Joshua WF Thomson wants to nurture Hong Kong's unique sounds
His background as a contemporary art curatorinforms JoshuaThomson's drive to nurture distinctive musical styles that reflect the real Hong Kong, writesVickie Chan
Inside the cover of the upcoming first release on new local music label Platinum Metres, there is a message: "For every benefit brought by new technology there is a disadvantage. The shrinking world can leave us feeling less attentive, less reflective, and perhaps more … stupid. For those of you who need an antidote, a time to slow down, to contemplate - disconnect your computer, switch off your mobile phone, put the needle on the record and listen."
Joshua WF Thomson is the man behind both the record and label of the same name - Hong Kong's first vinyl-only music company. And as the message indicates, Thomson's concerns stretch beyond more than just music.
The British musician and producer studied painting at the Royal College of Art in London before working as curator of a large contemporary public art space in Northampton. "There was very little cultural provision in the area," he recalls. "Few of the residents had been to a contemporary art space and were highly suspicious. I had to provide a programme that was engaging and challenging."
Thomson's role as a curator made him think about the accessibility of art, and put him on the path to launching Platinum Metres. "Art isn't purely for an elite few," he states. "In Northampton I had to create an environment where the public felt included. The challenge was to neither undermine the art nor underestimate the audience."
After relocating to Hong Kong in 2010, Thomson started to put his plan for a music label into action - a project first started in 2007, when he built some of the instruments heard on the record. And he believes Hong Kong is an ideal location for an experimental and avant-garde project of this kind.
"It's hard to classify the fantastic combination of influences that makes the Hong Kong sound. It has a range of sometimes contradictory, conflicting influences," he says.
"There seems to be a pronounced distance between the mainstream and the underground here. In the UK, grassroots experimentation is the engine of pop. The symbiotic relationship forces constant invention - one generation's counterculture sound is the next generation's chart music," he says.
Geography is another factor. "Numerous sound artists and musicians in the region are creating fantastic work." Thomson plans to help promote some of them, especially in Hong Kong. "No record label is willing to invest in such artists. I want to promote overlooked music, art and writing."
The flipside, according to Thomson, is that "Hong Kong audiences seem to be very open. Broad ranges of musical styles co-exist on bills. It bodes well for the development and fostering of new ideas."
Thomson's understanding of the industry is a byproduct of his background in the art world. "Without encouragement, rich talent can't blossom. I hope to draw attention to avant-garde music in Hong Kong. Imagine if Hong Kong was associated with a thriving cultural scene, rather than finance," he says. "I hope Platinum Metres will encourage more people to launch labels, open venues and promote less mainstream musical events. To take control."
But Hong Kong isn't just part of the backdrop - the sounds of the city seep into the vinyl grooves.
"Parts of [the track]
Jakarta, Indonesia, Oceania were recorded in Hong Kong. The melody played on tuned glasses of water was performed by American musician/artist Gregory Wildes in an abandoned government building on Lantau. The jungle is reclaiming the searingly hot site and the noise of the local wildlife penetrates everything. It was perfect." Thomson also spent days on Lamma recording birdsong. "It's a beautiful island. I wanted to capture it on the record." But working in Sai Ying Pun was harder, due to the area's construction work and traffic.
Then there are the collaborators. "My wife, Laura, local artist Adrian Wong and myself recorded an a cappella track with musician Amic Tang at Avon Studios in Jordan. The corridors normally echo with polished Canto-pop, but we shrieked, hooted and imitated the sounds of animals and machines," he says, laughing.
Hong Kong-based artist David Boyce was responsible for much of the album's photography. "It didn't seem to bother people that I was dressed as a six-foot-tall red-robed monkey, but a butcher insisted on taking a picture with me."
Next month's official launch of the label and album will also reflect the theme of pushing boundaries, with a sly reference to the famous golden record of the sounds of the earth launched with Nasa's 1977 Voyager probes. Thomson will float a copy of the record into the sky, from a secret location within Hong Kong waters. The spectacle will be filmed and uploaded to the label's website.
Platinum Metres' future is already unfolding with other planned releases such as "a compilation of sounds generated by sand dunes around the globe", says Thomson, along with an album by Boston musical ensemble Ski-A-Delics. "Each member plays a ski equipped with a single string. Between them they have fewer strings than a guitar," he explains.
Musical dreams aside, Thomson also hopes to publish a multilingual collection of texts and images exploring the "death of the printed word", published in tabloid format.
But Hong Kong will always be a main focus of Platinum Metres. "Although I'll be retaining a global perspective for the label, I'll be concentrating on releasing music and audio from Hong Kong musicians and artists in 2014 and potentially open a venue in 2015."
When asked what Hongkongers are expecting to hear in terms of art and music, Thomson replies: "I think people want exactly that - art and music, which captures something of the time and place. Nobody needs more of the same recycled sounds.
"I want to hear bands represent themselves, in their native language, and deal with issues important to them. I may not understand, but it's important for bands to set their own agenda."