gyrofield’s world has changed dramatically since we last spoke in 2020.
At the time the Hong Kong artist had just moved to Bristol and was experiencing a meteoric rise online with releases on Mau5trap, Inspected and Overview. She had plans for an album and her fingers in all kinds of electronic pies as she expressed interests in exploring everything from ambient to techno.
18 months later and gyrofield – AKA Kiana Li – is still immersed in a rich menu of electronic flavours and recently dropped her debut 140 release on Pilot just weeks ago; the bittersweet Save Ur Soul (with Avenhue) and the uncompromised grit of Banned Fiction. The big difference now is that her meteoric rise in happening in the real world is reflecting her online hype with a busy year of clubs, festivals and international shows… And a whole new reappreciation of drum & bass that’s come with it.
We catch up with Kiana to discuss this on-road chapter of her life, the lack of non cis/male role models in drum & bass and the magic of transmitting feels, emotions and messages with music…
So much has happened since we last spoke. You’re full out on the road now!
Yeah. It’s informed a lot of my outlook on the music how I think about it actually. My first show was June last year. I was put through the motions and I had to learn a lot very quickly.
In at the deep-end!
Thrown in from zero. It was an interesting experience. Having people I know around me, like Peter from Overview, was helpful. He’s been very supportive of me. I’m glad I’ve been given that platform so early on in my career. When you’re starting off, people might overlook you or put you on a warming-up slot so you’re playing a certain style of music to fit that time. I feel very lucky to have been on good line-ups and to know people who put on these shows.
It’s such a unique situation. The way you’ve hurtled into the scene with big releases, but also lockdown creating that space having to do that club circuit thing while you established yourself…
It was definitely very weird. Pre-covid, I expected my first shows to be in mainland China. My first connection with promoters was Unchained. But then lockdown happened and without having clubs giving you a stimulus, it was hard to keep up that energy. I was looking for something to interesting to listen to and I was delving into that a lot creatively – things like ambient and glitch. It wasn’t until I started playing shows that I was writing D&B again and finding a valid way of expressing myself again.
Interesting. Your relationship with D&B was different last time we spoke and you were keen to explore other fields…
Yeah. For me D&B has a certain energy that I gravitate towards and I feel comfortable to mix and the shows have given me space to think about the ways which DJing and producing interacts with each other. I definitely tried to write things that are personal and expressive but also tie into the function of the dancefloor.
Testing out tunes on the dancefloor as part of the creative process is a longstanding tradition!
Yeah the next two drum & bass records I have are being tested in that way but are also very personal to me. One was premiered on Vision, it’s part of an EP that’s inspired by an iconic anime called Neon Genesis Evangelion. It’s this 90s mech anime that delves into deeper issues like coming of age, processing trauma, escapism and how it ties into these characters lives in an apocalyptic world. That’s one way I felt I could more to the D&B sound while also having something that’s danceable and consumable in many different scenarios. That’s one way I’ve been able to be more expressive and cognitive in my approach to writing drum & bass.
Finding that line between traditional bangers and putting your own personal creative twist…
Yeah. That’s what I look for; for something that feels authentic but has my own imprint on the sound. It’s a very murky area to navigate. You’re asking if this piece of music is connecting or resonating with yourself. There’s a lot of thinking and feeling that goes with that. I’ve learnt it’s about feeling out stuff. When I was starting off it was all about being super analytical and critical about my music but thinking of how it makes me feel has become a core technique for me to make stuff that I’m happy with now.
Where does Save Ur Soul come into this?
I wrote that at the end of last year and it was very reflective. For me this is about why I got into music. I didn’t get into it because I wanted to have my own stuff to play and to make crowds have a reaction. I got into D&B because it was interesting listening music to me. I wanted something that would resonate with me in a listening environment but also reconcile that with this new lifestyle that I have – playing out tracks, testing them, having the reaction with the crowd in that way.
Save Ur Soul is about the time I had before that when I was finding something special within my own work but also the ongoing meaning that music has had in my life – the people it’s brought into my life, sharing ideas and having a meaningful connection with people. In many ways for many people music is salvation from the drudgery of the world and that feeling that you’re another gear in the machine.
Yeah, the transcendental aspect of that for the creator and the listener
Yeah. I was starting to get these people who recognising something special in my music, but at the same time around me in real life it wasn’t the case at all. I felt like once I stepped away from the computer it was all vanished. It was a very powerful experience and makes what I’m experiencing now very special to me.
I feel a lot more connected and in-tune with other musicians and creatives. Being in the scene is very important to me; having connections with people and being able to share our love for music. That to me is a very rewarding thing and something I would have even imagined before.
And I guess that coincides with you stepping out into the real world and no longer being behind an egirl avatar?
I was quite shy back then. I’m not super-confident now but when I’m out there I try and be myself and not hide behind anything.
Was this part of your gender transition too?
Music has definitely played into my gender transition. Creative communities are very diverse groups – queer, people of colour. I got to know them before I came out and that was very supportive during my teens to have these people to speak to. I wasn’t very open with my feelings and it was hard to find someone to be private and honest with. A lot of people I knew from music, and other creative communities, came out as queer and non-binary around the same time I was figuring out my own identity.
It was an important time for me to realise I wasn’t alone with my personal struggle and there are others going through these things and we’re in this community together. Not just supporting each other but also through our art. Having that connection with other artists pushed me forward in accepting in who I was.
Before drum & bass, music was my way of realising my own truth. I didn’t come out until mid-2019, I couldn’t really live the truth I wanted until then. Music, for a good year or so, was the way that I found about my own self and I expressed my true self. That’s one way that music is very personal to me – that’s why I feel such a deep connection to the personal part of music and put yourself into a piece of music. People can listen to it and have their own interpretations of it, but they might pick up on things you also felt when you wrote it and to transmit meaning through music and have that personal aspect was what really kept it such an important part of my life.
That’s as close as you can get to magic!
It is magical when you think about it. Being in the club scene and getting to know the sound in a very physical way is also magical in the sense that you transmit this computerised set of instructions through these big speakers and you can include or encode meaning into it. When it reaches somebody else’s ears they might get some of it back. That’s special.
Incredibly special. How has your experience been in drum & bass as a queer musician?
The D&B scene is not very open and accepting towards non cis/male individuals. I feel that there aren’t many sexuality/gender/identity-diverse acts out there who are championed for their music and we need more non male, queer, gender diverse, female artists to be role models and examples for other non cis/male individuals. I’ve had some people message me that I’ve done just that for them, which makes me so glad. But clearly we’ve got more work to do for diversity and acceptance in D&B.
I try to stay as humble as I can but, with my music, I aspire to stand amongst the greats of D&B. But also be a testament of my diversity and my individuality. Which is how I got into drum & bass anyway; I felt like putting out music that people liked would help give me the platform needed to be myself more.
And that was how I got into D&B: I just put the music out there. People will get their own meanings from it, but for me my music is product of my own mind. It is queer and atypical in many ways that are very personal to me. That’s what I want to put out there. Other people might not understand the full nature behind it, but that’s fine for me because I’ve still put my personal mark on the world.
But it’s a very careful balance of putting myself out there. There are some very private aspects of a lot of my music that I don’t feel the need to tell people. It can be quite awkward and hard to talk about and not everyone is going to take that information well. There’s stuff about transitioning, about feeling depressed and all sorts of raw emotions. If that translates to the right people, I think they would feel it and relate to it. I’m fine with that not being written in plain text. It’s good to have some subtext there.
Not everything has to be explained in detail – it’s all part of that magic
That’s made me feel better about how people perceive my music. Music has all sorts of different functions. Some people want to dance to it, some people listen very closely and try and get every bit of meaning out of it and there’s a whole spectrum of interpretation and consumption in between. I want to make music that allows each of these layers of consumption. That’s been a very special balance I’ve been trying to strike.
Where are you in that spectrum? Do you squeeze meaning out of your favourite music and artists? Do you take it on face value? I guess it depend on the day, time and context?
It does depend on a lot of things. I’m sure it does for everyone. It all comes down to how I feel at the moment and how I want to think about stuff. Sometimes it’s nice to sit back and think about other things and use the music as a backdrop. Other times you want to focus on it and try and decode it. I find I focus on the music a lot more when I’m a club. I think that might be because I’m not big into partying so I spend a lot of time thinking about the music but it does depend.
What’s a favourite club you’ve been to since you’ve started performing? A particular environment that’s blown you away or inspired you…
Melkweg is a good example. It was the perfect combination of people and vibe and the crowd were so good. I was playing from 4-5 after Imanu and the place was so packed they decided to go another hour. That was such a good hour. The crowd enjoyed everything that everyone played and the sound was really good. Having a good foundation, venue, sound and people.
Imanu’s been a big supporter and friend hasn’t he?
Yeah, him, Ferry Buunshin, Felix Caracal, Kai Latesleeper… I feel like a lot of our mutual friends are close. We all hang out in a big group and bump into each other at events. It’s nice to have that community of friends. We talk about a lot of different things and have a lot in common. We don’t just talk about music and producing…
About the music and producing, though. You mentioned an album last time we spoke but I think plans have changed…
It didn’t work out in the end. I didn’t feel a lot of the tracks I’d done reflected where I was truly at. I salvaged a lot from it though. I had the Title Card EP and the track I did on Critical’s 20 year album was meant to be part of the album.
Ah 24rd! I felt it was too soon in your career to do an album to be honest.
Yeah I feel I need to settle to a certain creative state and state of life to have the time and energy to make that happen. I was writing demos for a new record I have coming up and it took 6-7 months to get five tracks that were spot on. It takes a lot of time and I’ve realised that over the years. But I’m sure an album will come…
What comes next?
Well there’s an Overview EP coming up next and then another EP on a label that I’ve really admired since I got into electronic music. They’ve been very supportive of me and it’s very flattering.
What a revelation! Too soon to say?
Just a little but I think it’s okay to say they completely opened up a lot of doors for me and have released music I didn’t even know you could conceptualise. Some of the music has blown my mind and put me on this path.
In the meantime, a summer of festivals…
Oh sure. It’s my first festival season.. I could never have envisioned this happening so soon. It’s quite hard to fathom and definitely shows the power of meaningful music and how it can reach all sorts of people. It’s quite a lot to look forward to.