Interview with Ciel
Los Angeles / Toronto
April 19, 2018
I always find it interesting to find out how people came to love dance music. What was your introduction to this world?
I grew up exposed to music from a very young age. Some of the earliest styles of music I came to love were hip-hop and British rock and Brit-pop. I really loved Blur and Pulp. I was never really interested in dance music, in fact I really hated it for most of my life. I had very strong opinions about music, I really knew what I liked and didn’t like and dance music just never appealed to me. When I was in University I got started volunteering at a radio station on campus called CFRC 101.9. It’s the oldest radio sta- tion in Canada. It had a huge influence on me because I had a radio show there for four years. I met a lot of lot of older kids that exposed me to music that I wouldn’t have come across on my own, especially where I came from in the suburbs of Canada. This was in the mid 2000’s in the time of blog house and mini- mal techno. Tech house was becoming super popular and very annoying. That was really my exposure to dance music.
I got into blog house via electroclash. Fischerspooner, Goldfrapp, and Miss Kittin & The Hacker were huge for me. I still like Miss Kittin a lot. That entry point makes a lot of sense, at that time I was really into post-punk and no-wave and I think that invariably leads into electroclash, this kind of electronic music which is still very vocal driven but synth heavy. That swagger from no-wave and post-punk can really be heard in electroclash. From there I got into blog house and Ellen Allien and Bpitch Control. I was running a radio show for four years that centered around female musicians and I heard about her through Miss Kittin & the Hacker, she’s a powerhouse. That was my earliest exposure to dance music, particularly a feminine power in dance music.
At what point did you make the leap from “I enjoy this music” to “I want to participate in this music”?
It kind of happened backwards, I was already a radio DJ and I took that volunteer position very creatively. I was a part of this community and everyone around me was passionate about mu- sic. When I got into dance music I was already DJing on the radio, which obviously isn’t the same thing as DJing in clubs, but I really enjoyed being a disc jockey. I grew up making mixtapes for boyfriends and people I liked. It was a natural progression to go from selecting music for someone to selecting music for a crowd of people to make them dance. When I first got into electronic music I was listening to a lot of Fabriclive mixes and DJ Kicks and things like that. Listening to those mixes really in- spired me to give it a try myself so I pirated a copy of Virtual DJ and tried to mix things in there.
I was already starting to participate in the nightlife. Me and some of my friends would throw parties in our campus housing. Those were some of the earliest “raves” I ever threw. My friend and I would invite a whole bunch of friends and just play dance music all night. That was my earliest exposure to mixing electronic music, on these really crappy rack-mount Numark CDJs that didn’t even have a platter.
DJing is so unique to electronic music, where enjoying the music is itself an act of participation. That was what I found really beautiful and refreshing, the accessibility of electronic mu- sic. Even in the early to mid 2000s when technology was not the way it is now, it was still more accessible than any other genre. Growing up I was a hardcore conservatory pianist and going from that to DJing was completely different.
Were there people in your community who inspired you or acted as a mentor to you?
Absolutely, having mentors in your music scene is essential. My earliest exposure to a mentor came while volunteering at the campus radio station. My radio show was called Ladyflash, named after a song from an indie rock band called the Go Team. The manager at the radio station was a friend of mine and I be- came friends with all of his friends. He got me into a lot of really great bands. We used to just hang out and drink beers, talk all night and listen to records. He was the person that got me into electronic music, which I had openly shunned before. He was someone who inspired me a lot and I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for him. On my European tour when I played in Sheffield he actually came to watch me. I’ve had many mentors since then.
My best friend Nancy is my promoter mentor. We started throwing parties together as Work In Progress. She already had years of experience booking really big acts like Jeff Mills, Car- ibou, and Four Tet. She was kind of fed up with that big room scene where you have to take these massive financial risks. She taught me so much about throwing parties and balancing budgets. She inspired me to look at more unconventional spac- es. If it wasn’t for her I would’ve probably just stuck them in any place with a soundsystem. She also taught me that a really great party is more than just the sound, it’s the visuals, the vibe, the world that you’re building in that little room. My other promo- tion/production/DJ mentor is my great friend Brian Wong who has been producing and DJing in Toronto for the longest time as Gingy. He taught me a lot of very important life lessons, like how to collaborate with people in your community, how much building a network of people is intrinsic for the growth of an underground grassroots movement, and how to make changes to your scene and be a leader.
The last mentor in my life is my great friend Sandro Petrillo who I throw all my parties with. He taught me how to use Ableton. These people are some of my best friends and without them I wouldn’t be here. All the work I do is very rooted in my community. Raving is a social activity and without the people around me, the people I share a dancefloor with on a weekly basis, I have no idea what I would be doing today.
Can you talk about what the dance music culture in Toronto was like when you were coming up?
I’ve been DJing on and off since 2005 when I was living in a small town called Kingston, Ontario three hours outside of To- ronto for school. After I graduated I actually moved to South Ko- rea for two years. I didn’t come back to Toronto until 2010 and at that point I hadn’t listened to electronic music in ages. The process of getting back into it was very long and intimidating, but I never stopped loving the music.
The opportunity to DJ a monthly party presented itself when I came back. My friend and I did a monthly northern soul night. It was very much a labor of love, the only people that showed up were our friends who we guilt tripped into coming. We labored away for a long time with very little public support but I did it because I loved the music, it was all that really mat- tered to me. It wasn’t until around the time when I stopped that night and started to do a hip-hop night with a friend that I met some people that were more into the dance music scene.
I met Nancy and Brian who were, as I mentioned, my mentors in Toronto. Nancy was throwing a lot of parties as part of Mansion and Foundry and Brian was touring all over. I started to go to parties but I felt pretty isolated. A lot of music scenes can be very insular and cliquey but after Brian and Nancy took me under their wings they introduced me to other people. I met my really good friend Serena who now goes by Peach and lives in London. We connected and after that we started to throw par- ties. I was sick of waiting for other people to take a chance on this little known artist called Project Pablo. He had only one tape to his name and nobody wanted to book but I really believed in his music, I was obsessed with his 1080p tape. I just reached out and took a chance and the rest is history. After Project Pablo I felt like, “Ooh I got the bug”, because not only was I able to make a little money for myself, I was able to pay every artist on the bill extra. I wanted to keep that going.
Certain opportunities came my way. Discwoman was just coming up around that time and I saw them at Detroit Movement that year. I was so starstruck when I saw Umfang and Frankie hanging out at Detroit Threads with K-Hand. I was just a huge fangirl and wanted to say something but was too shy. I felt like this was the right time to bring them, some of my friends had booked them in Montreal for their first gig outside of New York. I was talking to Nancy and said, “Do you want to bring out Dis- cwoman with me? We should do it together and we should call it Work in Progress after my radio show”. That party sold out in like two weeks, it was ridiculous. Our venue could only hold 200 people and like 800 people RSVP’d, people were lined up down the block. I still remember the incredible feeling I got that night. I got along so well with all of the women at Discwoman, it was amazing. Me and Nancy decided we were going to keep doing Work in Progress parties.
After that we booked Aurora Halal and Lena Willikens and we decided that we would also book men as long as the fell in line with out values. We weren’t going to book Konstantin or someone like that, just people who I know who care about women’s issues and aren’t jackasses. We booked people like Bill Converse and Matrixxman and made sure the support was all women. We did that for a while and then a year later my friend Brian said, “I want to start this thing called Its Not U It’s Me. You’ve been working at this Work in Progress thing for a while, lets do this bigger parties”. Its Not U It’s Me parties were huge productions, we did major full day festivals, we booked DJ Stingray and other big names.
I first became aware of Its Not U It’s Me when I read your Safer Spaces Policy. Can you talk about how that was developed?
I wrote the Safer Spaces Policy with a lot of help and research done by our Safer Spaces volunteers. Its Not U It’s Me had been going for a while, we had done 6 or 7 parties by that time. I had just gone to Unsound Toronto Year 2 and had a terrible time. It wasn’t like Unsound Year 1 which was amazing, the best crowd and music. The problem that has always plagued Toronto, as I’m sure is the case in a lot of other cities, is that there are a lot of bros. It’s sort of a coin toss if you’re going to get a good crowd or a bad crowd. That night it was really bad, all my friends got touched, I got touched. I saw men wearing shirts that had hate speech on them. There was no sense of enforcement of safety in any way. It was a logistical nightmare, very poorly disorganized. If you wanted to leave the side room to go to the bathroom you had to wait over an hour to get back inside. People were buzzing about it for a week afterwards talking about what went wrong. I was particularly vocal about the bad vibe and bad crowd.
The people who organize Unsound Toronto are not actually Unsound, they’re an unrelated arts organization called Lu- minato who have no connection with electronic music in the city. They would rather spend their money on a massive disco ball than safety staff. All the curation was done remotely by Unsound Krakow and the event itself was just put on and organized by Lu- minato. Fine arts in Toronto is very white and conservative and stuffy, it couldn’t be further apart from techno and dance music. It was around that time that we are doing our all-day festivals at The Power Plant and we were expecting 1000 people per day. I called Brian frantically and I was like “I can’t do this party if it’s going to be like this, we need to figure out what we’re gonna do”. The venue took out a full page ad in the Toronto Star. We knew that was going to attract people from outside of the scene who don’t understand the proper etiquette and come here expecting to hook up.
I enlisted various friends of mine, people who were pas- sionate about this issue and had a deep understanding of music and venues to help me look up other safer spaces policies from other cities and collectives. I did a lot of reading and then cob- bled together this thing. I really wanted the safer spaces policy to make clear that when parties are unsafe for women it ruins the party for everyone. No matter who you are, if you love music you should want to party in a space that is safe for women and queer people because the core of raving is freedom. Freedom to be yourself. Freedom to let go on the dancefloor and not feel afraid because someone is going to infringe on your space, or make fun of you for dressing a certain way, or grab you because they think because they think that your body is public property. I didn’t want to fill it with a lot of -isms. I wanted it to be proscrip- tive instead of ideological, when you use a lot of -isms there are a lot of things left up to interpretation. We didn’t want to leave any room for confusion or misinterpretation. We wanted it to be clear that everything you do that negatively affects other people will negatively affect the energy of this rave. You leave your bull- shit at the door, you go there for the music, to have a good time with your friends and not make other people feel uncomfortable.
I wanted to talk about your own DJ career a bit more. In 2015 you began a residency at Bambi’s. Can you tell me more about that club’s significance to Toronto’s dance music culture?
In 2015 I started playing every Sunday at Bambi’s. I was Face- book friends with the venue owner Mikey and he liked some of the music I was posting. He asked if I wanted to play a thing there with another Toronto DJ named Andre. He’s part of a group called Ebony and has released music on Creme Organi-
zation and Opal Tapes. We started DJing together on Sundays and it changed my entire life. It got me closer to the community, it introduced me to a lot of people, and it taught me how to throw events. Bambi’s is sort of dance music central in Toronto. Even if all the other venues close down I trust that Bambi’s will always be there. You can go there every day of the week and reliably find good dance music. It feels like a family. I still DJ pretty much every month at Bambi’s. When I go there it feels like I’m going home.
At what point did you start thinking seriously about DJing as a career path?
I don’t know if I thought about it seriously as a career path until it already started to happen. I was afraid to think about it seriously. Growing up I loved music and always leaned towards more ar- tistic endeavors but my parents were really conservative. I’m an only child of immigrants from China, they’re very worried about me being able to make a living following my dreams. When I was younger I told my parents I wanted to be a singer or a musician or an actor and they kind of discouraged me. It was the 90s and they were like, “You’re a Chinese girl, there are no Chi- nese American pop-stars or actors”, which they were not wrong about. You have to be two times as good as everyone else and work two times as hard as everyone else and you still might not make it and that was really discouraging.
It kind of happened by accident. This was in mid-2016 when I had already been doing parties for a while and I was starting to play in other cities more. I had been booked to play in Chicago at Smart Bar and I was terrified. I really wanted to be prepared for that show and by that point I was already finding it an incredible struggle to juggle a full time job working in pub- lishing while also throwing parties on the weekends and DJing. I had no spare time at all and slept for 5 hours every night. I de- veloped this medical condition, my life was so stressful. My work was starting to suffer and my managers noticed. I got pulled into the office and they kind of gave me an out, a mutually beneficial leaving of the company where they still gave me a reference for future jobs and I was able to get a severance package and unemployment benefits. When I was trying to break in as a DJ I still had a little bit of money to fall back on and that made a world of difference. I didn’t really think seriously of DJing as a career path until I had already become a full time DJ and promoter.
Recently you were added to Discwoman’s roster. Can you talk a bit more about your background with the collective, and how that grew into a working relationship.
I was added to the roster at the end of 2017. I had the discussion with Frankie in late August. I called her up and I was like, “Hey there’s something I want to discuss with you”. I had wanted to be in Discwoman since the day that I saw them at Detroit Threads It was obviously a huge dream and I was waiting for them to ask me. One day I was talking to my friend, I was like, “Oh my god, why aren’t they signing me?”. My friend was like, “Why are you waiting for them to sign you, why don’t you ask them?”. That conversation changed my life. It was like a switch had flipped on in my head. I worked up the courage and wrote this long email.
Up until that point I had enjoyed a really positive relationship with Discwoman, I had booked almost everyone in the collective. Not just Umfang and Volvox but also DJ Haram, Shy- boi, I’m gonna bring Stud1nt and others down the road. I’ve be- come very close friends with Emma, Umfang, as well as Frank- ie. We had done panels together, we had traveled together, they booked me for my first shows in New York and Chicago. I owe everything to them. I don’t know why I was so afraid to ask them. You kind of imagine all sorts of things, especially if you’re some- one like me who’s extremely neurotic and has all sorts of anxiet- ies, but I overcame that.
I talked to Frankie, she thought it was a great idea and the rest is history. It’s so refreshing to work with women that really care about each other, are fiercely loyal and protective of each other. That kind of relationship makes me cry just thinking about it, I’ll never have that relationship with men or non-feminist women, it’s such a special feeling. It means the world to me that I’m a part of this collective and it means the world to me that it’s the start of many more years together.
I wanted to talk a bit about your own music productions. You came from a background that involved some classical training, which isn’t always the norm for dance music pro- ducers. Did you draw on that training when making dance music?
I come from a classical background. Classical music is the first music that I came in contact with. My parents discovered I had perfect pitch when I was 2. My parents used to do this party trick when they would have friends over, they would hum a note and I would go over to the piano and press the key that they were humming. My parents both love music, I grew up with my dad playing the guitar and singing to my mom. It was something that I Ioved from a very young age but unfortunately they pushed me too much and it kind of ruined it for me. That dry conserva- tory upbringing is so rigid, the exact opposite of how I approach music now. When I completed my Grade 10 I never wanted to look at it again. There was a lot of anxiety about playing music for a long time after that. I still loved music, which is why I think I was drawn to DJing. It was a way to participate in music without playing for 5 hours every day.
I was afraid that my classical training would make me a bad musician because there was very little room for imagina- tion and coloring outside of the lines. My parents wouldn’t even let me learn to play jazz piano or even jam, I had to play my homework. I think I’ve carried that anxiety with me throughout my whole life. I was afraid to try and fail. My friend Sandro told me he could teach me how to use Ableton so we started to do lessons. What turned me off of production really early on was that it was very technical and related to technology, I’m not good at that stuff at all. You need to learn to speak that language at a very young age because as you get older it’s harder to make your brain bend that way. I was really grateful that I had some- one to teach me to use Ableton, without Sandro I would not have made my record within 3 months after learning how to produce. Despite all of my fears, my musical training helped me tremen- dously in producing my first few tracks that eventually became my Peach Discs record. I think that sense of melody, harmony, and rhythm is a language that I Iearned to speak from infancy. When I look at some of my other friends who have been making music for a long time and I tell them that these were the first
tracks I made they are shocked.
I heard that Shanti Celeste signed your tracks after hearing them out in the club. Can you talk about your relationship with Shanti and how the record came together?
I was booked to play a party in Toronto by some friends of mine who run a collective called Deep Gold. They booked Shanti to play and they asked me to open. She asked me at the end of the night if I made music. I sent her some tracks the next day and she wrote back immediately and was like, “Oh my god, I love them, are these signed?”. You could feel that she was genuinely interested and enthusiastic about the music and I felt so happy. I couldn’t have predicted that she would sign all three of them to an EP. I think she’s one of the most talented producers in the game and writes some of the most beautiful melodies I’ve ever heard.
We are still friends, we talk to each other pretty often. I played with her on my European tour and we had an amaz- ing time in Brighton. Me, her, and Hodge played her first Peach Discs party at Patterns. She took me out record digging the fol- lowing week and we got Chinese food in London. She took me to the most amazing record shop ever. I still send her music and she gives me feedback. I love her and I respect her a lot. She’s very supportive of up and coming artists and I love people that are like that. She has an effervescence and innocence in her passion for music that is more like someone who’s 14 years old and just discovered music for the first time. I want to surround myself with people like that and I hope this is a relationship that will continue forever.
How do you see your role as a highly visible artist in the Toronto community changing as your profile as an artist increases?
I will never leave Toronto, knock on wood. My romantic life part- ner lives here, his job is here, our families are here. I have zero plans of moving to New York, Berlin, Amsterdam or London for my career. My goal this entire time of being a DJ and promoter was to put this city on the map and make Toronto a scene that I can be proud of. I think that I will continue to be a part of the
music scene here, even as I travel more and more and spend longer periods of time. I will always look forward to coming back here, seeing my friends, being involved in the community here.
That community feeling is the closest thing I’ve ever found to having a family. I come from a really small family, I’m an only child and all my extended family members are in China. I’ve never been able to go home for the holidays and be part of this big group of people where everyone’s so excited to see each other. I have found that with the community here. There’s tough days, good days, days when I want to throw in the towel, day when I hate everybody and I’m like “Fuck this place I’m moving to New York”. I don’t think that I’ll ever give it up and I’m going to do everything that I can as my artist profile increases to use my platform to use my platform responsibly to make this music scene more hospitable for younger promoters, musicians, and DJs. There are only certain things I can do to change the eco- nomics of art in capitalism, but I have to at least try. I’ve always thought about throwing parties as a community endeavor, it’s my job as a promoter to leave the scene in a better shape than it was when I first came to it. That’s still my goal and it will always be my goal as long as I live here.