Joel Eel's Eclectic Techno Debut Explores Growing Up Korean-Canadian
How cultural guilt and family expectations informed the Toronto producer's new album 'Very Good Person.'
Photo by Philip Skoczkowski
This post appeared originally on THUMP Canada.
When it came time for Joel Eel to create his debut album last year, the Korean-Canadian producer found himself being inspired by two very distinct places. Following his first trip to Seoul in 25 years, the Toronto-based artist made Very Good Person, a nine-track LP which reflects both his geographical and sonic influences.
A whip-smart blend of techno, EBM, and post-punk, the self-released record's more than simply a body of club-ready songs, with Eel presenting a captivating narrative that you don't often find in dance music. The album's title is a reference to the producer's Korean name—which translates in English to "to be good"—and spoken word lyrics are delivered in both languages. Throughout, he attempts to unpack his complicated feelings growing up the son of immigrant parents, and the challenges of navigating cultural expectations, without resorting to hackneyed musical tropes to signify his heritage.
We recently caught up with Eel in Toronto to talk about making Very Good Person, the importance of identifying as a Korean-Canadian artist, and how he uses music to address the complexities of the diasporic experience.
THUMP: Can you talk about your relationship with punk and dance music, and how the two might work with or against each other?
Joel Eel: My relationship with punk has always been about doing things in your own way, regardless of how unconventional or awkward the outcome may be. Growing up listening to punk bands, reflected an attitude and an ethos that still carries on to this day. For me, dance music was always sitting around the corner, untouched and more of a subconscious endeavor. I had an older brother who was really into techno, house, and jungle, and he would be trying to play records for me all the time, but at the time I was too focused playing with my guitar. So it took me a bit longer to get fully engaged with it.
The two play rather nice together when it comes to the nature of DIY. It's very apparent on both sides since their beginnings, but even more so now. They both share the rituals of lo-fi productions, self-made labels, collectives, and fan zines. There has been a performative aspect that live in both—punk being a lot more predominant due to the nature of instruments—but I think now you're starting to a lot of producers play live sets, and bring something other than DJing.
Techno is often coded as an "anonymous" genre. How did you arrive at the decision that this album would deal with your own personal experiences and frustrations as a Korean-Canadian artist?
Being identified as a Korean-Canadian artist is important. Due to my appearance, I'm asked all the time where I'm from, even in Canada. Having to acquire another culture made me understand the differences of the mentality of one who has immigrated to a country, and by realizing the translations between the two.
At first, it's something I didn't want to express in my art. For some reason, I felt like it was something that I didn't really want to have to explain, perhaps because of people not relating to it (mostly my white friends). Later, I came to realize that it was important to express these experiences since they were deep-rooted in me. To show a point of view in a positive light, without having to feel jaded knowing that others may feel alike.
What's the narrative you're trying to present with Very Good Person?
I want to express everything I've witnessed in a positive light. The majority of the album is about trying to find clarity when I was younger, a reflection of what you couldn't understand. As time goes by, your self-identity matures, and you realize what you learned is not what it seems. There was an alarming sense of cultural guilt that got in the way of a lot of things, and this was the way to properly expose those properties.
The struggle of trying figure how to please yourself and not to displease your elders was due to cultural guilt. At times it was extremely imposing. In the end, I had really no other choice than to keep doing what I felt was right, regardless of the sense of approval from my parents or their friends. The way I had to address it was to having to lie in order to have those fulfilling gains, while trying maintain a stable career, in order to make money (parents' main concern), and pretending music was a phase or just a hobby.
As an Asian-Canadian man creating music in a genre that's often dominated by white men, do you feel there needs to be a different approach to the way you do things?
I believe there needs to be a unique approach to break free from stereotypes. Being an Asian man, and musician from Canada, who is associated with techno—these are three variables that have their own biases. My approach has always been to try to break free from stereotypes, with the following included. A person's racial identity or cultural background should never matter, as music itself is a non-physical entity.
Can you speak about any particular instances where you felt othered by members of the dance community?
Definitely. When I was in my teens growing up, and going to punk or hardcore shows, or even walking in public. It's been a constant reminder by people who would really go out of their way to remind me that I was "Asian" by pointing out my ethnicity. I remember a time when I was walking my dog with my cousins in Oshawa, and two random kids walked by and said, "It's kinda nippy, don't you chink?" Instances like this would occur periodically in my life to the point where I had to question my identity and self-belonging.
To myself and my friends, I was Canadian, but to everyone else I was visibly Asian. I think it was a really difficult time when I was younger to understand racialization and racism when it occurs because it stuns you immediately. The one thing my mother would tell me all the time, "No matter where you were born, you will always be Korean." It took me quite some time to really understood what she meant by this.
How do your parents feel about your music now?
I don't know since I haven't shared any of this material with them. But I'm sure they would still freak out. A friend told me I should make a video of them listening to my music for the first time, but I don't think it would be a good idea.
As a producer, what do you make of Toronto's electronic scene today? What's changed since you started?
Toronto right now seems to be in a good spot for dance music in terms of events. I think from all the experiences I've had moving back and forth a few times has made me look at it differently. I think Toronto is constantly changing, and it's still growing to have a strong voice in dance music. There are a lot of interesting things happening with young and old producers.
Although our niches may not be big as London or New York, I think there is a lot of diversified talent here, and there are a few spaces and people who have really helped to create and landscape for it. I truly believe at this moment if we all put our best foot forward collectively, I think we can take a pretty dominant stance, globally-speaking. I mean there will always be challenges, but my optimism wants to best for not just myself, but for others.
Very Good Person is out now via Bandcamp.
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