The best music makes you hear sounds in new ways, reframing and re-contextualizing the components of a song so that they create something novel and hopefully unique. In the same way that David Bowie took funk music and gave it an arch, English twist, good music proceeds in a zig-zag, sourcing known materials to produce something that moves the art form forward.
It’s rare enough to find a band that genuinely tries to do that, and that’s totally fine. A lot of excellent music simply distills the best aspects of a style or concept, producing a pleasant sensation of déjà vu that causes the listener to feel like they’re hearing a half-forgotten song for the first time after many years. Maybe the pursuit of this sensation lies behind the ever-shifting locus of retro rehabilitation that punctuates the modern music scene.
Nashville native TJ Richards and Taiwan-born Yuchen Lin belong to the former category, however, and their musical project Trabajo is a left-field concept that works so well that they may have invented a new genre. Their latest EP, Gamelan To The Love God, is composed of samples from Indonesian gamelan music, a ceremonial style traditionally meant to accompany dancing, puppet shows and royal processions. These relatively esoteric samples are paired with thudding hip hop beats and breakdowns, creating a hybrid concoction that’s immediately pleasing to the ear.
I’ve watched Trabajo win over audiences twice in the past year and came to check them out during their gig at Death By Audio on August 20th. Their set was preceded by a manic, lip-synced performance by friend and fellow experimental artist Cody Ross Rex, who got the audience geared up by leading us in a series of dance routines to original songs called “Longbow” and “Idiot Pig”, among others. Even his between-song banter was lip-synced, including his requests to buy his album.
Trabajo’s music is protean and fills out both the top and bottom ends of the audio spectrum; like My Bloody Valentine and other atmospheric groups, it works equally well at high or low volumes. Their set at Death By Audio was booming, thanks to the massive speakers at the venue, giving their percussive, rhythm-heavy music an epic, room-filling aspect. I caught up with them after their set and talked to them about their unique musical approach and where they’re going next.
What’s new with Trabajo?
TJ: We have a tape coming out, it’s a split release, with an artist called Madrugapha from Argentina, and it’s coming out on tape in the States via the tape label No Kings Record Cadre, run by Lee Noble in Los Angeles, and in Argentina, where Madrugapha has a label called Salvador Records.
People get irritated with the label “World Music,” which is often lazily applied to any music that’s not viewed as “Western.” How do you guys feel about people calling you that or having a certain expectation of your music when they hear it has Indonesian aspects?
TJ: We embrace it. We love it.
Yuchen: Yeah, we totally love it.
TJ: What’s interesting is that in underground DIY scenes in particular, there’s always this tendency for world music to be interpreted as tribal or drone-oriented or psychedelic, which we’re trying to get away from. We want to do something different, more particular, more regionally specific, so that it can’t be just labeled those things. This is gamelan music with Western hip hop beats. It’s a very specific regional thing, so hopefully it gets people more interested that way.
What are the different styles of hip hop beats you’re trying to incorporate?
Yuchen: The idea was to take inspiration from a lot of stuff we liked by Oh No, who’s a West Coast hip hop producer who does a lot of instrumental stuff.
TJ: He’s Madlib’s brother. He has an album called Ethiopium, which is hip hop mixed with Ethiopian rock.
Yuchen: So I heard that and thought I wanted to do something like that for gamelan music.
How did you come across gamelan?
TJ: We both have a tendency to get out of the Western framework. It’s always been an interest, even independently before we knew each other. We liked to check out what’s going on in the world.
When did you guys meet each other?
Yuchen: Three years ago. We met in the fall of 2011 at a Rubulad dance party in Brooklyn after I’d been in New York for about a month. We hit it off based on mutual appreciation for world music and weird experimental bands. I was looking for bandmates. Our first performance was in August of that year.
TJ: Coming from Nashville, there’s an interest in folk music that’s inherent. Because in the South, it’s kind of rooted, and musicians say “Stick with your tradition!” all the time. So I got interested in other people’s traditions.
What’s in the name Trabajo?
TJ: Yuchen was living next to an Hispanic community and labor center in Bushwick where this word could be seen and heard any time you passed the building. We chose the name as a kind of solidarity with everyone who goes to great effort to make a better life for themselves – in their art or through their work or whatever.
You’ve been playing a lot of different venues.
TJ: A lot of the time we play DIY venues, typically basements or gallery spaces like Fitness. Hunter College Radio put on a show at the Knitting Factory with SoSo Glos and Crystal Stilts, which are like big indie bands, and we played that show . . .
Yuchen: Our type of music doesn’t really fit in with that.
TJ: It was very different and we were an odd fit on the bill but the show sold out and it was huge and it was a great feeling. We get a lot more shows now.
What’s your songwriting process?
TJ: It varies season to season, so to speak. Lately we’ve been experimenting with Indonesian gamelan samples so the songs have grown from little loops of gamelan – then we add beats, bass lines, harmonies. In other instances we might start with original sources like a beats patterns, melodic lines or passages of harsh noise. And in most every case we’re probably working from any number of ethnic styles as inspiration.
Is there a narrative in songs like “The Myth” or in the album as a whole?
Yuchen: Yeah, it’s a story. Gamelan To The Love God is a traditional Indonesian myth. It’s a story about how the Love God sacrifices himself. We formed the whole concept of the EP from the Love God myth.