An Interview with 3He, China’s IDM Virtuoso
3He is the best IDM artist you’ve never heard before. Unless of course, you caught his mind-blowing set at SXSW 2019 during the Cao Tai Music Showcase. A music industry veteran, 3He (real name Ge Fei) graduated from the Sichuan Conservatory of Music in the 90s and has been producing electronic music since 2006. Since founding Cao Tai Music in 2009, Ge Fei has been knee deep in both managing the label and producing his music. 3He (short for Helium-3) and his unique brand of IDM combines skittish beats and tinselly synths, drawing influence from his vast musical knowledge that ranges from the Chinese folk music he grew up with to his IDM contemporaries at Warp Records. We had the wonderful opportunity to interview him about his music and the Chinese indie scene. Check out the interview, in both Chinese and English, below:
James Gui: 你是怎么开始做音乐的？你从小知道你以后要当一个制作人吗？
JG: How did you get started with making music? Did you know you wanted to become a music producer when you were little?
Ge Fei: 我很小就喜欢音乐，我的外公和爸爸都喜欢演奏民乐，二胡笛子这些，我妈妈喜欢唱歌，在我初中的时候我的舅舅学习吉他，我很喜欢，就跟着他学，那个时候也刚刚是台湾流行音乐盛行的时代，我非常喜欢听收音机，看mtv，后来大学的时候开始玩乐队，我当时很喜欢英伦摇滚乐，radiohead是影响我很深的乐队，我大约是在2000年左右开始接触电子音乐，一开始特别喜欢AIR，zero7，化学兄弟，这些相对比较主流的电子音乐，之前没有想过当一个制作人，但我从2000年开始使用Cubase制作音乐，直到2006年才开始正式做制作人。
GF: I’ve liked music since I was very little. My maternal grandfather and my dad both liked to play Chinese folk music, like the erhu (2-string fiddle) and dizi (bamboo flute). My mother enjoyed singing, and when I was in middle school my uncle started learning guitar; I really liked it, so I learned alongside him. At that time, Taiwanese pop music was just beginning to become widespread--I loved listening to the radio and watching MTV. Afterwards in college, I started to play in bands, and at the time I was into English rock bands--Radiohead is my biggest musical influence. Around the year 2000, I started getting into electronic music. At first I especially liked AIR, Zero 7, The Chemical Brothers, and other relatively mainstream electronic artists. I hadn’t thought about becoming a producer, but in the year 2000 I started using Cubase to produce music. I hadn’t become a serious producer until 2006.
JG: What have you been listening to recently?
GF: I’ve mostly been listening to relatively old music, including early Warp Records albums. I’m also listening to old rock artists, for example Pink Floyd, and also some Japanese music.
JG: You’re the founder of the indie label Cao Tai Music, and also a producer. How do you juggle the two?
GF: I’m a person who is relatively vigorous and full of energy. Almost every day after I get home from work, I’ll be messing around with beats for about 2-3 hours. After a while I realized that this is, to me, a really good way to unwind and relax. When I’m immersed in the music, I forget about everything else, and it’s very fun!
JG: What is your favorite food?
GF: As someone from Sichuan, I cannot be without Sichuan food. Cantonese food is also acceptable, but I can’t live without Sichuan food.
JG: 你对中国indie music 有什么印象？最喜欢的新音乐对是哪个？
JG: What is your impression of Chinese indie music? Do you have a favorite new artist?
GF: 我觉得中国的indie music经过了20多年的发展，尤其是互联网带来全球的音乐资讯，中国音乐人从早期的模仿，到独立原创性，慢慢地开始形成自己的风格，虽然整体上还不算很有体系，也还没有出现足以影响到全世界的音乐人，但我感觉也快了，因为我身处在中国的音乐环境里，这几年变化很大，年轻人很有热情去做自己喜欢的音乐风格，他们有很多奇妙的想法。这几年让我眼前一亮的新乐队是秘密行动Stolen，他们这一次因为签证原因没有来到sxsw，但他们的音乐真的是很棒。
GF: I think that after 20 years of growth, especially with the help of the Internet, Chinese bands have come from imitating others to producing their own independent and original sound. A unique style has gradually become to take shape. Although as a whole the infrastructure isn’t quite there yet, and there haven’t been any bands with global influence, I feel like it’ll happen in no time. I’ve been surrounded by the Chinese music scene, and the changes have been vast these past few years. A lot of passionate young people are making music with their own style, with their own fantastic ideas. The band that’s caught my eye in the past few years is Stolen (秘密行动). This year they couldn’t come to SXSW because of visa issues, but their music is really great.
JG: 除了Aphex Twin 以外，你也喜欢哪个IDM artists？
JG: Aside from Aphex Twin, what other IDM artists do you like?
GF: 除了Aphex Twin，像µ-ziq，Squarepusher，Autechre也都挺喜欢。
GF: I also like artists like µ-ziq, Squarepusher, and Autechre.
JG: What do you hope people will feel after listening to your music?
GF: I’m most captivated by the ability of electronic music to immerse me within its sound, without needing to conform or coordinate with other artists. I like this kind of independent feeling--maybe I’ve listened to music, played in bands for too long! When I’m making electronic music I’m always seeking out sounds and structures that are as diverse as possible, so I hope my audiences can encounter sounds and rhythms they’ve never heard before through my music.
JG: Have you had any special experiences at SXSW? Has this year been different from last year?
GF: This year, Cao Tai Music organized its own showcase. For us, hosting an event in a place as distant as America was a really precious experience. We felt the passion and hospitality of the Austin locals, and our bands all really like this city. Furthermore, from this year’s exhibition I really liked some of the new technology showcases. The Japan exhibit had a deep impression on me: the 3-D printed sushi and robotic pets were all very fascinating, and made me feel like I was in the future. SXSW is special every year, and I hope that I can come again next year.
JG: What goes through your head when you’re composing music?
GF: About 7 or 8 years ago, when I starting throwing myself completely into making electronic music, I changed up my previous compositional style almost entirely, especially after I started using modular synths. One day, I suddenly realized the most interesting part of electronic music, or perhaps its essential quality: the mysterious synergy between producer and machine. In fact, nowadays I very rarely have a solidified concept in my mind beforehand. More often than not, when I open up my DAW, playing with different kinds of modulations I’ll discover the machine’s own sounds and rhythms, and work in tandem with the machine to produce and establish the structure of my music. Now I don’t really think about what key I’m in, or what tempo; a lot of my notes aren’t even in 12-tone equal temperament. It’s mostly random, and I allow the rhythm to be completely different in every segment as well. This gives me a huge sensory impact and freedom in imagination.
James Gui is a DJ for Record Hospital and The Darker Side. His TDS show airs every other Saturday from 9pm-10pm, and his RH show airs every week from 11pm-12am.