When Henry Hsieh walks into a rave, few people around him are aware that they’re standing next to someone who’s been on three tours of Europe, two tours of the U.S., played a show in almost every major Canadian city, and played Calgary’s Sled Island Festival approximately seven times.
That’s because after 17 years of performing with live bands, Hsieh, a multi-instrumentalist most readily associated with the groups Lab Coast, Friendo, and Crack Cloud, decided to exchange the only world he’s ever known for one in which he was relatively anonymous.
Last year Hsieh simultaneously left all three bands he was part of and jumped head first into the world of hardware-based electronic music production under the alias Red Trim.
“It’s very weird to adjust to not playing in bands because every week it’d be a band practice here, and then three days of the week I’d be jamming and practicing or playing gigs, or planning a tour or something,” says Hsieh.
Rather than crafting tracks at home and playing the recordings live on traditional DJ equipment, Hsieh set out to create a full live hardware set in which each layer, from the percussion to the instrumentation, is created in real time in front of the crowd.
Although he’s only had a few live shows as Red Trim, Hsieh is undoubtedly a figure worth watching because of the sheer scale of his ambitions, as was evidenced by his first live appearance at last year’s private party “Skeen II.”
“When I first played out I had two synths, two drum machines, two samplers, a mixer, an outboard effects unit, and a little compressor,” says Hsieh.
Operating this much equipment live is a method of performing that’s usually reserved for niche showcases and seldom seen on dance floors. For Hsieh, however, bringing it to a party environment felt natural given his history in music.
“I’m so used to playing music and getting in a room with a bunch of people and creating it there, and doing hardware was the same,” he says.
“It felt the same, constructing the kicks, constructing the drums, constructing the bass and programming it all, it was very similar to the band world.”
This act of programming the music live also brings with it the spontaneity of live band performance.
“There’s definitely improv to it, it’s almost like a 60 40 split, 60 per cent planned, 40 per cent improvised,” says Hsieh.
Electronic music itself is nothing new to Hsieh. In the past he’s been drawn to bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Do Make Say Think who heavily factored electronic elements into their productions.
While bands like this piqued his interest his focus was always consumed by different forms of punk and metal - genres in which emotion is communicated directly through instruments without the interjection of digital components.
This is why Hsieh describes the past year as a return to electronic music. It was DJ and CJSW broadcaster Alex Naylor, who performs under the moniker Mother Mary, who not only renewed his interest in electronic music, but introduced him to the fully digital soundscapes of house and techno music.
“I kind of arrived at electronic music as it is now through mostly Alex, so Alex introduced me to a bunch of it, and gave me a USB of tons of stuff, and that’s how I started listening to it again,” says Hsieh.
Naylor then began taking Hsieh to local raves, and he was transfixed with dance music’s ability to maintain the energy of the crowd throughout the night.
“I was just hooked, I love the format,” says Hsieh.
“I love the electronic music format more than the rock and roll format where there’s a set, like someone plays a set and then every thing stops, then the in-house music turns on, and then everyone shuffles outside for a cigarette and a drink, then the band sets up.
“You see five bands in a night but it’s always stop-and-go, which is fun in its own way, bands rule I still love that, but I like the non-stop nature of a rave, or the club.”
In addition to the always-on mode of dance music, Hsieh also found himself drawn in by the thrill of discovering a new subculture. He likens it to a period during which he switched instruments while performing with Friendo and opted to fill the shoes of Michael Wallace, the drummer of former critically acclaimed local band and Flemish Eye-signee “Women.”
“I started playing the drums and he started playing guitar, which is our second and third instruments, we’re not very good at them, and then I went on tour as a shitty drummer,” says Hsieh.
“But it’s kind of fun being the new guy, and I kind of feel like that in the electronic music world because it’s already been established, especially in Calgary and all over, people in that world know each other and I’m just new, but it feels so natural and it’s easy, and I have so much fun.”
Outside of raves Hsieh maintains an extremely low public profile. He has no social media, and the only evidence of Red Trim’s existence is a solitary track on Bandcamp.
Despite this he’s increasingly sought out by some of the city’s most innovative collectives and promoters. The perception of him as the new guy is rapidly evaporating, replaced instead by the perception of him as a proficient and highly promising artist.
Recently he was tasked with performing at the opening of an exhibition by local artist Lisa Lipton, and he used the opportunity to refine his hardware setup into something more dynamic and easy to manage.
This process of refining and improving as both a producer and a performer is now his central focus, but it’s his reasoning behind doing so that once again sets him apart.
While hardware artists often aim to create a spectacle by showcasing mechanical skill, Hsieh’s ultimate aim is to blend in and become part of the rave’s night-long tapestry of sound.
“I just want to get good at it, I want to play a party and have it feel like it’s a DJ set,” he says.
Follow Red Trim At https://redtrim.bandcamp.com/releases
Words by Jonathan Crane