performed and improvised without any overdubs. The only edit done was to choose my favourite take and edit the length. I want to feel the danger in electronic music – not the neat and streamlined beats that remind me of our education system. Because it is improvised, there is no time for nostalgia and looking back to say: hey, that part could be louder. Too bad, this track is over. I have unplugged the cables.
Like I said, I was looking for danger. I wanted to be surprised by my own gestures – where there is acceptance of "perceived" mistakes. If you can't enjoy mistakes in music, it would be hard to enjoy mistakes in a person.
Where the beat drops, they’re not at the ends of tailored-made crescendos – but rather they cut like a knife disrupting all expectations. It's never ready, but the feeling is. It’s almost like saying enough is enough. It is an unfinished conversation – and abruptly a brawl breaks out in the meditation room, only in the head of those who can't get rid of their selfish ambitions.
George Chua with multi-disciplinary artist Wu Jun Han, collaborator for the initial performance that sparked Smokescreen. PHOTO: ArtScience Museum
For Smokescreen, was it a conscious decision from the start to go solely to the modular synth this time round? How has your relationship evolved with the modular synth, and what kind of sonic possibilities did you want to specifically explore that you couldn’t with a computer?
Yes, that's what I have been using the last few years. I want to explore beats without grids. I want my own mistakes and the computer refused.It's been only about 6 years. My relationship with it is detached. So that it stays weird to me even though I have gotten a hang of the personalised and customised choice of my making.
Self doubt is part of my creative process, I doubt my allegiance to certain genres. Even before the break, I was doing loud and noisy stuff after releasing an ambient-like album. That is not good for a career – because it is inconsistent – but I sleep better that way. That being said, over the years I’ve become more uncompromising over my work.
From wuxia characters to Paul Virillio’s writings and concepts like his war model - is there a way that you apply non-musical concepts to sound?
The only way I can apply it is with contradictions. Ideally sound can liberate us from all conceptual traps.
There’s quite a raw, nihilistic no-wave sensibility to how Smokescreen’s tracks feel – even though they have elements that feel calculated, there’s this really powerful, almost animalistic intensity to it. How did it influence your approaches towards the tracks on Smokescreen?
I love the energy of the no wave era, and that remains the only kind of punk rock I still listen to. I always was into weirder music, but beginning in my 20s I started to see music more as sound. No wave was special because I discovered Ikue Mori, who was the drummer for the band DNA, who were active back in the 90s. I bought a lot of her records back then, and I thought if I programmed my electronics, I would love to program it like her rhythms. It’s danceable and not at the same time, and in Smokescreen, there’s a similarly angular energy to it, in how the noise emerges from the beats – sometimes rhythmic, sometimes arrhythmic. It’s almost surprising – like Arto Lindsay. He looks like a nerd, but creates these unimaginable noises.
Yes, in some way it is animalistic – like an animal hungry for food. Running through my veins is the blood of a human animal. The previous sentence is a lyric. But even more so there’s a human element to it, the rhythms on Smokescreen is somewhat akin to fighting. When you talk about fights, there’s a rhythm to it, and you’re always trying to break the other’s rhythm to get an upper hand. It’s not metrical, but you always need the combinations to throw your follow-up punches.
There is also serendipity because of the nature of the module I use to churn out these samples. But sometimes something works and I say: that's it! Chance and trying to control it. Isn't that what everyone is trying to do: control their chances?
Guangzhou, Tokyo, Singapore – the tracklist is sprinkled with major Asian metropolises. Are there any specific experiences that you have with these cities that stand out to you, however? Why these cities specifically?
It’s less about my specific experiences in these cities, but more about a certain kind of mood when you’re a dot amidst a sea of people. You find it a lot in those densely packed cities, especially when the streets get crowded. It’s an objective experience – when you enter those spaces – Seoul, Guangzhou, Hong Kong – you’re pressured to be fast, like there’s danger in the air. Singapore’s more insidious almost – because it’s part of our fabric to be competitive.
That being said, Guangzhou's air pollution is no joke at all. It is literally smoke that gets stuck in your nose. These cities form specific experiences of various kinds of intensities for me. We are living the speculative fiction.
Why Punggol, specifically?
It was the tail end of a straight bus during my childhood that led to where my father worked. Neo Punggol is an imaginary space between the real and unreal. Between the mundane and the potential for revolution.
Is there anything you recommend in Punggol, nowadays? What hood do you recommend in Singapore?
For Neo Punggol’s dazzling video, how was the collaboration with video artist Yeyoon Avis Ann? Was there a specific direction that you both decided to go for?
Mark from Ujikaji raised the idea that we should do a music video, and we were saying that we should maybe we should work with someone different. It would be better to go for someone younger, I thought, and talking with Mark, he ran through a list of artists that he knew. I thought Avis’ work would be interesting, because I believed she would bring along a different set of sensibilities to the music. There was some conversation surrounding the video – Whatsapp and Zoom chats – but most of the decisions were up to her. This was truly a 2020 collaboration.
You talk about the terror of a global information war. What do you think is the most striking to you personally about the oversaturated climate we face today, and what do you think we should guard ourselves most against?
There is not much we can do to guard against it, if we are constantly consuming it. Also terror isn't the word I use because the information war is full of stimuli and overloading on dopamine pleasure. If there is any terror it is in the very chase of pleasure itself which leads to pain. Pain will lead to the need for more pleasure to numb the pain. It’s Haw Par Villa all over again.
Virilio believed that technology and advancement could not exist without the potential for accidents. It seems to be something we can infer from the violence-filled video for Neo Punggol – with Asia itself on the rise, do you think that there’s something that we should watch for?
One complex five letter word: China. Also, CBD Oil money.
Do you have a thing against jazz funk snobs?
The track title is in reference to the band Naked City's track called Jazz Snob Eat Shit. I just added the word funk into it to make it groovy and removed the rude consumption of faeces.
I would like to think no one likes snobs – whether it be on jazz funk or otherwise. I actually have no problem with people who are really technically proficient. But I grew up in a time where there were many subcultures that became really snobbish – oh, I only listen to 70s rock, I only listen to jazz fusion – it could be anything. It was that narrow-mindedness I wanted to poke fun at. Of course, people like that probably still exist, but from my experiences, those people who are probably just record collectors or audiophiles who don’t make music themselves.
That being said, I also create music that’s very different from what people would perceive a pastor to be like. It was never intentional – after all, I have been making music way before my Christian work, but I do find myself in an intersection of things that don’t socially overlap. Over time, I have matured as a person, but I also became a self righteous prick myself – the music in Smokescreen is part of my repentance from that. I could have been that jazz funk snob.
PHOTO: Nicholas Kent Tann
What’s some of your favorite music of late, whether it be Ujikaji or beyond?
Too many to mention – but around the time of this interview, I was listening to Aaron Dilloway's Psychic Drive Tapes. Also, I have to say that Liturgy is a really underrated band – their latest album HAQQ is amazing. Unfortunately, some genres like black metal have a pretty stupid bro code attached to them, but I really loved them since day one. It’s highly complex music, and I can kind of empathise and sympathise with the frontman, Hunter-Hunt Hendrix in how he tends to be a mistaken figure. Greg Fox’s drumming is excellent as well – I spent so much time dissecting it. It’s not just head music, but it also gives such powerful sensations.
I can listen to all sorts of music, but I find that they play different functions – I listen to Chinese pop sometimes for fun as well. But personally over the last ten years, I’ve found it very difficult to listen to song-based stuff, because the words don’t resonate with me. I see music more as sound, and it should be about texturally interesting. Life itself is already full of problems, and I don’t want to hear someone else’s psychosis. That being said, during the circuit breaker, I actually checked out Forests – they’re really fun and I can imagine their live shows are even more so! It’s rock music if I just want to have fun as a one-off experience, and I’d have enjoyed it even more if I was young.
You’re a multidisciplinary artist yourself – beyond the sonic realm, what other pieces of art have you been influenced by lately?
Beyond music, I’m also working on a project from the past that I've resurrected called the "Seven Legged Spider Dance Troupe". It's along the lines of physical theatre, which i used to do a lot of – recently, a curator was looking for works for a show that involved the physical body, and so I decided to bring back the project to showcase. More to come.
I was wondering whether you could give us a lowdown on “Tear Gas”, the piece you recorded at the Substation for BlackKaji - and how it relates to the work on Smokescreen? Was it similarly in focus or in its process?
Tear Gas is completely different process-wise to Smokescreen – it’s like a counterpoint to the intensity and noise of Smokescreen. I told Mark that it was ‘ambient for the anguished.’ Think something like Hong Kong – after the smokescreens have settled in the riots, with the tear gas fading away, some people are on the ground, suffering and struggling to see. The process from the music was also completely different to Smokescreen. Rather than using a case of modular consoles, I used a very minimal setup, with just a singular synth this time round. Just like my other work, I spend a long time preparing it, but I decisively perform it.
I don’t look back on past experiences very well, but performing “Tear Gas” was actually one of the most memorable performances I’ve had recently. I haven’t been to the Substation in many years, and I used to be an associate artist with them in 2003-4. A lot of my performances were in the space – I even worked there, for my first job after National Service. It was a very meaningful and important space to me. I checked out so many different performances, bands, and installations there – with all of those memories, doing the recording was quite special to me.
Chua performing ''Tear Gas.'' PHOTO: The Substation
Finally, speaking of performances, one memorable performance I remember of yours was the Evening Chants show that you performed an eternity ago. Having now returned to your activities, do you notice something that feels different about audiences today when compared to the past?
That was actually the last live performance I did! The setting was interesting, with a really beautiful venue. I remembered I was trying to do something more minimal to fit the atmosphere – but I think I failed: it became something quite nightmarish and creepy in the end. I got to know Nigel Lopez from Evening Chants, and I got to play to a different audience as well, which is always fun for me.
I guess over the years, I’ve realised that a lot of the Singaporean audience are much more interested in the music – especially at the BlackKaji events at Goodman Arts Center. They would be small spaces, with 30 people – but those people would be serious and attentive, and they know what they’re going in for. Different kinds of experimental music have gained a new audience, from the free improv to more heavily electronic stuff. Over time people have caught on, and they’ve grown to be hungry for new sounds and not bound by trends. In fact, I’ve noticed that some of us who were active back then have now gone on to blossom in our own projects.
Even Ujikaji’s Mark Wong was one of them. He used to come to our gigs in 2003-2005 – I used to see him around in those small spaces as an attendee. Over time, he’s really helped develop it into what we have today. In fact, looking back at my past work, there’s even an electronic album that I made in 1999 that sounded pretty ahead of its time. It was pressed on a small run of CD-Rs, but back then, no one understood it.
Maybe it’ll see a release sometime soon! It doesn’t sound dated at all.
Smokescreen is out now on Ujikaji Records. George Chua will be performing ‘Tear Gas’, the companion piece to Smokescreen at BlackKaji, which will be broadcasted live on the 21st-23rd of October on Facebook Live and Youtube. He will be performing alongside dynamic duo sl_owtalk, and the Observatory, avant-garde institution.