May 25th, 2011 | Interviews

Photography by Theo Jemison


Tokimonsta is a piano-student-turned-producer who makes beats for Brainfeeder. Her new Creature Dreams EP is out now and fans of her All City and Art Union releases will be happy to know that she picks up where she left off. Toki speaks now about girls, touring, and the danger of knowing too much. This interview by Kristina Benson.

You said you started listening to hip-hop because you grew up in Torrance and you didn’t want to be like the other kids.
The kids I grew up with were listening to Green Day and Blink-182 and stuff. I felt like there was more to music than that. When I found hip-hop—even at that point West Coast gangsta rap or New York rap or local underground hip-hop, like L.A. hip-hop—I found something that really spoke to me. That was an age where hip-hop didn’t have this weird hip-hop-pop fusion. Hip-hop was very much its own category, and not pop. It could get popular and not the same. I found it fascinating—it’s not even just the lyrics. When I listened to rap, I didn’t listen to the rhymes—just the cadence. Which is probably why I make beats. I liked the idea of instrumental music a lot. With early rap, you just heard how they could kind of rock the beat with their rhymes.
You said in another interview that you like things that are really chill or really angry. What’s missing from the middle?
I pull from really diverse things that are polar opposites. I think people feel like they have to maintain a certain consistency—like all their music should sound like one style and it should all sound the same. That’s not how I am. One minute I might listen to bossa nova, but I also love death metal or something random. With my music and taste, I suppose it’s just a matter of how that translates into my music, since I’m just a product of my influences. And my influences and who I am is like the calm and the crazy. There really is a middle but I draw from the opposites.
You said you were an ‘unfocused student of classical piano,’ but you stuck with it for ten years. Why?
That was by force. It wasn’t willingly so I don’t think I was a very good student. With my family, it’s a running joke that I couldn’t play a single song from beginning to end. That’s because when I like to play music, I actually only like to play the parts of the songs that I like. It’s like my early rudimentary form of sampling, I guess—only taking the parts I like and then playing them until my family went berserk on me.
But Mozart did that—he just called it ‘Variations on a Theme.’
I should bring that up to them! They always say, ‘You’re a musician now but you weren’t very good at playing piano!’ I try to kind of convince them there’s a reason why I played piano the way I did, but it doesn’t quite click with them.
What do you think you got out of piano lessons that you bring to your music now?
Musical sense and musicality. I have that music theory kind of ingrained into me. Because I had piano lessons, I’m able to translate my taste in music into actual musical notes. I kind of came from the hip-hop scene originally and most of the beatmakers I knew didn’t know how to play an instrument. They were just really good at doing the drumming and picking samples. I felt I had the opportunity to play more complex melodies, more layers. Maybe my music doesn’t have the razzle-dazzle and as many effects as some other people, you know, but it’s really technical—I kind of brought the technique to what I was playing instead.
Do you ever feel hindered by knowing so much theory?
It has definitely placed a box around how I approach music. I really taught myself not to be bound by the rules. There are things you’re taught that work and things you’re taught that don’t work. The inspiration I had was just from looking outside. I realized someone like Sun Ra—who can play very straightforward, very musical jazz—never felt obligated to theory. He went really out there and the stuff that came out was so meaningful. Even with my peers and friends and the people at Brainfeeder, it’s not like many of them took lessons and learned to play instruments. Except Austin Peralta. That’s different. You get more creative the less you know, so with people who never took piano or any kind of instrument as a kid, the way they approach music is really refreshing. They’re not just going the way they were taught because they were never taught a specific way.
Mary Anne Hobbs referred to you as one of her favorite ‘female producers,’ and I think every time I read something about you, it’s like this main point: She’s FEMALE and she MAKES BEATS! Does that get old?
It does get old pretty fast. The way that people referred to me was, ‘She’s a female beatmaker,’ but it’s not even that—then they go, ‘Oh she’s Asian,’ so it gets compounded. ‘She’s an Asian female beatmaker.’ It’s like, ‘Come on! I’m so much more than that!’ As a musician, you don’t want people to focus on superficial things—you want them to focus on the music, you know? I don’t want people to really get stuck on these really kitschy points. Who gives a fuck if I’m a girl? Who gives a fuck if I’m this or that? What matters is if the music is good or not. One thing good about this scene in particular is it’s not like any of us are plastered on TV where your fans rely on how you look. It’s kind of a faceless scene—unless you go out a lot, when are you ever going to see these artists? You realize people can’t rely on what you look like, so they have to rely on the music. I’ve had conversations about this with Steve [Ellison, a.k.a Flying Lotus]—about how it really bothers me that people want to find a theme and kind of run with it. Like with him: ‘Oh you’re Alice Coltrane’s grandnephew or whatever.’ But if something like that gets someone to say, ‘This sounds interesting—a female beatmaker? I’ll check it out!’ and that person likes it, I guess it’s not a bad thing. It could be a blessing in disguise. My whole career I’m sure I’ll just have to struggle to get people to focus more on the producer aspect and less on the female aspect.
Do you think it matters if there are other women in music?
I just don’t want to be stuck in a box and be about femininity and woman power and all that … the music matters the most. I guess it doesn’t matter, I suppose? If they want it to matter, that’s cool too because at least I know that some people will be more motivated by seeing me—a girl will be more motivated by seeing other female musicians. I know a few little girls that have spoken to me and are like, ‘How do you even get started making beats? How do you get into it?’ If they see I can do it, they might be motivated to try a little harder.
When I was an undergraduate, one of my voice teachers said to me that she quit singing opera professionally because she became a slave to her voice—her voice had become so important that she as a person wasn’t important anymore. Do you ever feel that way about music?
I’ve kind of come to terms with the fact that people don’t pay for music anymore so most of my income is from playing shows. It’s exhausting and I feel like I don’t exist when I’m on tour. It’s fun and not fun at the same time. On tour you kind of feel like you’re in limbo. I’m starting to get a little better at making tracks when I’m away. I feel like people glamorize it. ‘You get to go to all these foreign countries—travel!’ Yeah, but I don’t really get to look at anything! You meet a lot of really cool people—which is one good thing. And very inspiring.
How do you approach live sets? Is it different than what you put out as recordings?
When I play live I use Ableton and a controller and it’s like arranging music live. It’s more like live remixes of my own music. You pick and choose what you want to play—put one drum pattern onto a different song. The audience can feel more involved that way because being behind a laptop is kind of a cold visual aspect. I’ve done this live set so many times that I have it at a level where I can turn off the music and talk to the people in the audience. I did that at Low End Theory for my birthday. There was a couple that was dry-humping in front of me, and I called them out and poked fun.
Why does your music arouse such wanton sexual impulses in the audience?
I didn’t know my music brought this out of people. I’m still on that tip where I want people to relate to it more emotionally. To make people a little bit more sensitive to themselves. If they hear something and it makes them want to move, or that song makes them think, ‘This is what I want to listen to when I’m in love!’ or something like that … that would be more rewarding to me. Let’s put it this way: If the world ever gets underpopulated, I guess I could do my part to help.