INTERVIEW: Eric Lau
by Ayian C.
Soul/hip-hop producer and DJ, Eric Lau, has raised the bar with his second album, One of Many, released last week on Kilawatt to plaudits from both sides of the Atlantic and across the globe. Hip-hop star 9th Wonder described the new album as ‘dopeness’, and Little Brother’s Phonte labelled Lau ‘one of the illest beatmakers’.
Born to Hong Kong-Chinese parents and raised in England, Lau is a man of personal drive, high standards and ambition, despite having faced rejection while trying to kick start his career. It was his perseverance that led to the release of his debut album, New Territories on West Coast label, Ubiquity back in 2008, giving the world its first glimpse of a promising young talent.
Where New Territories was the vehicle that first catapulted Lau onto the world stage, One of Many vehemently affirms his place. Featuring artists like Oddisee, Olivier St. Louis, Georgia Anne Muldrow and Kaidi Tatham, Lau’s new album is a beautifully polished gem that carries within it his intentions of making something worthy and wonderful.
The Eric Lau & friends live performance at North London’s Old Queen’s Head in May was a sure sign of the album’s pre-release success. The room overspilled with people from the far corners of London, and unfortunately, some of Lau’s close friends, including Floating Points and Dego (4 Hero) were left waiting outside the door. In the packed, steaming venue at Lau’s first live gig in five years, the air was thick with anticipation and the crowd oozed with excitement. But that’s to be expected with a band that included three stellar vocalists,Tawiah, Rahel and Vula, as well as some of the UK’s most talented musicians – Kaidi Tatham, Awkasi Mensah, Alex Bonfanti, Ben Jones and the PSM.
It was an epic performance flowing from one gorgeous song to the next, emanating a wealth of emotion, humour and affection. And the crowd roared the energy back at the band. It was as though the music performed that evening belonged to everyone present, forming a close bond between us all. Like a family. Through Lau’s music we all felt, even just for one night, connected.
Only a few weeks away from the band’s next live performance at the legendary Jazz Café, Lau took time off his busy schedule to chat with the Couch Sessions. He had just come from an appearance on Alex Nut’s radio show on Rinse FM. It seemed only apt that Lau suggested we meet at a Vietnamese bubble tea café – Southeast Asia represented!
Upon meeting Lau, I noticed that his demeanour is much like his music – laid back and humble yet profound and self-assured, like someone who knows who he is, what he wants, and where he wants to go. Chewing the pearls from our bubble teas, we talked about the ebbs and flows in life, music, family and travel.
When did you first start making music?
At university. I was studying a Business & Marketing Degree at University of Westminster. I came to London from Cambridge. I was young, didn’t know what to do. Business & Marketing felt safe, but during that time I came to London with a very open mind. I really liked music a lot, was a real fan. I was just getting into Gangstarr and Tribe – the golden era of hip-hop. I was very late to it. But I was also listening to R&B and other stuff.
On my course, my friend Chris was also into music and rapped and he bought some software, lent it to me, then I started mucking around with it and I dragged loops in and made tracks with it. It was really good fun!
I wanted to go further, so I spent loads of time doing it, and eventually I started working with other people at university – singers and rappers. And there was a commercial music course on my campus, so there were loads of musicians and rappers there. But none of them wanted to work with me, so I worked even harder to get on that level. I wasn’t taken seriously then. And I never looked back since.
So when did things start to change for you?
The turning point for me was doing an internship at BBE records. One of my jobs was to go around the record stores in Soho, check on the stock and see if they needed any more BBE products. And I would go along with my demo and asked the people at the record stores if they could have a listen. And most of them shunned me. They didn’t want to have anything to do with me, apart from Seth at Deal Real in Carnaby Street. He said, “Sure, let’s have a listen.” Then he said, “This is amazing. What are you doing with this?” So he and the other guys at Deal Real took me on and mentored me and acted as my manager.
Your debut album came out on Ubiquity Records in LA. How did that come about?
After my management deal finished with them, I started working on some demos with Rahel and Tawiah for the first time. Then Andrew Meza from LA hit me up. He used to run a radio show in LA called BTS, now also a label. He asked me to do a mix for him and he said he worked for Ubiquity. I gave him the demos to give to the A&R at Ubiquity, and within a week or two, they offered me a deal. This was all before I was 25. And I had set myself a limit. If I don’t manage to get a deal by 25, I’m going to have to think about this.
I was stoked to be on there – my first project. And I mean, Platinum Pied Piper had just done their thing on there, and Sa-Ra. I was a fan of those records big time, and for them to put faith in me. I hadn’t had a track record; it was just based on the demos that they signed me. It was a big deal for me.
Your second album is now out on Kilawatt? Tell me about them.
Kilawatt is a UK-based label run by a young guy called Simon Daley. He was an intern where I used to teach. He was a fan of the music. He saved up some money and wanted to start a label and he asked if I would do an EP for them and it stemmed from there. He did my last few projects. He had faith in me and allowed me to do exactly what I want to do.
What’s the concept or message behind One of Many?
One of Many acknowledges that I’m one of many people and things on this planet. Together we are connected and we make one. And this planet is one of many planets in the solar system. Outwardly, the solar system is one of many solar systems, and outwardly it’s infinite. And internally you can go the same way. You can go within the atom and go on infinitely. Everything is fractal and connected. It’s just a realisation that I had in the last couple of years. I had the title three or four years ago, and I always wanted to make a record towards that: the understanding that we are all connected. I wanted that sentiment to be felt in the music.
And what has influenced your thinking?
Just learning about life, understanding the world. The more you travel you get to know more who you are and how you exist in everything else, the interaction you have with people through music. Just through a sound wave it’s going to travel to places you’ve only ever dreamed of and you are interacting with these people. It shows me that everything is just a sea of energy and if you put something good out there, somebody is going to give you feedback and it will come back to you.
While we were making the album I kept trying to hold on to why I was doing this record. It’s not an industry record. There’s no strategy. It’s all for this purpose – the music, the connection and to uplift people. Whenever my ego would get in the way, I brought myself back to take that out of it. I just wanted to do it. Do what comes naturally; do whatever the music says at that time.
When you make music, for example with Tawiah or Rahel, what’s your usual process?
The music is usually made first. Then I think, “Tawiah fits on that, or Rahel fits on that”. They come over to listen to the music. A word or a line may come up. For example with one of the songs with Tawiah, she thought it gave her the feeling of the people we’ve lost in her life. She’d say, “Can you mention this or that?” Then I’ll maybe come up with one line, and she’ll finish the rest of the song. Rahel, she likes to zone out and then really channel what comes through. It’s cool to work with her because she delivers. I kind of let them be and do whatever is right for the music. And if it goes out of sync, then I try to rein it back in, but still moving forward.
You also have the mighty Kaidi (Kat) Tatham on in this album.
I’m a huge fan of Kaidi before anything else. I think he’s a genius. We’ve worked together a couple times before. He’s my big bro. I love working with him. He understands the music. He’s music on tap. He’ll form the music around your flow. He’s seamless within it. A lot of time we don’t need to say anything, we just do it. It just happens. I think it’s interesting fusing my sounds with his harmonies, my grooves with his rhythms. It really works. It complements each other.
What did your parents, being originally from Hong Kong, think about you making music?
It’s hard for them to understand. They’ve worked hard labour most of their lives – take away restaurants, Chinatown, moving around all the time, fish & chip shops – for 30 years. It was survival and their ultimate goal was to send my brother and sister to university. They’ve played their positions to the absolute best they can. It’s difficult for anyone to prepare themselves to understand the next generation of people.
My brother went into finance, my sister worked for a media company. I’m the youngest and I had the privilege of getting a good education as well and I was the most stable because we stayed in one place for the longest time. For me, to come out and say I want to do music after university; they were like, “What?” (Laughs)
Everyone thought it was a phase and I wasn’t serious. But gradually over the years, they’ve seen how it’s changed me as a person, how much it’s empowered me, how much confidence it’s given me, how it’s really helped my life. They can see I’m representing the family name in a good way and it has brought us all closer together. There’s a common thing to talk about. It’s interesting for them and very different. No one from my village has done this kind of thing before. I have a lot of pride in representing that. There are very few Hong Kong- Chinese in this field so I hope it inspires others and transcends perceptions.
You’ve toured East Asia quite a bit. What’s it like when you go there?
Yes, around three times. Over the years I’ve been to Hong Kong of course, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea. I love going back to that region every time.
Watch Kilawatt’s video of Eric Lau’s 2012 tour
And you went to South Africa as well. Tell me about that experience.
I got invited to play in South Africa to do workshops for these promoters and then British Council and Red Bull Music Academy. I was DJing out there in Capetown and Jo’burg, and I did workshops with local producers, and I did a Red Bull lecture in Capetown, and did a listening session for my album, and just had the best time of my life.
I’ve never been embraced like that anywhere in the world. It was a huge deal for me: being invited to Africa as a Chinese person to do music – is a big deal for me personally. I fell in love with the people. Music is thriving out there. People are open. There’s a lot of talent out there.
It was the best time of my life. Much love to South Africa. Love the people.
You’ve done a lot of teaching as well.
I was doing a lot of mentoring and workshops with all types of people around London and abroad – South Africa, Budapest. I was teaching people from age 12 to 25, from different backgrounds – schools, autistic young people, young mothers group, young offenders, going to local housing estates and engaging young people, trying to get people involved in music. Every type of young person – I enjoy it. I feel I’m a teacher.
No matter how far I go with music, I’ll always be teaching in some shape or form. I love sharing knowledge; I love giving people their first experience of doing music. When you first record your own track, or your first beat, or you first perform, or you first write a song – it’s a special thing to give someone. I quite miss it.
Who are you listening to these days? Anyone you’re really into to right now?
Gwen Bunn. She’s a young singer-songwriter/producer from Atlanta. She’s really, really gifted. I’ve done a track with her already. It’s going to be a bonus track on the CD. She’s a really great songwriter and her voice is really sweet. She’s got great ideas. I love her energy, so honest with it. I heard her song Epitome on a blog and I thought it sounded amazing.
There’s also a hip-hop group called Hawk House – a guy and a girl, really talented. They rapped on one of my tracks and they were really good. I was impressed. I definitely recommend checking them out.