Interview with HKE

The relentless pursuit of Dream Catalogue’s owner HKE
to produce the music of our dreams that can change the world.

Text: Yusuke Shono, Translation: Noriko Taguchi, chocolat, Goh Hirose

The owner of the label Dream Catalogue HKE, who supports a wing of the Vaporwave scene through abundant releases, has released over 100 albums under various artist names from the Hong Kong Express to 2814, a collaboration with a telepath. Through his label and his own artist work HKE has aimed to materialize “the music of our dreams”, while also creating a unique textured exotic monochrome sound via Hardvapour, a new branch of the Vaporwave movement. Especially this years release, “Dragon Soul”, was a cinematic materialization of his pure suppressed dramatic self. It embodied the journey inside a complex inner universe of uncertainty and climaxing drama. Departing from the Vaporwave expression of a bored urban atmosphere, while at the same time being inspired by surrealism and Sci-Fi techniques, we have investigated behind the veil of mystery to uncover his work that seems to slip through the cracks of the “vapor” to create a dream world of new sensations.

You seem to have a real passion for music since your childhood. Were you into making music since the beginning or were you just enjoying listening to many things? 
Aside from football and pro wrestling, music is the only thing that has remained a consistent passion of mine throughout my life. It started in my early childhood when I used to collect cassettes and sit taping songs I liked off the radio all day. My mum used to listen to lots of house and garage music back then in the 90’s and I was keen on it, perhaps what created my passion in electronic and dance music from an early age. I also really loved trance music a lot, which was probably the first dance genre I discovered of my own volition and followed keenly.
As I grew older, I would get into things such as IDM, grime, dubstep, drum and bass and the like, following whatever was happening in the UK scenes. All in all I’ve always just been one to explore all kinds of music, well beyond electronic music, and that’s translated into how I approach music now age 30 – pulling influences from all over the map and merging sounds, motifs and tones I like into new forms.

You are also interested in Futurism and Surrealism, are there any connections with these artistic movements and Vaporware? Have you had similar feelings about these movements? 
My interest in futurism and surrealism and the like was born mainly out of a frustration I felt at the mundanity of life many years ago. I was out of work and completely broke, felt like I had no prospects for my future and that my music wouldn’t take off as I had hoped. So out of this depression and frustration I felt, I began to lose myself in dreams of futuristic utopias. I wrote lots of cyberpunk novels that I never finished and used to sit watching Youtube videos of Hong Kong, Tokyo and other such big cities that felt a universe away from where I was at the time.
In those years I also took a great interest in Japanese and Chinese culture – music, films, writing, spirituality, history and such. The visuals and cultures of these Asian cities was just an exotic form of escapism to me and as I dived deeper into that perceived dreamworld, it transformed some of my own perceptions of reality and I began to realise more that I could bend the world to my own dream as others have done in history, rather than succumb to the dream of someone else. So I see ideas such as futurism and surrealism not so much as the impossible, but abstract dreams of what is possible.

What made you want to make the label Dream Catalogue? Have there been changes in the concept since you started it? 
Relating back to the previous answer, Dream Catalogue in itself was a dream fantasy of mine. Like I say, as I began to see that I could create my own world I want to live in, it gave me the confidence to push that vision out into the world and as such the ‘dream’ became a reality. The label started relatively small, and at first I actually didn’t envisage releasing anything other than my own music on there under various aliases. However that quickly changed when I met Telepath on Soundcloud and asked if he would release something on the label. Soon after, I kept finding other artists on Soundcloud – all of whom just starting on brand new projects like I was with my previous ‘Hong Kong Express’ music. And so after a few months, the label was no longer just my own vanity project, but a small collective of likeminded individuals all working on similar conceptual-based music.
It felt like we captured lightning in a bottle really and now that ‘dream’ I had when I was dirt poor is now my reality. But yeah, over time the concept has certainly evolved, as the artists involved with the label have evolved together too – add to that new faces coming in and replacing others who have left along the way. I think the biggest change people will see in the label’s timeline will occur sometime in the coming months, however, as I have new things planned to refresh the label.

Vaporwave is a genre that is frequently sentenced to death. You have released “Vaporwave Is Dead” under the name Sandtimer, what were your feelings at that time? 
A lot of actually people misconstrued the message of the Sandtimer – ‘Vaporwave Is Dead’ album, as I think a lot of the hardcore vaporwave fans simply reacted to the title of the album rather than paying attention to the content of the album itself. In reality, the album was an amalgamation of various messages and concepts rolled into on, but the essence of it was a commentary on the cyclical nature of life using the cyclical nature of art/music as a metaphor – in this case, vaporwave. Prior to the album, the phrase ‘Vaporwave is Dead’ was a phrase that was thrown around a lot to the point it became an absurdity, and the album was not pushing that as a literal statement, but taking that phrase to tell a different story altogether. In fact, I put so many little references to vaporwave throughout the album that I felt at the time of making it it was more of a love letter to vaporwave than a statement of intent – but like I say, the scene ended up creating the narrative that I was out to destroy vaporwave which wasn’t the case.
The main message I was trying to point out about vaporwave is that the scene had practically collapsed in on itself and turned into another music scene bubble that lacked an outward vision, and while I was still fond of it all I felt it was my own time to say goodbye and that I was moving on to do something new without working under the guise of being a ‘vaporwave artist’, which had become more of a hinderance to me than anything. At the time I was highly inspired by Wolf (aka wosX/Wolfenstein OS X) and his hardvapour vision with End Of World Rave, who just burst onto the scene with a radical new vision, and it reminded me of the passion I had when I first started Dream Catalogue and how lazy I had become at the time, and also how the scene as a whole had become (or at least the way I perceived it)
Overall, the album was made almost entirely in one 14 hour sitting, it was a burst of inspiration and by the end of it I was in a total frenzy. It’s a completely absurd and ridiculous album, and certainly more of an art-piece than an enjoyable music album to just put on and listen to, but still one I’m happy I made, regardless.

2814’s “新しい日の誕生” and “Dragon Soul” were released on vinyl. Why have you decided to release a vinyl?
Really, the reason why I started putting out music on physical media in the first place was just down to an overwhelming request from the fans of Dream Catalogue in general, as it was never something I originally envisioned doing. But fans of our music enjoy to collect music on physical media. We started out with a CD release of 2814, and then cassettes came because of the demand, then about a year later we did 2814 again, but on vinyl. Since then it has grown to the point where I can put every new album out on vinyl, which is something people will see happening from this summer-onwards. It’s definitely helped the label grow to heights I never imagined they would when it first started and it’s all thanks to those who continue to support us and our new releases.

Vaporwave has been taking many different directions recently, like for example Hardvapor. What do you think is the future of Vaporwave? Are you interested in some of these new subgenres?
The way I see it, hardvapour has almost no connection to this point and is pretty much its own stand alone genre and style. I much prefer it, as it embodies the original spirit vaporwave had with the ‘anything goes’ mindset, before vaporwave became more formulaic and succumbed to infighting and bickering over what is and what isn’t vaporwave, with people always trying to squeeze it inside a box. That kind of mentality is just limiting and draining to me, personally, although I know some artists prefer to work with a rule-set so to speak. I think hardvapour is (at least at this point) mostly free of that kind of thinking and is really the true evolution of what vaporwave used to be. I’m not even sure people still really follow vaporwave as a music style anymore, as it mostly just seems to have turned into a niche net art style like seapunk, although I know a few hardcore fans of the style remain. I certainly don’t consider anything on Dream Catalogue or anything I make to be vaporwave. Of course the inspiration from our early days still remains, but I feel myself and a lot of Dream Catalogue brought new ideas to the vaporwave scene that didn’t exist originally and effectively created our own unique ‘dream music’ style through our own collective evolution.

Let’s talk about “Dragon Soul”. This album was very mysterious and had a very rich and deep sound. You use the word “cinematic” to describe it. Rather than a story, I think that it expresses a specific feeling towards a movie. What does “cinematic” represent? 
The story in Dragon Soul is not so much a linear one that people can draw a straight line through, but effectively the story of my inner self over the past few years or more. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before, as I truly laid my soul bare with this music and put into it very personal feelings and emotion, even interweaving some magic spells into some tracks. Maybe it’s not so original to make an album about who you are, or what you feel inside, as that seems to be the most commonplace inspiration for all forms of art – but it was original for me as it’s something I’ve never really done before. I’ve always made music about things, rather than about myself. Even in the past if I injected such emotion into my music, it would hide behind a story or narrative of sorts, but on Dragon Soul it just felt like I was putting my entire being into the music. It was such a draining process at the time, but it gave me back an insane amount of energy when I released it.
So as I say, there is no linear narrative to speak of, but in there you’ll find my personal expressions of love, hate, dreams, nightmares, feelings of power and glory, anxiety and weakness, the feeling I get when I’m laying in bed looking out the window. It’s just an album about who HKE is beyond the veil, and yet I still think overall it’s extremely guarded as I just don’t like to let anyone but one person in my life get too close to me. It’s my personal ring of fire. It’s about me and the girl I love on a mountain away from the entire world and looking down over it.
The influence for the sounds themselves are pulled from everywhere, and it belongs to no specific genre or style. And I think as a result of this combination of exotic sounds I created, they reflect certain parts of myself on each track individually. ‘Dragon Blood’ is actually the most complex song I’ve ever made, and I probably spent longer working on that track than anything I’ve ever made before, though it’s not something most people would be able to tell as it’s deceptively simple. ‘Fire’ closes the album, as it’s my love letter. But the song ‘Love’ is more about the powerful feeling of love itself.

You have said that your music is dream music. Tell us more about it. Do you have any other things that have a dream like feeling for you?
When I first started this evolution of my music in late 2013 into this ‘dream music’ style, I was heavily inspired by the films of Wong Kar Wai. So in that sense, WKW is not just an influence, but someone who I also think achieves this ‘dream’ style in his work. While his films are often very musical and abstract, almost like an album, I feel a lot of my own albums are narrative-driven and abstract, almost like a movie – as if there is some grey area meeting point between the two. It is a lot of a suggestive detail rather than it being direct, as to create a painting or a scene in the listener’s mind about something – and it can be anything really. A lot of my own earlier work when I used the artist name Hong Kong Express was projecting this visceral, ethereal vision of these faraway places I dream about, that I mentioned – a recreation of my own fantasies in music form.  Now that I just make music as HKE, an empty acronym, there is a bigger scope of vision of things that I can work on – such as my 2016 album ‘Omnia’, which was about a series of nightmares and hallucinations I had around the time of making it. As such, it has a markedly different style than any of my other work.

What are the songs you are the proudest of in the Vaporwave scene? 
I’ve made well over 100 albums under various different aliases and guises, all of which have their own purpose and backstory. However I tend to think of what I make in terms of albums, rather than songs. So in that sense I’m most proud of my albums Dragon Soul and HK.
As for the work of other people, I am lucky enough to be in a position where I can get most of my favourite artists to release on Dream Catalogue. So most of my favourite stuff you’ll find is actually what I release from other artists on Dream Catalogue

I have heard that you are writing a novel. Can you tell me about it? Do you also plan to write about the Vaporwave scene? 
I’ve been trying to write novels since about 2009 and for many years I half-wrote a lot of novels before scrapping them out of frustration. Writing a book is such a huge time consuming process – and though I’m only an amateur writer, I can say without a doubt it’s a much lengthier and harder process than working on a full length album. But a lot of the stuff I used to write years ago was straight up surrealist cyberpunk stuff, and though I never finished any of it it definitely laid the groundwork for what I set out to do with Dream Catalogue. In fact, the series of albums I made under the name ‘DARKPYRAMID’ was basically a musical recreation of a novel that I planned out for 6 months in 2011 but never completed writing.
However, having just released Dragon Soul a few months ago and wrapping up a new project called 777 which will be releasing soon, all of which has been quite mentally draining, I’m now looking to go back into writing for a while and hopefully finish my first novel – something I feel fired up to do again. It’s doubtful it will be very cyberpunk in style like my old stuff, however, as working on this kind of music for so many years has given me a plethora of new and more original ideas to try out with my writing. I’ve invented a lot of characters under various music aliases, which I have big backstories about inside my head, and I think it would be cool to perhaps try and get some of that out in writing for those who have interest.

Dream Catalogue