On a sunny spring afternoon, Christiaan Virant of the Beijing duo FM3 stopped to have a coffee in Causeway Bay. He was in Hong Kong to source new rubber cases for the next Buddha Machine, a small device that plays music loops taken from FM3 songs. Since 2005, the electronic musician and bandmate Zhang Jian have released four versions of the machine.
Last year, Virant released a solo album, Fistful of Buddha, which was among the top 40 records of 2012 for music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, an admirer of FM3's work who often listens to a Buddha Machine while cooking. The loops on Buddha Machine 4 are samples from Fistful.
"All the music is made like real songs first, and then we take the little bits we like," says Virant, who was born in the US but moved to Hong Kong and then mainland China. "It's kind of like making espresso coffee. We take the best little bits of the songs and put it in the box. This is like the superior version of the album."
The new rubber case is for a re-release of Buddha Machine 1, which will be available in autumn, before the Christmas buying season. "That's the most popular. People love it. It could be the colours. It could be the music. I'm going to reissue it like Coke Classic. It's going to called Buddha Machine Classic."
There is also a Buddha Machine app, which features music from the first three versions. "We were really lucky to get into the App Store two months after it launched, back when it was a gold rush. Our app sold a lot because it was one of the only music apps out there.
"That did amazing things for the machine because we found that most people who downloaded the app wanted the machine. The beauty of the machine is that you can hold it in your hands. It feels really old school, like it's from the '70s," Virant says.
Virant went to the mainland in the 1980s to attend university. Later, when he settled in Beijing, he began playing in punk bands. By 1999, the first dance clubs outside of hotels were beginning to open in the capital, and he saw an opportunity to form a group that could play in these new venues. He asked guitarist Huzi, who is now in the band Pet Conspiracy, to join him. They enlisted Zhang to round out their sound and so they became FM3.
"Zhang was at that time already the most famous keyboard player in China," Virant says. "He was on every album. So I saw him a lot and I liked his style. We knew each other, but we had never worked together because at that time the punk world in Beijing was kind of separate from the other music world. Now there's much more of a mix."
The early FM3 releases were dance-floor techno, but Virant and Zhang began going in a more ambient direction. "Staying up until 6am to play in a club was really cool, but [Zhang] and I wanted to do something more about music." Then Huzi left the band, and "Zhang and I got more and more weird in our own little world. We're only now coming out of that weirdness and trying to do more mainstream stuff."
The Buddha Machine was inspired by Buddhist sutra chant boxes. "Zhang and I knew about this machine for many years," Virant says. "We always thought it would fit our kind of music. Electronic music is mostly loop-based to begin with, especially dance music, such as techno - even rock'n'roll. A lot of music is loop-based. These machines … play a sutra in a loop. We thought, what a great idea if we took our music, which is already a lot of loops, and put it in a box made for loops."
The Buddha Machine spawned a new approach to FM3's live set. "In 2006, Zhang and I were still touring with Chinese classical instruments and electronic equipment such as laptops and various bits. We were playing at the Paradiso, which is this cool converted church in Amsterdam … and we had 90 kilograms of gear," Virant says.
"That night we went back to our hotel and we thought [we could] use these little boxes in performances and save us a lot of extra weight on airlines and a lot of hassle.
"Just a few days later, we played the first set. From there we played it a hundred times around the world. The beauty was that we could go to a gig, take 50 machines, play and sell the machines at the end, and go home with empty hands. We toured that for about two years.
"It was fun but musically it was a bit limited because it relied on the Buddha Machine. The speakers are so small. Imagine playing a gig out of six iPhone speakers. It's cool when you're playing to an arty crowd of 10 or 15 dudes in turtlenecks."
However, for a crowd of 2,000, this kind of set - which they dubbed Buddha Boxing - didn't work as well. It was time for FM3 to rethink their performances once again, and begin a new phase in their music careers.
"Right now we're doing a live set called Ting Shuo FM3," Virant says. "It's kind of like a TED Talk mixed with Buddha Boxing mixed with live performance. It's about a 40-minute performance where we talk about the origin and evolution of our music. We play our new live set, which is kind of back to the original dance-floor techno.
"Zhang and I have been together 13 years as a band - we talk about going in a loop. It's based on the concept of circular evolution, I guess. We feel we're back to the very beginning of where we started."
For more information about the Buddha Machine, go to www.fm3buddhamachine.com