“Was it a bird? Was it a plane? Was it a man in a hoody riding a tiny skateboard?”
These are questions you might ask yourself on first encounter with the straight faced, straight laced man that is Michael Cupoli as he nonchalantly zips past you on the way to somewhere really cool.
Co-founder of tape revivalists “Nasty Wizard Recordings”, and mastermind behind the infamously inconvenient and OCD sufferer's nightmare “Too Much Shit On The Table” events, Michael holds a place in the Beijing Underground Elite (if that didn't already exist, it does now).
You may know him as “That guy that hit the drums really hard with those noisy bands back then!” or “That nob fiddler with quite frankly too much shit on the table!”, maybe even “Noise Arcade”. To me, he's “That refreshingly honest dude with too much shit on the table...but that dude's got his shit together.”
We met one tranquil Spring evening on the 8 Bit rooftop to discuss his thoughts on composition, performance, and musical approach.
Posted June 9th, 2017
My performing alias is Noise Arcade, which is the main thing I do, it's a solo electronic live act, which most of it is improvised, some of it is pre-made, (like the drums might be pre-sequenced but I usually change the sequences anyway live) so, yeah even that's not pre-made.
I guess it's a combination of IDM, ambient music; I'm really bad with the categories for music because there's so many of them and I have no idea. I've been told I sound like a lot of different things and it's kind of interesting because it's very rarely the same people so I've heard a lot of references, and half the time I’ve never even heard of the people.
Originally I'm a drummer and then I started having the problem of bands not being too reliable,.
I did actually play marimba and vibraphone and stuff before, man I studied music theory so it's not just purely drums, but a lot of the stuff I was originally programming on the drum machine was stuff that I wish I could have been able to play on drums because you know it's one thing when you can sequence it, it's another thing to actually play it. There are people that can play some of the things I'm programming but I can't, and I'm actually a better drummer now so I can play these things too but some of them's hard... Playing the keyboard, that translated well into playing synthesizer, and figuring out how I wanted things to move.
I went on Douban (the website) and I found a Korg ER1, like the old 90s drum machine they had, and it was cheap so I bought it, then you know on Taobao I bought some cheap second hand Boss pedals from the 80s, and then I started doing more droney stuff and beat based stuff and then somebody gave me a Casio keyboard, maybe I don't know a year or two later I guess… I started playing that and started developing from there.
Three years ago now, I did a tour with GuiGuiSuiSui in the South of China, and we went to Korea. We played, I want to say six shows in five cities, three of which were in Seoul, Daegu, Pusan, Zhengzohu, drawing a blank on the last one, then we went to Japan, played a bunch of shows in various cities there as well.
Touring's not as exciting as most people might think because you have to carry everything, and y ou have to set up, and you're tired because you've been travelling the whole time and if you have a couple of drinks you're not getting proper rest at all. Most of the craziest shows have happened in Beijing I'd say.
Beijing's a great place because, you know, America, from my understanding England as well, a lot of the venues are pay to play, so you know China is nice, there's a lot of places in Asia that are not pay to play, Europe as well. There's more options. It's a great place to cut your teeth, but you know, some people think they're going to change the scene, but they don't realize there's already a scene here, so they kind of have to realize that there's something already established. Whether you like it or not, it's already here, so you have to work your way through that. If you really want to get to a big level, like, sign to Modernsky or something, you're going to have to do something a little bit more. There's a lot of musicians in Beijing now. There's quite a few venues too, I'm always surprised when people are like “Wow, another venue closed!” it's like, well, two opened up last week.
When I went down to Shanghai, most of the time I was playing in The Shelter, which was probably the best club I've ever been to in my life, that place was amazing. Obviously Dada Beijing is an equivalent of that place as well. So some places are live houses, some places are club systems, I'd say probably live houses slightly more, because it is slightly more on the experimental side. A lot of people they want to hear whatever’s popular, like house, or trap / bass music?
A lot of the live houses, they tend to cut down the bass a little bit, when you have that thumping kick drum, and a pounding bass-line, the heavy bass-line, because my bass-lines are usually kind of a drone, so when you have that strong bass then you really feel it. And then you see people reacting to it and dancing, even though it might be a form of experimental music, it's also a form of dance music so when I see people dancing I can tell they're having fun. If people are sitting there and mesmerized by whatever's happening, I mean I love that as well but you can't really gauge how into it they are until you finish. I've played some shows where I thought the audience wasn't into it at all and then afterwards I got an encore or heated applause and was just like, “I thought you guys hated me but alright, this went much better than I thought, thank god I wasn't drinking too much beforehand
If I'm recording, I mean, I record every practice I do, so there might be I dunno twenty some recordings a month, and if there's really something that stands out maybe i'll release it in some format, but the live thing is more important because I do more live shows and I mean it's just nice to have things online, or tape, or CD, maybe one day vinyl if I can find somebody that wants to do that for me. The live show is more important because I can do it a couple of times a month.
Live, I always use the Arturia MicroBrute because it's portable, it's a nice synth, it's not my favourite though. Usually when I'm at home I might use my Roland SH101 which is an old synth from the 80s, sounds amazing, and then I have the Korg MS20 mini re-issue of the Korg MS20 which I love, those are probably two of my favourite synths, and all three of those are analog. Then I have the Waldorf rocket which is digital but has an analog filter, drawing a blank of some of the stuff I have. I don't bring everything out to the shows, my collection is much larger and I tend to bring out the smaller pieces when I play live, just because it's really impossible to carry some of that stuff out conveniently.
Everybody's different, I mean personally I get bored sitting behind a computer and writing everything out, like, a month ago I was trying to, well I did, I wrote a couple of songs – I was trying to use Ableton to control the synths using the Ableton sequencer, it sounds nice, it's just not interesting to me to be using the mouse pad, I personally get bored, I know some people like it, I think live though if you see somebody with a mac book you have absolutely no idea what they're doing. They could be doing something live, and very intricate, but you can't see it. They might have something pre-made, but you can't see it, you can't tell the difference. So, if you have a couple of different things going on live, people with a controller of some kind, visually, I think that adds a lot to the audience because even with all the gear that I have people think I'm just Djing which is mind boggling to me because I always thought it meant disc jockey, which, you know the word disc means there's a... thing... but I guess terms have changed?
The group I have Cloud Choir, before, when the other guy lived in Beijing, we would swap equipment a lot of the time while jamming but since he left it's more me just in my place, and I've jammed with various people over the years. Equipment wise, I don't know I think everyone's got their own thing. If I need something new, I try out their equipment but I don't usually do it with them playing along with me, it's usually like “Hey what does this do? I'm kind of curious.” I buy the things I buy because I actually like the sound of them, and then you can add pedals and effects onto it which will change the sound.
The Eurorack is becoming so popular now and people are like “I need this module, I need this module, I'm going to sell this module I bought last week to buy this new module.” It's cool, it's kind of like trading baseball cards but costs a thousand times more. I'm in some groups like that, you listen to the products that they're doing, and you realize that's what they're doing – they're more concerned about the technology.
I’m not calling anybody out but there tends to be... I found there's a tendency with electronic musicians and DJs where they fall into two categories. One, they might not have had a musical background of any kind, so they're doing something and they think it's cool but they don't really think about the whole thing as a concept which is one of the takeaways I get from it. Because I've heard things and I'm just like “Wow you managed to switch keys in ten seconds a couple of times there, nice one. You do realise the arpeggiator is there for one function and you're using it for a couple of different functions.” And then there's the other kind of camp where maybe they have a bit of a background, but they're so involved with the technology that they forget about, again they forget about the composition as a whole. I guess it's the same thing, but two different ways to look at the same problem.
Buy all the expensive stuff then sell it to me second hand cheap when you get bored. Now I got that out of my system, it's funny but it's true. So many people buy stuff, like “Yeah this is a really cool synth, this is a really cool pedal!”, and then they realize they don't actually understand what it does.
When I first started it definitely did not sound like it does now, even a year ago it did not sound like it does today, and that's because i'm just constantly going at it. Not to say what I was doing a year ago is bad, you just fine tune, you find new ways of doing things, or maybe I just remember something I did four years ago that was really good, but because it was four years ago I forgot and I'm like “Oh wow, that's kind of a cool sound!”, so you just have to start playing with it. I tried to do other types of music, so when I do that then I incorporate into the main project, add something new to it.
Start slow, I think if you want to go from being a nobody to being whoever your hero is in like a day, it's impossible, and if you don't have the music background you're going to have to start learning. Really the answer to this question is the same as the last one, it's practice, and study and practice and study and practice, and just keep working at it because like any other thing in music, if you don't work at it it's not going to get any better.