Start 2015 slowly.
Brock Van Wey has never been a guy who hides his feelings. Every piece of music he's written or interview he's given or DJ set he's played is overtly coloured by his emotional state at that very moment. It's what defines him as an artist. "It's all about showing a part of you, a part of your heart and soul," he told us in 2009, "and hopefully some who hear it feel the same way you do, and it creates that connection that is the ultimate beauty of music." Van Wey has given people plenty of opportunities to connect. Since he started out in 2007, he's released around 40 albums and EPs. His style deals mainly in deep strains of ambient of electro-acoustic compositions, although his roots as a DJ on the San Francisco rave scene in the early '90s have sometimes surfaced in more beat-driven records. His label, Quietus Recordings, is "dedicated to releasing and communicating the deepest, most personal, and innermost realms of electronic music," and none felt more personal than Tanto, a record Van Wey recorded and recently released after the passing of his cat of the same name—his "brother and best friend."
Van Wey's RA podcast comes at a time of significant personal upheaval. He recently learnt that his Chinese visa would not be renewed, after spending 14 years teaching as an English professor in the eastern city of Shaoxing. He explains more below, but he said that the process of recording a mix (his first in some time) afforded him some much-needed catharsis. His 70-minute session blends passages of quiet theatrical beauty with the heated release of drums, and, of course, there's not a moment with an absence of emotion.
What have you been up to recently?
Besides being cold all the time (Chinese houses are actually colder than it is outside, which is super great), threatening to kick my six unruly cats out on the cold street on a daily basis, and my continuing reign of terror over my students, I've managed to actually get a little music done. Recently I released Tanto, a charity album in memory of one of my cats (and best friends in the world) who died last year. 100% of all the money (not just the profit, but all my costs as well) will be donated in his name to research and fight FIP, the cruel disease that took his life far too early. From one of the worst and darkest times in my life, I'm really happy to be able to do something positive in his name, and hopefully help others in the process. It is, however, as bittersweet as happiness can get.
I've also finished a new deep techno/deep house/ however you want to define it (I'm less and less adept at or interested in definitions as time goes on) album for AY, the Japanese label through which I previously released two albums, Then and At Night This City Becomes The Sea. In that genre (when I do my melding of ambient/deep house/deep techno), I would say it's my best work so far, so I'm really excited for that. I also did a track to help out my good friend Rafael Anton Irisarri with his efforts to rebuild his studio, which I was really happy to be able to do, completed a special remix for the band Hundred Waters, and am nearly done with a new beatless ambient album I've been working on for a really long time, which is actually meant to be listened to quietly, which is very different for me, and thus quite challenging. But it reflects the impetus behind the album, and all I can do is follow the fates when it comes to that.
Lately the musical process and life itself for me has been really slow and sometimes agonizing, as my chronic and manic depression that often helps chronically and manically fuel my music has instead manifested itself in a way that has basically beat me down into a numb ghost of myself where pretty much the only emotion I am able to experience is violent rage. So that's fun.
Usually such states last a few weeks tops, but I've been battling this one for going on six months now probably, and only occasionally does it decide to allow me the emotional clarity to express myself musically, which sucks, because the want is there every second of every day. But the want itself is not enough. Everything has to align for it to happen. Of course I could trudge my way through making music for the sake of making it, but that would be a complete violation of everything that means anything to me—and that's not music. That's just a bunch of sounds with no meaning. So all I can do is take advantage of the times I have, when they are arbitrarily and suddenly given to me. Anyone who has lived with chronic or manic depression in their life (I've had to since I was 5 or 6, so yay for that) will know what I'm talking about… but I hope no one has to truly understand that life.
How and where was the mix recorded?
It was recorded in my studio here in Shaoxing, China, live in one take on two laptops simultaneously, mixing, editing and looping live on both at the same time. I was originally going to plan it out but purposely ditched all the previously planned tracks and ideas and decided instead to do it live off the cuff because a) that's really ideally how a mix should be anyway, and b) doing it in that way was an attempt to both process and escape from the fact that on that very morning, I had received the news that basically my entire way of life for the past 14 years was coming to a halt. As with anything in my life, good or bad, my only way of dealing with it is through music. So I just let my heart take me where it may, as I tried to gain some headway in my inner conversation. So not only did I make a mix, but I have now succeeded in making myself sound like some nutcase washed up hippie. Hippie? No. Nutcase? Yes.
Can you tell us about the idea behind the mix?
Suddenly learning that your life is getting turned upside down, and trying to figure out whether that is good or bad (such things can go either way), tends to make one not only understandably think about what's going to happen in the future, but also take stock of all that's happened leading up to that moment. For me that led to making a mix that not only reflects what I was feeling at the time, attempting to process the emotions of the moment, but also trying to look to the future or at least trying to imagine it. For me the future always means remembering the past, and not losing sight of the future I always envisioned then, and still carry with me now. So the mix is not only a dialogue about the crossroads I'm at right now and the 14 years that's led to it, but also a kind of bridge to my previous life as a DJ, which itself ended 14 years ago and caused the "new" life that is now ending—if that all makes sense—and the philosophies (both emotional and technical) that I lived by on a daily basis during those years in the trenches as a DJ, which have carried themselves into today, and the music I make now.
Since I "retired" from 10-plus years of DJing in 2001, doing mixes now is a very sentimental thing for me (and something I very rarely undertake anymore), but I think this one even more so. It's very indicative of the way I was DJing toward the end of my DJ "career," when I really cast off my previous obsessions with genres and classifications, and selected, programmed and mixed purely from emotion, in whatever form it decided to take—a philosophy that I think is about as apparent as it gets in my own music as well.
In the end I couldn't be happier with the way it ended up, on a myriad of levels. The end result is a really raw, unbridled journey which can only be achieved by letting yourself go, turning your mind off, and letting your heart call the shots.
So this crossroads in your life in China that you mentioned?
Well yes, there's the whole "my life of 14 years" thing. I've been teaching for 16 years, with the last 14 being in China (with a couple years in the middle being back in the States, and coming back and forth). I have an admittedly very love-hate relationship with China (but who doesn't with any place, I guess), but the one thing I've always loved, and the only thing that's really kept me here, is my job as a university English professor. I rule my class with an iron fist and am undoubtedly the strictest, often cruelest, and most terrifying teacher in all of China, foreign or Chinese, but there is nothing I wouldn't do for my students, and they know it. I love them like my own family—even if only a fraction of them love me back in the same way. But that's the life of a teacher.
So to all of a sudden be told by the government that they weren't going to renew my visa anymore, and that it was "time for me to go home" was one of the most saddening, crushing, angering and frankly insulting things I could ever imagine—not to mention confusing, as last year I was awarded the title of the best foreign teacher in all of China by the same government that was now telling me my services would no longer be needed.
This is the harsh reality of China, though. You are never really one with the country or community, no matter how long you are here, or how much you do. You are reminded every day of your life by every person you meet and see that you're different and don't belong here, even if they don't mean it in a bad way. In fact most of the time, they don't. But for the good parts of living here, this will forever be the worst, even more so because I don't think it will ever change. I've done more for the country and my local community than really anyone who has ever lived here (in my city), but still I'm forever just another dispensable tool.
It took quite some time to overcome the initial shock and anger, and I seethed for weeks about how I had pointlessly given 14 years of my life to a country that didn't care. But in the light of calmness, I learned to look at it in a different light. I've impacted the lives of thousands upon thousands of students, and literally changed many of their lives for the better, and forever, both inside and outside of the classroom. And I've also been fortunate enough to know some amazing people who have been real and true friends, and will continue to be no matter where I lay my head.
Everything has to end sometime, and such things happen for a reason (there's the washed up hippie thing again), so honestly right now I still don't know. I'm still just taking it one step at a time. No matter how OK I am with it now, it's still quite jarring to have the way you've lived your life for a third of your existence be ripped away from you, no matter whether you like the environment it's in. Like it or not, it's your home, and where you've lived a huge part of your life. It is forever part of you. But you never know what will happen in China, so you can never plan too far ahead. I might wake up one day and still be here… or I might be back home where I belong, with friends and family who love me for me. I know, so terrible, right? What a tough life.
I think my dream path right now is doing mentoring for at-risk kids, to try to get them back on track. When I was young I made a lot of mistakes and went down a lot of wrong roads, for which I paid a lot of costs, and helping someone else be able to avoid the mistakes I made would be something really beautiful and meaningful—and strange, considering I actually hate people. But teaching has taught me that for all my justified hatred, love can be pretty damn good too.
What are you up to next?
I have some special remixes and collaborations coming up with both dear friends and artists I have revered forever, so both are really exciting, and I have at least some mental plans for more albums this year, but as with anything, in the end you have to see if your grandiose visions actually become reality. Other than that, I just take it all one day at a time. The only thing I really care about, and have ever cared about, is music. This music. So to me, any time my often uncooperative or downright terrorizing mind will allow me to make it and share it with others, it's really a gift I cherish above and beyond anything else.