Boy In Static: Transcending Sound Disembodied
For all of their compressed convenience, mp3s lack one thing: a distinctive imperfection. Alex Chen, who makes dreamy laptop-pop as Boy In Static, misses mixtapes. Not our digital compilations, but those old Maxell Type IIs. "The thing that I really liked about cassette tapes is that every time you dubbed them, the music would degrade a little bit. The music was more fragile, in a way." Someone who misses cassettes for their lack of audio fidelity? Chen's expression was earnest. This was the confession of someone who was, by his own admission, "obsessed with sounds."
Boy In Static is a Boston-based multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, chord-organ, viola, and piano, to name a few. He records alone, but divides his warm, evocative sound among other musicians when playing live. His second full-length album, Violet, was just released in Japan by And Records and will be released in the United Sates on May 29 by Mush Records. In late January, Chen sat down for a rare in-person interview at a bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and talked about mixtapes, memory, and the lucky Japanese.
Chen records most of his music in his bedroom in Boston. As a result, Boy In Static is known for allowing ambient noises—including the sounds of kids playing and church bells ringing—to drift through his windows and onto his tracks. "My apartment is not soundproofed very well, so the sounds leak in. But I actually like that because it makes it really personal. For me it's kinda like leaving smudge marks and fingerprints all over the recording, and I feel like in 20 years, when everything can be digitally crafted, that's going to be the mark that it was authentic—those hidden street noises and everything."
The sounds Chen incorporates have purpose, and are often imbued with autobiographical meaning. "Bellyfull", a track from his first album, Newborn, features a disembodied percussive noise, which turns out to be the sound of a piano pedal being pressed down. The pedal belonged to the upright piano on which a five-year-old Alex Chen learned to play. Chen sampled the sound just before his family moved from his childhood home. "That's the only time the piano pedal from my house in New Jersey will be on an album. That sound to me is very personal, almost like a baby photo." If songs are like snapshots of a moment, then Chen's albums are scrapbooks.
For Alex Chen, a song can be a photo album where the "senses are intertwined." When most kids were making mixtapes, he used the family camcorder to make 'mixtape videos.' "I hooked up two VCRs and a stereo. I'd dub back and forth on the two VCRs for editing and then blend in a soundtrack from the stereo using one of the left-right RCA jacks. So it was third or fourth generation degraded videotape by the end." Now, 10 years later, Chen writes scripts for his Flash-based music videos. For the "Bellyfull" video, he wrote the programming code to simulate a drum sequencer, triggering animation instead of drum beats, essentially creating a visual rhythm. "When I'm working on visual stuff, I'm thinking of drum sequences. And when I'm working on drum beats, I think of animation." The lovely video collaboration with New York artist/designer/musician Yoshi Sodeoka for "Where It Ends" is streaming online, as is the interactive "musical instrument built from wine glasses, watercolor, and piano" for the new album's ethereal title track, "Violet". The next video will be a collaboration with the Brazilian graphic artist Nando Costa.
Before the interview was over, one question remained: Why does Japan get all the cool bonus tracks? Several remixes, including one by And Records labelmate Her Space Holiday, are featured on the album in Japan but not in the United States. Chen laughed, "I don't understand it totally, either. But those bonus tracks will actually be on a single [vinyl only] in the U.S. and available separately as mp3s. It's one of the reasons that I'm glad for mp3s. If there's a great remix I want people to hear, I'd rather have an extra hundred people download it for free and love it."
Ultimately, through the tape hiss, programming code, and bedroomy introspection, Chen hopes that Boy In Static's sounds resonate with others. "Sometimes, when you're walking home late at night and there's a particular song you're craving, well... Maybe somewhere, someone is carrying my song home with them and it's somehow transcended my situation and become their situation, too."
-- Ruby R., 03/04/2007