Joel Ma is a renowned Melbourne-based multi-instrumentalist, rapper, writer and producer who first burst onto the scene in 1999 as a member of hip hop outfit TZU. His latest album, Joelistics Presents Film School, was released independently in March.
How are you enjoying parenthood?
I love it. It’s the most deeply profound and fantastic thing I’ve ever done. It’s also keeping me quite sleep deprived, which is fine, it adds a psychedelic tint every single day, but it’s all worth it. My daughter is just amazing. And having a baby during 2020 and during lockdown was tough and it definitely had its challenges, but it was also an amazing time to get to know this person, so I loved it.
You obviously have a new album out. I was wondering if you could talk me through the process of its creation. I understand it’s been in the works for many years now. How you came to work with dancers and filmmakers on this project?
Well, the original idea for Film School started when I was working for an organisation called Multicultural Arts Victoria. I was engaging in a lot of discussions around the Australian music industry’s lack of diversity. I wanted to create a record that reflected the Australia I knew, that drew on my Asian roots, my Chinese family and the imagery and the memories that I have of growing up mixed race. I wanted to explore different kinds of instruments and sounds and expand the palette of what I guess I’d been using up to that point. The actual beginning was I think, 2017, but at the same time I was also moving away from being a rapper and a performer and moving more towards producing for other artists and focusing on electronic production, and working with artists like Mo’Ju and Haiku Hands, Birdz… I guess, for me, I’ve always been drawn to artists that sit outside the mainstream musically or represent diverse backgrounds. So it was an album that was an on-again, off again, love affair. It was like I would start it, and then I’d put it aside because I would be working on someone’s project, and then start up again…
I’ve always been drawn to artists that sit outside the mainstream musically or represent diverse backgrounds.
There was a really pivotal experience where I went to Malaysia with my mum, back to Kuala Lumpur where I was born… and I found this little record store in the Chinatown markets, and I discovered all these old Cantopop and Thai pop and Taiwanese pop records that were from the ’70s… I was sampling all this stuff and making beat sketches with these really cool old records that were being sung in Cantonese, and in Mandarin sometimes. I just felt like that was probably the real musical start, that was the real seed for the Film School project. Even though there’s a lot of tracks that didn’t end up with samples from those records, somehow those records and the spirit of drawing little snippets from the past, and particularly, I guess, from Asian pop music and infusing that into this record, it was a real catalyst… But the album really only came together last year… suddenly 2020 hits, Melbourne’s forced into lockdown. I can’t do sessions, everything slows down and I suddenly find myself with all this extra time on my hands, and I started to go through the sketches and finished everything… I played some to a filmmaker friend of mine named Rhys Graham. And he also had just lost a lot of work and was just open to the music I was making, and to the idea of collaboration. So he said, “Why don’t we shoot some clips for the album, but not traditional film clips for songs,” he was really like, “Let’s take the weirder songs and let’s make a short film and sort of build them all together, and let’s shoot solo dancers in different parts of Melbourne.”
We talked a lot about Japanese folkloric ghost stories, and we had this great group of dancers that all live in Melbourne… everyone that we spoke to was very keen to make stuff that exercised the demons, and it all came about. This project kept growing and growing and I never set out to make a short film or to make a live show that incorporated film footage and dancers and a band. But I guess I was also so open to whatever the project would become, by just finding interesting people to work with and then seeing how the energy in the room, what would manifest.
You mentioned that travelled to Malaysia, and I understand that your debut album, in particular, was inspired by travels to other countries. I was wondering if your output has, by necessity, looked introspectively, given your inability to travel last year?
Yeah, I mean, I think so. I think that part of the Film School sonic journey is that close your eyes, meditate, go somewhere special, that is part of the sonic language of the record. But it’s a weird dichotomy because, for me, this record is a very introspective record and quite downbeat, but it’s super collaborative. I think I just tried to keep my antennas up for what was going on in my world, in the world that I existed in. And that meant everything from becoming a dad for the first time and talking to the closest people in my life only on Zoom. I became a super Zoom user. Doing work on Zoom, doing songwriting sessions, but also teaching on Zoom. Yeah, so for me, yeah, it was a really introspective experience, but I would say also maybe all of my music has a bit of an introspective underground river, even the party tracks and the bangers.
I probably, when I’m making records, am my own coach to try and convince myself not to overthink things. Because especially for the rap stuff, like anything lyrical, I found I’m very prone to maybe obsessing over it. And because I was doing production and songwriting and I was the performer, they were often really super solo affairs, like the Joelistics records. Even some of the TZU stuff. And this record, I really wanted to reach out to a lot of people and work with lots of different sounds that I didn’t usually work with.
I don’t know if anything’s ever finished, it’s just you have a deadline and you have to finish it so you have to hand it in at a certain point.
You once said in an interview that around 60 hours of sonic experimentation goes into each track that you output. I was just wondering if you can give me a bit of a rough percentage breakdown – how much time do you spend on writing and pre-production as opposed to post-production? And how do you actually know when a track’s finished and when to step away?
Yeah, it’s a hard one. I think there are some tracks that present themselves and they quickly emerge with an outline like a narrative. Or I find I bring personal elements of sound and structure, particularly on this record. Some of the choices that I made were based on where I picked up the sample or who was playing on that track and our friendship, some of those things informed the compositional shape of the work. A lot of the work on the Film School record also is based on improvisations in the studio. So for me, it was just a case of try and distil some of the essences of those jams into something that had formed. But in a general sense, how do you know when something’s finished? I don’t know if anything’s ever finished, it’s just you have a deadline and you have to finish it so you have to hand it in at a certain point.
Are those deadlines self-imposed deadlines, or are they set by a record label or publicist or…
No, they’re self-imposed. I mean most of the artists and producers that I know, we have at any one time, multiple projects on the go. And I know that there’s only certain periods of time that I can focus on music like this, because I also have to write music that will, I guess, penetrate to a bigger audience. Particularly when I work with other artists, like Haiku Hands have a global audience that I have to contend with the production or the songwriting as a thing that will translate to an audience in the States or in Europe or something. Whereas this I know is a bit more niche, it’s a little bit more for me and for probably a small group of audio nerds, maybe probably who even just live in Melbourne. I don’t know. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to finish or make this record was, it could have been so many things and I think at one point I was like, “I’m going to make it a real pop record with lots of voices and I’m going to bring in a choir and all this stuff,” and then lockdown happened, and it didn’t go that way. But I guess that’s the thing, is that the work tells you when it’s done and your life tells you when it’s done and you’ve just got to listen. I think the saddest thing is that most producers I know, and myself included, have just endless gigabytes of work that’s just sitting on hard drives that never sees the light of day, so it is an art. Finishing stuff is an art. And yeah, the older and more experienced I get, the more I feel like it’s got to be imbued with something meaningful, even if it’s for me and no one else knows what that is. Or how the structure replicates a particular trip that I took or how the sounds, when things come in, why they come in. I guess that’s the thing is, it’s a private language that you’re trying to speak with people who get it.
I think the saddest thing is that most producers I know, and myself included, have just endless gigabytes of work that’s just sitting on hard drives that never sees the light of day… Finishing stuff is an art.
Now, you once said in a 2011 interview that you like to think in colours when you write music and beats. I was wondering if –
Man, you have done some great research. I love hearing these quotes come back, I’m like, “Oh yeah,” I mean it’s true.
I was just wondering if you’d say that you have synesthesia?
I don’t know, I don’t think so. I mean, I think conceptually and sensually, but I don’t know if I have… I’d like to think that I have synesthetic moments where I can dive into a mix or into a sound and feel the light and shade of it. But I mean, I think there’s a lot of people who would say they have synesthesia. Maybe it’s not as mysterious as that, but then maybe it is. I mean, it’s just one of those things where music is another language. And I think like all languages, you speak it consciously, but also you tap into subconscious things. And one of the ways to help me discuss that with other musicians is colours or film references, hence the name Film School, in fact.
I hear you got quite into guitar pedals last year?
Absolutely. Yeah, I did… Actually, it became somewhat problematic. During lockdown, I was getting packages delivered to my doorstep and sometimes I didn’t even remember ordering them. I was in a frenzy. And because again, I was staying up quite late and Lua was sleeping on my chest… I would be on my computer sometimes and I’d just be like, “Oh, that pedal looks so weird, I’ve got to get it.” I bought a weird spring reverb from Adelaide two days ago, which sometimes I get weird buyer’s remorse afterwards. I buy it, then I’m like, “Do I really need that?” But then it arrives and I’m always like, “Yes, I’m so glad I bought that.”
During lockdown, I was getting packages delivered to my doorstep and sometimes I didn’t even remember ordering them.
One of the themes of Film School, as you mentioned at the top of the interview, is Asian ghost stories. I was wondering if you’ve ever had any personal experiences with the paranormal? Or if you’ve heard any super scary stories that you’d like to share?
Actually, when I was about 20, I hitchhiked from Sydney to Byron Bay, and then from Byron Bay back down to a town called Elands, which is close to a town called Wingham, which is close to a town called Taree, which is about halfway between Sydney and Byron. Anyway, I got dropped off in Wingham at about 3:00 AM. That was a weird hitch, to begin with, because it was with a guy who was going back to an army base and he was a pretty scary dude, actually. Anyway, he dropped me off in Wingham at 3:00 AM and I’ve walked to the edge of town and I basically slept on a golf course. I thought, oh I’ll sleep until the sun comes up and then I’ll hitch up to Elands… My bag is my pillow and I’ll catch a couple of hours. Anyway, I woke up in a state, it’s a state called hypnagogia. It’s where your brain has disengaged from your body, but your brain wakes up. Basically, you become conscious again, but you can’t move your body because you’ve gone into a sleep state and so you feel quite frozen and it can be quite horrifying. I had a sense of another presence on top of my chest. I was super scared because I was by myself on a golf course in a small town, and I started freaking out. But also I was sort of half asleep so I just remember this really vivid moment of feeling trapped, but also feeling like there’s nothing you can really do. So I remember in my mind going, “Whatever’s going on or if there’s any other energy here, I mean you no harm and I’m just here to sleep until the morning and then I’m going again.”
I had a sense of another presence on top of my chest. I was super scared because I was by myself on a golf course in a small town, and I started freaking out.
Anyway, then I fell asleep and I woke up a couple of hours later to the sprinklers on the golf course going off and basically soaking me in my sleeping bag. But I remembered the feeling and the experience from the night before. I was catching a hitch up the mountains to Elands and I was talking to someone and they’re like, “Oh yeah, I think that golf course was built on an old cemetery.” I was just like, “Oh wow, I think I really legitimately had a ghost experience.” I didn’t see anything, but I could feel this thing. And I’ve actually done some reading on hypnagogia and there is a lot of people’s experiences where they feel this pressure on their chest when they wake up in that state. Yeah, so it sort of stayed with me my whole life actually, but it didn’t feel malicious. It didn’t feel like something had it in for me, maybe I was just a big fat unknown. But yeah, I guess the whole of Australia’s got so many ghosts in the land. There is a lot of ghosts in this country. As far as the Asian ghost story thing goes, I think there’s just this really cool, rich imagery that comes with lots of Chinese and Japanese ghost stories. Yokai, which is the name of one of the tracks on the record. Yokai are Japanese ghosts, but they’re almost cute, some of them are quite cute. Some of them are horrific, like a woman holding her head and a classic severed head. But then there’s some that are just, they’re maybe the sort of images you would see in lots of anime or (Hayao) Miyazaki films like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, like those weird creatures are Yokai. Japan’s always had a really rich graphic drawing tradition and painting tradition and almost cartoonesque characters so I just love that. I love it. I just am super drawn into it. And also I notice you’ve got a Bitches Brew cover on the wall behind you, and that’s like one of my favourite album covers… and that particular artist did quite a few Miles Davis records, he did like Herbie Hancock’s Thrust and Head Hunters, I think. It was that ’70s era of Pan-African psychedelia. Yeah, so that era of that art and its infiltration of jazz, and that’s my favourite era of jazz as well, that and Alice Coltrane, spiritual jazz… the cover of Film School, it was the idea of Pan-Asian psychedelia similar to that. That was actually one of my references, the Bitches Brew cover. It was this idea of just modern but ancient, but also kind of like playful, but political. Just to try and pack that kind of overstimulated, over-saturated visual into something… that era, like Bitches Brew, [A Tribute To] Jack Johnson, In a Silent Way, all the stuff that he did with John McLaughlin, that’s really special music for me. It’s really influential stuff.
If you could collaborate with any artist in any medium, who would it be and what would you create?
At the moment, probably I would love to collaborate in film, maybe Wes Anderson, because I really like the aesthetics of his films. I like that there’s a real intimacy to them, but it’s quite an abstracted intimacy as well. But there’s always a kind of heart to the story and they’re visually really rich. Musically I would fucking kill to collaborate with Tom Waits, I think that would be amazing.
Would you produce a hip hop album for him?
Yeah, I know that his son was a turntablist and was into Aesop Rock and a whole bunch of weird, left-field hip-hop. And actually one of Tom Waits‘ records… which one was it? It was the first one after he left Universal. Anyway, there was scratching and some weird sound stuff on it and some weird beatboxing on it as well. Also, who else would I… I used to want to, ironically, collaborate with John Farnham. When I was a rapper, I was like, “I would love to collaborate with John Farnham,” just because I felt like, well, first of all, Whispering Jack was the first tape that, I think my sister gave me when I was seven or something. I loved it. I was in love with that record, which by the way, stands up against the test of time. It’s got some really cool electronic production on it. So I have this emotional connection to John Farnham. But then I also felt like… And this is probably more when I was doing TZU stuff, I felt like he was just so indicative of the white male Australian music industry. And I was like, I just want to take that and I want to recontextualize it and write lyrics as a sort of half-Chinese punk rapper that plays against that anyway. Anyway, never did it.
If I could collaborate with maybe Miyazaki, if I could collaborate with an animator, I think that would be a dream come true and one of those collaborations where you’d be so honoured that you wouldn’t even know where to begin. If I could collaborate with a writer in some way, there’s a science fiction writer called NK Jemisin who’s the first woman and then I think the first black woman in America to win the coveted sci-fi writers award two times in a row. She writes these incredible books that are super dark, but amazing world-building… I don’t know, I guess that’s who springs to mind right now.
If we were able to make the John Farnham collaboration work, maybe you could produce something for his next farewell tour.
(Laughs) For the Farewell Farewell Tour… You know what’s funny is actually I almost got quite close to the John Farnham thing because I collaborated with his musical director who was a guy named Chong Lim, and Chong Lim is from Malaysia and has been John Farnham’s MD for years. But I think he’s the MD on Dancing With the Stars and a bunch of, you know? We did a project where Chong and I wrote the theme song for the Asia Cup soccer tournament that was held in Australia in 2016, 2017. And I was like, “Chong, you got to get me and John in a room.” Chong was funny, he’s like, “No, I don’t think he’s going to come back this time.” He’s adamant that he wasn’t… I don’t know if he is, but anyway.
Give him a few months.
Oh yeah, I could swing him like 50 bucks and maybe that’ll convince him (laughs). I’ll send him Film School and say, “Look, I’m going to produce you like this. It’s going to be weird.” (laughs)