One of the several international acts making their way over to Zandari Festa this year is Japanese Los Angeles, or JLA, an electronic jazz group based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Each member is a graduate or to-be graduate from the University of Michigan’s jazz program, with Andrew Hintzen on synths, Jihoon Kang on tenor saxophone and bass synths, Julian Bridges on drums, and Lex Korten on keyboard and synths.
I’ve seen the group perform several times before, and their music is fun as much as it is smart and technical. Their improvisation and performance chops are incredible and give life to whatever tune they bring to the table. They’re always pushing the envelope in some way – whether it be rhythmically, harmonically, or stylistically – and never fail to offer a dynamic concert experience.
I got the chance to sit down with the group before their departure and interviewed them about their expectations for playing at an international music festival in a foreign country. They’ll be playing at Sunday, October 4th at 5PM at GOGOS2 if you are in the Hongdae area. I’d highly encourage you to check them out!
Who is JLA? How would you describe your style?
Andrew: JLA officially got together in January of 2014, so we’ve been together for about a year and a half. We were all students at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, so even though we all hail from different parts of the US, we were able to play together during the school year.
Lex: The most crucial concept for our music is improvisation, and not trying to operate within the boundaries of a certain vernacular. We all come from Jazz music in some form or another, and there are definitely moments during free improv when that background comes out more than other times.
Like one time, Jihoon surprised me by playing a Jazz standard in the middle of a free improv, and it became a duet between the two of us that fit really well. It wasn’t the type of situation where everyone was trying to play freely and then someone beat Jazz language into it. Sometimes the moment does call for that, but I still wouldn’t categorize us as a Jazz group. Definitely a group that is informed by Jazz but actively trying to not operate exclusively within that language. The thing we’re definitely not is a ‘something hyphen Jazz’ group.
Julian: I think this band is the most successful synthesis of genres I’ve ever been a part of. All of us bring various genres – Jazz, video game music, indie rock, super spacey minimalism, and pop information – into our music. Our music is a marriage of a lot of different ideas, which is what makes it stand out.
Andrew: It’s by virtue of all of us bringing our different backgrounds as musicians in outside of our common interest of Jazz. We’re into other shit, and we embrace all of it. I think what makes this genre meld successful is that we haven’t tried too hard to draw boundaries between stuff we’re playing. Like, sometimes we’ll play a Jazz tune during a noise thing but we’re not a noise-Jazz group in that moment, we’re just sort of in it all.
Jazz is one of the smaller, lesser-known facets of Korean indie music. Could you tell us a little about your music making process as Jazz musicians? What happens in a typical JLA rehearsal?
Julian: Even with the stuff that isn’t original material, Andrew has the vision for most of our tunes and arrangements and figures out how things work. In terms of bringing things together, he’s the head honcho.
Andrew: We started on the page and have been moving gradually off. The music that I wanted us to play at first was really intricate and complex, so I wrote out parts for everyone because it was difficult to play by ear. But we were able to get everything together pretty quickly since everybody had a background and training in Jazz, improvisation, and playing in different styles. The early process was like “okay there’s this Hudson Mohawke tune that we want to learn; how do we get it from audio to a form in which we can read it and then be able to perform it?” That process is a logistical nightmare, but it’s a fun one; if that makes any sense – a fun nightmare?
You have to front load most of the work and promise yourself that it’ll get better once you perform it, and it totally does. So it was a good exercise to do covers first to develop a process for working on my own material. We don’t plan our sets out as much these days. We’ll improvise our way through some free stuff and then maybe do a tune, maybe not.
What background knowledge did you have about Korean music before being accepted to Zandari, and what have you observed about Korean indie music since preparing for the festival? This is not an exam…
Jihoon: Whoa that’s a crazy question as someone who wasn’t really immersed in Korean music but would hear it on TV and from my parents’ iPods growing up. I would always compare it with the music I was listening to and I found that stylistically Korean music would often emulate US music in some way. But I found that, probably because of the internet and Soundcloud, Korean musicians are able to emulate styles a lot quicker. That’s really all I’ve noticed. I’m always relating Korean music to American music so I’m looking forward to seeing all of it.
Andrew: (makes a zero with his hand) I would fail the exam because… zero. I started just by listening to other artists on the Zandari Festa website. There is a huge variety, and insane variety, and I’m down with that. So now I know like.. if we’re on an 100 scale, maybe like 2 or 3, marginally more than zero but close enough to zero that it’s mathematically still 0.
Julian: Speaking for myself, I don’t know anything about Korea at all, their music included. So this is gonna be crazy.
What are some of the excitements or anxieties you have for playing at a festival in a foreign country?
Andrew: I’m looking forward to being completely blasted with this music scene that I have not ever heard of or experienced or looked into.
Julian: Yeah it’s nice to go in without expectations. When I studied in Paris, just the Jazz scene there was so different than Jazz in the US. So seeing the difference in the entire Korean music scene at a multi-genre festival is going to be interesting.
Andrew: At first I was like, “alright I’m going to do a bunch of research and figure out where everybody’s at” but I have the opportunity to base my initial impressions off of a live performance rather than like a YouTube video or an article. I’m going to try my best to make use of that. As far as anxieties, either people will like us or they won’t! I don’t have any concept of what it will be like over there.
Lex: Tying into one of our answers earlier about how our music is trying to not be confined into a musical language – and of course there’s no denying that what we’re playing is definitely Western and informed by Jazz, pop, electronic music, rock (and more) – the fact that our music isn’t defined by one thing has great implications as far as where we can take it geographically. The music that we make ideally doesn’t need any translation beyond the energy that we’re giving out to the audience.
So I think there are some amazing things that could happen when we take our music to places where people don’t speak our language either verbally or musically, because I don’t think that’s what matters in the end about what we’re saying.
Zandari Festa places emphasis on international networking. In what ways is international networking important to you as artists? How do you think more international collaboration could benefit the worldwide music scene?
Julian: the more influences you can have, the better, and the more people you can reach out to in different environments, the better. I think it’s going to be cool to meet people from all over the world who are also playing music. I imagine it’s going to be crazy because I’ve only really worked with US musicians, so who knows what type of stuff is happening in wherever.
Especially as Americans, it can be easy for us to be blind to what is happening in the modern music scenes in other countries. Like, I think a lot of Americans think that everyone in India is still listening to ragas and sitar or bollywood, or that in every band in Australia and has a didgeridoo player.
Andrew: There’s always so much information to process when you’re learning about the world. Before I take a conscious effort to learn about other cultures specifically that I haven’t learned much about, I definitely have this sort of cartoon character idea about what their music is like.
Ji Hoon: Yeah, international performance is good because there are so many things about Korea that I know well and that seem almost genetic to me. But once I actually start interacting with Korean culture it gets sort of confusing sometimes, so I’m excited to be able to identify myself more as a Korean dude.
Are there any artists at the festival that you are interested in collaborating with?
Julian: Yeah, she’s sweet.
This is your first time in Korea. What are some of the things you are excited to experience during your travels there?
Jihoon: I’m looking forward to these things that I’d eat when I was in second grade. You’d climb a mountain and there were these kiosks at the bottom of them. At the top you could drink this fresh mountain water, but at the bottom you’d get these marinated boiled or fried cocoons. And that shit was so good when I was like, eight. Definitely tryina do that.
Andrew: I’m a huge dance game nerd and Asia is like the only place where that’s legitimately happening right now. Dance Dance Revolution and dance games in general are kind of dying out in the US. When I said that electronic music was the first kind of music I got into, it was because of DDR. That’s like what turned me on to music period. So it feels like a big deal for me to finally go over there.
Lex: Nothing excites me like being in a new metropolis; I love exploring cities in different parts of the world and trying to understand how they work; geographically, infrastructurally and culturally. I don’t have near enough time to dig as deeply into Seoul as I would like, but I plan on spending pretty much all of my free hours walking around. It’s also my first time in a non-European or North American country, so I couldn’t be more stoked overall.
Julian: Try some food. I don’t even know what Korean food is so I’m super excited to try that out. Well, I’ve had bibimbap but not that real stone-bowl stuff.
Any parting words to the readers?
Lex: Buy our nonexistent albums and t-shirts! Please understand.
Andrew: We look forward to experiencing Korea for the first time and we hope to see you there at the festival!
Jihoon: Don’t forget to include the “woohoo” in the interview. Wuhu Island, man.