Boomkat! MARCH 21, 2006 - by Adam Park


As music becomes increasingly robbed of physical form and reduced down to a series of file extensions, there's something undeniably appealing about the actual-factual ownership of a physical entity. Whether this be the pleasure of handling a new 12" or copping a good sniff on a glossy CD booklet (it takes us back to our sticker collecting days, ok!?), music has always been about more than mere vibrations flooding down your cochlea. It therefore shouldn't come as any surprise that the Buddha Machine has gained such widespread admiration - simultaneously giving people something more to fetishise, whilst providing a lo-tech alternative to the opaque comfort-nipple of a playlist-addled iPod generation. You could say it's spiritual...

Reduced to it's core components, the Buddha Machine is little more than an AM radio - permanently tuned to a distant loop-emitting signal that encourages the listener to project their own interpretations on a series of diffused ambient compositions. In terms of it's physical manifestation, the tactile plastic box has a similar quality to a pack of cigarettes - the difference being you'll get some nourishment for both ears and soul, rather than a hacking great cough. The magic is conjured up somewhere between; say yes Paul!

Whilst it would be enchanting to imagine the Buddha Machine dropping fully-formed from a mountain-side temple, there is in fact two über-talented musicians, a factory full of workers and a shit-load of capacitor sourcing behind each innocuous little box. Prefaced by FM3, the Buddha Machine's gestation becomes clearer - with the already prolific Beijing duo of Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian a central spoke in China's electronic music scene. Having decamped to China from his native San Diego, Virant quickly became a stalwart of Beijing's underground punk scene, whilst elsewhere amongst the billion-strong population Zhang Jian was carving out a name as the nation's top session keyboardist and computer musician. When they came together, FM3 began transmission.

So how did an experimental duo whose work had featured in such diverse environs as the Louvre (Paris), Sprawl (London) and Out the Window (Tokyo) come to create Brian Eno's favourite toy? In order to find out we spoke to Christiaan Virant, where we uncovered a world of North Korean pop, Olympic commissions and Buddha Boxing. Fix up, read sharp!

Q: How are you?

A: Ears ringing after playing at two shows featuring a bunch of noise artists!

Q: How did the two of you come to be FM3?

A: In late 1999 I started up a band aimed at doing live electronica. Back then, Beijing didn't have a live electronic scene; not a single band was doing live electronic music. So I brought together some of the best musicians I knew from the underground rock and punk circles and started FM3. Zhang at that time was playing keyboard in a bunch of bands and I really liked his approach - more focused on creating good sounds and atmospheres rather than just melodies. So we invited him along to practice and that was the beginning of the band. Our first practice was in a bomb shelter... Good acoustics and solid concrete so the neighbours don't get after you!

Q: Where did the idea for the Buddha Machine come from?

A: We took the inspiration from a similar device used in Buddhist temples. The device is used to play constant chants to the Buddha and some say it was developed because of the shortage of monks in modern times. I picked up my first one more than ten years ago and it was a permanent fixture in my bathroom. For years, Zhang and I mused about how cool it would be to make an FM3 release "inside that little box" and then in 2004 we got serious and really did it.

Q: On the off-chance there's still someone who hasn't had a run in with a Buddha Machine, how would you describe it to the uninitiated?

A: Before we released the Buddha Machine, we used to tell people to imagine an old pocket radio tuned permanently to FM3.

Q: Has the success of the Buddha Machine taken you by surprise?

A: Very much so. Our initial pressing was five hundred units. Three hundred for the German record label Staalplaat and two hundred for ourselves to use in installation projects. Staalplaat assumed three hundred would last them a year. I just read an article in the UK press that said our distributor sold almost that many in a single day! Never could we have imagined that kind of response to our music.

Q: How does it make you feel when you hear that people like Brian Eno and Alan Bishop are bulk buying them?

A: Funnily enough, Eno was my very first paying customer! He bought six based on a prototype I showed him at dinner in Beijing last year. Our second customer was Thomas Felhmann from The Orb. He took about a dozen. And then shortly after that Alan Bishop ordered twenty-four, based on a photo and an email description I gave him! Monolake and the crew at the Ableton software office bought something like thirty... So from the very beginning we had great support from some quality musicians and naturally, as two guys sitting way out in Beijing, it's mind-boggling.

Q: Do you ever worry that the Buddha Machine will overshadow FM3's other output completely?

A: It's certainly going to be pretty hard to just sit back and release a CD every now and then. And that's a good thing. Because Beijing is a pretty lazy town, so it's good to have a bit of performance pressure. In 2004 we played three shows at the Louvre in Paris. At that time, I figured that was the apex of our career. Then in 2005 the Buddha Machine came out and again we said: how could it get bigger than this? But just recently we got invited to create the "sound environment" for one of the Beijing Olympic parks. So things still keep moving forward...

Q: How did you choose which loops to use on the Buddha Machine?

A: It was a pretty quick process. We had certain favourite pieces we had developed over the years and which we knew stood up to sustained listening. For example, if anyone heard us on tour in Europe in 2004, they would immediately recognise Track 1 on the Buddha Machine as the opening music for our set. Picking the loops was easy, but we spent a bit of time putting them in the current order. Actually the order strongly mimics our live sets from the years 2002-2004.

Q: Are the Buddha Machines made in the same factories as the ones for religious use? Did you come up against any opposition from the manufacturers in getting them into production?

A: Same factory. The only real opposition had to do with quantity. This is China, where factories usually take orders in the range of a hundred thousand to a few million! So when we wanted to make five hundred, no one would deal with us. Most factories tried to convince us that our idea was pointless or would never sell. But we persisted, did a lot of explaining, pleading and ego-massaging, and eventually one factory took on the task. Now, of course, they are really into the product and just can't believe it has been so successful.

Q: How many Buddha Machines have been manufactured now?

A: Ten thousand and counting...

Q: Where are the Buddha Machines selling best?

A: Our strongest sales are in the USA, where a few influential blogs got hold of the idea early and helped make it a geek-tech fetish object. The New York Times gave it a plug in a Christmas buying issue, so that helped sales. But mostly the strong sales are due to our distributor Forced Exposure, which has done a superb job of getting it to all the coolest records stores across America. Sales in the UK are really strong as well, again, thanks to our distributor Baked Goods and Boomkat! In Europe we mostly just sell them when we are on tour. And in China, where we are still a very obscure band, sales are very, very slow. Most people here are not used to paying for music, its all cheap bootlegs or free downloads. And except for a handful of kids, there is not really a "collectors" fetish among the hip youth.

Q: What kind of electronic music scene is there in China? Is it a cohesive movement and if so how does the FM3 sound fit in?

A: If you had asked me this question in 2004, I probably could have given you a good run-down of the China scene. But since then, the number of electronic musicians and bands has doubled, or tripled and there are just hundreds of kids out there playing all kinds of weird stuff. Noise is a big influence of many electronic musicians, as is breakcore, which has a strong representation in Beijing. It's just such a big country and so much is happening now that it's hard to give an overall picture.

Q: Your latest release as FM3 was through Staalplaat and as is traditional for the label, came housed in some suitably lavish packaging. How important to you is the aesthetic quality of music packaging?

A: We are really happy with the Staalplaat packaging. Like most stuff from them, it's well conceived and executed. Zhang and I are just terrible when it comes to design and packaging. We tend to focus our energy on the music and the performance environment. As a result, our web-site is completely lame and it took us about five years to do the stuff that most bands do in a few months, like make cool T-shirts, posters, etc.

Q: Did this have any influence on the look of the Buddha Machine?

A: Oh yeah! Most people refuse to believe it, but we designed the Buddha Machine just minutes before deadline. We had a few ideas about what we wanted it to look like, but we kept putting off a decision until about 4pm on the day before production was to begin. So I went over to Zhang's, we sketched a really rough drawing and faxed it to our factory. The final "design process" took about eight minutes. One of our T-shirts has an image of that sketch. It's pretty crude.

Q: Are there any plans for more Buddha Machines in the future?

A: Not at present. Just handing the production and export of this one is a full time job. Parts are constantly in short supply; memory is hard to source during big holiday periods. Plastic prices jump as oil prices increase... It's stunning the amount of attention it takes to put them all together... It really is a full-time job for both Zhang and I. We've got a release due for Kraak records in Belgium and I'm way behind schedule, mostly because we have to spend our days sourcing resistors, capacitors and batteries!

Q: What do you make of the slew of artists apparently using the Buddha Machine as source material for their own 'remix' EP's? Monolake, for example, are currently working on such a release...

A: Big support for these kinds of projects! Robert Henke was one of the first people to suggest "remixing" the FM3 loops and I'm told his "layering Buddha" project is coming along well. We also have a compilation project for Staubgold records that will feature a number of our friends doing Buddha Machine reinterpretations. This disk will bring together tunes from people like Sun City Girls, Tortoise, Alog, Jan Jelenik, Stefan Schneider, Blixa Bargeld and others. In addition, there are dozens of bands around the world using the Buddha Machine for their recordings or live sets. As an artist, it's just amazing to see your work take on a life of its own. And in fact, some of these people are probably gonna do some damn good stuff with these loops and probably produce some tunes that are much better than Zhang and I could have done!

Q: What is Buddha Boxing?

A: Buddha Boxing is the live set we are touring in 2006. It's essentially a "sound game" played with Buddha Machines. No PA, no mixer, no stage, no lighting. A simple, go anywhere performance concept.

Q: How did the boxing come about? Was it out of necessity to play out live, or was it a natural evolution once you'd become familiar with the machines?

A: We came up with the idea while on tour in Holland and Belgium last October. By 2005, we had stopped using computers for live performance and were instead using a custom-built acoustic zither and a traditional stringed thing called the Gu Qin. One night during the usually boring lulls between gigs, we messing about with six Buddha Machines and just kind of started to play cards with them, throwing down different loops and trying to make a nice tune that would make the other guy react. Suddenly we realised this would make a great live set. Two guys mucking about with coloured boxes is certainly a bit more eye-catching that someone staring at their computer screen. And it freed us from carrying around 90kg of stringed instruments. So after that night, we locked our gear in Belgium and started the Buddha boxing live sets.

Q: Can you explain the rules?

A: Simple. Only one "action" allowed per turn.

I can pick up a Buddha Machine, select a loop and put it into play. Or I can remove a machine from play, or change the volume, or loop. Only one "action" then the other contestant gets a chance. He does whatever he wants to do, say he adds another Buddha Machine to the mix, and then it's my turn again... The "game" ends when the last Buddha Machine is removed from the playing surface. The person who takes that last machine away is the winner. The aim of the game is to make some nice music. It probably makes a lot more sense if you watch the video!

Q: What was your role in the Radio Pyongyang: Commie Funk and Agit Pop From The Hermit Kingdom album?

A: Zhang and I had already done an album for Sublime Frequencies called Streets Of Lhasa. During the production process for Streets I mentioned to Alan Bishop that I had been to North Korea in 1994 and had a number of friends who made regular trips. He immediately commissioned a disk of tunes. So I started collecting the fragments that I had from that initial visit and put out the word to my friends for more. Bishop himself threw some tunes my way and then I spent about a year sorting through hundreds of radio intercepts, live recordings, television captures and pop tunes. During a three-month artist residency in Switzerland I put the whole mess together and Radio Pyongyang was born.

Q: Are you intending to tour Europe more extensively in the coming year?

A: We were on the road for about six months in Europe in 2004. And about five months in 2005. This year, we will just do two months in Europe and hopefully three months in USA. Visa issues are a consideration for us because Zhang has a Chinese passport. So when I played London and Chicago in 2004, I had to go alone. We have a booking agent in the USA now, so we hope to sort those issues out and play as much as possible. We still both thrive on live gigs. For years, the only way I could support myself was live gigs and DJ sets. So it's in my blood. The more gigs the better!

Q: If your house were ablaze what five records would you save?

A: Five from my youth: Hüsker Dü Zen Arcade; Black Flag Jealous Again; Dead Kennedys In God We Trust, Inc.; The Residents Commercial Album; Flipper Generic.

Q: What have you been listening to recently? Do you have a current Top 10?

A: Still the tail end of winter in Beijing, so its dark brooding stuff on the stereo: lots of Boris, Sun O))), Earth and Sabbath. And whenever I need to know how much brilliant stuff there is out there, I just tune to the WFMU web-cast and am constantly amazed! Best radio station in the world!

Q: What have you included on your FM3 Boomkat Mix?

A: The mix is a short selection of earlier FM3 works and should give the listener a good idea about how the Buddha Machine loops evolved. Similar versions of two of the songs in this mix were released on the French compilation Bip-Hop Generation Vol.7 in 2004. The opening song is a long version of the first Buddha Machine loop. It is based on a two-note melody played on the Mongolian horse-head fiddle called Ma Tou Qin in Chinese. Underneath the main melody is a recording Zhang Jian made during a trip to Tibet a few years back and which appears on the Streets Of Lhasa disk released by the very wonderful USA record label Sublime Frequencies. Total time: twenty-one minutes. A sleeping pill in music form?