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2023 SXSW Festivals Interviews Music

Interview: Aguava is here to make you dance

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If you were to close your eyes and listen to any one of Aguava (Allen Chen)’s songs, you’d easily find yourself transported to some faraway beach — sun shining, waves crashing, and with a mai tai in hand perhaps? So it was a bit surprising seeing his name on the SXSW artist roster, especially since I’ve always known SX to be a chaotic indie rock/indie pop playground.

Stumbling across Aguava’s songs like “Can We” from his debut self-titled EP and “If I,” I couldn’t help but be reminded of the chillwave music that one would’ve come across on Majestic Casual in its early days, way back before a majority of their stuff was taken down (Majestic Casual walked so lo-fi hip hop could run, IMO). Drawing upon house and Latin beats, Aguava’s music pulsates and moves you right onto that dancefloor — drinks in hand be damned. Released through Majestic Casual, it just makes sense that “If I” and a few other of his songs have the iconic “majestic” white font logo stamped across it on their cover artwork, harkening back to the label’s heydey of online music discovery of simply great music.

I sat down with Aguava at the Austin Convention Center to ask him about what his SXSW experience was like, how Majestic Casual shaped his taste, and what a potential future in noodle-making might look like for him.

Aguava (Allen Chen).

Is this your first time at SX performing, and in general?

It is, yeah. It’s my first time here and my first time performing. I’ve played house parties, but nothing like at an actual venue. So it’s been an interesting experience. It went well. I was really nervous beforehand. There were not many people and nobody was really dancing… but yeah, it ended up being well.

What was your set like? Was it, like, pretty chill?

It’s funny because the Coconut Club is like a multi-story and there are multiple rooms and vibes. And when I got my booking, I realized I was playing the Spanish Room, as they call it. And so I think the reason why I was booked there is because my music is kind of Latin-inspired. But I played a mix of my stuff and some Latin house, and it was pretty high tempo, high energy. Yeah, that’s kind of like my vibe right now.

I think you just mentioned that you played house parties and stuff. Was it any different or was it kind of the same?

Oh, way different. It’s just not as official, I guess. And the setups were not as good. Just, like, randomly played speakers.

The first one I played, the power cut out. The girl setting it up didn’t know how to… she basically plugged everything into one outlet and then it blew the outlet, I guess. But it worked really well because it was the end of my set. Like, the exact end of my set. The DJ after me was plugging his USB to transition and then the power went off, so that was perfect. But stuff like that… that wouldn’t happen here because they have, like, pros.

Oh, no. You’d be surprised. But how was your experience so far, being at the festival? You know, with everything that’s going on? How are you enjoying it?

It’s dope. I’ve heard a lot about it and yeah, I didn’t really know what to expect, but it’s been cool so far, just walking around 6th Street and it’s cool that there’s so much it’s not just like a music festival. It’s like an intersection of so many different things. I forgot what it was called, but we went to this place after my set, but it was kind of like a warehouse.

They had a row of really cool lights and they were playing more underground house stuff. I really enjoyed it. Actually, I didn’t realize the electronic scene is a lot bigger here than I expected because it’s kind of known for its live music. But the house music is really good here!

Where you were making your music, did your local electronic scene inform the way that you put your music together?

Yeah, for sure. It was actually going out to disco and house places in LA that really inspired me to make that kind of music. Places like Gold Diggers and Club Tee Gee. I feel like most artists are kind of like a sponge of their environment and it’s definitely the same for me. Beforehand, before I was going to those places, I was kind of making chiller electronic music. I guess I got more informed about the whole history and just the culture. You kind of have to go out to really experience it. I had the best nights going out when they were playing disco and old school house. So, yeah, I was like, “This is the kind of music I want to make.”

How did you first get drawn into this whole scene? Because I think what’s interesting is when I think of electronic music, usually people don’t say house or techno or anything like that. Usually, I think what’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind is the most commercial music, which is like EDM. So how did you get drawn into this segment of electronic music?

Aguava.

Yeah, just going to those places and then over COVID, I had a lot of time just to listen to music. I don’t know, it just connected more with me. Commercial electronic stuff I like too, but I kind of veered away from it more just because it was just kind of formulaic and there wasn’t a lot of soul in it. And house is like… it draws a lot from old school soul music, like funk, jazz and those are all genres I really like. So, I just connect with it.

Speaking of this older sort of sounds, usually when I think of that, I think of turntablism or people sampling stuff from old records and stuff. Is that something that you do?

A lot of my songs either have a sample or kind of have a sample vibe just cause I feel like it’s kind of the wave right now. And I just love the sound. It’s kind of like old school. And it’s also like… house music is kind of like once you find the loop, like an 8 or 16 bar loop, that’s kind of the heart of the song. I wouldn’t say it’s easy to make, but once you find it, that’s it. As opposed to, I guess, before making other kinds of electronic music, it was less loop-based, and it just took longer to make songs.

I think within that scene there is a lot of digging into the past to revitalize that kind of music that was made before. What’s your favorite way of discovering these sounds? Or how do you music that you then incorporate into your own musical practice?

A lot of different ways. Like just going out and listening to music. Like kind of scouring the internet, like SoundCloud, YouTube, like finding artists that you like and then similar artists. Finding out who people are sampling. Do you know kryptogram?

No!

He’s really good. He’s from Chicago. He sampled this record from Bobby Caldwell. RIP Bobby Caldwell, he just passed away. But yeah, I went through his catalog and then found some other stuff that I’d like. But yeah, I think that part of actively seeking out music I’ve always done. So it’s been an easy transition like actually pursuing music because it’s an important part of it. I think the music you consume is huge for what you make.

Do you ever go crate digging or anything like that?

No, I haven’t gotten a record player yet, but once I do, I want to get into that. I kind of do, like an online version. Have you heard of Tracklib? It’s this sample library website. But basically, clearing a sample the traditional way is kind of a headache. You have to go through the label and then if it’s like an old song, maybe they’re not even doing music anymore. And the band… you have to get their permission. But this is just like… they have all the rights, so you can just use that sample and however much of it you use determines how much of a cut they get. But yeah, I’m on there all the time.

So I kind of want to ask about Majestic Casual. So just to clarify, are you signed with them or are they just distributing?

No, I’ve just released a few songs with them. The deals are all like, per individual song. But yeah, my friend was joking. He’s like, “Yeah, you’re pretty much their in-house producer at this point.” Because I have two songs. I have technically three songs. One of them is a remix and then I have another three coming out with them. But they were like one of the main reasons I got into electronic music was finding them and then discovering this whole sound that I just didn’t even know about, like the early days, 2012, 2013 with the French house. It’s been kind of surreal to finally release with them, but it’s been interesting. The response has been amazing, and I didn’t really realize it. It kind of makes sense, but a lot of people were saying the stuff I’m releasing kind of reminds them of the old Majestic, and I listen to the old Majestic a lot.

So speaking of your new releases, well, I know that you just released a self-titled EP, but is there anything else coming for the future in terms of releases?

There are three releases set to come out with Majestic, but after that, not really. I have a bunch of edits and remixes, like unofficial ones, that I’ll probably release just by myself. But the big project is this kind of Afro-Latin house EP that I’ve been kind of planning, and I’ve been working on it for a while, but I think I’m going to try to finish it and release it this year. And I’m really trying to push myself to play everything and sample a little less. And I’m working with some other musicians, this trumpet player and a sax player, too. So yeah, just trying to give it more of a live feel. Yeah, that’s kind of like what kind of vibe I’m going towards.

‘Cause ultimately, I want to play shows with a band, but it’d still be house music but have a bass player, guitar player, and a horn section. That’s kind of my vision for the future. Yeah, kind of like [Bonobo], but, it’s gonna be slightly different, but similar. I think Odesza really inspired me too, because when I saw them first, it was just like a duo. So they were just playing together, but now they play with a whole drum section and they have a drumline, and it’s just like a cool way to play electronic music live. Because when you go see somebody and they’re just, like, DJing… I think if I were going to see somebody, I would want to see a show rather than pressing buttons and stuff. Which is, like, ironic because that’s what I’m doing right now. It’s gonna evolve, for sure.

Is there a specific vision that you have in mind when you’re putting your music and album artwork together?

Not really. I would say the music usually comes first, but I feel like I started out in the visual art space. I grew up, like, painting and drawing and stuff. So audio and visual have always kind of been kind of one thing when I’m making a song. I kind of picture the environment I would see it in and maybe some colors and stuff. So yeah, the album [artwork] usually comes after that.

But also, it’s kind of funny. So in Ableton, the colors that I used for my tracks kind of influences the album art in a weird way. So if I’m looking at the same colors for however long, a lot of times the artwork will be the same colors. But lately, I’ve been trying to expand the kind of album artwork I do. I want to get more into painting album art or something different, maybe like collabing with other people. But lately, it’s been like the kind of house aesthetic for album art. For the more Afro-Latin stuff, I’ve been… I don’t know if you’ve seen the album covers, but it’s kind of like I’m trying to nail down a specific style. It’s kind of repetitive, like geometric patterns. I’m really inspired by African and Latin art and it fits the vibe too, because that’s what the music is.

Aguava – Aguava EP

I think you also briefly mentioned the sort of environment that you want your listeners to picture themselves in. How would you describe what that ideal situation would be? What is that environment?

I think the vision I had for this project was like some tropical island or something, and people are listening to music and it’s kind of like an oasis. It’s like some psychedelic jungle to get lost in. Remote, somewhere exotic. I wanted it to sound like that.

I took a cruise with my family through the Bahamas, and I don’t think I realized that at the time, but it really influenced my music in a weird way. Not necessarily the music I heard there, but just, like, the environment. I just kind of wanted my music to sound, like, very tropical, like it could take you away. Because before I got into music, one of the things I loved the most about it was you can put your headphones in, and it kind of transports you to a different time or different environment. Yeah, I’ve just tried to kind of do that with my own music.

It’s funny, when I first listened to your music, it did transport me! I got nostalgic because it felt like I was listening to Majestic Casual back in the day, and also a little bit of island in there.

Yeah, it’s funny. So I went by a different name before, and when I changed my name to Aguava, that was kind of what I was picturing, like, old Majestic and, like, those kinds of islandy vibes.

What was your old moniker?

It was AZTC. Yeah, the music was, like, pretty bad. That was crazy. It was like I was at the end of my junior year and I was on the track to become a dentist, like, go to dental school and stuff. And at the time, it sounded very angular and sharp. Also, there was just another person with the same exact name who was way bigger than I was, so I was like, “Well, I can’t have the same name.”

So I thought about it and I wanted a name that was, like, round. It felt round and smooth, and Aguava was just very smooth, and it worked really well because guava is like a fruit — it’s like a tropical fruit. And at the time, I didn’t want the name to pigeonhole me into a specific sound. So it ended up working really well that naturally the sound I make just happens to be the same kind of vibe as the name. So yeah, it worked out really well!

Has your family been supportive of your music career?

Yeah. I was really lucky, actually, because my parents are very supportive. Initially, they were kind of like, “What the hell? We put you through school!” But now they’re very supportive.

And my mom actually, growing up, played this Chinese dulcimer called yangqin. She was in a really good group and she had potential, but my grandpa didn’t want her to. I think she really understands. I guess this is, like, the career that she never got to have. She’s very supportive because of that.

Do you ever invite your family out to see you perform?

Well, they’re in Virginia, but also they don’t really listen. They don’t really like that kind of vibe anyways. I think eventually when I have a show closer to home, they’ll come. I think they would come to support me, but they don’t listen. Yeah, my dad is more into classical music and weirdly, like, country. And my mom, she likes singer-songwriter stuff and, like, traditional Chinese music. So, yeah, nothing really electronic. But yeah, I think one day they’ll come.  

It sounds like a very musical family if they’re into all these different genres.

I would say creative family, yeah. My dad, he’s a big photography guy. I remember back in the day, in the early 2000s, for family vacations, he would shoot these little homemade videos with a camcorder and edit it later. And he’s really into cooking and farming and woodwork, and he loves to build everything himself. We have a workshop, like a wood workshop at home. I think that side I’m very lucky to kind of have. It’s not necessarily music, but it’s creative. I think that influenced me a lot, and it was also good to have that side, but also I majored in, like, bio in college.

So, like, the more analytical side, because I think you kind of need to have both. Kind of have, like, the discipline to like work on your music but also be creative at the same time. Because I feel like there’s a lot of creatives that just whenever they feel like making music, they make music. But I think it’s important to kind of treat it as, like, a job. Do it consistently. Just, like, a higher chance, like, making something good. I have a little routine that I now stick to. Kind of, like, developed it in COVID, but just practicing instruments. Like, I have a piano routine and a guitar routine. And then I do ear training. And then after that, I’ll make something. I feel it’s a very analytical, scientific approach to it, but that’s just kind of how my mind is. It’s worked well so far.

I think I have one last question for you. I think you mentioned in one of your interviews that your special skill was cooking. What’s your go-to meal?

Well, I cook kind of like the same breakfast every day, which is like, bacon, eggs, tomatoes, and toasted bread. But I really like cooking butter chicken. Yeah, it’s pretty easy to make, actually. I like cooking that. I cook Pad Thai. I made, like, gumbo once. I don’t know. I just, like, experiment sometimes, like, cook random stuff. It’s fun.

It’s kind of like a creative thing. I think when I moved out of the dorms in college, I had roommates, but there was no cafeteria food anymore, I realized I should probably learn how to cook. I remember the first thing I ate was tortilla wraps and turkey, and that was it. And my roommate made fun of me for it, and I was like, “All right, well, I need to probably get better at this.” But, yeah, my dad’s really into cooking. Whenever we go on family trips or he gets together with his friends, he’s always one that cooks. So, yeah, he kind of inspired me to get good at cooking too.

It’s definitely a fun thing especially cooking for other people because it’s like, I don’t know, kind of like there’s something about cooking that’s hardwired into how we evolve. Yeah, it’s very fulfilling, I would say.

Dang, well, if you ever opened a restaurant…

I definitely want to either open a restaurant or get into the food business somehow down the road, maybe at festivals, having some kind of food cart.

Oh, yeah, that would be cool. You could have, like, the Aguava Special. Yeah. What do you think that would look like?

I think what I really want to do is make noodles because I think that’s one of my main passions in life. And there’s a very specific kind of Chinese noodle that’s from my dad’s province. It’s called “over-the-bridge” noodles. They probably have some variation of it, but basically, the story was there’s a scholar studying for some kind of test, and his wife would bring him noodles, but they would get soggy because the noodles sit in the broth for so long. So she’d have everything separate and then put it in later, and it was great. And he aced the exam! But when I went back to China and had it, it was amazing. Yeah, I want to do some kind of variation of that. Me and my parents actually talked about opening up a noodle shop at some point, just like hypothetically.

Yeah, we would have a bunch of different noodles. Also, I feel like Chinese noodles aren’t really as popular as, say, like, ramen or pho. Underrated, you know? But I think it’s equally as good and it’s just slightly different. But yeah, maybe one day down the line I’ll have a little food truck or something.

And you’d have your music playing in the background?

Yeah! I have a bunch of ideas way later down the line when I have a platform and stuff and I can actually do it. The food thing is one of them. I kind of wanted to open up my own venue or club type deal and curate the music. Because I feel like as long as the music is good, people will come.

Like if the vibe is good because that’s what I really look for when I go out. Does this place have good music? Yeah. I started realizing that later in life. Just, like, going out and listening to bad music… I just can’t do it. I’d just rather not go out if it’s Top 40 stuff because I’ve just heard it so many times. And I think it’s also weirdly therapeutic going and listening to house music and getting lost in dancing. Some of the best nights I’ve had were kind of doing that. It’d be cool to open a place way down the line.


This interview was conducted by Li-Wei Chu in-person at SXSW 2023 in Austin, Texas in March.

Press photos provided courtesy of the artist.

Artist pages: Facebook | Instagram | SoundCloud | Spotify

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