Artist Interview: Kai Tak

Posted: by The Editor

photo by Kai Tak

On July 6th, 1998, the international airport in Hong Kong known as Kai Tak had permanently shuttered its doors after 73 years of service. Known for its alarming proximity to the city’s skyscrapers, it was said that flight passengers could see directly into resident’s homes as they arrived for landing. Though the airport officially closed due to overcrowding and the expansion of residential areas during the ‘80s and ‘90s, it left an indelible impression on Los Angeles based producer/musician Chris King (Cold Showers) who had grown up there as a child. Leading the LA collective Kai Tak, named fondly after the airport, King started the project as an ode to the city he came from. Drawing inspiration from ‘90s trip-hop, alternative rock, and Wong Kar-wai films, the debut album Designed in Heaven Made in Hong Kong is a transportative experience that delves into the imagination where mystery and intrigue prevail. I spoke with King about the origins of the project, his collaboration process, and the making of the album.

During the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, Kai Tak had released their first demo for the enigmatic track “Waste It.” At the time of the release, King had just started revisiting ideas for the project with friend and collaborator Chelsey Holland (also known as Chelsey Boy) before the world unexpectedly headed into a lockdown. The initial ideas for the project began back in 2016 after King returned from a visit to Hong Kong where he felt inspired to start fleshing out ideas for songs like “Jalen Rose,” “Waste It,” and “No Better Tomorrow.” King shares, “A bunch of life things kept me from spending time on it, including my production work for other artists, making Cold Showers records and playing shows, as well as a pretty significant car accident that all put this project on the back burner. When I returned from a Cold Showers tour in February of 2020, I was finally ready to take time to start working on this record, and I met with Chelsey to start working on ‘Waste It.’ Two days after we recorded the first demo, the world shut down.”

While Kai Tak is primarily known as a collective, fellow LA dark electronica artist Chelsey Boy is featured vocally on a majority of the tracks which creates a distinctly magnetic atmosphere with her airy yet sultry style that evokes Toni Halliday of trip-hop duo Curve. On their collaboration, King shares, “Chelsey has been one of my closest friends for a long time. We met in 2016 when I produced an EP for her old band Intimatchine. The original plan was to have her sing only one or two songs on the album, but over time some other collaborators who had originally signed on couldn’t make it work due to scheduling, moving, or various other life issues, and at some point I just needed to finish this record, so once January of this year hit, any songs that didn’t have vocals yet were given to Chelsey to finish.

For each song King provided guitar, bass, synths, drum programming, and worked on the production and mixing while Los Angeles and San Francisco based collaborators including Chelsey Boy, There’s Talk, Tamaryn, Foie Gras, Draag, and Dol Ikara provided all of the lyrics and vocals as well as some additional instrumentation. “All the songs started with a specific inspiration in Hong Kong – usually a neighborhood, which I would try to capture the mood of, but also some movies, buildings, and local traditions or history,” King says. The song “Blush” featuring goth rock artist Dol Ikara for instance had been inspired by the visually striking world of Wong Kar-wai’s 1995 neo-noir film Fallen Angels, while the penultimate song “Until We Leave From Here” featuring Chelsey Boy had been inspired by the densely populated Kowloon Walled City that was demolished between 1993 and 1994. “For the songs written with Chelsey, we collaborated on both the lyrics and vocal melodies and workshopped the songs in my studio. For the other songs, I mostly just let them know what inspired the songs, and then let them come up with ideas on their own, and then when they felt good about something, they would come in and record,” King shares of the writing process. 

From the name of the project, to the album title, to the distinct use of a Chinese string instrument called a guzheng, and various sampling used throughout the album, Designed in Heaven Made in Hong Kong feels incredibly representative of King as an Asian American artist and where he came from. It’s also an earnest attempt to capture a feeling Hong Kong possesses that traverses the spectral corridors between ceaseless reality and states of reverie. “I truly believe that Hong Kong in the ’80s and ’90s was the most interesting place to ever exist. Just the cultural diversity alone made it such an exciting place to be a young child and learn about the world, and there’s no doubt it had a great impact on my personality, interests, and perspective.  Above all, I wanted the album to be a love letter to both the real and imaginary Hong Kong,” King expresses.

Throughout the album, from the free flowing opening track “No Better Tomorrow” to the otherworldly “Flood the Harbour,” or the darkly seductive and withering “Villains in My Mind,” the samples of various chattering used in the mix create the sense of walking through narrow alleyways and picking up bits and pieces of stranger’s conversations. It evokes a sense of longing and familiarity that mirrors the sort of sensation felt when speaking two languages and hearing one language spoken vivaciously after what feels like a long drought outside of ethnic communities. The majority of the found sound samples were voice memo recordings I took from my various trips to Hong Kong between 2011 and 2018.  Before 2011, I hadn’t been back to Hong Kong since I was a child, and I was really surprised and inspired at how much it affected me on a spiritual and emotional level just being back in that city,” King says. “I also used found sounds in much more subtle ways, such as sampling street noises, re-pitching them, and turning them into drum layers, chopping up and pitching city noises and turning them into synth pads, things like that.”

Having previously produced and engineered other projects for artists such as Fearing, Glaare, and Topographies, King’s production for Kai Tak’s debut falls within similar sonic and textural territory while pulling from various other works for inspiration. “I’m sure I’ve learned so much just from producing other artists that seeped into my work subconsciously, especially any production and recording techniques that we stumbled onto accidentally from experimentation, which is a huge part of my production process. Some big musical influences on the record include Seam, Smashing Pumpkins, Curve, Massive Attack, and ’90s East Coast Hip Hop, but I probably took more influence from cinema, particularly Wong Kar-wai and John Woo films,” he shares.

Leading up to the album’s release last month, each song had also been released as a single over the last year along with individual artwork. The artwork is notably consistently represented in varying shades of blue and appears as if they were movie stills that had been captured and then reimagined from memory. King says of the visual approach for the album, “My friend Paige Emery has long been one of my favorite visual artists (and incredible musician as well). From the start, I knew I wanted her to paint all the single artwork, to put her spin on a combination of classic Hong Kong movie stills, photos my father took when we lived there, and a few famous photos I had seen over the years.” On releasing each song as a single as opposed to merely releasing a couple off the album King shares, “The primary driver behind this was that I wanted each song to have its own artwork, and for the artwork all together to create the album’s overall mood. I also just liked the idea of doing something different than the old traditional album release cycle – it’s something I’ve been through many times, and never saw the reason why it had to be that way.” 

Working on the album allowed King ample time to dive into hours of research regarding Hong Kong, a process which he thoroughly enjoyed being able to do and one that paid off as the album manages to eulogize the city and the parts of it that no longer exist. Designed in Heaven Made in Hong Kong is a universe of endless imaginings, one where ghostly reverberations co-exist with the enduring corrosions of existence. For listeners who come across the album, King shares, “I just hope the record gives people the same feelings I have while wandering the city at night.  I wanted it to sound like neon lights, warm rain, waves of people shuttling in and out of the MTR (Hong Kong’s subway system), street food vendors, and the burning of joss paper.”

Designed in Heaven Made in Hong Kong is out now and available on all streaming platforms.

Loan Pham | @x_loanp

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