Published Nov 23, 2008Though he might not get a second glance walking down the street in Toronto, Shaw-Han Liem is big in Japan. A classically trained pianist, self-taught guitarist, and eager student of computer science and its effect on electronic music, Liem has been an asset to edgy, pop bands like Sea Snakes and Tusks, as well as quirky troubadours like Nathan Lawr and Jim Guthrie. He often serves as a stoic keyboardist in such outfits, nonchalantly adding gorgeous, bold textures to music that wouldnt be the same without him. But while most Canadians wouldnt recognize his name, Liem is something of a cult figure in Japan where his solo, electronic-pop project I Am Robot and Proud is so revered, hes toured the country extensively on four occasions.
"When [new record, Uphill City] came out in September in Japan, it charted on Oricon, which is their equivalent of Billboard, Liem says modestly, fresh home from his latest Japanese tour. "It was top ten on the iTunes chart there for a while and that would never happen here. When Liem was around 16 years old, he and his friends Evan Clarke and Jeremy Strachan started a hardcore punk band in Mississauga, Ontario called Blue Light Blockade, which served as his introduction to independent music communities across Canada, playing bass guitar, and having his efforts ignored by the general public. Even then, immersed as he was in cryptic, aggressive rock sounds, Liem gravitated towards pulsing frequencies. "Around the same time in the late 90s, there was an electronic music wave from Warp and Reflex, and Aphex Twin or Authechre, he explains. "I was studying computer science and was getting interested in computer music, even when I played in bands. Id always try and bring these things I was playing around with to the bands and, when I stopped playing with them, I started messing around more; I just spent a year or two in my basement apartment working on stuff.
While he currently employs a digital audio workstation called Renoise, Liem initially used the basic music program FastTracker to begin a semi-serious exploration of electronica. His first public foray saw him re-working a song by Black Cat #13, an experimental, digital hardcore band featuring Jesse F. Keeler (Death From Above 1979, MSTRKRFT). "They put a twelve-inch out and I did a remix of it, Liem recalls. "A label called Catmobile in England said they heard my remix and asked if Id like to make a full record. That was the first time I thought Wow, you can do that?
Bearing the moniker I Am Robot and Proud, Liem reached his most enthusiastic audiences overseas, where hes toured often behind four albums that are a winning hybrid of processed organic and computer-generated sounds, applied to rather infectiously pop song structures. Not particularly ambient and not quite rock-oriented, Liem occupies a tricky space in North American music. "In Japan and Germany, some of their biggest bands have been electronic bands like Yellow Magic Orchestra and Kraftwerk and they were culturally significant in the same way that some rock band wouldve been here, he says. "People have just grown up with electronic pop music that isnt necessarily techno or hip-hop but comes from pop songwriting. Here, I find that, if youre making electronic music and youre not in a rock band or a dance thing, theres not really a context for you. Even playing live, youre either playing in a rock bar or a dance club, so theres not really a framework that makes sense.
Torn between a few worlds himself, Liem joined an underrated, indie-pop supergroup called Sea Snakes in 2003 and, upon their premature demise, he ended up playing keys with friends like Nathan Lawr, Jim Guthrie and now Tusks. Hes dabbled infrequently in scoring advertising campaigns (i.e. Adidas) and, more recently, hes been working on music for a video game designed by renowned Toronto developer, Jonathan Mak, whose work has been picked up by Sony for PlayStation 3.
Collaboration is clearly a key aspect of Liems expression and colours his work, yet he also values his autonomy in I Am Robot and Proud. "Most people I meet that play electronic music, they come from other styles of music, but I think what interests them about it is that freedom. Theres no right or wrong way; you can start at any point and work backwards or forwards. From there, the computer is a tool like any other. You put things in and rearrange them.
"A lot of people say Your music is very childlike, nostalgic, or playful, and if thats true, thats because the process is like play for me, Liem continues. "Im having a lot of fun while Im doing it and thats the only reason I do it. I think that surfaces in the actual music.