TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — "Always feeling comfortable doesn't necessarily make people develop," said Lars Berry, the founder of the Taipei-based record label Future Proof (面向異日), "and I think music is the same way: you don't always have to feel comfortable."
Berry, who is in his early 40s, sipped a cappuccino while considering his words: "At a DJ event, one reason for the music is to keep people in a space consuming alcohol … that's a very standard reason for music to be played: to keep people in a space for a long period of time."
"The opposite of that," he proposed, "is when you start to make people feel uncomfortable, to maybe even question their sanity — then you're getting into performance art territory.”
"Then they might wake up the next day and go, what was that? I hated that. But, strangely, I want to know more."
The musician-turned-impresario has been in Taiwan for 17 years, originally hailing from St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, a town of about 30,000 people halfway between Toronto and Detroit. The region's rolling hills turn frigid in winter; in summer, the highways are lined with cornstalks and soybean plants.
"It's a little bit harder town than you'd expect for the size of it," he said, "like bikers and such. There were elements I had to sort of navigate to not get into trouble."
Getting out was the plan, and it was achieved via the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island, followed by life in Taiwan. Although trained in classical piano as a child, Taiwan is where Berry says he came into his own as a musician.
"I started learning about various aspects of synthesizers and sounds, how to make them, slowly purchasing or receiving other things," he said of his early days in the country.
Over the following years, he would play in a series of local punk bands, some of which toured Thailand and Japan. He marks his time in a duo called Dronetonics as the culmination of this period.
"That's where I learned most of the things I know about composing songs and being organized and doing proper shows," he said, "the kind where you feel a real responsibility to the audience."
Around when Dronetonics broke up, Berry began to organize shows around the Taipei area. These events, which featured a range of musicians from the local avant-garde, took on the name Future Proof Sound Festival.
"We did it all over the city," he said, "different places, weird locations. Maybe a warehouse, part of a university campus, a few times at a decommissioned temple on Tiger Mountain."
Future Proof has also put together — collaboratively with Seattle/Taipei-based event organizer CUSTOMS — the first two Day Out (徐風) events, with hopes for volume lll in 2021.
As the festivals began to gather momentum, a friend from the U.K. who runs the net-based label Quantum Natives told Berry that he should consider starting a label himself.
"It really had never crossed my mind, because that just seemed like something I could not do," he said. "A record label? That is something other people do."
His friend was insistent. He sat Berry down and laid it out on paper: "He told me this is more or less the way it works. This is how I prepare the release and promotion and press — all that stuff. He gave me the rundown."
Three short years later, Future Proof has collaborated with artists to release "a total of 10 fringe-dwelling EPs, full-lengths, or broadly-based compilation albums — digitally, in cassette, or even vinyl — that dip into Taiwan's humid, cable-draped electronic underground," he wrote in a follow-up.
Berry is careful to point out he is not a producer and that the records come to him already mixed, which is the process of taking the track stems recorded from the separate instruments and blending them together. Nor does he perform the mastering, which further smoothens the mix through the removal of background noise and the standardization of volume for radio play.
He speaks of the mastering process with awe: "It's the Wizard of Oz event where that person is almost a magician. They leave that shining, finished product: the widening of the sound, more warmth, that lush sort of arrangement."
Once the record is mastered, the role of Future Proof is to get the work out into the world. Social media, advertising, setting up distribution deals — these are the tasks that take up a lot of Berry's time.
"The more you dig into it, the more details you start to see that need to be taken care of — this almost infinitesimal array of smaller and smaller details." He paused before summarizing: "It's really all just about the artist being presented to a complete stranger who has never heard of this person before, a stranger passing by in this way that everyone passes by things on the internet."
To hold the attention of these passersby, Future Proof leverages strength in numbers, according to Berry, and with more artists, the label takes on a composite character of its own, interacting with the public through its many ambassadors. Over time, it then becomes a trusted institution.
The newest release from the label, "Black Mold and Hot Springs, Taipei," is the first album of (Z)erpents, a band composed of four members — Xiao Liu, Joseph Mauro, Richard Lawson, and Swivel — led by Taiwanese American guitarist Paul Lai. The mysterious and arresting album is best described by its own press release:
"Like a soundtrack, you can feel the music abruptly shifting from one scene to another, unheralded, uncued, shifting direction like a school of fish or a mob of protesters. At first it's just the drums spattering rapidly forward, traditional snares and kicks alongside muted dull cymbals and rattling pans and trash can lids. Then a raucous, enraged saxophone, maddened beyond belief and REFUSING to shut up, suddenly appears running alongside the drums. Rhythmically, the two are locked, though they still both feel like they're being played while falling down a long flight of stairs."
The album reportedly came about through a semi-improvisational process underwritten by composition.
"I believe, as I understand, they played through that entire piece once," Berry recalled, referring to the B-side track. "And then the second time was the recording. It was not like a thing that they practiced and practiced and practiced. But there is an arrangement that is written on paper. The paper I have not seen, but Paul promised to show me the paper."
Paul Lai's interest in a particular classic of Taiwanese New Wave cinema, Edward Yang's (楊德昌) "The Terrorizers" (1986), served as a point of inspiration for the structure of the album, said Berry. The film also provided the album cover, which is a recreation of one of its stills — only staged and photographed by (Z)erpents drummer Joseph Mauro.
"There's a possible connection," Berry speculated, to Paul's childhood, which he did not spend here [Lai grew up in L.A.]. He would have been a child at the time those films were made. And they sort of give him a feeling of what it was like for his parents to have been living here."
Future Proof's next release will also involve Lai and the other members of (Z)erpents as well as Berry and local noise artist Jared Xu, who hosts a monthly event called Outer Pulsation. Xu's shows are always held in different locations, like in a tunnel, on a pedestrian overpass, or under a bridge, with invitations sent through a secret Facebook group.
"Complete strangers will come wandering through, and there will be this guy hammering a soundboard connected to an amplifier, creating just incredibly tortured sounds in a tunnel," said Berry. "A businessman will just be walking past, and suddenly there will be 50 people watching someone smash a trumpet to pieces or tuning a radio that's going through another radio and creating feedback loops."
Xu's experiments could be thought of as almost the invention of new musical instruments. He buys cassette players from the 1980s, sets up a loop of several tapes going through the auxiliary input of a boombox, then into a soundboard, generating feedback — which he then plays.
"It can sound very harsh to the ear if it's not controlled properly," said Berry, "but he's very good at controlling it. He basically sits at a desk and looks like he's in an office just playing these on his own."
In the next (Z)erpents album, Lai and Mauro intend to mix guitar and drums with the exotic elements spun by Xu, while Berry will play melodies on a synthesizer in the background.
"The band is sort of like a revolving cast of characters who come and go," Berry explained. "As Paul would say, they add to the conversation"