Friday, February 15, 2013

Steampunk POC: Psyche Corporation (Chinese-American)

HAPPY NEW LUNAR YEAR! I, er, did not actually purposefully delay putting up this interview so it would fall on the first Friday of the lunar new year, but I thought about it afterward and really liked the idea. Anyway, this month I present to you that fabulous singer known to the steampunk community as Psyche Corporation! When I first met her, I was pretty impressed by her music and singing. And then I found out she's a med student and went, "hmmm." When I met her again at CNSE, I tried to hang out with her more, but she had to go write a paper, and I went, "oh, she's one of those Asians." You know, those overachieving Asians who embody that model minority stereotype?

I say that with affection, of course, because she really is one of the sweetest and coolest people on the scene. She comes up on stage, does her thang, and then goes off to do further business without much ado. She also has a quirky sense of humour. Evidence:

Myself, PsycheCorpwith a moustachioed
banana she painted with a Yam Yam stick, and Allison Curval  
Also, she has a song about zombies.

PsycheCorp is extremely prolific; the newest album, Crypts and Codes, recently came out, and is the fourth album since 2006. The music is about as weird as the world it was created for, and I caught up with the singer recently to talk about that music, her life in general, and her involvement in steampunk!

How did you first get to know about steampunk? What was your first impression of it?

I first got to know the word steampunk, I think, from going to Jeff Mach's event: Wicked Faire, and seeing a bunch of people there who labeled themselves as steampunk and had neat outfits.  I didn't have a very elaborate response really.  It was just "Hey, that looks cool!  I've been wondering where I could get myself an affordable modern bustle skirt/more interesting steel-bone corset!"

You're a pretty big name on the East Coast steampunk scene. How did you get into music, and how do you juggle a medical student career on top of that?

I guess it depends what you mean by getting into music..  Like when did I start learning instruments/singing?  I started playing piano when I was 3 or 4 years old, living with my parents in an almost entirely Chinese-speaking apartment building in the Bronx, because there was one Chinese guy who lived in the building and provided piano lessons.  But then we moved when I was 5, and I stopped having lessons.  Supposedly I was playing Fur Elise at that point, except a modified version for people with four-year-old sized hands.  I vaguely remember this...  

Also, back when I briefly lived in China, I was singing songs in Chinese and either German or Russian, because those were the songs my grandparents knew.  I guess that would have been age 2 or 3?  I had no idea what I was singing, when it came to the German/Russian stuff.

I remember first starting to compose music when I was about 10 years old, all piano instrumental stuff.  It was supposed to be the soundtrack for a fanfic I never wrote down, about an anime that is better left unnamed.

Songs involving singing didn't happen until maybe age 14ish?  They weren't very good back then.  The earliest recorded stuff would be "Get Down" and "Wolf's Lament", which I did when I was 15. 

Psyche Corporation itself was not conceived until 2005, when I had gotten myself a 3-song contract with a producer in NYC, who turned out to be reasonably talented but not a great person.  He made okay backing tracks based on draft tracks I provided, and his stuff had good production quality, but ultimately did not have the creativity and versatility I wanted to achieve with my music project. I watched him very carefully when he was working in the studio and used what I learned to help myself make better instrumentals working by myself at Columbia's computer music center.  The nice thing about taking the intro class to computer music at Columbia is that you get 24 hour swipe access to the studio.  That's how I made my first two albums: Architect of Dreams, and Worlds on a String.

As for juggling a medical student career, that's a good question.  One of my role models is an MD-PhD named Elaine Bearer.  She used to be both Professor of Music and Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Brown University.  I feel like she's a good example of someone who was able to excel in two different areas, and a nice story to bring up to say, Hey, it can be done.  It's a story I've told to naysayers before.  But then, the truth is that Dr. Bearer conducted her main music work and science work at different times in life.  She started as a musician for many years and then later got into biomedical engineering.  Given this little difference, I guess I don't know of anyone who does medicine, science, and music with seriousness all at the same time.  I hesitate to say that it can be done.  I'm not a reckless person.  I'm not ready to say something that's never been done (as far as I know)--can be done.  Until I've done it.  Or not.  

Whatever happens, I do not intend to take anyone or anything for granted.  I've been given an incredible opportunity to do medical research that could lead to improving human lives, and I'm not going to let it go or put anything less than my whole heart into it.  At the same time, I don't necessarily believe that putting my whole heart into my MD-PhD work means I can't also put my heart into my music work.  It's like loving two different people very very much.  We'll see how it goes.  If you're curious about the kind of research I'm doing these days, I have an extremely haphazard and informal science/research diary up at

To try to put it in non-mathy terms, I am figuring out the architecture of thought, and how it gets altered in various psychiatric and other neurological disease processes.

I suspect this question was probably more of a "How do you do X and Y at the same time without dropping the ball?" question, and I ended up giving you a bunch of periphrasis.  Thing is, I don't know how to advise anyone on juggling med school and music to the degree that things seem to have turned out so far with me.  I'm not sure that I count myself as a success until I finish this MD-PhD, and finish the music albums I wanted to finish, know, do the stuff I wanted to do. (By the way? I finished recording album #4 last week and hope to have it available as soon as everything is mastered!)

If I actually succeed, then maybe I'll feel qualified to advise someone on how to do this.  I'm happy doing what I do, working very hard, maintaining some very good friends, and trying to be very very very organized.  And please, if you're going to publish this answer, realize that the director of my MD-PhD program might come across it when he's googling me, and you should make sure to include the paragraph about not taking anything for granted and putting my whole heart into medical research.  He worries about my music doings sometimes.  He should know that in my ideal life, I don't just want to sing about people with fantastic lives, doing impressive things.  I would like to be doing great things worth singing about.  Although, I'm pretty sure I'm never going to write a song about an MD-PhD student doing research on decoding minds when I can sing about CEOs of dream manufacture corporations embedding dreams within the architecture of people's thoughts--   No, wait.  Wait.  Those are two totally different things!  Stop looking at me like that.

.... Why do your grandparents know songs in German and Russian?

Um.. I'm not sure.  It was EITHER German or Russian.  Probably Russian?  I think it had to do with China being affiliated with Russia for a while and people having Russian education initiatives? That, or there were Russian (or German?) films being shown in Chinese theaters that people used to go to watch?  My grandmother went to university in France at one point, but I'm not sure how my grandfather knew those songs.  He was a really good singer in school--could be that the operas being taught were in German, or Russian.  There are some excellent German operas out there.

I was definitely asking a question about how you manage two very big things without falling behind on your work in either one. At CNSE you had a ten-page paper to write so you had to excuse yourself from the partying! Do you ever feel like you have to give up something or another to achieve your goals?

I gave up having a regular social life.  And my free time ends up doing double/triple duty... I'll be visiting NYC on a Friday night to see my best friend, but also to do a photoshoot early the next morning, and also to meet up with people going to a big party in another city after the shoot, wherein I may or may not be performing.  

I kind of like my social life though.  I feel like I still get to do stuff, it's just scheduled in a more concentrated dose.  I did have to become a lot more organized to survive though.  I don't know that giving up haphazard/lazy scheduling was much of a loss though.

Oh, I did give up on being able to do laundry and cleaning every week.  I had that going on while I was on hospital rotations because it was critical to my mental health and survival, but now it's not, and I'm much happier now that I can wear a T-shirt and turquoise tights to work sometimes.  Not that I do that a lot, but it's nice to know I wouldn't offend anyone by doing it.

Do you still retain access to Columbia's music studio resources? How do you record these days? You're probably not exactly running back and forth between locations for your different types of work.

Nope, I graduated.  I put together a mini home studio loosely based on the set up at Columbia's computer music studio and I've recorded two albums entirely at home so far.  Also a musical I was hired to compose for, called Absinthe Heroes.  

Tell us a little bit about your music: what are your influences? If you had to apply labels to describe your music, what would they be? And why the hell do you sing about zombies and weird shit like that?

My influences for whatever reason tend not to sound like my music, though I'd be flattered if they did:  Within Temptation, Splashdown, Kidneythieves, Poe, Elisa, and I don't really remember anything else right now.  I'm inspired by things like standing in a crowded elevator, or playing dodgeball, or misheard lyrics, or circus acts or fight scenes in obscure movies.  

My music went through a labeling process a couple months ago when I tried to characterize my existing body of work with some labels.  After some thought I felt like my music falls into three main divisions: Alternative Industrial Trip-hop, Schizomelodic Punk Cabaret, and Electro-Alternative World Music.

Weird shit: Well, there's a lot of weird shit in the backstory of the band (see ) involving angelbots and neoLuddite revolutions and plots against humanity, or against robots, or against overdone romantic dramas (this last one you'll probably never hear about unless I actually end up putting a rather dreadful short story of mine on the internet).  And I have a differently-abled sense of humor.

"Schizomelodic p-" WAIT WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN??

Yeah I dunno..  I wanted to convey a rapid flipping between emotions/sanity (like you see in the theatrical style of The Ceiling, wherein an elevator --and entire hotel-go insane), and I felt sometimes that there were punk elements to my percussion (like in "It's All Pretend"), but that punk didn't quite fit because my stuff is more melodic.  So... Schizomelodic punk.....  

I don't really mention that one often.  The one I usually mention to booking people is "Alternative World Music" because "World Music" is a real genre, and kind of fits stuff like "Pound of Flesh" or "Lock", and the Alternative part alludes to the electro-industrial elements of my World Music stuff.  Also, the combo "Alternative World Music" could be read "Alternative World" Music, which also fits the cyberpunkstory theme of my music quite well.   Unfortunately, Alt World Music doesn't fit everything I do, so I have these other portmanteaus to freak you out with :)

So tell us your feelings about steampunk in general. What do you think of the existing / canon literature? The fashions? The communities that have sprung up around them? Don't hold back.

Honestly?  I like 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, and I really enjoyed H. G. Wells's stuff.  I've also enjoyed Leviathan, and a few other modern steampunk novels.  Even the bad ones are rather satisfying in the way that fanfiction can be satisfying.  The fashions are neat, I like seeing people wear them.  I have heard there are often heated debates about what is "going too far" or "too gauche" or something, but I don't end up reading those debates.  It's hard to keep up with stuff like that when you've been working ~90 hour weeks for the past 6 months on the hospital wards.  I'm more likely to have spent my free time reading about the best ways to remove a tumor from somebody's head during an operation that I'm to be present for the next day.  This may be the tradeoff if you're going to try to do science and music and medicine intensely---you miss out on all the juicy stuff.  I do like hearing about it from friends though.  

I've always found the steampunk communities to be extremely supportive of new artists and run by a large number of very nice people.  I'm aware of one or two kerfluffles that have occurred but (1) I don't have anything intelligent to add on those, and (2) It's best I stay out of it anyway.

Beyond music-making, do you have much involvement with the steampunk community where you are?

I haven't found much of a steampunk community in New Haven so far.  I don't really have much social life though.  I've only started really meeting neat people in New Haven this year, and working at the hospital cut into spending much time with them.

The BEST thing about steampunk?


The WORST thing about steampunk?

Sometimes it's really hard to find a good venue for steampunk events in Manhattan.  We had Webster Hall for a while-- and by We I mean, an ongoing steampunk event in NYC that I co-founded in 2010 with Jeff Mach.  Most recently, we had an Anachronism event in October 2012 that was covered by both the Discovery Channel and the Travel Channel, at an absolutely lovely venue in NYC, Club Element.  Before that, we experienced a couple months when we were considering several venues to move onto after Webster Hall (it's a good place to start new things, but all successful fledglings move out of the nest eventually)-- and we took our time despite the options because we really wanted to find something that would be just right for our crowd.  

What would your ideal steampunk venue look like?

I'm not that picky..  It's more of a "I know it when I see it" and Webster Hall was good, Club Element was good.  I hope we do more stuff there.

How do steampunk and your music mix? IIRC, you didn't set out to write "steampunk music" and yet here you are, having performed for steampunk events here and there and even Canada.

I think steampunk and my music mix alright.  People seem to enjoy it.  I sort of imagined my music to be the kind of stuff people in an alternate reality might listen to.  Even if we imagine that alternate reality to specifically be steam-powered, I'm not convinced that all people in a steam-powered world would necessarily only want to hear songs about how steam-powered their world is.  They might enjoy hearing something to take them away from their steam-powered reality for a little while.

I love your point about how people in a steam-powered world would want to hear songs that take them out of their steam-powered reality for a while! Your fabricated world takes place in a biomedical engineered world--how far would you say it's removed from the typical steam-powered world that most steampunks write in?

How far are we removed from typical?  65 inches?  120 nm?  If I were standing next to typical and decided to lie down, I bet I could get to 65 inches away, not counting shoes.  120 nm is because when I was in high school, I made up a Weirdness Spectrum based on the visible light spectrum, and typical was always yellow-green, and the kind of music I like is generally violet.  I sometimes make up ultraviolet songs (there was once something called "Ineffable Pants") but they don't make it to album, because that's not how I see Psyche Corp.'s musical style right now.  The weirdness spectrum used to be posted online when I was an undergrad but Columbia took it down after I stopped being a student.

You've been working on what looks like a guideline for the universe that Psyche Corporation exists in, specifically for cosplayers. Do you see Psyche Corp eventually transforming into a kind of RPG along the lines of Vampire: The Masquerade or D&D?


Following up on that question, your music is obviously following up on a narrative. Do you plan this out in advance, as a long-term project, or is it something that comes to you as you amble along?
The general structure is planned out, but the details are filled in as I go along.  It's like.. You know these robots and these other robots start a war, but you don't know who is selling hotdogs by the trenches, and that person is probably me, writing a song about the robots fighting, because none of them are buying my hotdogs and I really should have invested in car batteries but I got lost on the way to the human bunkers.

So let's talk a bit about wanting your universe to become an RPG setting... are you also an RPGamer?

I haven't played many RPGs.. I played Vampire the Masquerade once in high school, and constructed a character maxed for charisma and strength, with minimum intelligence and minimum physical attractiveness..  It was a game run by a 15 year old boy though, and it was his first time, I believe, so not much of interest happened and there weren't really any plot twists.  I also played a circus LARP once in college, which led to me meeting my best friend, who at the time was an evil lion tamer tying me to railroad tracks for unknown reasons.  I really enjoyed looking at the pictures and descriptions of the different vampire lineages in one of the Vampire the Masquerade books that this high school friend had, though, and I would love for there to be some kind of book of angelbot lineages for RPGs some day.

You've mentioned living briefly in China a couple of times. Has this influenced your life or music in any way?

Not in the sense of having anything particularly Chinese in my life or music other than what comes of having Chinese parents.  However, I do think I may have greater appreciation of my freedom to express myself artistically.  During the Cultural Revolution, it was pretty risky to do anything like have a musical band or anything perceived as Western and therefore unpatriotic.  My mother had to give up on pursuing a lot of creative desires because it was a dangerous time to be doing such things.  She came to America hoping to have a better life for the next generation, and I sometimes like to imagine that I'm making up for all the things she had to give up by making the most of the fact that in the United States I CAN pursue music without the kind of severe repercussions people used to encounter in China when my mother was about my age.

 I think we once spoke very briefly about our not-English languages before, and if I recall correctly, you mentioned Mandarin. Do you think you'll ever record in Mandarin, or in any other language for that matter?

Well, I've recorded quite a few songs with bits of French: Morpheus (1st album), Medicine Man (3rd album), Nightmares (upcoming 4th album),  and Strange Machine (upcoming 4th album).  

I did record a tiny bit of Mandarin near the end of a song called Universe, and it's just me whispering "xiao xin" or "be careful/watch out" in Mandarin, but it's kind of lost in all the other sound going on in that part.  I'm not sure if I'll record more songs in Mandarin, but it's not off the table!  I'd like to record some stuff incorporating Japanese some day too, but I need to learn the language first...

So can we talk a bit about your costumes? At CNSE 2011, I saw you in an elaborate get-up with a hoop skirt that looked like it was made from the fragments of a red ghost, and more recently at SPWF 2012, a black leotard with red belts (which I swear makes you look like you have a glowing red vagina in certain angles of light). Do you make your own costumes, or do you adapt them, or...?

If it's a red ribbon thing with stockings that have patterns of holes cut into it, I probably made it (though I've made non-ribbon, non-holey outfits too; those are usually adaptations of existing clothing items/accessories I have lying around).  The more elaborate stuff is generally either borrowed from a fashion designer friend and/or something I got from one of my favorite people (also a phenomenal fashion designer): Kristin Costa.

How much emphasis do you place on visual aspects of your albums compared to the audio? How do you ensure the visual artwork combines with the music to create a cohesive whole?

I generally don't start making album art until I'm done or almost done recording the whole album, and I also don't name the album until the songs are done, usually.  So in that way, the artwork kind of evolves to fit the music.  That said, to a degree the artwork evolves independently, because the album art is usually taken from whatever photo shoots I did since the last time I released an album.  My taste in artistic photo shoots tends to be complementary to the macabre fantasy world of Psyche Corp. though, so the visual and audio stuff are highly compatible without me necessarily thinking "THIS is going to be an album art photoshoot" at every photoshoot.

What can we expect from Psyche Corporation in the new Year of the Snake?

Well, I just released Psyche Corp.'s 4th album, and received factory pressed copies last night when I got back from TempleCon...  So (1) New Album!  As for the rest, it looks like we're doing a bunch of shows and expanding into the western half of the continent (ever since we headlined at Ikkicon in Austin, TX in December 2012, more people are offering to fly me to Texas and SF to name a couple places).  I'm also looking into upgrading my home music studio now that I've finished album 4, so that album 5 can have even better sound quality.

Also, I would really love to collaborate with a creative media/filming group to do some kind of ongoing decent production-quality webisode thing with Psyche Corp.  I am too poor to hire anyone, but if you're into my brand of bizarre, we could certainly have a lot of fun.  And I make cookies.

What would you say to anyone interested in steampunk, especially people interested in straddling between the arts and sciences like you are doing now?

Go for it! Play nice with others, try to be kind, and try to remember that a lot of good things in your life can be blamed on the kindness and good intentions of others.  Don't forget it.

Isn't she just fantastic, folks? I highly encourage you all to check out ALL THE MUSIC and if you ever get a chance to watch Psyche Corporation live, you totally should. Besides "Raise the Dead" I also have a clip of "Antoinette." All of Psyche Corporation's latest music can be purchased at CDBaby and AmazonMP3.

1 comment:

  1. Great interview - thanks! And - wonderful picture as well of the three of you - what fun!