“PERPETUAL IMPLOSION OF CONCEPT,” Nich Zhu writes in the thesis for the first song on their new album, Music For Self-Esteem. It’s an aptly ambitious sentiment at the beginning of a project that encompasses a 37-track album, four short volumes of chaotic poetry, and a collection of carefully constructed videos. It could also a guiding principle for Zhu’s work under the name bod [包家巷], which has often jolted from tranquil ambience to grinding noise so quickly that the listener is forced to retreat from easy answers. Zhu is trying to communicate something, even if it does keep falling in on itself. In fact, the first song here is called “Please Listen to the Whole Album It'll Be Rewarding I Promise,” and at the end of their note on the song Zhu almost seems to be apologizing as they let go of their thoughts: “I promise not to draw any more lines. The thread is left coiled, the map allowed to fall in place as wind will take it.”
Music For Self-Esteem is still, however loosely, what it announces itself as. The project traces Zhu’s life from college in Portland through a punishing spell in Los Angeles to a more forgiving life in Berlin, where they spoke to me over the phone yesterday. (Full disclosure: Zhu and I attended college together, but neither of us were aware of that until after our interview.) Over the past few years, they have kept returning to the same core concept: “Self-esteem, at least in therapy for me, is the main issue — it was the ground floor of everything.” Whether or not this is music primarily for Zhu’s self-esteem or the listener’s is harder to discern. “That's the point,” they say, before discussing their desire to raze those sorts of boundaries — particularly between life and art — entirely.
However forcefully bod [包家巷] resists easy interpretation, though, Zhu’s music remains deft and affecting. There are crushing stretches here, like the three-minute barrage of “Periodical Acceptance of Chaos” and “LA Was Worth the Struggle but I Had to Leave,” but they always dissolve into some of the most blissful combinations of analog and electronic sound that Zhu has released in their career so far. Classical interludes mingle with dismembered Chinese-language interjections, all intentionally disorienting parts of a project that Zhu sees as a form of "worldbuilding." Listen to Music For Self-Esteem — out today via the Stockholm-based label YEAR0001 — below, and read our conversation after the jump.
How has your life changed in the three years since you started on this project three years ago?
One of the earliest songs in the album goes back to even like when I was in college in Portland. They don't seem real, almost — it's college I'm supported by this institution and everything's so nice. I get to, like, eat every day. It's crazy. And then L.A., that was the grinding death machine. It wasn't really working out. I was just getting sick all the time, always broke. Here in Berlin being broke just isn't as bad. I'm poorer here then I was in L.A., but the quality of my life is just a million times better.
When you first released the prelude to the project, you said the aim was to “point meaning towards the feedback loop between oneself and one's opinion of oneself, the body of interactions that creates the basis for all art, music and creative work that is self-aware.” Is self-awareness a key part of self-esteem?
Probably. I think it comes from knowing where your own problems are. I feel like everyone acts in ways that seem so dictated by like this mysterious subconscious. It's like our problems puppet-master our lives and we're not really aware of it. I don't really think that there's this woke linear advantage, where you can say, “Oh I've confronted my childhood problems and now I'm above them.” It's more this continuous process where you have to learn to live with it and deal with it day by day.
Sorry to keep quoting your lines back at you, but I found your old interviews to be interesting. You've said that art and life should be “indistinguishable from one another.” Why?
I want to place myself into history uniquely and also because I want to see myself as fitting within some sort of written record of the human existence. And history shows that art and life have become more and more integrated — whether or not this is a result of technology or human beings wanting this to happen. The diversification of the existing mediums just proves that art and life are inevitably on this collision course, if they were ever two separate entities to begin with. I also think that there's this common distinction that's made between virtual and real, or fantasy and real, and I think that this kind of distinction is often misguided. To say “real” in the first place includes everything that is virtual already, because every written story exists on paper or in a book, in reality.
It sounds a little prescriptive. I think that when I make something it should accurately reflect whatever it is that I'm doing in that moment. Which is still making work, but there are subtleties. Where am I making work? How do I feel?
So you're not trying to break down a barrier between art and life as much you are trying to prove that there isn’t a barrier in the first place. How do you approach that musically? Are you trying to speak to something about the regular day to day life, the existence, the shifts in feelings? Are you trying to represent those changes through sound, or is it more natural than that?
The emotions are for sure part of it. This comes with music theory: I know if I put these chords in this specific order, it releases a certain series of chemicals in people's brains. That's the emotion that comes out of it. And it's this very detached relationship with music that I'm trying to get away from. In making all these songs, they're mostly one-takes. So I'm conditioning myself to play as I feel.
There’s another barrier that I want to prove doesn't exist. I learned this technique while working in sound design — you can just like deep-fake words. You just take syllables and move them around and if you do it correctly, it sounds like that's how they were spoken. So between the chords and my voice being deep-faked constantly, there isn't actually literal meaning in the music. Especially in Chinese, which is a monosyllabic language. It's actually just gibberish. You cannot understand anything. With that, even when I play these songs out as gibberish, people still have visceral emotional reactions to it. That indicates to me that the music has effectively imprinted whatever moment of emotion I had when I made it.
Musicians often like to say that it’s gratifying when their audience draws their own meaning from a song, independently of the artist. But is there a specific feeling that you want to impart with these songs? Do you want your listeners to solve the project?
Yeah, I mean, profound despair. I love that shit, for sure. But also revelation as an emotional thing. I still want people to take away what they feel about it — but not so much. Maybe like 70% what I want them to feel.
There is a contrast between more intentionally abrasive sounds and then some really lush ambient sounds. What are you trying to create through that contrast, in terms of sharing a specific emotion with the listener?
There is a formal characteristic — I wanted just to remove people from the experience of listening to the album a little bit. This is the first time I've done something that's divided into different tracks instead of just one continuous thing. So I felt like I should really take advantage of the ability to make someone look at their phone [to ask] what is happening.
Trying to pull people out of the experience of listening — that’s the opposite of what most people intend. People usually want to be immersive, but you’re trying to pull them out of the experience a bit.
I don't know if it's just me or how I listen to music, but recently the music that I've enjoyed the most is the music that I've found really particularly suited for the environment that it's being presented in. If I'm playing something off of my phone and the phone can't do bass, and it's sitting in some part of the other part of the room, and it's mixing with the environment around me correctly — I’ve really enjoyed music in that way. Not in just like this isolated, headphones way. I think this is somehow related to. I've started to think that music is not so objectively tied to like the song file itself or the information that the musician has made.
This might be why musicians say that they want listeners to have their own takes on music, because they can't control situation. When it’s put in through any different speaker and through any different technological mediums, it changes fundamentally what is being heard. So I think to remove someone from listening to the music might actually be to my advantage of immersing them in the long run. Then they might have to readjust the volume or move to a different spot or something.
This is a multidisciplinary project, and the “theses” that come with the album are out of order and you use different languages. Is that another attempt to drop people in and out?
I think that this disjointed inability to follow along is more realistic and more how I experience the world than a one-to-one ratio, a linear reading, could possibly give.
Breaking down that barrier between art and life — here it’s about art being as chaotic as life.
Yeah. And if it were up to me, Music for Self Esteem would be presented as multiple screens like popping out of random places in people's homes, something like that.