A Recap: Stephen Chen Interview

On July 29, The Soundshop’s IGTV interview series continued with an appearance from Stephen Chen. Stephen is a producer, songwriter, educator, and multi-instrumentalist based in Brooklyn. He plays saxophone for art rock band San Fermin and psychedelic soul band Ghost Funk Orchestra and writes and performs his own songs as Behaviorist. During his conversation with Soundshop founder Akpanoluo Etteh, he talked about picking up new skills during quarantine, developing his craft as a producer, and writing songs that won’t lose their appeal with the passage of time.

Soundshop founder Akpanoluo Etteh (left) interviewing Stephen Chen (right)

Akpanoluo kicked off the discussion by talking about a Bill Withers tribute video that the Ghost Funk Orchestra had collaborated on (virtually) during quarantine. He was surprised to see Stephen playing the flute for the medley. “What got you into flute as opposed to other woodwind instruments?” he asked.

Stephen explained that it’s not uncommon for saxophonists to dabble in the flute. In fact, saxophonists who play for Broadway typically have to be well versed in the flute, the clarinet, the bassoon, and the oboe. Stephen doesn’t work on Broadway himself; his personal flute journey started when he was studying at Berklee and felt inspired to try the college’s flute elective. He’s always wanted to brush up on his skills as a flautist, and quarantine seemed like the perfect time to do so.

Akpanoluo then asked Stephen how the Bill Withers tribute had come together. Stephen explained that Seth Applebaum, Ghost Funk Orchestra’s founder, is also a video editor, so the idea of a virtual performance appealed to him. Stephen shared that he has also taught himself about video editing over the course of the past few months. At this point, he’s become a freelance editor helping church choirs and children’s choruses put together digital concerts with Final Cut. He’s mostly learned how to navigate the software through trial and error. If a question comes to him while he’s working, he’ll type it down in a Word document so he can remember to look up a tutorial later.

Next, Akpanoluo and Stephen discussed Stephen’s interest in diversifying his work as a musician. Stephen shared that he’s first and foremost a saxophonist, but he’s also enjoyed getting into producing as of late. In his opinion, being a skilled producer is more about an innate ability to judge music than it is about technical expertise: “The reason that someone would hire you is not necessarily because you can record better, but you have good taste.”

Album cover for Keren Abreu’s EP ÉXITO
Keren Abreu’s new EP that Stephen Chen produced

After playing Bronx singer-songwriter Keren Abreu’s new track “Welcome to the Boogie,” which Stephen produced, Akpanoluo asked Stephen if he has an ideal type of artist to work with as a producer. Stephen revealed that he prefers collaborating with those who “are willing to indulge an extreme idea” — for example, “What if we just played quarter notes for ten minutes?” “If you’re down to do that, I’m down to do it, too, and maybe something really cool could come out of it,” he said. He doesn’t enjoy working with people who don’t have that desire to experiment — who only want to make something that sounds “good.” “I would actually be interested in making something that sounds bad, and figuring out what’s cool about it, and just keeping that part.”

Finally, Akpanoluo inquired about Stephen’s thoughts on the interaction between music and politics. Stephen emphasized that “If you’re gonna write about some social or political topic, there needs to be a central link to some core human emotion.” Akpanoluo pointed to Behaviorist’s “Dirty Pictures,” which addresses the concept of body image, as a song that takes on a societal problem without running the risk of becoming dated. “People are gonna have body issues because of the media and because of pornography. That’s not gonna change in the next 50 years,” he said.

Akpanoluo concluded the interview with a game he described as “kind of like exquisite corpse” but with music: he would present a song, and Stephen would respond by naming another song that came to mind. The track he chose was a cover of “Summertime” by Elvin Jones and Richard Davis, which prior interviewee Caitlin Cawley had chosen. Stephen’s mind immediately leapt to Henryk Górecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” a “crazy-ass three movement piece” that begins with a “10-minute-long, very slow string instrumental.” At that point, Instagram’s one-hour livestream timer signaled the conversation’s end, leaving listeners with much to ponder.

— Brittany Menjivar

Brittany Menjivar is a music journalist for The Young Folks. She is currently studying English and Film at Yale University.



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The Soundshop Music Blog

The Soundshop Music Blog

This is the blog of The Soundshop music salon and community of New York City. This blog aims to analyze music in a way that enhances general music knowledge.