The Toronto-based DJ and producer plays May 19 at Robinia Courtyard.
While we here at Tone Madison would never expect a DJ to simply dump their entire record bag full of secrets out in front of us, our goal with this column, Aces, is to chat with some of our favorite local residents, as well as visiting guests, about a few of their favorite, fail-safe floor destroyers and their lives in electronic music.
For this edition of Aces, we spoke with Toronto-based DJ, producer, and activist Cindy Li, who spins under the moniker Ciel. While Li’s original music, DJ sets, and podcast mixes showcase an appreciation for enveloping sonic landscapes, lush pads, and transportive and cosmic synth tones, they also exemplify her ability to gracefully balance the atmospherics with pounding breakbeat cuts and nasty electro.
While Li is a powerful force behind the decks, the work doesn’t stop when she walks away from them. An outspoken advocate for women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks trying to navigate a DJ culture that oftentimes doesn’t even concern itself with trying to be hospitable to the people it was created by and for, Li has also put in serious work as a party promoter out in Toronto. Her most popular party, Work In Progress, showcases both up-and-coming and highly established women who slay the decks.
However, After dropping a gorgeous 12-inch that pulls in shards of electro, techno, and cosmic synth music in 2017’s Electrical Encounters, Li was signed to the Discwoman roster, and she’s been touring so much that she had to put her party on a hiatus. Li will be spinning at the latest installment of Jams, a monthly party that showcases both touring and local disco, house, and techno DJs, on Saturday, May 19 at Robinia Courtyard. Li spoke with me recently about the importance of IDM, adjusting to becoming a producer, and what makes a DJ tool a DJ tool.
Tone Madison: What was your entry into electronic music?
Cindy Li: When I was a teen, I really loved Radiohead. Kid A was my earliest exposure to electronic music. And, because I was a super-fan, I read all of their interviews and I knew the music that they liked—especially Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood. They were very vocal about the music that they liked and IDM was a thing that they talked about a lot. For me, going from art-rock and indie-rock into ambient music and IDM like Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Squarepusher wasn’t that wild of a stretch. The first full-on dance record that I obsessed over was a track by Autechre called “Clipper.” I still love it to this day and you can definitely hear the influence it had on a song like “Idioteque.”
At the time, I was still kind of wary of mainstream dance music. It stemmed from sort of a music nerd perspective—I looked down at dance music that sounded like “untz, untz, untz.” The stuff that was on the radio in the ’90s—Marky Mark And The Funky Bunch and CeCe Peniston—were amazing and I love it now, but at the time I thought it was wack. I wasn’t into traditional dance music until I got into university and immersed myself in the radio scene. I had a radio show at the community station for four years. I only played music by women. Through being in that scene and making friends with everyone who volunteered there, I became exposed to dance music. I was really into post-punk, ESG, and no wave— that kind of dubby, punky proto-punk stuff. My friend introduced me to electroclash—artists like Miss Kittin & The Hacker and Fischerspooner—and I loved it.
It’s interesting because I’d listened to so many genres of music my whole life and it’s so much about context. Whether you will or won’t like a genre depends on what you liked before it and what you’ve been exposed to. My friend was really smart to get me into that style of music from post-punk. He could hear the similarities. I used to hate disco for so much of my life because I didn’t like the cheesy strings, but then I listened to house and loved it, and became a fan of disco. From that point, I got into Ellen Allien, BPitch Control, Modeselektor, German tech-house, and minimal techno. I also got into blog-house around this time. I eventually started DJing at a club and actually won a couple of DJ competitions while I was still in university. I used really shitty Numark CDJs that were rack-mounted and it was so janky, but it’s how I taught myself to beat-match. It came kind of naturally for me, as I was coming from radio and being a music nerd my whole life. I’d been making mixtapes since I was like 14, so I’d already learned how to tell a story with a selection of songs and it was a natural progression. After university, I took some time off from that whole world. I moved to Asia for a couple years and then came back to Toronto and didn’t get back into dance music until 2013. During that time, I was more into funk, soul, jazz, and hip-hop, which still informs the dance music I play right now without question. The breakbeat stuff that I love is very similar to old-school rap music from the late ’80s. The production is very similar. Same with hip-house, jungle, and drum and bass. A lot of that music is so informed by soul, funk, and reggae.
Tone Madison: How long have you been working on the production end of things? You put out Electrical Encounters last year and it sounded very realized and complete, but it was actually your debut as a producer. What’s your musical background like?
Cindy Li: I had a very intense musical background—Asian parents, a very stereotypical tiger mom. But not stereotypical, because both of my parents really loved music. When I was growing up, I thought they only pushed me to play the piano or violin because all Chinese parents did that. But as I got older, I realized it was more than that. They truly loved music and wanted to realize those passions through me. They discovered that I had an ear for it from a very young age. I had perfect pitch and they decided I should take music lessons. I’ve been playing the piano since I was three years old—hardcore training, like four to five hours a day. It was like that until I was 16. While in that world, when I wasn’t playing the piano, I would listen to college radio, and that’s how I discovered hip-hop. It was the first music I discovered on my own that wasn’t classical music. I wasn’t allowed to play jazz piano or do anything like that. It was very hardcore disciplined and I definitely got some spankings if I didn’t play for four to five hours a day. If I lied about it and my mom found out, she threw her high heels at me. It was tough.
But yeah, I think a lot of people are incredulous that I made that record. I made it about four months after I started taking Ableton lessons. I was on a fast-track to learn Ableton really quickly and I didn’t want to teach myself because I’m not the most technical person. I feel that music is a language I understand very deeply, but the other stuff—software, hardware, learning gear—is not natural for me. It’s a language I’ve had to learn to speak at a much older age. It’s harder to learn now. I’m 33, so it’s not easy for me to learn these things. It’s not like playing an instrument at all. With an instrument, you sit in front of it, play, and sound comes out. Whereas with a piece of gear or software, I didn’t even know how sound came out from the get-go. It’s very overwhelming. I knew I wanted to learn it from an instructor.
I was fortunate that my friend who I throw all my parties with is pretty much a certified Ableton instructor. He does sound and he’s the visuals person for all my events. We were talking about it last year and he’s like, “If you want to take lessons from me, I’m happy to help you any time.” So in the beginning of 2017 we started doing lessons and actually taking it seriously. The discipline that my parents gave me and the nagging voice in my head that tells me to be more regimented really plays a part in my personality, work ethic, and approach to music. I have a datebook that tells me to work on Ableton for this long. And I wasn’t working. This is my full-time job—being a DJ and promoter. So, that’s why I was able to do that really quickly and immerse myself in it. I had written and finished three tracks before the three tracks on the 12-inch, but they weren’t good or anything—they needed more work. But then I wrote three tracks that ended up on the 12-inch fairly quickly. Then when I DJ’d with Shanti Celeste and she asked me to send her music, I only had a few pieces of music that were actually done and that I was happy with and those were the songs I sent her. And she said, “Actually, I’m gonna put these on an EP.” I was surprised because I didn’t think “Rain Dance” fit with the other two, but she thought they did.
Tone Madison: I can absolutely relate to coming into coming into electronic music from playing a traditional instrument for 20 years and playing with bands and then suddenly as a producer I’m in charge of sculpting every fucking sound, making sure everything’s mixed properly, and writing all the melodies, chords, bass lines, and rhythms. There are so many layers of shit you have to learn and I didn’t adapt to that naturally, either. My brain does not operate that way.
Cindy Li: I almost flunked computer science in high school. I don’t do well with technical language—it doesn’t come naturally for me. People don’t really realize the full weight of what being a producer actually means—especially being a bedroom producer. People expect you to be a sound engineer and a producer on top of it, which is ridiculous. I don’t want to be a sound engineer. I’m not here to be an expert on how to treat the studio. A lot of men look at me like, “Ugh, how can you not know how to do that?” And I’m like, “I’m sorry I don’t know how to do that. Do you know how to play this complicated Rachmaninoff composition that’s like ten pages long? I don’t think so!” It’s interesting because, for example, if you listen to that first record, there are no bass lines. The reason being that I didn’t know how to write a bass line. [Laughs] I just knew how to write leads and drums. That was really all I knew. I’d never played bass guitar before and when I was in a band in high school, I always played keys. It was a stretch and a learning curve in the beginning, but now I put bass lines in everything because I’m obsessed with them. They’re great.
Tone Madison: I will say that there is a beauty in a great track that doesn’t have a bass line. There’s this weird element of mystery or something. I remember finding this weird electro record from the mid-2000s at Half Price Books for five dollars. I had no idea what to expect, really. it was a split between Prisoner Of Love and Funken, and my favorite track on it is this Funken song called “Sub-Smasch.” It’s amazing and it doesn’t have a bass line. I don’t know, there’s a weird sexiness to it or something. Like, where that element is missing, you can almost place yourself into that empty space in the track.
Cindy Li: It’s fresh, right? It gives you a new way of hearing a style of music that you’ve heard a hundred times. You know?
Tone Madison: Was there a turning point for you where you heard a particular DJ set and thought, “Holy shit, this is what I need to be doing with my life”?
Cindy Li: I don’t think there was ever a moment where I saw a DJ set and thought, “I’m going to pursue this as a career.” A lot of us in this industry, at least for me, are afraid to pursue this consciously or admit to myself that I was pursuing it. I didn’t want to fail. It’s ultra-competitive. The thing that my parents always taught me growing up was that as a minority person and a woman you’re going to have to work doubly harder than anybody else. Because, when I was younger, I always wanted to do creative things—be a musician, a rockstar, an actress. And to every aspiration I had in those realms, my parents would shoot it down. They’d say, “Have you ever heard of a famous Chinese-American actress? No. So, it won’t happen.” So, that’s always in my mind, even though this is a totally different world and times have definitely changed now for which I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that. But, I think it was something I was always afraid to actually wish for because I didn’t want to be disappointed.
I just kind of fell into it and little by little it was like, “oh, I’m playing at Smart Bar. That’s crazy!” One thing at a time. I’m not really looking at the long term, it’s more like I’m going to get through the next show, the next release, the next milestone, and hope for the best. That’s really my attitude. I feel like the more I think about it, the more it freaks me out and makes me anxious. The more I think about becoming a respected DJ and producer, the more I put pressure on myself and get super anxious and compare myself to other people, like, “Why am I not there yet? Why am I not playing this thing, but that person is?” The less time I spend thinking about my career and more time thinking about my actual work, the better it is. Because everything about this creative world gives me anxiety, which is so crazy because people who are drawn to it are usually kind of anxious people anyways. But, the nature of the work makes us even more anxious. It’s really weird. We’re addicted to that, it’s the catch-22.
To answer your question about the sets that really inspire me, they’re all women. For me personally, seeing a woman DJ is a totally different feeling from seeing a male DJ, even though there are so many DJs that I love, respect, and look up to. But for me to have a feeling like, “I can do this,” it kind of has to be a woman to make me feel that way. In 2015, I saw The Black Madonna at TV Lounge in Detroit at a Movement opening party. I didn’t even see her whole set, I saw like 45 minutes of it. It was my first time seeing her and knew a little bit about her. She played Chaka Khan and it still remains in mind as one of the most epic drops ever of a well-known song that everyone knows that was perfectly timed. Watching the room erupt that way was really inspiring. I always try to dig really deep and play really obscure stuff, but I love dropping one track in the middle that I know people will have some sort of shared reference point for. It doesn’t have to be a super well-known song, but something that people from this particular room maybe have a shared memory of. You actually feel something when it’s nostalgic in some way.
It’s nice to tap into different feelings in a DJ set to make someone inquisitive and curious, but also comforted and at home. The other set would be the first time I saw Lena Willikens at Unsound Toronto, which was the same year. It inspired me to throw parties. Seeing her kick ass in that setting was just unbelievable. I didn’t recognize a single song that she played, but the mood she put me in made me feel like all the nerves in my body were tingling and standing on end.
Tone Madison: Going back to what you were saying about trying to find a track that taps into what’s sleeping in the back of everyone’s mind, I remember randomly seeing Shanti Celeste once and hearing her drop “Oh Sheila” by Ready For The World and I flipped out. I was at this show because my friend was playing in the basement of this two-floor venue and was just walking through the room and she straight up locked me in the room. It was so good.
Cindy Li: Yeah, she’s really good at that. I remember watching her Dekmantel Boiler Room thing from last year and she finished her set with The Streets’ “Weak Become Heroes.” It was so fucking good—the perfect obvious drop. Wherein it fits perfectly with everything she was playing—it’s got that similar UK Garage vibe, but it’s such a great closing track, and no one is expecting or predicting that she would play that. But, then the moment that she plays it, you’re like, “This is exactly the song I want to hear at this moment in time. Nothing else could make me happier,” and you’re crying. I want to make people cry. [Laughs]
Tone Madison: Yeah, it’s a weird time, because usually online you’re kind of interfacing with or soaking up some narcissistic avatar version of your favorite DJ or musician in the context of social media. It’s always really comforting to meet someone you really respect and go, “Oh my God, you’re a human being!” It’s always such a relief to finally meet people who I know online and realize they aren’t insane narcissists and that they’re just as horrified of all of this as I am.
Cindy Li: I mean, I really think that social media has made me more narcissistic in the past three or four years. You feel like you have to be involved in social media because it’s the nature of this world and that you need to have “cool online presence” to grow your name. I’m not gonna lie, I’m good at social media. I’ve definitely done everything I could to sort of grow my name and everybody does that. At the same time, I think it’s toxic. I wish we didn’t have to do that and that I could get someone to do it for me and not be on social media at all. It makes me so crazy, anxious, and constantly worried about other people, how they think about me, and whether or not they respect me as an artist. It’s the worst.
Tone Madison: So, you signed to Discwoman last year and you’ve been touring pretty hard lately, but you’re also a really active party promoter in Toronto. What kind of impact has your DJ career had on your party-throwing? Have you been able to find a balance between DJing and promoting? It’s got to be a lot more difficult to focus on throwing parties when you’re constantly on the road.
Cindy Li: Oh yeah. It’s funny because I actually put Work In Progress on hiatus very recently. The main reason is that there’s a shortage of venues in the city, but the bigger reason is that I don’t really have time until the end of the summer. I’m away almost every weekend. In June, July, and August, I’m only in Toronto for one weekend per month. Before I put Work In Progress on hiatus, I actually was so insane that I was using those spare weekends to do parties. I really like to throw parties and when I started, I did it for the same reason that a lot of DJs do—I wanted to book myself. Obviously, I wanted to give other women a platform, but I would be lying if I said that it was purely altruistic and not also because I wanted to give myself more practice, play that opening slot, and open for DJs.
In playing that opening hour and a half and honing my skills, In doing that, I was able to become good at DJing pretty quickly. In the time since, I’ve really grown to love throwing parties. I think it’s so important—especially in my advocacy work for getting women booked and holding other promoters accountable. I’m trying to make the scene a better place for younger people as they’re coming up. I genuinely care about that. It is really hard and I’m still trying to figure out how to manage my time better. I’m not really good at juggling. If I’m on a good roll with production, I will spend days just focusing on that and not listening to other music because I find it distracts me from the work at hand. Right now, for example, I haven’t really listened to any new music in weeks. That’s bad. But, DJing is my number one, it’s something that will always be a part of my life. Production is something I’m still not very good at and I think I need to devote more time to that over DJing. I don’t want to become one of those people who makes it as a DJ and gets booked at all the big parties, but their releases just kind of trickle down to a stop. I understand how touring is better than releasing music because you actually get paid to tour, whereas it’s very hard to make money from releasing music. And if you don’t need to release music to keep getting booked, why would you? [Laughs] You know? I just think that making music is super valuable. Before I started making music, I thought I would only do it to get myself booked for things, but I actually really like. For once, I’m not so obsessed over not leaving a legacy. I know it’s really dumb, but to know that I actually made something and that it will be here after I die, that’s a really special feeling. I know that speaks to the narcissistic part of me, but I’m not going to have children, so I’m not leaving anything behind. My music will be my children. [Laughs] I feel like I’m rambling a bit.
Tone Madison: No, that’s actually a very interesting and honest answer. What do you have going on for the rest of the year?
Cindy Li: I’m playing a lot in the U.S. in the coming weeks and then I’ll be in Europe in July. I’m kind of back and forth a lot. I’m not trying to tour for over a month at a time like I did last time because it was hugely trying on my mental health. Also, being stuck in London in the middle of winter sucks balls. I’m very affected by weather and my environment. I feel like my mood has been so much better in the past month because the weather has been nicer. Also, I’m touring in Australia in November and planning to go to Asia at some point. I feel like any minute now, all of this will just be taken away from me, so I need to take advantage of it as much as I can while people still give a fuck about who I am before it all slips away. [Laughs]
Tone Madison: Ok, so let’s talk about these tracks you picked out. First up, we’ve got “Artifax” by Stasis. I gotta say, I love the Likemind label. It’s so good and so ahead of its time—an early intersection of techno and trance, but without any of the annoying tropes. How would you fit this one into your narrative as a DJ?
Cindy Li: I picked this one because I know it like the back of my hand. It’s actually in one of my mixes on Soundcloud, I think it was for TRAM Planet. Last year, I got really obsessed with electro—not just Detroit electro, but U.K. electro. It sounds kind of like IDM and doesn’t always have a straight-electro beat necessarily, but more of a broken beat. The Stasis, Nuron, and B12 stuff, I just love it. It taps into my love of IDM and it just has this atmosphere to it. I just really like music that’s very atmospheric. I’ve played this track out a lot. I like to open my sets with it. It’s just a really good mood center for the kind of music that I play. I don’t deny that I’m drawn to beautiful sounds and I think this track is beautiful. It’s really good for putting on when you’re on a train. I listened to it in Berlin a lot when I was taking the train around. It’s contemplative dance music, I guess. It starts out with those beautiful pads and builds into this heavier drum beat. I like opening a set so it sounds like the skies are opening.
Tone Madison: When I listen to the next track you picked out, “My Life In The Bush” by Pure, it doesn’t feel like a huge departure from “Artifax.” It’s a bit more straightforward rhythmically, but also very deep and atmospheric. What draws you to this one?
Cindy Li: It’s kind of a tool-y track. I really like Pure. They had a couple of trance-y records in the ’90s, although this track doesn’t really sound like trance. It kind of sounds like trance tech-house in a way—it blends the functional focus of early tech-house, but melodies and sounds are really dreamy and pretty. I tend to play very deep stuff that mixes well with electro because I like to play a lot of different styles. I’ve found that a lot of early tech-house mixes really well with electro. This particular track is really versatile and mixes with a lot of different things—house, tech-house, electro, or acid.
Tone Madison: What makes something a DJ tool instead of a track for you?
Cindy Li: A DJ tool is something that’s usually a little bit shorter and is really just a series of loops that are less song-structured. There’s not a lot of build up or down. It’s just this sort of a cool vibe. Sometimes the drums will stop, but there aren’t a lot of breakdowns. You only need to play a couple minutes of it and then you could change it. However, with the Stasis record, I’d want to play most of it.
Tone Madison: I could definitely hear the relativity to electro in how sculpted the sounds are. That makes total sense to me. In contrast, the next track you sent—”Work It” by Detroit In Effect—feels a like way more of a functional jam.
Cindy Li: Yeah, I’ve honestly played this a lot. I find that when I’m in the portion of my sets where I’m really getting down with the dark electro vibes and I want to flip the mood a bit so it isn’t ominous all the time, this is kind of playful. I don’t play a lot of vocal tracks, but I like to put one in once in a while to jolt people. Sometimes you’ll see people get into it, but after 30 minutes of playing that vibe, they get a little listless, and you want to break them out of that monotony. It’s such a crowd pleaser. Nobody listens to that song and thinks, “I don’t like it. Also, from a purely functional standpoint, it’s a great transitional track.I like to play old-school Baltimore house or Baltimore club sometimes and this track mixes great with DJ Technics big time, as the vocal is a lot like old-school Baltimore club. it also mixes well with breakbeat.
Tone Madison: OK, so lastly you’ve selected an even heavier banger in G104’s “Looking For The Brighter Future.” Where would you fit this one into a set?
Cindy Li: It depends on who the DJs are before and after me, as well as where I’m playing. I think this is a peak-time kind of track. It’s not something I would play in an earlier set because it’s got a pretty aggressive breakbeat with kind of a mysterious and alien vibe to it. A lot of the breakbeat I love is really old. This one came out in 1993 and I found it while looking up the label on Discogs. So, anyone who listens to this, a great way to dig for music is looking into the back catalogs of labels. Whenever you find a record you like, go on Discogs and click on the label and see what else they’ve released.
I really love the vocal sample—”find your way to a better future.” I really spoken word samples, especially samples that sound like they’re from educational videos or new age relaxation videos where it’s a woman’s voice and they’re telling you what to do and stuff. I love that shit, it’s great. This track never leaves my USB—I play it a lot. It’s very to the point, there isn’t a lot to it. Someone’s talking, the breakbeat drums, and then there’s the high-pitched acid squelch at the end. The thing is, I really love acid music and the sound of the acid line, but I find a lot of modern day acid music to be very boring. Someone in my Twitter feed called it flaccid the other day and I thought that was really great. I mean, there is good acid coming out, but I’m mostly pretty uninspired by it. But I still love the sound and I find that digging into older breakbeat records that utilize acid to be a way that I’m still able to consume this kind of music, but in a new way. As with any DJ who listens to as much music as I do, you get sick of hearing the same things over and over again. You just want to move on and hear a new way of contextualizing an older sound. So, that’s what appeals to me about this track. It also has this background buzz that sounds very lo-fi. You put it on and there’s this humming sound in the background and it sounds super alien and I love it. I just love shit that sounds like it could be in a sci-fi movie.
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