Very few artists in drum & bass have experienced the same exponential trajectory or attention, or created such a sense of mystery, as Gyrofield.
A self-described egirl with a kindred spirit for cats, born and raised in Hong Kong but now based in Bristol studying music, 18 year-old Kiana Li has defiantly hurtled into our playlists over a series of pivotal releases over the last 11 months. Following a series of low-key net-label releases on Expanse came her Evaluate Me EP in November 2019.
Self-released and six tracks deep, Kiana explains how it set the foundations for every meteoric moment her career has had this year. It ranged from dystopian, industrial-weight narratives to psychedelic, off-grid interludes and the best evaluation that could be generated from such a document was simply to expect the unexpected… And to understand that she will never sit comfortably in any one genre or play to expectations or rely on any standard production formulae.
More thought-provoking, non-formulaic escapades followed. First the massive four track Tech Flex EP on Overview Music, then the swirling summer hurricane Because You Are You on Pilot – which, we learn in this interview is a key track in a much bigger project on the horizon.
But before that comes the Synopsis EP. An immense four-course experience, presented to the world on a shiny Mau5trap platter, Synopsis is Kiana’s most personal and complex release to date. While some releases blur boundaries, this one scorches any genre divisions to the ground and fuses everything that was exciting, inspiring and challenging Kiana during an intense few months earlier this year.
Like Evaluate Me did a year before, Synopsis has reset anything you might expect or assume about Gyrofield, sets a whole new benchmark and sets us all up for something even bigger in the future. It’s true, very few artists in drum & bass have experienced the same trajectory and attention as Gyrofield. But it’s also safe to say that very few artists are approaching it in the same way as her… And that she’s still as mysterious as ever. Read on for her most extensive interview so far and find out what’s to come next…
I wanted to start with a thank you. I read your last interview and you mentioned False Noise. I’d never heard of him before. Thanks!
Oh False Noise is super good. The stuff he does is very colourful, I feel. Have you heard is drum & bass EP from 2017?
I’ve not found that yet – Floral Strobes is amazing, though.
Oh you need to check that. It’s called Hyperlight. Everything he does has been very interesting.
Some of your music makes me think of early Warp Recordings – Autechre, Boards Of Canada – are they on your radar?
They’re definitely artists I really enjoy and I listen to them a lot. Especially with the music I’ve been working on recently. It’s very techno with ambient elements. That’s going to be on my album and releases following that.
I think the track on the new EP which highlights that direction is The True…
Perhaps. The Synopsis EP is a different approach again. It’s about taking drum & bass to its extremes. It’s very colourful, it’s very high energy, it’s very fast-paced with a lot of elements. All the current consciousness of drum & bass condensed into a way that I like.
I read that you started the EP in March. So this is the sound of you on lockdown?
I don’t think you can hear the result of a lockdown but there’s a very conscious effort to create something like Synopsis on the EP. I set out to do this and worked hard to make sure they had the delivery of that attitude and the characteristics of it. So it wasn’t directly inspired by lockdown but the whole EP was made with the mind I had at the time.
Could you hear what you wanted to write in your head before you worked on it? Or was it more organic than that?
It was a bit of both, I guess. The track order is arranged in the same time that I wrote them so it’s arranged over the progression of time. The first track I began messing around and found this cool riff and started to work on building the second half of the track. It made me think of all the possibilities I could take the track and work on which way was the best to take it. The second track Search Optimised I was going through old ideas and found something that could be really cool if I reworked it. I had a nice think about it and started writing it and it progressed to what it is now. The True and Jade were both built form the ground up – they were a more gradual process.
When did Mau5trap come into the picture? Did you always know they were going to release the EP even before you started writing it?
They came on pretty early. Maybe April. My manager sent demos to them, but I thought it wouldn’t impress them or they wouldn’t be into it. But to my surprise they took it and I finished the EP knowing Mau5trap would take it.
Sounds like they gave you a total blank canvas? They were sold on the concept as much as the music.
Right. They were sold on the concept and the execution was up to me when they accepted it. By the time they heard it I had the arrangements and broad strokes of each track. It took a few months to find out how to extract the best part. But yeah they gave me total freedom in that sense.
That fits your approach. I read an awesome quote in your last interview when you were asked about being an egirl and what that meant. You simply said that it means that you don’t care. I like that. I think more people need to not care and forge ahead with their own thing…
I think so as well. Not caring is not worrying so much about being that brand name artist with that sound that you have to extract from every track. I’ve gone through a lot of styles in my past. When I started Gyrofield I was doing really dark techno and ambient stuff. Then I switched towards more melodic versions of those. Then I took a detour into pop for a while. That was all between 2017-18 and my takeaway from that was that I shouldn’t care about having a signature sound or style of writing music. I want to keep telling the stories and narratives I want to tell and not be confined by expectations.
The art of surprise becomes your signature in a way.
Right. That’s what I really want – I want to find things that really interest and inspire me and feel free to explore them.
You mentioned an album earlier…
Yes. It’s not a drum & bass album, I have to say, but it’s got drum & bass songs on it.
No one wants boundaries!
Right. It’s very freeing to have these ideas, realise them and put them on a project. It’s more of a showcase of things I want to do, things I can do, things that interest me. It’s much more of a personal project than anything I’ve done so far. Actually the first track I wrote for it is out now. Because You Are You, which is on Pilot. That’s also the first track on the album. I wrote it in April, Synopsis was started and I was getting a bit tired of it. I spent 100 hours on it in March alone. I needed to get back to experimenting after a while so I spent a few days on it.
It was a very important experience for me. I felt I was really representing my emotions on that track. I used a MIDI keyboard and played a bunch of synths and recorded it then used those recordings to create the whole track which I felt gave the track a very honest delivery. It came from my brain on the spot. That inspired me to write more things like that and in July I spent a lot of time writing a whole bunch of things in that way and some of them have ended up on the LP.
That’s a really interesting approach. Perhaps the closest you can get to jamming with yourself? Very improvised.
Yeah it’s sort of improvised. You don’t know what you’ll end up with until you start playing with the sounds. You have to think on the go, listening to what you’ve got and thing about what will fit in the track. I had a drum loop going on to play those synth lines to but the rest was a process of discovery, building the parts and seeing what I could write with them.
A good way to avoid block or dead ends. Like you’re setting yourself challenges?
In a way, yeah. It was a challenge for me because I’m not super-fluent with using the keyboard so it’s definitely a challenge in how it makes me think and maneouvre in a faster way. It’s been a cool exercise.
Did you learn any instruments as a child?
Piano briefly but I stopped at the age of 5 or 6. I took oboe at school because it was mandatory to play an instrument. I wouldn’t have picked the oboe, but all the good instruments were taken. I wasn’t inspired by it much, it wasn’t until I discovered electronic music that I really thought about music properly.
How old were you then, and who was it that interested you to explore it?
I was about 10 years old and it was Skrillex and dubstep that caught my attention and made me want to give it a go. I was about 13 when I started actually experimenting.
So those experiences in techno, ambient, pop were part of that.
This year has been incredible in terms of your rise this year. I can’t think of many other acts who’ve shot through in such a crazy rate of time. Maybe Buunshin last year.
Yeah Buunshin had an incredible rise last year. The self release I did paved my way for this entire year to happen and it’s been pretty crazy since. I have to say that Jonathan Imanu was really helpful to me and the first artist to champion me. He posted about me on DNB Talk when I released that EP and that got a lot of attention. Then people like Abis and the Music Squad crew and Billain. I’ve talked to him a lot of times, too. He’s been very supportive and has given me some confidence in my direction. So everyone who’s been involved in that have helped with how things have developed for me this year.
To conclude the year with Mau5trap is the cherry on the cake. Unless there’s more…??
I’d like to start releasing tracks from the album after that but that depends on how we release the album.
I’d imagine there are quite a few labels hitting you up right now!
There’s been some interest for sure but I’d have to have a large amount of control and for the label to believe in the music I have. I miss going independent, though, so I really don’t know what will happen.
Now is the time for independent artists and the DIY ethic, more than ever I would say…
Totally. I think during these times you have to be as self-sufficient as possible. Everyone else is going through a hard time so you have to make things work for yourself. I feel like that is part of the whole ‘I don’t care’ aspect that you asked about. That the idea of not wanting to be tied by labels or any restrictions.
Also not being tied by image. It’s no coincidence that there are no actual images of you online….
Yeah it’s the freedom of it all. The music has to speak for itself, which means you have to push yourself for it to be its best but if I can encourage more of this attitude then that’s great. It gives you a lot of freedom and I think a lot of artists will enjoy that.
There’s a fine line between not caring and not worrying about what other people will think isn’t there?
Oh for sure. And I have to say that I do worry. I want to have a lot of independence and that means I worry about the quality of the music or the people I work with. There’s a lot of management. Freedom comes at a cost but it’s stuff I’m passionate about and I want to make the very best music I possibly can so I feel it will pay off.