Ensemble Records In Asia: Gratts’ Travel Journal
This January, my label partner Kong (Koen) and I spent nine days travelling through Asia to rep our ensemble imprint. While on the road, I kept a little travel journal about our daily moves. It’s what you’re reading right now.
Rush hour in Bangkok
When one makes travel plans, arrival times are only digits: you imagine they’ll mean exactly when you arrive at that hotel, to have a little time to chill before having an easy dinner before catching a short, convenient taxi ride to the gig.
Not so in Bangkok. Although I’ve visited the city a handful of times, upon each and every visit I somehow manage to forget about the devilish rush hour traffic. As it turns out, this time my timing could not have possibly been worse: flying in around 4pm, it takes about an hour to get through customs and find my way to the taxi stands. So far, so good.
As I get into the car, both the taxi driver and myself are in a good mood. It only takes about five minutes for us both to see what we’re be facing. The freeway resembles a “Where Is Wally” illustration, though only filled with cars. None of them are moving. I should have gone to the toilet before getting into the cab. I should have bought a bottle of water.
The 20 kilometer drive to the hotel ends up taking well over two hours. I couldn’t be more happy when I finally set foot on Bangkok soil. Koen and our friend Morgan surprise me as I get out of the elevator. Time for a cold beer and some dinner.
Transport’s creative transport solutions
Our host for the evening, Seelie (his mother calls him Liam) moved from the North of England to Bangkok and has been promoting parties in his adopted city with his crew Transport for years. My other local friend Guillaume, a Swiss dj who married a Thai dj, would join us later in the evening. Seelie explains us we don’t have much time: the club night at 12 x 12 kicks off at 9pm and traffic is still insane. No other option than hailing 4 motorbike taxis, he claims. We hop on and we’re on our way.
12 x 12 is an intimate hideaway whose Japanese owner cares. A lot. He cares about sound and about a vibe, which always pays off. Soundcheck doesn’t take long and before we know it, we’re enjoying a true Thai feast in a small neighbourhood eatery. After a short walk back to the club, both the courtyard and inside space are filling up slowly. By the time Seelie takes over from other Transport resident Brent Burns, fists are pumping and people are getting up for it. It’s Friday night and you can feel it in the warm, moist Bangkok air. By the time Kong and I grace the decks, the place is in full swing.
We end up playing for four hours, jumping from house to italo, acid bangers, Belgian new beat and ecstatic disco workouts. The room gets as sweaty as a sauna. Bangkok’s hedonistic, rave hungry partygoers don’t get tired – they never do. But it’s closing time, so we pack our records.
As we stumble into a taxi to the hotel after many high-fives, we realize there will be no sleep before Seoul. The sun is rising, the city is waking up. Traffic is getting worse and we’ve got a flight to catch.
It’s all uphilll from here
The five hour flight to Seoul feels like a two minute nap. Jetting all the way to East Asia, the temperature difference is a jaw-dropping 40 degrees Celcius. That’s right, in Seoul, it’s winter, and we’ll know it.
Picking us up at Incheon Airport are Jun and Taco, two energetic young fellas who work for OASE, a new club in the hot and happening Itaewon district that’s home to a lot of night spots.
When the guesthouse we were meant to be staying in turns out to be not ready – lucky us – we’re taken to an impressive hotel right on the top of Namsan (Nam mountain). The view from our room is breathtaking.
At the club, we meet American dj Akimbo and resident dj Shanell, who both play warm-up sets. OASE has its own pizza oven next door, where we start talking to American born but Seoul based film maker Jonah and musician Danny, who tell us all about life in this extraordinary city.
We’re tired but the adrenaline (and the smoke machine!) do their jobs. Five hours later, a hardcore squad of dancers cheer and whistle as we end our set with Plastic Bertrand’s “Tout Petit La Planète”, a bona fide Belgian classic.
The pizza slices are long digested, our stomachs are rumbling again. This calls for an early morning feast. Booker Jun takes us and dancers Jun and Lee Geum Bi to a night canteen where we indulge on some local delicacies.
We climb up mount Nam as the sun is rising once again. Finally time for a long sleep. Should we set an alarm? Nah, the instore at Clique Records only starts at 6pm. We should be fine.
Look for the neon light
I open my eyes and the room is pitch black. I haven’t slept this well (wait, I hadn’t slept at all) in three days. I check my phone and get into a panic. It’s 5pm! Our instore session starts at 6! I wake up Kong and we decide what to do. Not easy looking up addresses in Korean and Google isn’t helpful at all in this city.
Thank God Clique Records seems to be around the corner, so it should only take us about half an hour to make it to this renowned digging spot. Antoine, one of the two owners, tells us to look for a neon light. Unfortunately, we choose to follow the wrong one. We’re racing through tiny alleyways looking for neon lights. Seconds before 6pm, we discover the stairs that lead to his café slash record store.
Clique Records is a well curated, hidden gem in Seoul. Their selection rivals some of the best shops I frequent in Berlin. There’s an impressive volume of quality new releases on offer, but the used bins are especially worth a closer look: from Detroit techno to oddball Korean jams and soundtracks, it’s all there. We brought some of our label’s releases and play ninety minutes worth of ensemble fare mixed with some other favourites.
It’s clear that Clique chiefs Antoine and Curtis know their shit. The two Frenchmen are walking music encyclopaedias. In the meantime, our breakfast in the form of Korean beer has left our stomachs grumbling again. Antoine guides the whole crew to a “taxi driver restaurant”, a local diner that stays open past your average Jun’s dinner time. After eating everything we can get our greedy mitts on, it’s time to head back home.
As I wake up the next morning, Kong’s already out and about. The jetlag combined with our sleep deprivation are an odd combo. We decide to spend the whole day sightseeing before we make an appearance on local Seoul Community Radio.
As advised by the Clique crew, we head to Gyeongbokgung Palace for a visit of the old pavilions. It’s a peach of a day and the sun breaks the icy winter temperatures. We’re full of energy as we stroll around the palace's walled grounds. Built in the late 1300s, they were destroyed and reconstructed numerous times.
We catch a glimpse of the change of the royal guards of Joseon Dynasty, who traditionally guard the Gwanghwamun Gate, the entrance of the palace. Every noon, a reenactment takes place.
As we head out of the palace into the modern city, the temperature drops. It’s well into the afternoon when it starts raining and it doesn’t take long before our cold, wet feet get tired. Enough wandering around, time for a break. We get lost in the small alleys around Anguk Station and end up in a big shopping center pushing nothing but musical equipment.
Outside, it keeps getting colder. I’m in desperate need of dry socks, and as if by divine intervention, my prayers are answered: right as we descend into the underground, the train station weirdly turns out to be a haven of clothing stores.
Time to head to Seoul Community Radio for our guest set. Located in a dark, narrow path on a slope, this little hideout might literally be one of Seoul’s best kept secrets. I can’t believe I’m actually well and really present at the trippy station I normally only see flickering through my Facebook feeds. Akimbo and station manager Curd welcome us as we arrive. In this cosy space, you get a real sense of the inspiring Seoul energy.
We play a two hour set in front of a green key screen while Curd bombards his signature psychedelic visuals. I get to drop a few of my own new, unreleased jams before local hiphop crew Todaktodak takes over the decks.
The next morning, both Kong and I slide out of bed around 5am. This is jetlag in full force. We decide “carpe diem” is the only way forward so after a small breakfast, we head out. It’s 6am and minus twelve degrees Celcius as we start our ascent of Namsan to witness the sun rise over the city.
The Great Chinese Firewall
It’s already quite late at night as we manage to find our way out of Chongqing (pronounce: chong-ching) airport. Even though I’ve travelled within China before, neither Bejing or Shanghai compare to what we face here. Chongqing is a major city in southwest China, not very well known in Europe. Located in Sichuan Province, it’s an immensely growing city that now boasts a dense urban population of nearly 20 million. What I did remember from my earlier China visit was what foreigners coin “the Great Chinese Firewall”. Google Maps, Soundcloud, Facebook or Gmail? Forget about it. None of these work. At all.
Luckily, Bram Van Ravenhorst, promoter and general manager of Echo Bay club, advised us to download Wechat, the magical app that guides you through life in China. People use it for pretty much everything: to talk to friends, to invite people to events or even to pay for goods or services. This is real China: barely anyone speaks a word of English so making ourselves understood is no easy feat. After an endless search for an ATM, we manage to hop into a taxi to the hostel. Sure, this might be one of the most polluted cities in China, but when the sun sets, the impressive view of the foggy skyline is unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed.
Bram and his friend Jeinn are waiting for us over a beer. Time for dinner and a stroll through the city, where the streets are decorated for Chinese new year and the celebration of the upcoming “year of the dog”.
The next morning we start chatting to Lee over breakfast, a Chinese hostel owner from Beijing who spends most of his time travelling. He’s more than happy to join us for a day of sightseeing and being our translator. Our first destination is 1700 years old Ciqikou or Porcelain Village, situated on the bank of the Jia Ling River and a bustling village full of restaurants and craftwork shops.
Next up, we decide to go for a ride on the cableway across the Yangtze River. Spanning more than a kilometer, it takes us to an understated area packed with back street restaurants, shops and most of all, locals playing mahjong. Not a single tourist in sight.
That Wednesday night, we play our first show in China. Booker Bram, who djs as Blind 92, opens the night with a blend of disco, italo and house. The dj booth is set up right in the middle of the space, Boiler Room style, and the vibe is fabulous. The dancers are appreciative and seem to love the fact that we brought some vinyl to the party. Even though it’s midweek, we don’t leave the booth until well into the early morning hours.
The next morning we find ourselves boarding a high speed train to Chengdu, also known as Panda City. We enjoy the window view as the train races its way across the vast suburbs. The 300 kilometer distance takes us less than 2 hours. Tag Club’s Ellen (not the owner, whose name is also Ellen but to whom I’ll refer as HakkaEllen) and club photographer TaoYu wait for us upon arrival. We enjoyed the show at Echo Bay but expectations for Tag are high since we’ve heard so many good things about this underground bunker.
The girls take us on a sightseeing tour through the Panda City and we end the night having local delicacy hotpot with HakkaEllen and close friend Cora, our main girl from Chengdu (when she was in Berlin at Christmas, we recorded a Chinese vocal with her for a new Ca$hminus track). You may have noticed how the whole Tag crew is female: Chengdu girl power in full force! HakkaEllen tells us about their weekly open decks night on Thursday to discover new local djs. We hesitate but decide it’s time for bed as Friday is shaping up to be a big day.
Although our Airbnb, HakkaHomes, is located on the top floor of a building, it feels like a little village: there’s a few guesthouses, the HakkaKitchen restaurant, HakkaHomesBar (a strange universe in itself where locals head to smoke grass and suck on balloons) and a dj studio within walking distance. It’s Friday and Romi, an Indian dj friend based in Hongkong, just flew in. Ellen offers to take us all to the panda park.
Although we’d been warned that visiting the pandas late afternoon might be a disappointment, it seems panda siesta was cancelled today and the slow giants put on a special show for us: they chase each other, run around and climb trees like there’s no tomorrow.
We head back to the Airbnb to pack our records and go for drinks at the nearby HakkaKitchen, chatting to lots of people, both locals and expats, Belgian beer in hand. Next up: soundcheck. As we access a big office building – locals call it “the magic building” – we have no idea what’s waiting for us. Our first surprise comes when we notice the elevator, which features a massive print of the club night’s flyer.
As it turns out, for an underground bunker, Tag is situated pretty damn high: twenty-one stories up, to be precise. We get out of the elevator and witness the jaw-dropping view. Sunny, resident and warm-up dj for the night, awaits us. The sound system and the layout of the club are imposing. This is without a doubt one of the most monumental clubs I've set foot in. HakkaEllen informs us that more than a staggering one hundred presale tickets have been pushed for the night. We play in the main room that sports a minimal, futuristic design made out of massive concrete blocks. Apart from the main floor, there’s a more confidential “hidden bar” for people who manage to find it.
We have an excellent Tibetan dinner. Back at Tag, Sunny is warming the place up with effortless, stripped back grooves that sound incredible on the system. His refined approach works and the crowd are getting more cheerful with every new track. The rig has a huge amount of headspace and I’m impressed how he keeps the volume on a reasonable level – this is how you work a sound system that you know.
When we take over, we begin to understand why Tag stands for “to another galaxy”: it’s exactly where we’re all headed, the both the dancers and us. The dance floor is full of energy as we work our way through muscular house tracks, gritty techno and everything in between. I can barely recognize some of the tracks I’ve been playing throughout the tour, that’s how hefty they sound in the room. The ravers are 100 % up for it as we reach full throttle. It’s an intense and special night and morning on the 21st floor of the magic building.
We leave the building around 8am, our ears ringing but not loud enough to possibly ignore our stomachs’ rumbling. We opt for a local breakfast feast served from a garage box. Still high on adrenaline from the gig, we jump out of bed after only a few hours. Our flight to Singapore isn’t waiting: off we go for our very last show of the tour.
Empty night shop
Eileen Chan, head of The Council crew, welcomes us at the airport. She tells us about the start of their Headquarters project after promoting off-location events and illegal raves for years, until the police started popping up on a few too many occasions. Now they’ve found their ideal spot right by the Singapore river. HQ’s balcony overlooks the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, one of the city’s main attractions.
We can feel there’s a special vibe in this place. Unlike most clubs I’ve visited in Singapore – over air conditioned and full of fancy expats – this one somehow feels like an empty night shop with a big rig and a smoke machine thrown in. In other words: perfect.
We play on the top floor that gives way to the warm evening air of the balcony, a meeting point for local partygoers. Our friend Morgan flew in from Bali again to join us for a last party. A few early dance floor dwellers get into the groove as our local abel member Kaye warms up the floor with an eclectic offering.
When Kong and I take over, the vibe is as thick as the fog. We give it everything we’ve got since it’s our last gig of the tour and end our set with a string of Belgian trance and new beat classics. HQ keeps it real in Singapore, and we can’t thank them enough for it.
Like so many times over the past week, we crawl out of bed after only a few hours to meet our friend Jason at Maxwell Food Centre. It reminds me why I love Singapore so much: you get to eat the best version of any Asian cuisine in these food courts for just a few pennies. The award-winning Hainanese curry rice is to die for.
We give our last hugs before we wander off into the hot Singaporean air, already scheming our return in the year of the dog.
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Photos by Tristan Jong, Koen Galle, Zi Dan, Morgan Brown, Hong Jun Park & Brent Burns