To my untrained eye, though, it doesn't seem like much to be honest. I put this down to the fact that Xhin is more than happy to fit rupture into defined forms. He's not reinventing the wheel so much as he's sticking a pin into it at regular intervals to see what happens as it continues to revolve. He's more than happy to adhere to tradition. Just as long as it doesn't get in the way of him putting his own spin on it.
Despite having crafted such a distinctive sound, however, Xhin's musical upbringing seems to read like any random techno bio you might come across. "My father was playing Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra when I was a kid on the home stereo. But at first I wasn't interested. I was learning the piano, playing the guitar. Then a friend of mine introduced me to Detroit techno. 'This is Jeff Mills, this is Derrick May, this is Juan Atkins.' So I quit my band after that, started buying records, saved money and bought some turntables."
The big difference, of course, is that all of this was happening in Singapore, a country where the electronic music scene is relatively small. Most people know about superclub Zouk, but that's about it. Outside of that club's confines, though, there is a dedicated underground scene, trying to bring in forward-thinking artists. When I met Xhin in Berlin, he lamented the fact that he was missing Tokimonsta play at a friend's party back home. Before saying that, well, he was missing it because he had been booked to play at Berghain. He plays out a lot in Singapore, he says, but he doesn't necessarily get to play as dark as he might like to, balancing a commitment to keeping the dance floor full and staying true to his own taste as best he can. "Not a lot people are into genuine stuff in Singapore. There are some of course. But it's not many."
Which isn't to say that he doesn't love the country itself. While it may not provide constant musical excitement, Xhin has found places where he can do exactly what he wants. When we meet, Xhin immediately spies that I've written the words Nike and Nokia on a piece of paper, prompts to remind myself to ask about his work with those companies. It's at the top of the page and he seems nervous. I tell him that it was simply the first thing that I saw on his bio, and it's not something that you see every day, in a scene so concerned with credibility. "The bio is not so much for the whole world to see. It's more locally. In Singapore, not a lot of people are fortunate enough to work with those big brands."
It's not shocking that the average corporate person isn't following the movements of labels like Stroboscopic Artefacts or Meerestief of course. And, in any case, what Nike and Nokia typically want is something altogether fascinating. "They allowed me to do my own thing... For Nike, it's for this new football boot. They have this machine at a stall, and my music will get triggered when they're playing this game. It's like sound design."
It hasn't always been this easy in the corporate world or the techno world for Xhin. "I first started sending demos out in 2001 or 2002. I wasn't very lucky. Or maybe I wasn't good enough. But I kept pushing myself. I had a day job, so at night I would come home and do techno until the next morning. I'd usually sleep about three hours a day." The hard work paid off, though. But not in the way that he thought it might. Instead of a label getting back to him about an unsolicited demo, Xhin was contacted by Meerestief via MySpace. He was soon welcomed into the label's roster via a remix and a spot on the Schneeweiss compilation, paving the way for his first solo EP.
Through Meerestief, he also became good friends with Lucy, the owner of Stroboscopic Artefacts and the label that released his breakthrough track "Link." The tune was charted upon its release by an interesting variety of techno jocks. Giorgio Gigli, Brendon Moeller, Phil Kieran, Silent Servant and Ben Klock all found something in its upright groove and ferocious bite. It's been followed by the slicing techno found on Monad III and "Blade Moth" on Meerestief, whose buzzing backing track is vaguely reminiscent of Aphex Twin's ear-piercing "Ventolin."
IDM seems an enormous influence for the producer. He cites Aphex as a particular touchstone, and it's hard not to hear how immaculate sound design plays a role in making Xhin's tracks so distinctive. He clearly has a handle on how to harness his production tools for maximum impact. The same goes for performing live, something he's doing more and more of these days. The first time that I saw him in Berlin in May of this year, he was using a Traktor set-up with four tracks playing at once. By October, when he returned to the city, he was sporting a laptop running Ableton and two iPads that acted as controllers.
"I get bored I guess," Xhin says, as he excitedly runs me through the myriad set-ups he's had over the past few years. With so many tracks to keep track of and so many changes in how he plays, I ask if mistakes are a hazard. "Of course. They still happen. It's all about adapting, and figuring out how to fix them on the fly. Maybe a little bit of delay. Or maybe I take it out after one or four bars," he laughs.
When I theorize that perhaps the high price of vinyl in Singapore might have something to do with why he's so in love with pushing the limits of technology with his own music and performances, though, he disagrees. "When I'm done making music for the day, I like to play something that I can touch. I have two turntables at home, just for listening pleasure. I like the feel, the smell. I'll have wine, and just enjoy the moment of good music. It makes me happy, thinking about those old days when I was only playing records."
Those listening sessions include a healthy dose of Ryuichi Sakamoto, former member of Yellow Magic Orchestra. One of his favorites, Xhin sees inspiration in the way that his career moved from pop to soundtracks to home listening music. He doesn't operate under the assumption that he'll be playing techno until he retires. "I'm still playing the piano. I've written some scores. I may stop doing electronic music [like this] around the age of 45 or something. I'm writing some classical or New Age stuff. Maybe in my old folk's days, I'll do more with that. Who knows?"