Paul Lai is one of the very first musicians who exploded my mind back when I arrived in Los Angeles in 2002.
He was (and is) an intense dude who picks up a guitar and—kaboom!—all the atmosphere in the joint is instantly incinerated, leaving the audience melted to the floor.
Twenty years later, Paul is still at it except somehow—against all odds—he’s kicked up the improvisational / progressive rock-inspired / noisy / 21st century Zeuhl-shredding thing he does. About ten notches. What? How!?
Hearing is believing:
Paul took time out to chat about his recent return to Los Angeles after more than half a decade in Taiwan, his ambitious plans for underground music and dance presentations in the coming months and the return of Upsilon Acrux.
Paul always keeps things real, something I appreciate. I hope you do as well. Read on….
Where are you from?
I was born in Taiwan and moved to SoCal when I was eight.
When did you start playing music?
I got a Fender for my seventeenth birthday.
Who were your musical idols growing up?
Definitely without a doubt Robert Smith from The Cure, my all-time favorite band and, I think, a great way to learn to play—just melodies, no bending and no fuckin’ blues…
What bands did you see early on—and how did they shape your playing?
By the time Upsilon Acrux started i think the best band in San Diego was Truman’s Water, who changed a lot of boundaries for me then, and then I saw the Nels Cline Trio and that was an everlasting change in the way I will forever view what’s possible in music.
Nels taught me so much about my own limits and how much further the guitar could go. Being humbled is the best learning lesson of all.
I was asking you about San Diego’s Crash Worship—you are one of the lucky ones who knew them! How would you describe that band?
Well the first time I saw them I had barely heard of them but it was fuckin’ terrifying—I didn’t understand the music yet and they were lighting everything on fire.
Then I saw them again a year later after they were banned from a ton of places in San Diego and by then I had gotten all in on Krautrock and for about 45 minutes I thought they were the best band / Krautrock band in the fuckin’ world. And terrifying as well.
The next day when I was mixing the first Upsilon Acrux record, they were working in the same studio and helped me EQ some stuff and give advice as far as edits go. Super down-to-earth non-pyro people when not performing.
When did you start Upsilon Acrux?
The band started maybe 1997, but we started playing out in ’98.
How would you describe the evolution of the band?
The band was always about the limits of music, so our whole thing was being barely able to play the new song all the time. After so many years we got better and hopefully will continue to.
Is Upsilon playing again?
Maybe but also maybe not. If it starts again it’ll be for the first time the same five that were in the last version (Paul Lai, Dylan Fujioka, Noah Guevara, Mark Kimbrell, Patrick Shiroishi). These guys are my brothers and family and it would be interesting for me—for once—to keep a band together for a second record which has never happened.
You just spent five years in Taiwan. Why did you go there?
5.5 years, actually. I went there to avoid the Trump Presidency… not really but I did and I’ll also be proud to have never lived in America when that happened.
Upsilon Acrux had toured America and then Europe and lived out a life long dream of playing with Magma! I thought we reached the top of the mountain and accomplished more than I had ever hoped. I wanted to get out of the van for good and concentrate on being the best dad I could possibly be. So we moved to Taiwan to give my son, Eno, more family as my parents and cousins are all there still. Eno loves his grandparents and they love him, so, job well done.
What’s the music scene like?
The music scene—like any music scene—is full of incredible musicians and some people who are movers and shakers. I played a lot of improvised music with a lot of different people from jazz to straight up noise on a bridge to a Butoh wedding.
I learned more than I taught, but went all in on my Taiwanese peers, eventually making entire shows for the last year and changing what shows could be in Taipei.
We all watched with envy as you were playing shows all through the pandemic. What was it like to play over there? Can you recommend so Taiwanese music to check out?
It’s different but the same. I mean, I play weird music so discomfort is my aim. So I made Taiwanese people uncomfortable instead of Americans.
Some of the best people I played with are Minyen Hsieh, a sax player with no limits. Jared Xu who’s the king of noise, and Tim DeWit from Gang Gang Dance who’s like my brother. The best label is FutureProof which is a label in Taipei that documents the interesting stuff happening there, runned by Lars Berry.
Now you’re back in L.A.: What’s the mission?
My mission is simple—get back to doing what I’ve always done in the cities I live in: Make interesting art and music and put carrots in front of musicians, artists, dancers, etc. so we can make new shows that involve a greater amount of creativity, and thus together we can make and feel comfortable making outrageous art. The curious only feel comfortable around other curious people.
Why go solo now? What can folks at the Oracle Tavern show expect from a Paul Lai solo performance?
My first show in Taiwan was solo and it made me really nervous. I had played only once solo here and as a person that cares about my craft, I tried to conquer any and all fears and discomfort through repetition and hard work.
I’m used to playing solo now and mostly just improvise it. I’m still an organized songwriter so these things come into play. But mostly I just try to give you my life since the last time I played in note or sound form.
What are the best things about being back in L.A.?
The weather and the incredible friends I spent a lifetime making to make sure that my son Eno has a great big circle to keep him loved and safe.
Please tell us about the upcoming concerts you’re presenting?
After this show, there will be a Butoh show at 2220 Arts + Archive on December 7th, it will feature Kyoko Takenaka, who learned Butoh in Japan, as it’s a strictly Japanese thing. I have a really interesting group of asian musicians to mostly improvise to her dancing, including me and Dustin Wong on guitars, Dylan on drums, Pauline on violin, Sharon Chohi Kim on vocals, Kozue on Koto and Jamin Reyes on trombone. I’m super excited for people to see and hear this.
Come celebrate twenty years in L.A. with me, Paul Lai & some gnarly bands this November 11:
Friday 11.11.22 at Oracle Tavern – RIG, NOÏ (400 Blows + Federation X supergroup from L.A.), A Lovely Sort Of Death, Paul Lai (of the legendary Upsilon Acrux) & special guest DJ Dizparity from Taipei, Taiwan working his magic before, during & after the bands.
All shows 8pm / $10 / 21+
1640 N. Spring, Los Angeles 90012