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‘Liminal Zones’: Air Max ’97 talks Asia tours & upcoming DECISIONS compilation

The artist praises the “unique energy and openness among promoters and crowds” in Asia

  • Josh Feola
  • 21 October 2020

A brief spin through the catalogue of DECISIONS, the label founded by peripatetic producer Air Max ’97 in 2015, will give you a sense of the diversity and dynamism percolating through the artist’s network of collaborators. Born in the Netherlands, raised in New Zealand, and trained as a visual artist before segueing into music while living in Melbourne, DECISIONS kicked off around the time Air Max ’97 began touring heavily, spending as much time on the road as at home. The label roster reflects this. There are early releases for peers from Australia, like Melbourne’s waterhouse and DJ Plead, and Jikuroux of influential Sydney queer and inclusive club night EVE. There are intricately textured and varied recordings from some of Air Max '97’s opposite numbers in Europe, like Italian theatre composer Oroboro and Berlin producer Yre Den. And there are a few releases indexing the artist’s frequent tours through Asia, and the close relationships he’s formed on those routes.

DECISIONS began 2020 with a release for Laughing Ears, one of the most absorbing and exciting underground producers in Shanghai right now. The liner notes describe her sound as “a crepuscular environment teeming with insectile percussion and thrumming sub bass, illuminated by brilliant searchlight melodies” — such linguistic flourishes are a common feature of the label and reflect Air Max '97’s deep engagement with texture, tone, and fresh ideas in the field of dance music. Over the summer DECISIONS dropped an EP from another emerging producer, ASJ from Hong Kong, whose evolution toward her own idiosyncratic, multidimensional voice has played out thrillingly this year between that and an October release for her home-base label, Absurd Trax.

To mark its fifth anniversary, DECISIONS is gearing up to release a compilation on October 23. Consequences charts the label’s course to date, linking a disparate group of artists including Laughing Ears into “15 tracks of carefully orchestrated chaos by family, friends and new faces.” We caught up with Air Max ’97 to talk about how touring Asia has influenced his trajectory, the “unique energy and openness among promoters and crowds” in places like Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong and Seoul, and Australia’s cultural and geographical position between Asia and the Anglosphere.

Can you give me a brief synopsis of your geographical timeline? You were born in the Netherlands and grew up in New Zealand, right? How did you find your way to Melbourne, and then London after that? What caused such a peripatetic life and what have you taken with you from these places?

That's correct about me being born in The Netherlands and then growing up in NZ. I was drawn to Melbourne initially by the street art culture there, which I was really into as a teenager. I went for a couple of visits and loved the feeling of being in a bigger city, so when I left art school in New Zealand, Melbourne was an obvious choice. I came and went a little in my early 20s then settled there for several years in 2011. From about 2015 to 2018 I was touring more frequently, to the point where I was away from Australia as much as I was there. My partner and I chose to move to London in 2018 so we could both focus on work opportunities in the Northern Hemisphere. It was going great until the pandemic hit! I actually returned to Sydney earlier this year when all my shows were cancelled.

My family moved a lot throughout my childhood, which might explain why I do so myself. I also love travelling and immersing myself in unfamiliar places, and have had the privilege of working on a freelance basis for the last several years, which frees me up a lot. Let's see if our brave new world will still allow this kind of lifestyle moving forward!

I'd like to dig in a bit more about your time in Melbourne. How long did you stay? What venues, labels, promoters, publications, producers/DJs, etc were important to your development as an artist there (for example, your events at club ESC)?

I lived in Melbourne for a year around 2007 and then more or less continuously from 2011 - 2016. I was actually focused on visual art for several years and only became involved in music around 2013 when my friend Romy booked me for my first gig DJing in support of Pictureplane at Liberty Social.

Other important venues, while I was living in Melbourne, included Boney, Mercat Basement, The Sub Club and Revolver, the latter because that was one of the few venues that had a budget to book internationals, so a lot of my favourite DJs would play there. I had a couple of special Paradise Festival experiences too.

club ESC started in 2014 and we threw maybe around a dozen parties over a year and a half. It was a special moment and a bit of a melting pot for both emerging and more established local artists and DJs like Laila Sakini, Marcus Whale, Simona Castricum, Strict Face, Fletch, Female Wizard and the Sydney crew who would go on to start Eve: Jikuroux, HPmini, DJ MacKeeper and SCAM — and of course many incredible dancers! We also got to book some of our international heroes like Total Freedom and Nguzunguzu.

I saw you play at Dada Bar in Beijing in 2015, which I believe was on your first Asia tour? You returned a few years later to play the same venue with the S!LK crew. What was your experience touring in China/Asia at the time? What surprised or excited you? Did you form any lasting relationships with some of the artists/DJs you played with, like Bloodzboi, Puzzy Stack, or Luxixi?

Ah, that's awesome you were at Dada in 2015! I always have the BEST time touring Asia. I had visited a few places in the region before I started touring with music, but that trip was my first time in HK, mainland China and South Korea. I was organising a small European tour, and flying from Australia required me to stopover somewhere in Asia so I reached out to a couple of clubs I was aware of to see if I could book a show or two.

What I thought might be a single stopover show became a full Asian tour, and since then it has become one of my favourite regions to play. I was surprised by how welcome my music was in Asian clubs; there is a unique energy and openness among promoters and crowds that perhaps transcends some of the strictures of places with more established dance music scenes. An amazing network of promoters and labels has developed around small clubs, spawned by places like The Shelter (now ALL) in Shanghai and Cakeshop in Seoul. I love venues like Loopy in Hangzhou, Oil in Shenzhen and Final in Taipei.

I definitely have developed lasting relationships with people in the region, who are all doing great things, like Gaz of Svbkvlt/ALL, Kim Laughton, the Absurd Trax / HKCR family in Hong Kong, Luxixi, Puzzystack and Bloodzboi in Beijing, Tzusing, the Final crew and Sonia Calico in Taipei, Cakeshop, Oil etc — too many people to name! A couple of my friends there have ended up releasing on DECISIONS, namely ASJ and Laughing Ears. The last thing I’ll say about touring Asia is that it’s always a culinary thrill, and I’m very grateful for my friends’ local food recommendations!!

I've seen the word "oblique" used to describe your music a lot. This always makes me think of Eno's "oblique strategies" for composition. What does the phrase "oblique club trax" mean to you and is it a phrase you'd still use to describe your music? Would you say this phrase also describes an energy or approach you're looking for when selecting artists to release on your DECISIONS label?

I haven’t used that term for years now, but I think it served a useful purpose for me to define my own music without a pre-existing genre association. With Air Max ‘97 and DECISIONS I’ve always been interested in seeking out liminal zones between familiar styles or tropes and music with unique emotional, energetic or textural dimensions.

You're sometimes grouped in with contemporaneous Western labels and artists taking a similarly idiosyncratic or experimental approach to dance music, names like Night Slugs, Fade to Mind, Total Freedom and Nguzunguzu. But through your tours and some of the people you've worked with on DECISIONS, I can also see a clear constellation of artists and labels in Asia that you align with as a producer and label-runner yourself. In 2018, for example, DECISIONS released an EP for Hong Kong-born, Australia-based artist Chunyin, who has talked about growing up around traditional Chinese dances as being an influence in her work. What led you to work with Chunyin and how was that experience?

I had heard Chunyin’s Off Out EP and really enjoyed it, then read in an interview with Chunyin that some more experimental demos they had submitted for that EP had not made the cut. That piqued my interest and I reached out to them, and we ended up working towards 偽承諾 Pseudo Promitto.

Australia occupies an interesting position, geographically and culturally, in that it straddles the Anglophone "Western" world and a predominantly Asian pan-Pacific group of nations and peoples. Another label to mention in this connection is Eternal Dragonz, which releases music from the Asian diaspora, and whose cofounder Tzekin is in Sydney. What ties to the Asian music underground would you say exist in cities like Melbourne or Sydney, that might not exist in cities like London or Berlin?

That’s an interesting question, and I’m not sure I’m adequately qualified to answer it! I guess a key factor is Australia's proximity to Asia and the large and diverse Asian populations here, many going back generations, as well as a lot of younger people coming to study and work, who help facilitate that exchange. Australia's cultural identity is complicated but I wonder if the influence of Asia plays a bigger part in it than is typically acknowledged... More generally, I think a really positive shift over the past decade has been an erosion of Western / Northern Hemisphere-centric narratives to more of a distributed worldwide conversation between self-determined collectives, which I'd say Eternal Dragonz and so many other labels and collectives from around the world are part of.

You recently spent quite a bit of time in London — what prompted that move? There are other groups promoting some of the music mentioned above in the city, like Eastern Margins, which hosted ASJ's UK debut at the beginning of this year. How would you say London's awareness of or interest in club music from Asia is changing or evolving (if it is)?

I moved to London to focus on music and try to sustain myself from it full time. It was challenging because London is so expensive, but I had experiences there that really evolved my music practice and I've developed some lasting friendships. I think Eastern Margins have tasked themselves with being a conduit between the London and Asian music scenes, and have gone about that in some creative ways, like the sound clash they organised last year, which was wild! London is a funny one because there are so many scenes and influences constantly bubbling internally but there are always people looking outwards, and while I was there I got to see some of my friends from Asia play at places like Ø at Corsica Studios and an Asian Dope Boys showcase at Fold.

What's next for you / DECISIONS? Anything else you want to mention?

The Consequences compilation has been my main project for the last several months, I'm extremely proud of it and excited for it to be out. I enjoyed the opportunity to connect label alumni with some old friends of the label and a few new faces. A remix for a London artist and label is due out soon, I recently collaborated with Sonia Calico on a track that's coming out on her forthcoming album Club Simulation, and I have a new Air Max '97 12" coming early 2021. I've also recently started mixing and mastering for other people, which I'm really enjoying.

The Consequences compilation will be out on DECISIONS on October 23.

[images via Jarred Beeler and Air Max '97]

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