Talking to Bing Ji Ling (aka Quinn Luke) is akin to sitting with a long-time friend and just catching up. The singer, songwriter and guitarist of Brooklyn outfit Phenomenal Handclap Band recently released his third solo album Shadow to Shine—a diverse blend of psychedelic soul and funk that’s a perfect soundtrack for the summer (or late spring). Nonetheless, I had the chance to chat with Quinn over organic smoothies at Caravan of Dreams in the East Village about Shadow to Shine, tours in Japan, and how Bing Ji Ling tackles the retro soul box.
Listening to Shadow to Shine I’m hearing a ton of influences…a bit of Curtis Mayfield, Sly and the Family Stone maybe, so I’m wondering what caused you to stray from Phenomenal Handclap Band to do a solo project.
Well, it’s not really a stray. In fact, being in the Phenomenal Handclap Band is more of a stray from my solo career. I’ve been releasing records for years. I had two full-length records and an EP that I already released before I became a member of the Phenomenal Handclap Band. And the people behind that group and the musicians involved are involved on this new record too. So it’s actually sort of a continuation of the Phenomenal Handclap Band.
So how did the project come to be?
Well, I’m trying to think where I should start. I think I would probably rewind maybe six years ago. I was living between San Francisco and New York at the time and went to a friend of mine’s record store, and he played me this new record that had just been made by an artist named Joe Bataan. Joe Bataan goes back to the early 60s Spanish Harlem; sort of an oldies singer but then in the 70s he had a disco revival of his career. So some young, hip dude in New York found him and said “I’m gonna pull you out of retirement and make a record with you that sounds like the 70s.” And I really liked it a lot and thought I’d like to work with a guy like that.
Fast forward six years later…it was Daniel Collas [of Phenomenal Handclap Band] that had made that record. We made a connection through a friend of mine in San Francisco named Bart Davenport, and we started becoming friends and working together and just hanging out, you know socially for about a year. We started jamming together, we started throwing parties where we would DJ and play live; just informal get-togethers. And then he started backing me up for an EP I had released back in 2008. And then I became part of Phenomenal Handclap Band and we started working on my solo records. So it was sort of this evolution of a long history of mutual respect and admiration.
The whole process seemed very organic…
Yeah, it just sort of happened. It was something where I really thought “This is a guy I’d like to work with.” I even wrote down some goals; things I wanted to do like “I want to work with someone like this”…and those things sort of just happened over time.
The title Shadow to Shine, what does that mean?
It means, sort of like a transition, you know. There were a lot of things in my life musically that kind of went from one place to the other, and that’s kind of loosely what it’s about. And also more specifically, I had to make music a certain way for a long time, where I was doing everything on my own; playing all the instruments; writing all the songs; recording it all, and really doing the entire album. The albums that I did I did everything from start to finish by myself. And this was something different where I just wrote songs and had these other guys do the rest.
So what was your favorite part of recording this album?
Definitely it would be the fact that I didn’t do everything. In the past it was like I would have songs in my head, and I’d see it through all the way to the finished product—including the mixing, the artwork, and the distribution, I did all of that for a long time. So the best part of the recording process this time around was that I wrote a lot of songs on guitar and vocals, and gave them to these guys, and they did everything else. And that was the first time I had ever done that.
Was it difficult to do, to be hands off?
[Laughs] No, it was great! In fact there was really no other way for me to do it. I didn’t have it in me to do it like that anymore. By the time you get done with it all…it’s also hard to be objective about it, you know. I would bounce some of the stuff off of a collaborator I had in San Francisco for awhile but that was sort of in the final stages. But it was nice to have somebody else deal with all the other stuff, so I could just focus on writing the songs.
One of my favorite tracks on the album is “Hold Tight.”It just has this awesome 70s sound to it. Could you tell us about the musical and vocal arrangements behind it? How did it come about?
It’s interesting that you picked that track. One of the things I really wanted out of working with these guys, these producers is for them to take the songs to a place I never would have even considered. And that’s one of the examples. A friend of mine from San Francisco that I’ve been working with for a long time name Tommy Guerrero, who’s like a pro skateboarding legend that parlayed his fame as a skateboarder into a successful music career, primarily in Japan, he’s like a icon there…but I’d been playing with him for years, traveling to Japan once or twice a year; living the high life for two weeks.
But we collaborated a few times and he sent me a song that was basically “Hold Tight” but it was his version. It was like this sort of bossa nova sound, an instrumental really and I wrote “Hold Tight” on top of his instrumental. So, um, he ended up not liking what I did [Laughs] for the project he was working on, so he did something else with it. I had already taken those chord changes and written “Hold Tight.” So then I gave it to these guys in sort of that same style, with that bossa nova-influence in it, and then they took it and turned it into this like acid rock song with this really heavy riff.
When they did that I was like “Whoa man this is a trip!” The other thing that they did was they forced me to sing it an octave higher than I was already singing it. [Demonstrates by singing “Hold Tight” in his normal voice and then way high!] So they wanted me to do way up there, which is virtually impossible live because it’s so high. But yeah that was one of the things they wanted me to do, to push me into territory I wasn’t familiar with, wasn’t comfortable in; to push me vocally. To do things I could do but normally don’t do.
There’s a wide-range of retro soul bands based here in New York [Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings being the main one], and you’ve also worked with some of those guys, but how is Bing Ji Ling different from those bands? What’s your defining aspect?
I don’t know. For years when I was making music on my own I tried to avoid a retro sound. I didn’t go for that at all; I just tried to do my own thing. I think for better or worse that kind of left me out on my own. So now with this new record, these guys have produced it, they really went for it. Like this song, we’re going for a Philly disco sound or this song, we’re going for early Smokey Robinson, or whatever. They really had targets they were working towards that sort of made it a retro soul album, and that was something very new for me; I had never worked that way before. It ends up having a retro soul sound but one of the differences is that it has a lot more diversity than your typical record. I mean, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have there specific sound. It’s almost like they have their specific years, specific city…
[Ed. note: Our smoothies are being delivered]
A minute or two later: Okay, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, specific sound, Bing Ji Ling…
But yeah, people have been asking me that, how do you feel about fitting in [that box] with Mayer Hawthorne, Sharon Jones, all of these people sort of doing that. I mean I’m happy to be lumped into it at this point. I realize now that even though certain music may seem to be derivative from it, it ends up having its own uniqueness. If it’s helpful for people to categorize in that way God Bless them. For fans of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and Mayer Hawthorne, if that gets people in the door, then great. There’s so much music out there and it’s difficult to listen to everything so you want reference points. So if it’s got soul, it’s got retro influences; retro soul. I resisted it for a long time, trust me, and now I don’t care. I’m happy.
So I’ve read you lived and performed in Shanghai for a year back in the late ‘90s, is there any plans to tour in China.
I’m going back to Japan in a few weeks, actually the beginning of June.
What part of Japan?
Tokyo for sure, and probably the surrounding areas like Kamakura and Yokohama.
I lived in Okinawa for three years, in the military.
Oh wow. I’ve never been down there before. I’d love to; I’ve been around Japan quite a bit over the last 10 years, 11 years now. Kanagawa, I’ve played the Fuji Rock Festival before, I’ve done a few different things but I’m going back there to do some stuff mostly around Tokyo.
But Shanghai, I played there for a year at a jazz club but it was at a time when there was nothing happening there at all. In fact it was a very small expatriate scene that I was a part of. And I haven’t really been back since. So there really isn’t a real interest for China with my music. The only interest would be “there was this weird guy back in the late 90s who lived here and played in this jazz and blues club, and he’s still making music professionally.” That’s probably about it; not a real demand for my music in China that I know of. Maybe someday that’ll change.
Do you guys play festivals a lot here in the U.S.?
In the U.S. my music and the Phenomenal Handclap Band; pretty much everything I’ve been involved in, Tommy Guerrero and Bing Ji Ling has never gotten any attention in the U.S. A little bit. Like bits and pieces. It seems to do better in Europe, the UK and Japan, which is fine with me but I’d love to travel around the U.S. and play, but it is so big and such a daunting thing, especially in a van with your own gear, your own equipment. Its hard work to do that and it’s expensive. If at some point people are interested enough and the finances are there to do it on a bigger scale, we’ll do it. But for now I just go where the opportunity is and that’s in Europe and Japan [Laughs].
You have any New York dates upcoming?
Nope, I just finished this Bing Ji Ling solo tour. The Phenomenal Handclap Band is sort of my full-time job but because there’s this new album out now, I was able to block out a month to promote it. And then in like a week and a half I’m going to promote in Europe for two weeks another album that I made called Incarnations [it came out last Fall].
About a year and a half ago, Daniel [the main guy behind Phenomenal Handclap Band] and the main guy who produced my new record, him and I went with this guy Bart Davenport, who I mentioned earlier, and we made a sort of side-project collaborative record. So after years of doing our own things, we just came together and made this record. We’re going over to do some dates and then in June I’m going over to Japan, and then Phenomenal Handclap Band starts getting busy around that time. So there isn’t anything unfortunately in New York. But there will probably be something in August, some sort of gig here in New York.
My last question, what do you want people to take away from your music?
Hmmm, hopefully they get out of it what I get out of music: which is a range of things from inspiration to comfort to happiness. Hopefully they get enjoyment out of it because that’s what it’s really for. That’s what I love about listening to music. So hopefully they get one of those things from it.
Shadow to Shine is in stores now and available on iTunes!