TOKiMONSTA released her second full-length album, Half Shadows, earlier this spring. Born Jennifer Lee, TOKiMONSTA was the first female artist to sign with Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder just a few years ago. Although her latest work remains parallel to her established production style, Lee has taken a whole new marketing approach, and a bit of a gamble, with this album by releasing it via powerhouse record label, Ultra.
Her ‘psychedelic hip-hop’ influenced style of electronic music has gathered the attention of many producers, like Flying Lotus and Skrillex, as well as their fans. The release of her debut album, Midnight Menu, garnered even more media for the Korean-producer as her fame has continued to accelerate through the underground and onto the front-doorstep of mainstream EDM.
Her 2013 year has been filled with album promotions and a busy tour schedule which continues this week at Summer Camp Music Festival in Illinois and later on takes off too Europe and Australia for the summer in June. Originally scheduled to interview with The Untz during this year’s WMC, the opportunity to have a chat with the young talent finally came around during her current, and short-lived, time-off in Los Angeles. Making the best out of a gloomy day in L.A., she reminisced on her time in Miami, some of the influences behind her latest album, her thoughts on synesthesia and more in our exclusive interview below.
You were in Miami for WMC back in March, how was that?
It was cool. It was kind of a crazy journey, my plane arrived an hour later than I was supposed to and I was already cutting it close to my set time with my original arrival time. It was crazy, I had to cancel my original flight to Miami because it was impractical, [and] so I had to get a new flight that arrived an hour later. And that flight that was arriving an hour later was already late so then I arrived very late. I had to do all my stuff in the cab on the way to the hotel and when I got to the pool party it was just chaos on the stage. It was insane but it was really fun, I enjoyed it. I had never played one of these WMC pool parties before so it was pretty neat.
Was that the only show you played this year in Miami?
Yes, actually. I just played on that Saturday [at the Wolfgang Gartner Pool Party] and basically just hung out which was really nice. I stayed after a majority of all the ravers left so that was cool too. It was like a free vacation for a couple days.
You’re on a break from touring right now until later on in May. What have you been up to now that your album is complete and released?
Working on ever more music and remind people that my album is out, stuff like that. I just have to keep making more music so I’ll have more stuff to put out in the future and try to get into the studio with a few friends. Also just relax and kick back because once festival season starts I’ll be pretty busy. I’ve been home a lot so I’ve just basically been in my pajamas all day [laughs]. I love working on music and just hanging out.
Your set at Movement was cut short by rain during your first performance there a couple years ago. Are you excited to return this month?
Yeah I’m really excited. I played like three or four years ago. It was something I was really looking forward to but wasn’t able to fully accomplish before of the weather. It was really crazy and I got kicked off stage ten minutes into my set because I could get electrocuted. So now that I’ve been performing since then, the show will be even better than it was at that point. I’m really excited to be able to be back there again and actually play my full set and just enjoy music from other people as well. It’s a really big institution and electronic music festival. Overall, I’m just really excited to be going.
Are there any artists that you’re looking forward to catching on your spare time while in Detroit?
I have to go look at the lineup but I know a few friends of mine are playing, which is great. I get to see Shigeto and also Onra who’s a good friend of mine, looking forward to catching his set as well. There are some really good acts this year but I have no idea what the full lineup is.
Have you had the chance to perform live with any of the artists you collaborated with on this album?
Yeah. I performed with Gavin [Turek] and MNDR. I tried to make it happen with Kool Keith at my New York release party but it didn’t come into fruition. Hopefully in the future but two out of four is not bad. I have to catch Jesse [Boykins III]when he’s around but he’s on tour right now. I’m really hoping to do more touring with vocalists and actually try to schedule a tour later on in the year and hopefully have Gavin with me. I definitely like the whole idea of making the electronic set more live by augmenting it more with these concert elements like vocalists and live instruments, things like that.
It will definitely come into play at some point. You’ve noted how you were at first hesitant to work with Ultra on this release but that you felt that they would ultimately give you the freedom to take the album in the direction you wanted. How has the release been?
It’s been great. Everything has been according to my terms and the way that I wanted to release it. The biggest thing with Ultra is that they are a huge electronic label, specifically for dance music, and my music isn’t quite like the other artists on their label. They’ve been really open to how they present this album to my listeners as well as winning over more of their artists’ EDM fans. It’s been a pretty easy process and surprisingly really great because they are really supportive. At first I wasn’t sure if they would know what to do with my album because they don’t normally market music like mine, especially since mine isn’t as much of a dance album. But they’ve been really treating this like their baby and like their new endeavor. It’s still an ongoing process, the album is still raw and it’s creeping. People are spreading the word about it and that’s how my music has always been. I’m still along for the ride and we have another single with a music video coming out too so I’m really excited about that.
It’s really great that you have this opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and work with a record label like Ultra. Electronic music needs artists like you to open people’s eyes a bit more towards the potential that the genre has in this industry.
Exactly. It’s not necessarily the coolest look for me but it’s a way for me to present my electronic music to their fan base and let them know that there’s so much more. It’s a broad genre and there’s a lot of stuff in this category of music. And it’s been great, some people are more reluctant towards it but some people are like, “Wow, I get it. I need this.” They need something to listen to that isn’t like some of the other stuff they have on their label. It’s been a cool experience.
How long did it take you to complete this album?
I would say like a year. Most of the album was done in 2012 and a couple of them are a little it older. “Foolish” and “Waiting For The Break of Dawn” are both two tracks that I finished, I think, a few years ago but that I never put out. Just as a musician sometimes you pull up songs that you never finished and find a new wave of inspiration for them.
Those two songs are ones that I made a long time ago but I’ve gotten really inspired by them and just fixed them up a little bit. I’ve remixed them or mixed them again and decided to put this on this record. Aside from those two, most of the songs were made during the course of this past year but those two are quite a bit older. At least the beginning process of those two started a long time ago but I’ve modernized them and I’m really attached to them so I’m glad to be able to finally put them out.
You had the vocals for your track, “The Force,” with Kool Keith for a while now as well?
Yeah that’s another track, so “Foolish,” “Waiting For The Break of Dawn” and the Kool Keith track. I had his vocals for a pretty long time but I didn’t know how to work with them. I was just really intimidated by it. To me, it was a really big achievement and really epic. He’s someone that I really looked up to a lot in the hip-hop scene and he’s one of the pioneers of hip-hop in general —especially his group Ultramagnetic MCs, which started in the 80s.
I just had no idea what to do with his vocals because he rapped over this other beat I had and had looped the snare portion of that beat like a bridge. And so when I got the a cappella and brought it home I had no idea how to reincorporate it into the song. I provided most of the beat but he only used one small part and I didn’t know how to make that part loop over and over again because it would change the section of the entire rest of the song. So I just didn’t really mess with it until I starting making the beats for “The Force” and realized that his vocals sounded really good on it. And then I started to cater them towards each other. Obviously, I sent it to him to see if he was cool with the idea that I had switched the beat up from what I originally had it on. He was really supportive with that idea of modernizing the song with it and yeah, I’m really happy to finally be able to put that out.
He’s pretty well known for his contributions to the horrorcore scene. Were you surprised by the lyrics he gave you?
He works with some amazing producers. He has Kool Keith and his Black Elvis alias and Dr. Octagon, which is one of my favorites. He worked with Dam The Automator on that one and it was really forward thinking. That’s what I view him as, as this kind of other worldly MC and so I totally expected it on my record. I wasn’t surprised by it because he hasn’t wrapped like that for a while. The vocals he gave me were definitely more spacey and like outer space kind of trippy. And that’s more like his Dr. Octagon alias and he hasn’t really done stuff like that for a while so I was surprised by it as well as how valuable the lyrics were. It’s definitely not mainstream but for those of us who really know who he is and really respect hip hop from that area, it’s pretty epic. He’s kind of a legend.
What other hip-hop do you listen to? Do you listen to Wu-Tang?
Yeah I listen to a lot of Wu-Tang, I listen to a lot of New York rap. I always have.
What would you say is your favorite song?
I mean one of the first tracks of theirs that really spoke to me was probably “Cream” with Method Man, Raekwon and I think Inspectah Deck had a verse on that one too, not sure. It was my ring tone like all throughout high school.
You’ve mentioned how you originally weren’t going to include “Go With It,” your collaborative track with MNDR, on this album. What was missing from it before you had MNDR featured on vocals?
Well before she had worked on it, the song was just an instrumental. I made it and I was really proud of it but felt it was lacking and wasn’t good enough by itself to be on my album. I didn’t think it was a good instrumental track and most of what I do is instrumental. Most of my album is instrumental so it was lacking and it didn’t really speak to me when it was by itself. I really liked it and was proud of it but not enough to put on the record in comparison to the other songs on it.
I had sent it to her [MNDR] to see if she could do something with it because we really wanted to work together but the deadline for my album was coming up so we weren’t really able to work on a full song together from scratch. So I sent her the instrumental and she just blew me away. She brought it 5000 levels above where I had seen that song. I think that it wasn’t special to me until she brought her vocals into it and her interpretation. Vocals can add a lot to a song and this is a great example of something like that.
What instrumentals did you play on this album?
There’s a lot of stuff. There are a lot of soft synths and VSTs. Some weird percussion, like I have a lot of weird hand drums and toys I’ve gotten from Chinatown. There are a lot of little things going on. I programmed most of the album on Ableton, there’s that too. I did a lot of different stuff on a lot of different tracks and played a lot of different things on it. It’s a very long list.
You played the hand drums on some tracks?
Yeah and most of those sounds aren’t even legitimate bongos, I’m just whacking things that sound bongo-like. At the end of the day when you’re recording you don’t even know what you’re doing. That’s the fun part though, incorporating things like finger tapping on the side of the table and recording it and suddenly that becomes some kind of weird percussion. When you mike and record a real instrument it sounds thicker and rounder in the mix than if you were to use like a fake tambourine versus a real tambourine. When you use a real instrument, it’s going to sound heavier and more real, less digital. It brings a kind of impression to your music that only real instruments and real recordings can bring in. So it’s a mixture of both digital and real instruments.
Are those your vocals on “Soul to Seoul?”
It’s a big homage to my roots but yeah, I’m singing in it. I treat my vocals like an instrument. I try not to put too much focus on it because I don’t really see myself as a singer. I had all these crazy ideas in my head and the easiest way to do it was to sing it myself then to try to explain it to someone else.
I must ask, what’s it like working with Steve Ellison [Flying Lotus]?
I don’t know. I’ve never really worked on music with him. We’ve just hung out as friends. We play video games. I think we played Just Dance once, it was really embarrassing but I have a video of it on my phone I think. Only the privileged people will ever get to see it. It was Steven and Thundercat on this Xbox Kinect game. It was really awesome. He’s just like a friend of mine that I’ve known for a really long time and we get along like family. I don’t feel pressured to make music with him; Just being friends with him and on Brainfeeder is enough support.
I see a lot of colors in this album. What’s your opinion on synesthesia and what colors do you associate with this album?
I love the idea of that, seeing two different types of sensory aspects correlating with each other. My album, it’s just like the album cover. There’s a lot of color and bright color pallets as well as dark grays and different combinations of color movement. I always think of my music in terms of textures, everything reminds me of the way something feels. I think of music like fabric or layers of fabric on top of each other. With this one specifically it’s kind of a cross of bright and beautiful, as well as strange and odd color combinations of colors and textures and shapes. It’s hard to explain [laughs].