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Here’s How Singaporean Duo Tzechar Smash That MFing Genre Button

We talk to the cryptic cultural mish-mashers about art, borders, and corn, plus premiere their latest brilliant audio-visual cut: 'Undulating Currency Mix of Dynasty Legacy.'
May 13, 2016, 2:51pm

“So, who are they?” After acts like the Weeknd and ZHU have demonstrated anonymity’s value in getting a career started, it’s a question that’s become as much a cliché of 2010s blog cool as, say, trap hats or massive plug-in synths. But the intrigue around Tzechar has always felt a bit different. The cloak-and-dagger group has cast a complex shadow on Asian pop over the past few years, through abstract audiovisual remixes that have provided everything from consciousness-expanding cultural commentary to out-and-out bangers (all too rare over here in Korea). Along the way, they’ve seen play for their originals on RinseFM and KEXP, been stalked by Thump (even winding up among their top mixes of 2015), and apparently convinced the fifth-wheel member of supermassive K-pop boy band Big Bang that he’s some kind of all-healing deity.

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Tzechar have kept quiet about origins to keep their work pure of cultural assumptions, but now that Seattle electronica label Hush Hush label has signed on to release their imminent debut EP, they’re beginning to step out of the shadows. (They tell me, for example, that they are two individuals of Singaporean upbringing, currently based in Melbourne, and they go by the names of Lam Suet and Self-Obsessed.) To mark the occasion, they’ve gifted Noisey their Undulating Currency Mix of Dynasty Legacy. This trim live session bleeds the borders between Hong Kong cinema scores, Fever Ray, Korean remixes of Korean coffeehouse muzak, and Smiths Jaden and Willow, underscoring the spiritual and material similarities between them and many more, in what is perhaps their most revelatory work to date.

It’s a brilliant listen by itself, but taken with its obsessively detailed video companion, Undulating Currency… becomes a different experience altogether. Certainly you’ll be left with some questions—we asked Tzechar some of our own.

Noisey: This mix does such a good job of bridging East and West, mainstream and underground, that I often have a hard time parsing what’s what. Like I’d forgotten that song by MBLAQ, a lower-tier K-pop group, and I figured you’d dropped their a capella over some left-field Soundcloud beat—but nope.
Lam Suet: Yeah, K-pop production is actually often pretty legit, but that isn’t always obvious for people who aren’t familiar with it. It’s mainstream pop music, but there are many elements that people into more underground music can definitely appreciate. The way that their products are meticulously considered in holistic multiple dimensions is really artistry in commercialism.

Speaking of seamlessness—the flow and pacing just feels so right; it’s almost narrative. What do you use to mix?
Lam: That narrative experience is a crucial part of everything we create. We start by compiling a pool of tracks tied to a general concept, get familiarized with how they might link to each other by key, tempo and vibe, and then mixing it live in one take to create an organic, cohesive piece.

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What’s your creative process like?
Lam: For this project I did the mix and she did the video, and we write all our original music together. In general, I do everything I’m meant to do and she does everything else.

Self-Obsessed: I do everything and he does everything else. That Timberlake moment is smooth. We’re in pretty poptimistic times—Justin Bieber and Carly Rae topping lots of critics’ lists last year, even Kanye’s—but it feels like Asian pop is still out of bounds for so many people. I always hear, from fans and skeptics alike, that I’m not the type of person they’d expect to be so deep into something like K-pop. Given some other stuff you incorporate, I imagine you get the same kind of reaction from people. How’d you get into it?
Lam: We’ve always grown up with different Asian pop, and with K-pop in particular it was just realizing that even with the obvious corniness (which is still an integral part of its appreciation), every aspect from the songwriting, production, choreography, and even the way each member plays characters that aren’t meant to be any kind of IRL representation—all that is really an attempt to take the core ideas of pop music to the next level, bringing it into a (often dystopian) future hyper-reality that actually physically exists in our real world.

Self-Obsessed: He showed me “My Heaven” on StyleZeitgeist. Daesung wearing Rick Owens. And then YOU! know I’ll be back.

Your work always has really detailed video accompaniment. This mix, for example, works beautifully on its own, but with the video it becomes a totally different experience.
Lam: People usually listen to music with some form of contextual accompaniment anyway, like soundtracking an activity or transit. The visuals we provide are merely another way of prompting thought patterns and meditative journeys through linking imagery with music.

Self-Obsessed: Praise the Lord. I’m really glad you were entertained by the ride. For you to experience as you travel through time and its parts, in space. I make things as they are meant to be made everyday.

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I feel like the same can be said for Korea, where these major pop labels are taking such a detailed, integrated approach to their artists’ music, videos, and physical movements. Is there any connection between that and the multimedia nature of your work?
Lam: K-pop is best experienced as part of its entire package, because they are inextricably linked in every part of its consideration. So yeah, visual aspects are a crucial part of our work—by bombarding viewers with so much foreign stimuli they are forced to participate in the way they recognize and relate to these references and how they are linked to what they are listening to, while the footage they have no context for are cognitively filled in by their personal worldview.

Self-Obsessed: Yes. I should think so! One must understand how things come into play. It is important to understand the relationships shaping our world.

Asian themes are prevalent throughout the mix and video, but we also see a lot of Westerners Jamie Lee Curtis and Jim Carrey. It’s interesting to see the Wolf of Wall Street juxtaposed with Korean boy band theatrics, especially set to the type of soundtrack you've assembled. What do you feel is the connection between these entertainment worlds that, despite so many attempts, nobody’s really managed to connect?
Lam: The footage and tracks chosen share common themes regardless of geographic origin or notions of artistic credibility. For example, Jamie Lee in films about coming to terms with lost youth versus Kazuo Ohno going through [the] stages of life. The concept of art and entertainment is inherently ridiculous, but are all driven by human emotions and motivations, and that’s what links us all.

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Self-Obsessed: Fate; being human. Based on fate (for example, where one is born) people generally quantify talent differently: One’s preferences are affected by things like personal history, geography, and bias. Still, we share relationships and associated factors that tie in with living. I suppose if you were to look at it more closely perhaps it would be similarities because of the nature of being human which you know is something we can all relate to. But ideas regarding the commonality of sustenance and its traditions may differ amongst producers and consumers from region to region.

What’s the significance of all the corn in the video?
Lam: K-pop—and, by relation, all forms of art—is fundamentally about taking corn really seriously.

Self-Obsessed: Obvious material observable because of corn. As usual, the boys of Big Bang loom large in your visuals. What’s the fixation?
Lam: Big Bang are by far the most interesting boy band in the world, in
the way they navigate their egos through an industry that generally discourages self-empowerment, and how this journey manifests in their art and the way they choose to present themselves. We really just hope to see them live up to their true potential.

Self-Obsessed: Individual sentient figures of worth, meaning I personally find them worthy and/or worthwhile in this world we live in; history present for the future (history haha). Also have you seen Lord Seungri’s face? I really like good face. He gives great godmode face. I love watching him glow. I have a desire to see Big Bang bright(er). And T.O.P is an interesting specimen to say the least.

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The one Tzechar tune on here focuses on the question, “What you wanna be?” What’s that about?
Lam: While the song itself has universal themes of living up to oneself, the K-pop context is really in the way the artists’ egos are determined by the roles they have been assigned, and how they can live up to their performances of these characters. Rather than simply play a caricature or superficially mimicking case studies like Michael Jackson, who best to model themselves after other than themselves?

Self-Obsessed: Er—just being what you wanna be? What do you mean exactly—as in what is the alternative? I guess I just hear people making silly excuses for themselves all the time and you know it really ain’t like they have NO CHOICE. It’s ridiculous. Frames happen and how the frames form depend on what you wanna do with them. Such is life.

When you look at all these different Asian scenes—from K-pop down to Japanese post-rock down to Beijing grime—what do you see? Do you have any kind of vision for the future?
Lam: We are in an era with full access to everything ever recorded, and drawing from any point of history regardless of origin will always transform into new art when re-made through new eyes, even if it takes time to evolve into its own thing. For example, the Howie Lee track featured here was just as he began transitioning into his current definitively unique sound that reflects his particular pop culture influences in a global context, which is a fascinating in-between point. At a larger scale, this transition from influence emulation that all artists go through to something that becomes its own thing, is what creates waves of genres. This kind of organic progression is so important to the creation of meaningful art, as opposed to, say the over-reverence of “5000 years of culture” that the Chinese government loves to tout but is ultimately irrelevant in a modern context.

Self-Obsessed: I see people navigating. I hope the future involves people being more educated about relationships. I hope people think about what they are doing: how and why. I hope people revisit history to think about lessons for the future so unnecessary suffering or poor(er) legacies can be eliminated, but you know, I guess ignorance and hubris can present themselves as attractive packages. Everyone is tied to nature. Anyhow I see various forms of rebellion and oppression and pandering… effects of the history and the now. My vision for my own future involves being happy and loving myself and everything I love rightly.

Tzechar has an EP coming soon on Hush Hush, and a Tumblr where they’ll probably let you know.

Jakob Dorof is a writer and K-pop nerd second to none living in Seoul. He's on Twitter.