Kai Phi On Crafting a Surreal Sonic Experience With “In Dig A New”

Picture of Kai Phi In Dig A New

Avant-garde EDM artist Kai Phi, who recently shared "In Dig A New," the follow-up to  “California Forever,” "Le Midi," and "Dream Drum," talks about blending different genres, including dubstep, reggae, and hip hop, to create a unique sound. His process involves exploring the syncopation elements of each genre and adopting the Stanford Design Thinking Model. The musician reveals that the new track's desired effect is to induce a sense of relaxation and clarity and leave the listener with a surrealistic experience, incorporating unusual and beautiful sounds and using time-based effects, panning, and distortion thoughtfully. 

During our in-depth interview, Kai Phi describes his process for determining when a track is ready for release as a feeling of something distinct and satisfying that sets it apart from the other sounds. While acknowledging that musical taste is subjective, he believes that certain human experiences are universal, and cites Beethoven's 5th Symphony as an example. To ensure that his music resonates with his audience, he takes great care to respect, appreciate, and deeply empathize with their genre preferences.

Can you elaborate on your process when it comes to blending different genres, particularly with your latest release "In Dig A New," which has been labeled as trip-hop but you've expressed not wanting to limit it to a specific classification?

My process with this track involved exploring the syncopation elements of Dubstep in the bass line, electro dub in the melody, Reggae in the percussion, and boom-bap hip hop in the drums. Pairing these elements with uncharacteristic time signatures and fractional bpm adjustments that are not typical for each genre makes the characteristics of each piece come together to form one unique sound that these genres alone are only capable of contributing to one another. With most of my music, I take a sound design and design thinking approach. I adopted this from the Stanford design thinking model. 

The Stanford Design Thinking Model is to have a robust set of ideas based on well-understood differences and or challenges, driven by insights about specific users for whom we have deep empathy for. If you do this, it will make prototyping much more effortless and guarantee more opportunities to achieve successful engagements. 

When applied to music, the strong ideas are what we already know about specific genre characteristics; the differences and challenges are subjective and can also be imaginative on what we think we can ideate or improve upon, the insights are what we know about a genres listeners and fans, and you must always have respect, appreciation and deep empathy for the fans of any genre you make music for, music made without this is not soulful. Making music without appreciation, respect, and empathy for the listener is the equivalent of disrespectfully speaking at someone and not speaking directly to them. Following these design tenants while also melodically adhering to the perfect mathematical, organizational, and musical representation in adherence to the circle of 5ths allows for a genuine attempt at creating an honest, thoughtfully organized, and engaging sonic experience for listeners.

What range of emotions are you aiming to evoke from listeners with "In Dig A New," and can you discuss the techniques you employed in the track to achieve this desired effect?

A subtle feeling for a sense of serenity and clarity, inducing a relaxation that invites them to sit back and enjoy the ride. The techniques that aid in this are the tried-and-true fundamentals of effects, reverb, FET compression, parallel compression, and delay. Keeping the effects as wide and clean as possible because the right amount of masking with sound makes music, and the wrong amount makes noise. My go-to plugins for the fundamentals are always Universal Audio and Baby Audio. There is thoughtful care and precision in design and calibration to their products that produce a desired effect and outcome that translates clearly in their in-the-box plugin solutions.

How did the concept of "In Dig A New," being a play on words from a foreign English class vocabulary lesson, influence the production of the track?

My wife and I thought the video lesson was hilarious and had a beyond-typical laugh about it, one of those to-the-point-of-tears laughs. After a laugh like that, your endorphins are high. Since laughter also engages your limbic systems, which controls your emotional and intellectual behavioral responses positively, I thought and felt if I could make a track influenced by the theta state of a good laugh and successfully translate any degree of that feeling, that would be something worth sharing with others.

Can you describe some specific surrealistic concepts that inspire your music, and how you incorporate those elements into your style?

When executed to create what is uncanny, the blending of genres can lead to bizarre juxtapositions of sound compositions. I consciously produce and capture sounds that are not typical and unexpected, but simultaneously, they must feel or be pleasant, intriguing, and enjoyable to listen to. My goal is to leave the listener with a sense of experiencing the magical strangeness of a waking dream-like state at times. 

Audio surrealism translates best through the sound design approach and looking at each sound in a track as its own piece of music that, if listened to on its own, would be an interesting, unusual, or beautiful sound. Once a collection of sounds fits this description, organizing them based on one of the many mathematical and organizational contributions Pythagoras left us in the circle of 5ths can lead to a reservoir of incalculable sonic experiences that are easily surreal in nature. Studying under Donny Baker, I learned that reliance on time-based effects, panning, distortion, and other effects to make a dull sound enjoyable is a fool's errand. These effects are best when used to enhance and add thoughtful detail to carefully crafted and already excellent sound selections.

Your motto is "Does it feel good, and does it sound good?" How do you determine when a track is ready for release, considering that everyone has different opinions on what sounds good? Also, how do you ensure that your music resonates with your audience?

The Motto is James Browns’. May he RIP; I do adhere to it, though. You are right, musical taste is subjective, but some human perspectives and experiences are collectively shared. Look at Beethoven's 5th Symphony, for example; any human from all walks of life that can hear and has a beating heart will acknowledge they feel something when and after listening to that piece of music, and those with an attentive ear that are eager to hear will gain a cultured richness from the experience others may not, but for the others it will still be uniquely memorable. 

I know a track is ready when I feel something satisfyingly different from the sounds I am hearing. Since I do my best to take significant care and responsibility in understanding sound, its characteristics, and how it works towards affecting people that are listening for it and to it, I know what I put out has a high probability of appealing to the attentive listener that is listening for it, like your readers. Having the privilege to continue this practice, hone my craft that is the only path to continue making sounds that resonate with more people over time.

You've mentioned that your goal with your music is to prompt listeners to reflect on what they are hearing while also making them want to dance. How do you strike a balance between these two objectives, and in your opinion, what is the key to creating music that is both introspective and danceable?

I would not apply this to every track; making them nod or feel like they are in a groove is an aim of mine as well. This balance primarily lies in the approach to drums and bass. I draw drum inspiration from boom-bap, hip-hop, jazz, and funk. I draw inspiration for bass from jazz, funk, Dubstep, future bass, and drum and bass. These genres have the broadest and most authentically visceral ranges of sound expression for these instruments. Making introspective music can be based on anything people find that evokes emotion or thought. In instrumental music, understanding musical textures and creating and mixing sounds like voices is engaging for listeners and can often create introspection. I think EDM artists like deadmau5, Flume, and Tiësto do this extremely well.

Can you give us a glimpse of what's next for you as an artist? Are there any upcoming collaborations or projects that you're particularly excited about, and how do you see your sound evolving in the future?

I am open to all possibilities. I would love to sign with a label and work with a stable of artists. Or collaborate with up-and-coming and established artists. I am not working on any formal collaborations or projects now, but I am always making music and digging for and collecting obscure sounds and samples. 

In the future, I plan to study and explore the ‘60s and ‘70s soul and rock music, along with the sounds of the ‘80s and synth wave. There is genuine and authentic creativity in the sounds of the artists in these genres and eras; making music that references or is an homage to their sound will be a defining and valuable learning opportunity for me. 

Listen to “In Dig A New” below: