Multi-instrumentalist and part-time DJ Robert Yang, aka Bézier, is one of the most exciting sounds out of the San Francisco queer rave scene. He started off playing the sax before being exposed to turntables and electrifying dance parties in the late ‘90s. Along with his prolific analogue synth-based releases, he is famous for taking his enchanting live performances all across the world. Today, we speak with him about Parler Musique, his most recent album, what do musical genres mean to him, and what’s the most remarkable experience he’s had at a music festival. As a start to getting to know him, first, watch the video made by Rollo Smallcombe below.
Hi Robert. You are more famously known as part of San Francisco-based DJ crew Honey Soundsystem, which has also helped launch three record labels: Honey Soundsystem Records, Discaire and Dark Entries. Can you start off by telling us a little more about your part in this and how it’s connected to your solo project, Bézier?
The Honey Soundsystem label started when Honey Soundsystem’s founder, Jacob Sperber, decided he wanted to produce a compilation of queer artists consisting of a lot of our friends – some established and a lot of us starting out as producers. I had a track on the comp and being part of the crew, I helped promote the release. At the time, we didn’t quite see Honey as a label; we launched another label, Discaire, to try out this aspect.
I learned a lot by working as the admin for the label and how that side of the music business works. We released three records from this project before shifting that energy back to Honey Soundsystem, when our first collaboration with Cocktail D’amore appeared. We released Chicago vocalist Shaun J Wright’s music, who was produced by Australian duo Stereogamous. As we focused more energy on releases on Honey, Discaire faded away. Jacob/Jackie House and I simultaneously released two dance records to reset expectations and then, at a later date, another Bézier 12” was released.
As for Dark Entries, that label is the brainchild of Josh Cheon only and was created outside of the Honey Soundsystem scope. With his label, Josh provided a lot of positive feedback that led to more extended releases outside of the dance floor format and eventually became a regular artist on his roster.
Your latest release, Parler Musique, came out in February and features and all-French tracklist with titles such as Un Subalterne Insubordonné. Is there a relevancy to the French language that particularly fits your music?
There’s a particular sound from French new wave bands that I’ve been chasing. At the start of the Bézier project, I was listening to a lot of Intergalactic FM, which showcased a lot of bands like Deux, Stereo or X-Ray Pop. Also, Erik Satie is one of my favourite French composers and I have been obsessed with the art movements that he influenced and which preceded him. I think all of this is related. In general, there is something about the music, the structures and a feeling that were different to anything else. There is a distinct French sound. It is more playful, feminine, a little absurd and surreal. I wanted to inject these feelings into the presentation of the album and incorporate some of these ideas behind the music.
Like a lot of electronic artists, you are also a multi-instrumentalist, having initially been trained in saxophone, before moving on to electric guitar. Could you tell me a little more about how this has influenced your sound and why DJing felt like the logical consequence of it?
Musical training was a huge part of my upbringing and this experience helped clarify a work process or building blocks in order to create music. I played in bands when growing up, and have always had an instrument in my hands – some years a different one to the previous year. But around the late ‘90s, I was more focused on making music on my computer, so naturally, dance music and going to raves became a consequence of that. I first learned how to DJ in college through my roommate’s turntables around 1997. He showed me how to beatmatch and use the faders on a mixer. Eventually, I bought turntables in 2003, when I decided that music would be my chosen path. I was very indecisive about what my career should be. After moving to San Francisco in 2005, I began DJing at venues and thereafter, I’d say history is pretty self-evident.
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Your sound is predominantly synth-focused but features notes of punk, industrial and new wave, among others. Do you know of a better adjective that you would use to define it and why?
I see music and musical history in hypothetical terms. Genres are formed because producers decide there is a sound they want to rally behind. It could be because it’s something they love, and/or came up with their friends and close associates in an intimate setting. Music for the genre then follows a formula that eventually becomes some kind of commodity for stakeholders. People start to imitate the sound and audiences are trained to appreciate it. At a certain point, marketability becomes the main qualifier.
For DJs, consumption of music becomes a rote process of deciding whether a track is dancefloor-worthy and if a track can translate to being a festival pleaser. No doubt there are wildly successful people in music outside of this sphere. I suppose you could just define the music I make as proto-music since I haven’t tried to actively align a singular genre to these tracks.
You've released a project every year for the past four years. What makes your work that prolific and how do you proceed in the studio?
I have developed some routines and rituals to counteract creative block. Sometimes it’s exercising or setting exclusive time parameters that I can only work around. I’m always battling fatigue but I also have insomnia so I keep working until it’s time for bed. As counterproductive as it sounds, having the studio in my apartment really helps me control this energy. Today, I follow a work schedule in the studio, pretend like I’m still going to my day job and come up with milestones to hit. And I can also decide to take time off and without much hindrance to output. This way of working is probably also important with tours constantly on the horizon .The fact that today vs. four years ago I have a proper musical system as well as a logical process in place has enabled me to be very productive.
You're famous for touring the world and getting booked in a variety of different countries. How do you prepare for your shows, which have a reputation for being unusually enthralling and an integral part of your work?
Most of the time, when the call for a live show is answered, I start preparing weeks before programming and rehearse up until the very day of the performance. Every year, I design a new show, so the first one of that year is a little rough and tells me what direction to take the set list in. Around early summertime, the show is pretty much locked in, minimal rehearsals are needed and all the parts are memorized. The music itself consists in a wide range with more ambient interludes as the mood turns into a real dance party.
To finish, could you throw in a couple of your favourite anecdotes about your touring history and in particular, your fondest memory of a live show? What makes it worthwhile?
One show that comes to mind was a campout in Saratoga Springs. It is an annual mini techno festival organized by radical queers from San Francisco called GHT (or Gays Hate Techno), and it features artists and musicians from all over the United States. The setting is at a natural reserve where the main stage is a farmhouse featuring a mix of live and DJ acts.
I had just rushed to the event after completing my last day at work, ending a decade’s long career working a desk job in San Francisco. I thought the best way to celebrate this milestone was a live show with real analogue gear from my studio like an Octave Cat, LinnDrum, or a Roland Juno-60. At some point in my performance, I started singing into the vocoder and the audience took their enthusiasm to another level. It was a scene right out of Ken Keasy’s Merry Pranksters – like a real freak out straight outta the ‘60s.
Shortly after my set, I dropped acid and had a twelve-hour cathartic experience on the farm questioning my life choices, thinking about my family, wondering what I was doing there, figuring out why I couldn’t move from my tent, how much time had passed, did I make the right decision, why does the music I’m listening to right now sound like this, did I say something weird, are these my friends, should I have another tequila shot, how will I face the world, who is that looking at me on the other side of the window (oh, that’s my reflection), and so on and so forth...