Cruel Buddhist Talks Making Music with ADHD and Sketching Songs

By Bryan Grogan, March 23, 2020

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One of the more prolific producers based in China right now, Cruel Buddhist has released a flurry of excellent records over the past few years, stringing together hazy lo-fi hip hop released independently and with local label Eating Music. While his music stands apart, the story of how he became interested in, and continues to connect with music is just as intriguing. We linked up with the American producer to chat about his process. 

What does Cruel Buddhist mean?
To me it means that kindness and compassion are not always the same thing. It’s a reminder to stay self aware so that the social conventions we have built into our behavior don’t get in the way of helping when we see suffering and injustice. 

Musically, it means that music is my meditation and my place to practice Zen principles like embracing the beauty of imperfection and liberation from self-consciousness through improvisation. 

How did you first get interested in making and producing music?
I have ADHD, so I got in a lot of trouble in high school due to impulsive and misch-ievous behavior. I’d come home and the school or the police had called my parents and then I’d be grounded for like three months. So I taught myself guitar and played almost every day.

I started making backing tracks on a tape player, then got a looping pedal, and production just grew naturally from there; wanting to make better things to solo over. My one liberty when I was grounded was that I could go play at this open mic night at Harmony Cafe every Thursday, so that was pretty much what I lived for for a few years. 

When did you come to China and to Shanghai?
My first visit to China was to Xiamen in 2008 when I stayed for a semester doing an independent study on Buddhism in modern Chinese society. I was told that people get sucked in and end up staying for years and didn’t think it would happen to me, but I’ve been here for about six years now all together. 

Image via Marcin 'Hipolit' Gnaś

I lived in a village for a while in Shaanxi. I played music full-time at hotels and bars with my spouse in the Southeast for a couple years. Then we moved up to Shanghai in 2016 to look for more opportunities for original music. 

You’ve been really productive over the past few years. Can you talk about your songwriting process?
I think my music stems from an essential desire to play. I just find an instrument or sound I like and then start to play it aimlessly. When I find something that gets me excited while I’m jamming I record it, and the other complimentary instruments just kind of ask to be filled in from there. Before too long I’ve got too many layers and ideas and I need to start editing and arranging to get a piece that makes sense. 

Music is my meditation. When I’m playing I lose track of the time and forget myself. So it’s the need to have that experience that my music comes from.

Image via Mao Lo

I’ll make music anytime, anywhere, but especially while traveling. I have one release that I made mostly while on airplanes and another that was made on the metro, where I used a bunch of field recordings I made riding around Shanghai.

As for how long it takes to make a song, the real meat of the creation usually happens in a couple hours. Once I leave my improvisation fascination with some kind of idea, I start moving on that thing pretty furiously. Like I said, I’ve got ADHD, so I’m kinda on the clock with how long I’m gonna be able to stay interested in something. 

My brain works like this: Suddenly out of the darkness there’s a flash of light and I can see the whole picture, but I have to work quickly to copy it all down before the memory fades. Producing music has definitely extended my ability to focus on analytical details and do the finishing work to follow through on my moments of inspiration. So once I’ve got the sketch down, I add it to an iTunes playlist and move on.

Image via Marcin 'Hipolit' Gnaś

Later on – maybe a month, maybe a year –  I’ll have a collection of my favorite sketches I want to join together for a release, and I’ll go back in and do the finishing work. That might just be a little mixing and arrangement, or it might be dramatic like adding new sections to the song or altering the chord structure. So the most fun to me is the original creation which happens in a day, but the part I’m trying to improve now is the latter production part, which happens over a long time.

In among those releases, you’ve had some quirky records, like the Lo-Fi Christmas series and Attention Deficit Daydreams. Do you view records like Transpacific Slop differently from those releases? 

I’m moved to make music almost daily, so what I make runs the gamut of moods. I’ll be obsessed with a couple songs from my archive that I want to release, find a connecting theme, and fill in the rest of the release according to that concept. While I said I like to work aimlessly, I also really like letting concepts decide where to start. 

Image via Arkham 

The Lofi Christmas series is both a study in the production style of now standardized lo-fi chill/study beats as well as a spoof of it. It came from the idea of using a crackling fireplace and actual snow in place of the vinyl sim “snow” that’s omnipresent in the genre. Then I figured the next main ingredient is some jazzy piano, so I started digging for jazz piano Christmas covers. Slap on some quotes from classic Christmas movies like Die Hard and – BOOM – you’ve got yourself some lo-fi Christmas beats to overeat/open presents to. 

The first one I did was in 2016 when I had just started sampling on Ableton and used it as a way to practice my workflow. I couldn’t find anyone else who had done a Christmas beat tape before so I released it. To my surprise it got a bunch of listens and playlist inclusion. 

Click here to listen to Cruel Buddhist on Bandcamp.

[Cover image via Mao Lo]

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