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DJ and Promoter Illsee Curates Alternative Shanghai Nightlife with a “Bit of Punk Spirit”

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Though she’s been a virtually inescapable element of Shanghai nightlife for most of this decade, Elsie Liu, better known on shape-shifting gig flyers as Illsee, keeps a low profile.

She’s one half of Stockholm Syndrome, a regular night established in 2011 at Shanghai alternative nightlife stalwart Dada before moving to The Shelter, which as the name implies engenders a sort of slavish relationship to unsparingly cold, brutal beats. But most of the attention there has gone to the night’s original founder, Tzusing, who has stacked up an impressive catalog of internationally lauded releases in recent years. Illsee is also co-founder of newer club night Aqualung, and a driving force behind the weekly Wednesday Cosign events at Shelter’s spiritual heir, ALL, but still she seems allergic to the spotlight (and to bad EDM), preferring darkness and a strict focus on quality over hype.

Nevertheless, in her journey from disaffected college kid to one of Shanghai’s most switched-on sound selectors, Elsie has picked up a wealth of experience, dropped a grip of eclectic mixes on her Mixcloud, and formed one of the most knowledgeable perspectives to be found on Shanghai’s recent explosion of creative energy at the level of underground, countercultural club vibes. I caught up with her ahead of her slot at Shanghai’s Concrete & Grass Festival (happening this weekend) for a quick history.

RADII: You’re from Shanghai originally, right? What was your childhood like? How did you first get into music?

Illsee: I’m born and raised here in Shanghai, but my parents aren’t from here. I don’t speak Shanghai dialect, so I’ve always felt a bit distant from people around me. I guess not being able to interact with people so well must be one of many reasons why I prefer understanding the world and myself through music instead.

I don’t remember how I first got into music, but I do remember back when I was 5 years-old or so, my mom played me this cassette recording of me talking to people when I’d just learned how to talk. I’d play this cassette over and over again, I didn’t own other music cassettes at the time… I’m not sure if I was fascinated with recorded sounds, or was just simply a narcissist, or a little bit of both, haha.

How did you first learn about and get involved in Shanghai’s underground music/club scene? What were some DJs, musicians, promoters, or clubs that influenced you early on? How did you start DJing yourself?

I was using [music-oriented social network] Douban a lot in college, adding tons and tons of music catalogs to it and exchanging music in various groups. Then I got to know [fellow Douban users] Jodi and Momo — Momo was working for [concert promoter] Split Works at that time — and one night we decided to go to [underground Shanghai rock venue] Yuyintang together, but the music there kinda sucked so we went to [dance music club] Dada instead, where I was introduced to Tzusing and Yusuke (Hamacide), and then everyone from Shelter later on.

 

The club [that influenced me the most] is The Shelter, the DJs are Tzusing and Engdahl. Tzusing started Stockholm Syndrome in 2011, it was basically the only party in Shanghai where you could hear rare ’80s gems and industrial music, and Engdahl is an expert in that field. There were other great parties I’d always attend too — Discosmic Adventure by Nik HilP and Void by Cammy (Shanghai Ultra) and Nat Alexander.

I was going to Shelter a lot in college. Being able to hear great DJs from all over the world was truly inspiring, and school was boring as hell, so I was extra efficient in downloading music and started to make mixes and upload them online. My friend Vivi (Velvet Robot) heard my shitty mixes and invited me to play with her on a Friday night at Dada.

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How did The Shelter continue to shape your relationship with music after you started DJing?

It was a dirty, damp bomb shelter that always smelled, and I can’t remember how many nights I’d have only one or two beers and dance till the lights came on without any need to go to the bathroom, because of all the dancing and sweating. Shelter had no light on the dance floor, and before its renovation [in 2015] there was this spot that was completely dark, you couldn’t see anyone’s face. When the music was good I’d just go to that spot and let the music crawl in each and every pore of my body, and take control of me. It all seeped into my muscle memory.

You’re an eclectic DJ, with mixes touching on new wave, disco, synth pop, house/techno, electro, industrial… How did you discover new music when you were first starting out? How about now?

I spent most of my allowance on CDs and comic books in middle school, got my first MP3 player in 8th grade, and later found out that there’s a whole lot more music on the internet and it’s mostly free. I started to discover new music on Emule, YouTube, and all kinds of music blogs where they share music through file hosting services like MediaFire. I literally became an MP3 hoarder then, and I still am.

 

Now I use Bandcamp a lot, it’s a great website where you can support the artists and labels directly. Also I’ve found some super-talented, self-released artists and great web-labels there. If I have time, I’ll usually go through genre tags on Bandcamp and only listen to the ones with pretty cover art, and it works out like that, especially when I search for new wave, synth-pop, or “Gothic” things.

You’re a key force behind two of Shanghai’s most vital club nights, Stockholm Syndrome and Aqualung. Can you talk about when and why each one was formed? What differences — in genre, vibe, visual aesthetic, etc — do these two nights have?

Tzusing formed Stockholm Syndrome in 2011 — he started this party because no one else was playing this kind of music anywhere in Shanghai, or even in China. Provoda, a member of Void, and I formed Aqualung in 2017, because we were getting a bit tired of most of the parties here. We often discussed how people or DJs hold prejudiced views towards certain genres — techno, electro, etc — without realizing that these terms are actually very broad. We are simply trying to play electronic music with a bit of punk spirit in it.

As for the difference between Stockholm Syndrome and Aqualung, I guess SS is a bit more “Gothic” (though Tzusing’s set has changed drastically over the years, so I can’t really put a tag on it) and Aqualung emphasizes harder, more experimental forms of machine-funk and techno/electro music.

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How have you seen the Shanghai music scene change since you’ve been active in it? What are the producers or DJs you find most interesting at the moment?

I started to see a lot more Chinese faces in Shelter in the summer of 2016, and now the crowd is mostly Chinese at [Shelter’s successor] ALL club. Before that the dance music scene was kind of dominated by foreigners — not just the crowd, but promoters and DJs as well. I’m glad to see that there are more new DJs these days, but at the same time, I hate to see some kids wanting to become a DJ just so they can post a picture of them DJing on Instagram instead of putting effort into playing a good set or digging.

The producers I find most interesting in China at the moment are no doubt Zaliva-D and 33EMYBW. They’re among the few Chinese producers who aren’t just copying Western styles, but are trying to make their own honest sounds. You can hear a clear vision in their music.

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In addition to performing regularly, you’ve also documented the ups and downs of Shanghai’s club scene on your Douban blog. Can you share a summary of one of your posts, maybe one of the worst or weirdest club nights you’ve experienced?

OMG, my Douban is radioactive. All my negative energy was fully exposed there, haha. I kinda stopped using it for about a year now, can’t really find anything worth sharing there… I went to [mainstream EDM] Storm Festival though, I got a headache after one hour of EDM, and then a fever. I thought I could handle that much bad music, but my body told me I can’t. It was the worst.

What have you been listening to/playing lately? How have your own tastes changed in the course of your DJ career?

I’ve been listening to a little bit of everything since always, but they all have some sort of connection with each other. If I have to name genres, then probably industrial/tribal/EBM/techno/electro is what I listen to mostly these days, maybe a bit of witch house from time to time. My tastes have changed, but not completely — as I get older I find myself capable of enjoying a lot more stripped-down music. I don’t really know why that is, but it’s nice.

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Josh Feola
Josh Feola is a Shanghai-based writer and musician, and RADII's Culture Editor. His coverage of Chinese music and art has appeared in The Wire, Dazed, Artsy, LEAP, Tiny Mix Tapes, and more. He's been active in China's underground music scene since 2010 via his booking platform pangbianr.com, and is a former member of Beijing bands Chui Wan, SUBS, and Vagus Nerve.

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