A strange breed: Alok Leung
Musician Alok Leung's Lona Records is celebrating 10 years of boundary-pushing releases. He talks to Richard Lord
Alok Leung was, in a way, unlucky to be born in Hong Kong. A multi-talented man with a visceral love of and total commitment to music that is off-beat, under the radar, sonically challenging and out of the ordinary, he finds himself faced with the lifelong challenge of getting our pop-saturated city interested in some startlingly strange sounds - and trying to make a living while doing it.
He does so through music that he writes, records and performs himself; through collaborations, such as doomy new wave/synth-pop band A Roller Control, which also features local artist Nadim Abbas; through his own label, Lona Records, which releases obscure, boundary-pushing music by artists from Hong Kong and around the world; and by arranging concerts by visiting bands.
It is an uphill struggle.
"In other cities like Taipei, Beijing and Shanghai, big alternative music scenes have developed, but in Hong Kong it's so secret," he says. "Hong Kong is a small city, and living is really hard here. People's money goes on rent, and they don't have time to experiment."
Leung's music largely defies categorisation, as does that of the bands on Lona, an eclectic bunch united more by a shared experimental sensibility than by any sonic similarity. They take in everything from minimal techno to atonal noise to indie rock - some of the latter are surprisingly melodic and approachable.
Leung's musical tastes were forged, he says, in the early 1990s. He started learning classical guitar in primary school and formed his first band when he was 18 years old and was heavily influenced by groups such as the Stone Roses. "In those days, all my friends liked only UK music," he says.
And of course there's Lona Records, a labour of love that is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. "I set up the label just to release music I had made myself, but then I made some friends who also made experimental music, and I thought I'd make Lona a platform for Hong Kong people who want to make electronic and experimental music."
At the same time, social media was becoming popular, and it was through the label's MySpace page that Leung suddenly found himself meeting like-minded people from around the world - and expanding Lona's remit as a result. "I started to make friends from England, Italy, the US - they were all people who loved the same sort of music as us. I thought it would be a good idea to exchange - I could show Hong Kong music to the world and also release music from around the world here."
The result is a back catalogue of about 80 releases. The music ranges from the highly demanding, such as the glitchy Maurizio Bianchi of Italy and the noisy electro of Finland's Salakapakka Sound System, to the almost traditional, such as Jeffrey Bützer, from the US, who writes warm, emotional, film score-like compositions.
Most are available only in limited pressings of 100 or so. Leung says he sells about half through Hong Kong alternative music retailers such as White Noise Records and Monitor Records, and the rest through the label's online store, with buyers from across Europe, the US and Japan. Bützer is probably the label's best-known artist, along with Beijing electronic soundscapers FM3, while Hong Kong shoegazers The Yours also have quite a following.
Leung says his favourite Lona album is Bianchi's Kathamenja; sadly it's nearly impossible to find a copy. Other Leung favourites that you might actually be able to buy are Roel Meelkop's Real Mass and Yan Jun's 20 For Lona.
Not only does Lona release often-challenging music, it also does so in a niche format: three-inch CDs, which constitute the bulk of the back catalogue and, of course, can't be played by most people. "I did it because I love seven-inch vinyl. I love small things," Leung says.
"I think that maybe a three-inch CD is not easy to play nowadays. It's the same thing with the cassette revival - people are releasing cassettes, but it's not easy to find a cassette player. But I love collecting things, and the audience are collectors. Friends always laugh at me: 'Why are you still releasing music that no one can listen to?' Because I like it - just as I like seven-inch vinyl more than 12-inch vinyl."
Leung spends two to three hours a day on label-related business. But even so, with such small pressings of such difficult music, Lona doesn't make money, and Leung pays for it by writing commercial music for film scores and TV ads.
Since 2005, he has also been a prolific event organiser, both of his own gigs and of those by overseas artists visiting Hong Kong. This, he says, can pose challenges of its own. "For an indie band when you're going to get maybe 100 people, it's easy to find a venue. But for electronic and experimental music, where there might be less than 50 people, it's not at all easy to find a venue - really. And it's getting worse. In Central, it's just impossible."
His favourite venue, he says, is underground gallery CIA in Kwai Hing, located close to his studio and Lona's headquarters, a factory unit in a Kwai Chung industrial estate. "I love this place. I think it's very different. You can imagine that the same piece would sound different every time you play it there."
Although putting on shows has become more difficult, at least making music - and getting people to listen to it - has been made easier by technology. "Experimental music started to spread from around 2000. Artists began to make music in home studios … Suddenly there was a lot of experimental work. Nowadays it's very easy to make music. Someone in a home studio can release something new every week. These people don't care about income; they just want to get their music out there. It's totally different from having a band, where you need a lot of time to practise, and a lot of expensive equipment."
It may be easy to make music, but popularising that music is a different story. Leung is too modest to put himself out there and promote his music heavily - and he's happy that way. "I just want to make music."