In fusing traditional music forms and retro themes with futuristic and dystopian concepts, Brooklyn-based duo Shanghai Restoration Project creates a melodic, contemplative soundscape containing elements of folk, choral music, electronica, and even hip-hop, that enthral and beguile. Their work hums with both the strain of the past and a longing buzz for the future.
When Shanghai Restoration Project started in 2006, it existed initially as a solo project of producer Dave Liang, before he met multidisciplinary Sun Yunfan in 2011. The duo has been involved in various multidisciplinary projects including soundtracking the Mubi film Have A Nice Day and visual art, created by Sun, to complement and correspond to, their musical territory. An album from 2017, R.u.r., explored an imaginary future where humans have been replaced by robots trying to understand what led to their predecessors’ extinction.

In their latest release, Flashbacks in A Crystal Ball – arriving officially on 7 November but on an exclusive preview a few lines below –, Liang and Sun turn inward to focus on the self rather than the past. Featuring tracks like Jazzy Grandma, Sudden Rush of Memories, and Dance School at Dusk, the new album is described as a collection of songs about about those ‘ah-ha moments’ in life, “where we suddenly see the world in a different light” – the moment you realize a pipe dream is no longer worth the pursuit, or the acknowledgement of the passing of a loved one, or that instant you decide to dedicate your life to a craft or a cause…

The glacial, almost contemplative pace of their sound is as experimental as it is meditative. Having been shaken by the current world, trends, inventions and global tensions that exist, it is no wonder the pair encourages us to take pause and be positive. I chat with the duo about what is currently moving and compelling Shanghai Restoration Project, notions of past and future, their influences, and of course, the news album, Flashbacks in A Crystal Ball.
First things first: how did the Shanghai Restoration Project come into being?
Dave started the group in 2005 and Yunfan officially joined in 2016 (although the two of us have been collaborating since 2011). Our name derives from the creative spirit of the 1930s Shanghai music scene, which embraced influences from all parts of the world.
Your work has often been described as retro-futuristic, and in addition to that, your upcoming album is titled Flashbacks in a Crystal Ball. Is it important for you to connect the past and the present through music?
Yes. A big portion of our present-day actions, beliefs, and behaviours can be explained by our past. Or like William Faulkner’s famous line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” So for us, it’s important to constantly better process the past so that we can remove mental blocks and enhance our ability to navigate the future. With our minds clear, we can actively steer our future according to our intentions and priorities. And music being a time-based medium is a perfect subject to stir up memories or inject new energies.
You’ve spoken about events like the election and presidency of Trump and the Brexit saga across the pond being some of the factors that compelled you to write some of the songs in R.u.r., the album you published in 2017. Do these events continue to influence you?
Indeed. It’s quite troubling to see the rise of tribalism and nationalism globally nowadays, especially when you consider where these trends have historically led. Our recent work reflects our attempts to process these trends, which is why compared to our pre-2017 work you’ll hear more dissonance, complex polyrhythms, and atypical song structures.
Your 2017 release R.u.r. imagined a world in which humans have been replaced by robots – dreaming of a different, dystopian future, and reflecting on the past in a way. Does the new upcoming album continue this ‘introspection’?
Yes. Flashbacks in a Crystal Ball is probably more introspective than our previous album as it deals with specific personal experiences.
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You’ve said that the new album seeks to express the ‘ah-ha moments’ in life – moments of reflection or intuition where we suddenly see the world in a different light. Like a sort of ‘eureka’. Have there been any big ‘ah-ha moments’ in your lives? Was the album inspired by the moments you yourselves experienced?
Yunfan: Yes. The song Time Gambler was written after reflecting on my entrepreneur father’s never-ending quest to land the big score. He could have retired long ago and yet something kept telling him to persevere. Coincidentally, right before we completed recording the song, he decided to retire. Also, the song Dance School at Dusk was inspired by my childhood memories of the evening dance lessons I took at Shaanxi Grand Opera House in China. I vividly remember the happy feeling of walking into the school compound at dusk when suddenly music would flow out from every window of every building. This song is an ode to those rare idyllic moments when one is surrounded by individuals completely in their element perfecting their craft.
Dave: When my grandmother was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago, I felt sad thinking about how she’d lose her memories. But since her diagnosis, she has remained upbeat even though she no longer recognizes me. Knowing that she endured a lot of hardships in her life (she was a refugee from two wars in China), I wondered if losing some of the bad memories might not be a bad thing. But then I realized that ever since I could remember, she always had a happy outlook towards life. And much of that was driven by her love of music and not letting the injustices of her past consume her. So Jazzy Grandma was written as an ode to her and her approach to the world.
Is there a flow or structure to the new album? How does it trace these moments?
The flow of the album is whatever made the most sense musically or thematically. For example, towards the end of Tactile Sonic Glide, we sing the lyrics, ‘Let it run to the sea’, which leads to Time Gambler, which opens with synthesizer-generated ocean waves. And Dave’s scatting at the end of Time Gambler leads to his rapping on Jazzy Grandma. Since this album encompasses many genres of music (electronic, classical, jazz, spoken word, downtempo etc.), we definitely put a lot of thought into weaving it all together!
What else can we expect from your upcoming release?
This album takes more risks compared to our previous releases. Tactile Sonic Glide, at over fourteen minutes, is the longest song we’ve written to date and meant to be an upbeat meditation. Lic Color Blast is a stream of consciousness hybrid of jazz and drum & bass. And the last two songs, Beeswax Chamber and Elegy for Wave Organ, are built around samples we recorded in an actual ‘wax chamber’ in a museum and the Wave Organ in San Francisco, a wave-activated sound sculpture in San Francisco.
I love the hip-hop elements on Jazzy Grandma off the new release, and the interspersion of various language and vocals. What provoked this range of voices?
In our daily life, we speak multiple languages and enjoy listening to many different genres of music from different places. It would feel restrictive if we were only allowed to express ourselves in one genre or language.
“For us, it’s important to constantly better process the past so that we can remove mental blocks and enhance our ability to navigate the future.”
You have said that your work has in part been inspired by the 1930s Shanghai jazz scene. Are there any modern music movements or trends catching your attention?
This is an interesting question! Thanks to the Internet, these days we tend to find ourselves ‘discovering’ movements from previous eras and different parts of the world. Some of these include 1980s Japanese City Pop, 1970s Italian crime film soundtracks, and 1960s Brazilian Tropicalia.
In a previous interview, you said that we live in an increasingly uncertain and yet connected world, “but even amidst the chaos there is still much to celebrate and embrace.” In the mess of the world, does hope centre you? How important is it to be self-critical or self-examining in today’s world?
Hope is probably too passive of a word. We orient our lives towards what we think a good life, community, and world should look like. Hopefully, by doing so, things will move in that direction. We want our music to convey this energy to our listeners.
The themes in R.u.r. sort of remind me of Phillip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (about a dystopian future where robots look like humans, and would later inspire the cult movie Blade Runner). Are there any dystopian texts, music or novels that have spoken to you or been a source of inspiration?
R.u.r. is actually the name of a Czech play written by Karel Čapek in 1920 about robots taking over the world. So that has probably been the most direct inspiration. Others include Asimov’s Robot series. We also really like the film Sorry to Bother You by Boots Riley. And Blade Runner is one of our favourites too!
Speaking of the future… if the world was ending but you could take three records with you into the next universe/life, which would they be?
We would certainly take more than three! But since you asked, here are some that come to mind: Sakura by Susumu Yokota; The Astounding Eyes of Rita by Anouar Brahem; and probably an album by Gil Giberto, but we can’t decide which one.
The artwork and animation that correspond to your work are so cool and unique. The music video for Alpha Go is a great example of Sun Yunfan’s art and the other-worldly elements of their sonic universe. Are the visuals created in response to the music? Or do they emerge from one another?
Yunfan: Thank you! When making music videos or album covers, I try to approach the music and visuals as two separate languages that describe the same world or emotional experiences. But the music always comes first. For the music video of Alpha Go, I had already designed the album cover and could cast the various motifs as ‘actors’ in the music video.
The NTS show you did last year featured selections from electronic, Chinese rock, and 1970s soundtrack songs, and focused on the film Have A Nice Day by Liu Jian (a neo-noir Chinese animation film about a driver from a small Chinese town who steals a big sum of cash to save his fiancé’s failed plastic surgery), which you soundtracked. Tell us about the film and how you came to be involved.
We met Liu Jian in 2013 when he was doing an art residency in New York. Whenever we toured China, he would always come to our shows and take us out to the tastiest restaurants in Nanjing. As an animator, Liu Jian liked using pre-existing music for artists he liked (one of his previous films used the music of Zuoxiao Zuzhou, a Chinese rocker we included in our NTS playlist). For Have a Nice Day, we gave Liu Jian access to our entire repertoire and he selected the songs that best matched the mood and theme of his film. Our next collaboration with him will be a more traditional director-composer relationship where we write original music specifically for his film.
Any live gigs or shows coming up? What can we expect from a live set from the Shanghai Restoration Project?
We’re actually doing two shows in NYC at the end of November. On Friday the 22nd, we’ll be performing inside a one-night-only installation at a secret location in Chinatown. And on the 24th, we’ll be performing at a fundraiser for US presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Our live shows are typically high energy and beat-driven without much stopping and starting, which includes live keyboards, vocals, and an immersive video projection of Yunfan’s original animations.
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