The Art of Patience - An Interview with Eric Lau

Patience is a virtue, especially if you’re a producer. The profession demands you live inside a track until it’s complete, endlessly tweaking to reach a satisfying ‒ or exhausting ‒ point of conclusion. Arranging layers of instrumentation and sound demands intense focus. Software-wrangling and hardware-manipulating make the art a unique blend of the scientific and creative; one that only a few can display an aptitude and passion for.

The calm resolve of patience is, however, a virtue that producer Eric Lau seems to exude. Talking over the phone, his measured baritone voice speaks thoughtfully on his journey as an artist, including the barriers he’s broken down along the way. Eric Lau; a second generation Chinese immigrant growing up in Cambridgeshire, who became one of the most well-respected producers in the UK.

Eric Lau’s start in music was an unconventional one. Whilst studying for a Business Marketing degree at university, a friend who was into hip-hop bought some production software with the intention of learning to make beats. But, “he didn’t have the patience or personality to do it”, Lau explains, “so he gave it to me and I had a go and found it really fun. That was it really, I just started making some tracks and sharing my music with people; I’ve carried on ever since”.

The availability of software gave Eric Lau his first taste of production and he soon found that its painstaking nature resonated with his personality. “It was all self-taught”, Lau states, “I’m the kind of person that will figure out every function that there is in something, I’m meticulous like that”. Drawing on a love for ‘90s hip-hop, The Neptunes, and the sampling work of DJ Premier and Pete Rock, Lau had his breakthrough with the 2006 track I’m Fine, featured on Gilles Peterson’s first Brownswood Bubblers compilation. Combining a sludgy Dilla-style drum beat with a soft jazz saxophone sample and the ethereal vocals of long-time collaborator Rahel, the track set the tone for Lau’s detailed yet deceptively simplistic production style.

Eric Lau‘s decision to work full time on music was not one initially welcomed by his traditional parents though. “It was very challenging for them”, he says, “because it’s just not part of second generation Chinese culture, no one’s really done it in the whole arts and entertainment field. They worked all their lives to send me to school and now I wanted to do this? It was obviously challenging and I completely understand why”. In the intervening years, his family has become supportive as they’ve seen Lau’s happiness in doing what he loves. Yet, the industry is still one that Lau finds perpetuating prejudice and discrimination. He states how “people that hold positions of power are mainly Europeans, that’s just the way. I accept that and it’s not going to deter what I do, I’m going to continue and thankfully I’ve had support from my peers and that means more to me than from my industry”.

Being one of the most prominent East Asian producers from the UK has provided Lau with an important role, one that he develops through continued teaching work. Impassioned, he says, “I wish there were more Asian figures within [the industry]. I want to know them and if there aren’t any then I would like to be an ambassador for that. I want to lead by example and show Chinese people and people of any minority that don’t feel like they can be whatever they want to be that it’s possible. It doesn’t really matter where you’re from or what you want to do, as long as you dedicate yourself to it and express it honestly then there’s a place for you”.

Eric Lau‘s Chinese heritage has also helped his career though, as he states that “on a subconscious level, my ears are tuned more because I speak Cantonese and it’s a very pitch-oriented language – the smallest inclination in pitch can change the whole meaning of the word. I think that’s really helped my ear and also having the opportunity to know my own culture allows me to carry myself in a certain way. I’m thankful that I know who I am”.

Since moving to London after university, Lau has been influenced by the diversity of musical styles practiced in the city, as well as having the chance to get to know and collaborate with some of his musical idols. Two of those are 4Hero breakbeat pioneer Dego and Bugz in the Attic member Kaidi Tatham. He has collaborated frequently with both producers and often used to DJ back-to-back with Dego at London’s legendary ‒ and now closed ‒Plastic People. “Dego is to me one of the most pioneering producers there is”, Lau tells me, “he’s always stuck to his guns in doing what he does, whatever style it is. He’s taught me about integrity and how to be who you are and to go for what you want to do. He taught me a lot about how to be a man in this industry. Kaidi obviously is also a genius. Just seeing him work, I’ve learnt so much about music in general. You could analyse one of his songs and learn so much about different styles, whether it be dance, jazz, Brazilian, African, he’s the ultimate fusion of all of that. Both of them are products of the broad palette of music that is available and practised in London”.

London may have given Lau proximity to his heroes and a sense of the rich diversity of music, but it was in the United States that as a young man he found his identity reflected in the songs he heard. He says how, “I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for black music in America. All the music that I was in awe of and what resonated with me would consistently come from America. Especially for black Americans to be able to transcend Western musical systems and make it their own – that’s complete musical expression and that really inspired me to find my own voice within music and as a person”. Not only a source of inspiration, some of the music “was the first time I heard Asian people even being referenced in Western culture. People like Curtis Mayfield [in We People Who Are Darker Than Blue] was the first time I’d ever heard anyone refer to East Asian people in a song and that was really powerful to me”.

Eric Lau’s own musical expression finds its most consistent form in his instrumentals. His latest record Examples – his fifth since 2008’s New Territories – is the perfect manifestation of this. In explaining his preference for a well-crafted instrumental, Lau states, “I wouldn’t say that instrumentals are more expressive, it’s just sometimes I feel a vocal can be intrusive and I’d rather hear the music. Personally I like to listen to a lot of instrumental music or Brazilian music where I don’t even know what they’re saying!”. Examples speaks plenty in its instrumentals, ranging from the lo-fi crunch of RAHW to the synth-funk of De La and melodic introspection of Lau’s Lament. Rather than capitulating to the “hip-hop mould of working where you make beats and then sell them to people who write over it”, Lau maintains his independence by keeping creative control over his releases.

This independence doesn’t mean that Lau is averse to collaboration though. He has recently returned from the US where he was working at DJ Jazzy Jeff’s recording studio as part of his PLAYlist Sessions. Lau first met Jazzy Jeff on Twitter and when he came to London he told Lau about his idea of doing a recording session to “create with no boundaries at his studio”. The result of this session is the 15-track collaborative LP, Chasing Goosebumps, featuring James Poyser, Stro Elliot, Glenn Lewis and a host of other producers and writers. Lau oversaw the engineering and production for the project and describes it as “one of the best musical experiences I’ve had”. The environment was special, he explains, since “everyone was so loving and sharing, it’s the kind of environment that only someone like Jeff could pull off”.

Eric Lau has clearly learned well from Dego on how to retain his independence and artistic integrity in this industry. The rest of 2017 will see him releasing another album ‒ this time a full-length with carefully arranged vocal features ‒ as well as more collaborations with Jazzy Jeff and Kaidi Tatham. There’s even talk of a slot in the studio working on Yussef Kamaal’s follow-up to Black Focus. Lau wants to “take control and be able to release music more regularly”, so his album will be the first release on his own label, Mastertone, with other projects hopefully slated for release on the imprint.

Over the last decade Eric Lau has honed his craft and built up a loyal following, including the likes of Robert Glasper and Hiatus Kaiyote. His patience and attention to detail has served his artistry well, yet for all his knowledge, ultimately it’s the act of making music creatively and spontaneously that fulfils him most: “I’ve realised that you can study information all day, the internet is endless, but what does that leave you with? You might as well just live your life and be happy”.

[This feature was first published on Jazz Standard on 07/04/17]