BEST KNOWN in the art world for his otherworldly soundtracks to the neofabulist videos of Shuang Li, American-born artist and musician Eli Osheyack is more recognized in his adopted hometown of Shanghai for his live sets at ALL Club, where, under his last name, he churned out an intergenre fusion of gabber, synthwave, drone, ambient, techno, and trap that helped place the city on the map for experimental electronic dance music. His latest album, Intimate Publics (SVBKVLT, 2022), can be seen as both a reflection on the quintessential Shanghai sound he has cultivated over the past decade alongside musical outliers like 33EMYBW and Hyph11E, and a farewell anthem for the city that has been so influential in his development. At the time of writing, life in Shanghai has become all but unlivable, strangled by a draconian Covid-19 lockdown: Like millions of Shanghai residents, I have currently been under house arrest in my apartment for more than fifty days, in daily terror of being deported to a squalid concentration camp where anyone suspected to have been exposed to the virus, whether positive or negative, has been interned. Osheyack, meanwhille, has decamped to the US, joining the brain drain afflicting much of China.
Before there was ALL, there was Shelter, the subterranean techno club in the city’s former French Concession, cofounded by a Mancunian DJ named Gaz Williams in the Wild West years of the late 2000s. This was the laboratory in which Osheyack first workshopped his aesthetic, which harnessed a darkcore expressionist mania to a shatteringly pulsing beat—a site-specific endeavor, we might say, given that the club was in a former bomb shelter. At the same time, Osheyack’s sound was richly intertextual—those with an aural knowledge as encyclopedic as its creator’s could comb through excerpts from an entire history of underground music, from grindcore to Detroit techno to ballroom to . . . well, whatever else he ordered up to be sliced and diced. His was an approach that grew symbiotically with the larger sound evolving around Shelter, and that Williams would eventually begin to export internationally with his founding of the SVBKVLT label in 2013. Hybridization rapidly became the mode du jour for those in the know (including a Western music press rabid to solve the mystery of what it often exoticized as a baffling, cyberpunk-inspired futurism from the techno-dystopian East), and Osheyack—who had spent much of his youth prior to his 2012 arrival in Shanghai playing in punk bands and feeding an omnivorous sonic appetite—became its reigning prince of darkness over the course of several EPs and his 2018 full-length debut, Sadomodernism, on Bedouin Records.
The title of his most recent album recalls the writings of the late affect theorist Lauren Berlant, who understood “intimate publics” to be those “constituted by strangers who consume common texts and things.” The construction signifies Osheyack’s commitment and gratitude to these communal spaces, to which his artistic project has been a structured response. At the same time, it marks a departure from the pitch-blackness and baroque layering of Sadomodernism and the 2018 EP Empty Hell (SVBKVLT) in favor of a more affirmative yet stripped-down sound. A minimalist tendency runs through the record, from the first track, “Edging,” which is all drums and synth, to the closer, “Reification,” which begins as a pizzicato medley before uplifting into a retro-ambient evocation of Zoolook-era Jean-Michel Jarre—the first Western musician officially invited to perform in China after the Cultural Revolution.
This more subversive strain of nightlife had arrived late to Shanghai—some claim that Shelter virtually invented it—and most of the local kids drawn into its orbit lacked detailed historical knowledge of the various subgenres they were dancing to. When they began to make their own music, many plucked elements from anything that appealed to their personal sensibilities—see, for example, Hyph11E’s fusion of noise, early-aughts pop, breakcore, and footwork, or Kilo’s emo filtering of Berlin experimental, gabber, and grime—smashing styles together with regional referents to forge a neomaniacal digital DIY aesthetic that was distinctly Shanghainese and enthralled by technology and fashion. Osheyack’s entire oeuvre, in fact, can be viewed as a prolonged meditation on synthesis. Such plasticity is on full display on “Piecemeal,” with its hodgepodge of synths and strings. “Usually Never” uses a trap-set foundation of resonant snare hits and sputtering bass over which a piercing siren tone furiously snakes its way toward the finish line. Osheyack is at times referred to as a DJ or producer, when what he makes in actuality are first and foremost compositions, securely ensconced in the realm of instrumental abstraction. Even when voices are let into the machine, they are cut off before any utterances can coalesce into words, as in the sampled emceeing that constitutes the main rhythmic line of “Thrall,” or “Still,” in which he jarringly navigates us away from the dance floor altogether, utilizing synth-generated voices to conjure a disembodied gospel choir.
To call Osheyack’s departure from Shanghai and the scene he helped create “the end of an era” risks cliché if not hyperbole. Though it is currently shuttered (like all gathering places in the city) due to the lockdown, ALL Club still survives—though no one knows for how long—and many of Osheyack’s contemporaries, both on and off the SUBKVLT label, will continue to make music, whether in Shanghai or, for those fortunate enough to escape Xi Jinping’s totalitarian rule, in exile. As the most oppressive elements of the country are empowered to suffocate the forces that have given rise to such fertile artistic experimentation in the nation’s largest city, it seems inevitable that the cosmopolitanism embedded in this sound will have to be sustained through a dispersal to more distant shores. Intimate Publics, then, is both an homage to a formative place and time and a poignant assertion of its legacy: an intimacy of common sensibilities that will live on in memory—which is perhaps the place it was always destined for.
Travis Jeppesen is a writer and artist. Last month, he resigned from his position as Assistant Professor at the Institute for Cultural and Creative Industry at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.