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VIDEO PREMIERE & INTERVIEW: Matt Hsu's Obscure Orchestra Subvert Contrived Tropes

Meanjin music scene’s favourite musician/activist Matt Hsu’s Obscure Orchestra is dropping ‘LIVE LAUGH DECOLONISE’ today, the lead single off his upcoming double length album. A powerful expression of solidarity between marginalised peoples and joy in change-making, the song features collaborations with Indigenous writer Professor Chelsea Watego (author of the groundbreaking Another Day in the Colony); Indigenous alt-pop/soul powerhouse BADASSMUTHA; poet-activist and Greens politician Jonathan Sriranganathan (performing as Rivermouth), and Iranian-Australian underground performer Nima Doostkhah.

‘LIVE LAUGH DECOLOSINSE’ comes with a playful and powerful music video we are proud to be premiering. Set for release to the rest of the world on July 18th, the video is directed and cut by Matt Hsu himself, shot in the Obscure Orchestra Studio (aka the spare bedroom), with DOP by Rod Pilbeam. Featuring an extended version of the song, we get to see various members of MHOO showcase their dance moves, as well as appearances from the feature artists from the single and various people from the MHOO broader community.

Throughout the video we get to see each of the feature artists bring a piece of their lived experience to the song, speaking on decolonisation, the work of anti-racism, and criticism of the tired trope of portraying non-white people in a state of perpetual victimhood; as trauma-porn, so-to-speak. Lyrics like, “Fuck your imperial shit, resistance can be joyful” encapsulate this declaration; that decolonisation involves building community, celebration of solidarity, of survival, and empowerment through collective action.

The title ‘LIVE LAUGH DECOLONISE’ is a play on the contrived “live laugh love” wealthy white mantra; a perfect encapsulation of the sentiment of the tune. Through a mix of word play found-object instrumentation, the song brings cheeky energy as a vehicle for dialogue on serious implications.

Check out our exclusive premiere of the 'LIVE LAUGH DECOLONISE' music video below:

We got to catch up with Matt for some insight into the single and video:

Thanks for chatting with us Matt!

The song title ‘LIVE LAUGH DECOLONISE’ is both cheeky and powerful; what sparked the idea to subvert this over-used, commercialised mantra?

I think we all collectively witnessed 'Live, Laugh, Love’ become this cultural shorthand for “speak to the manager” entitlement. It perfectly encapsulates the primacy of middle-upper highly-individual comfort; a mindset of ”I don’t care what’s happening in the world as long my needs are met” at the expense of wider community wellness across different identities and marginalities.

So for me, that phrase was the perfect thing to subvert and critique wealthy white privilege, which at its worst, we've seen weaponised to blame, vilify, police and incarcerate people of colour. That “hi police, I'm suspicious of this brown/black person who claims to live in my nice apartment complex" flavour of racism, is at the centre of too many Black Lives Matter incidents, and continues to play a part in the ongoing incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children as young as 10. 

I wanted create a song digging into these systemic inequities and power imbalances, but make it subversively catchy, like a trojan horse. That’s how “Live, laugh, decolonise” became the hook and glue of the track. 

Actually, the very first time the phrase first popped in my head was when I was considering names for a 4ZZZ radio show. But before I could start the show, I became 4ZZZ's Community Engagement Coordinator, so that idea took a pause while I got to work making the station as diverse and inclusive as I could. But now that concept lives again!

You’re taking on some pretty heavy topics throughout the song, but there’s so much playfulness and joy in both the song’s arrangement and in your music video. Can you tell us about the intention behind this choice?

Love to! On the surface, the jaunty treehouse vibes seem to belie the weighty themes of song. That incongruity winks to the whimsical uninhibited carefree-ness that people of colour should be able to live freely with, if they weren’t burdened with racist colonial bullshit. 

Vitally, this song is a declaration for diverse people of colour to pursue happiness and joyful solidarity, in the face of and despite systemic racial oppression and pressure to assimilate. Repurposing “live laugh love” to “...decolonise” brings with it new meaning as a celebration of solidarity among people with shared experiences of marginalisation, supporting and creating community to empower each other. The song and video are together an expression of that joy despite oppression.

I feel that there's a weird expectation that artists and activists of colour be in a constant state of outrage, trauma and anger (like how conservative media tends to portray social justice minded people as angry and irrational to the point where 'SJW' is a kind of slur). What I want is to create something that actually represents my POC, First Nations and queer community’s experiences of resistance and activism, and that looks like resistance alongside community and kinship — celebration, lightness and caregiving in the face of oppression. 

You see that juxtaposition at rallies and protests, where people come together to fight against heartbreaking injustices and inequities, these weighty grave things. But what’s also happening is people, family, new friends coming together in solidarity, galvanised by compassion and unified in community to assert their right to peaceful civil disobedience – cheerful productive mischief in the form of sign-making, badge pressing, sharing resources, feeding each other, caring for each other, and sharing a voice. 

You’ve collaborated with some incredible artists on this tune: Professor Chelsea Watego, BADASSMUTHA, Jonathan Sriranganathan (Rivermouth) and Nima Doostkhah. What did the process look like for creating the song? Did you come to them with a defined arrangement, or was it a more collaborative approach to constructing this piece?

The instrumentals were made over 3 days. Day 1, noodling on a mini keyboard while my partner played Zelda. Day 2, making ‘doot doot doot’ noises on an ocarina to those chords, then compulsively picking up more little objects; bells, recorder, wooden toys, until it sounded like a song. Day 3, played horn layers and tinkered with form and structure.

The words ‘live laugh decolonise’ had been sitting with me for years, and instinctively settled right as the hook. I wanted to feature a spectrum of voices and perspectives to explore with nuance what decolonisation means to different people. So I reached out to my friends, my community of artists, people whose moral fibre, compassion, intelligence and wordplay and voices I admire. 

Chelsea is an activist and writer who I’ve been in awe of, her book is on our shelf at home, and I was so lucky to have deep chats with her when she was panel moderator for Sachém and I for The Bigger Picture show at QPAC. 

This was my first time working with Alinta (BADASSMUTHA) and she completely floored me with her breezy confidence, unbelievable music instincts and magnetism as an artist. More impressively, she just radiates so much warmth as a human. 

My history with Jonathan spans over a decade, growing as people in a folk-punk band The Mouldy Lovers. He’s the smartest and most subversively optimistic person I know, and has challenged me to be a better person at major crossroads in my life.

Nima and I were cast mates on a La Boite show called The Neighbourhood, and I was drawn to his kindness, supremely beautiful way with words and a truly golden heart, untarnished by experiences of war and conflict.

Saro I consider one of my besties, and is such a pillar for Obscure Orchestra. She’s an incredible vocalist and helped me bring to life the chorus lines. And more than that, we’re a mirror to each other’s cultural upbringings and navigating white dominant culture as people of colour. 

It was a full collaboration as far as the lyrics and vocal performances. I came to my collaborators with the hook, the themes and a list of “things on my mind”, but left it open for them to fill their 16 bars with however they wanted to shape and craft it, and they absolutely crushed it.

Decolonisation as a concept has so many layers - people dedicate entire careers to studying what that process could/should look like going forward. How did you approach writing a song on a topic with so much depth?

Great question. It is complex and nuanced, and impacts different people in different ways, subtly and overtly. That’s exactly why it felt important to explore the themes of decolonisation with several trusted artists. I spoke about that list of “things on my mind” that I shared with my collaborators, if you want to know how I approached it, here’s a literal look under the hood at how I approached this.

Things on my mind:

— The cringe of shallow self-actualisation and “finding yourself” when at the top of the hierarchy in a ‘white-as-default’ status quo

— critiquing the primacy of white middle-upper comfort and Karen-esque “speak-to the-manager” privilege at the expense and indifference of wider community equity (i.e. BIPOC and queer communities). At its worst, this primacy weaponises white victimhood to police and incarcerate ‘suspicious’ people of colour.

— finding joy, solidarity and celebration in decolonising worldview and mental habits.

— Subverting and repurposing “live laugh love” as “live laugh decolonise”, as a declaration and permission for people of colour and gender diverse folks to pursue happiness and solidarity, in the face of systemic racial oppression and pressure to assimilate.

— An acknowledgement of colonial complicity by non-Indigenous people of colour and a commitment to reverse it — being a song composed by a Taiwanese-Australian, with Iranian, Nigerian and  Sri Lankan diaspora.

— Thinking a lot recently about the historical pitting of minority against minority. I.e. 1992 LA riots that pitted African-American and Korean-American communities against each other, and in 2020 how during Stop Asian Hate, mainstream media portrayed black people as the most common perpetrators against Asians, when in fact most attacks originated from white perpetrators.

Ultimately though, decolonisation is about land back, and everything else (like decolonising curriculum, symbolic stuff, this very song) might be a step toward that, but not a replacement of the actual tangible goal of returning the land, sovereignty and systems of governance to Indigenous peoples.

Reflecting on my position as an immigrant, an Taiwanese-Australian person, this song personally serves as an acknowledgement of colonial complicity by non-Indigenous people of colour and a commitment to reverse it. I wanted that aspect to be present, which is why this is a song by First Nations artists, alongside Taiwanese, Iranian, Nigerian and Sri Lankan diaspora. There’s no way around the fact that I benefit from colonisation as an immigrant to this place, and for me, the way through it is to acknowledge it, know it, and act on it with what ability I have.

This song is the lead single for your upcoming double album. Does this song set the tone for what’s to come thematically, musically, or both?

Kind of! I'm so excited. There’s 24 songs and they’re not all about race stuff, haha! I’d go nuts. There’s songs about food, about being an introvert vs extrovert, feeling really alive being deep in nature at nighttime, a meta song about the joys of making songs, there’s pieces in Tibetan, French, Japanese, Farsi and Taiwanese. It’s like a candy box filled with every thought and feeling I’ve had in the past 5 years — and that of collaborators who’ve co-composed with me! I guess the incongruity of the playful treehouse sounding instrumentals with the heady lyrical themes in this song, points to some of the cheeky juxtaposition that tends to pop up in my music. A big part of Obscure Orchestra for me is exploring strange sounds and noises, in different and wonderful ways. Someone recently said “everything you make wildly different to the last, but somehow always in a Matt Hsu way”

The music video is visually very powerful, with lots of movement in a restricted space. It’s filmed with pretty much only 3 still camera angles too. What inspired the idea of working/filming within a restricted space like this?

The inspiration is I’m poor. Hahaha! I don’t have the kind of wealth or industry clout to afford some sophisticated shoot. But I like it this way, it’s super in the spirit of Obscure Orchestra that the film is so grassroots, DIY, people-powered and homemade — literally.

What I do have is a really magical community of artists, activists; people doing amazing things in the local community, that I get to call my friends. And it’s each of their presence that this film so special, capturing them all in a joyful moment. My friend Rod Pilbeam helped me set up the lights and camera positioning, and off we went, inviting dozens of people over for 10 days to come and dance in the room the song was made. It’s cute!

I wanted the film to capture that lyrical idea of “fuck your imperial shit, resistance can be joyful”, to show somehow that the work of anti-racism and decolonising doesn’t simply equate to non-white people excavating trauma in this self-punishing way. That anti-racism can, and for me, should be a celebration of solidarity, survival, and kinship among intersectional communities of colour, marginalities and allies — and this film in exactly that.

The music video features quite a large number of people getting down for a boogie in that tiny room - are all of them part of your orchestra/featured in the song?

Several people from Obscure Orchestra feature, but it also important for me to include local activists, artists, people that make the neighbourhood what it is — like the patisserie shop owner, the protest organiser, the radio host, children’s gallery workers, to the person who turns up to every gig you’re at, the guy at the boxing gym, the local artist-in-residence, and the queer-safe school teacher. It was so wonderful having that microcosm of the neighbourhood all cram into my tiny studio.

Your project is a 24-piece orchestra - how do you handle communicating with so many musicians, and what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from managing such a huge project?

It’s funny, I’m the person least likely to be a ‘leader’ in the traditional patriarchal sense, and I’ve enjoyed torching away those masculine-centric notions of 'leadership’, stuff like being the loudest person in the room, talking over people, even the notion of “commanding” respect. I've learnt so much about myself, everyone in the orchestra, and how to be accountable for 24 people in way that feels healthy and natural. With Obscure Orchestra, the things I think are important is checking in with everyone, making sure I spend a moment with each person when we’re all together, letting people know they’re appreciated for what they contribute, giving quieter people opportunities to talk and then listening carefully, developing trust, laughing together, giving credit and thanks, supporting them in their projects outside of MHOO, celebrating life news together, remembering birthdays, emphasising enjoyment over technical perfection, playing alongside rather than conducting, and setting aside time for sharing gossip so it’s not just music playing.

A huge part of MHOO’s identity and ethos is elevating diverse peoples and addressing injustices/activism through your art. What are some highlights from your time running this project and growing the Obscure Orchestra community?

We’ve done so many things together that we’re proud of. We’ve collab’d with a bunch of visual artists at Museum of Brisbane’s Play Moves exhibition, played QPAC with Sachém for a massive night of Blak excellence, played the Woodford New Year’s morning ceeremony with Tenzin Choegyal,  turned down an ostensibly ‘multicultural’ event that requested us remove all rap from our performance as it would be confronting to the white patrons, winning a QMA award and making a speech imploring a room full of music industry moguls to not just support BIPOC in positions beneath them, but in positions of power. But beyond these things, the personal highlights are honestly the times at rehearsals and before/after shows where we’re all together giggling and getting up to mischief. 

And finally, who do you reckon has the best dance moves in the Orchestra?

Hahah! It’s not me. I do a swaying thing and a knee bendy thing and that’s my whole inventory of moves. I could say no-one and everyone, good is subjective etc. Which is true, but also — it’s probably a tie between BADASSMUTHA and Aurora (SOLCHLD) and Shan Jacobe. They just mooooove.


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