Shining Light and Beats from K-Town
TOKiMONSTA emerges with Lune Rouge after Overcoming Moyamoya Disease
Very rare does a person go through a Beethoven experience and come out of it a stronger musician. TOKiMONSTA's newest album, Lune Rouge, is an anthology of musical palettes from the old to the cosmos. The once pianist turned electronic artist uses her wide range of influences from Sun Ra to the Wu Tang Clan to construct a truly unique set of songs that describe her personal journey of battling Moyamoya disease. The album is filled with collaborations with artists including Yuna, MDNR, Selah Sue, and more. We asked TOKi for her favorite place to hang out in K-town. She responded with, Beer Belly. We met her there and asked her about her album, music, and story.
By George Ko
Photos by Kevin Kim.
Video by George Ko. Music from video courtesy of TOKiMONSTA.
TOKiMONSTA: Hey I'm TOKiMONSTA. I'm from Los Angeles, California, and I'm a music producer.
Giant Robot: We’re in Beer Belly, where we heard is one of your top 5 places to go to in K-Town. Do you mind telling us why?
TM: L.A. is a very large sprawling city, and there are places that are very significant to me in terms of music and creativity. And I’m all about giving shine and light to Koreatown. This is a city I grew up and place I went to very often obviously since I live here now. Beer Belly is this interesting institution. Koreatown has always been traditional, very isolated. It was just the Koreans in Koreatown. When Beer Belly opened that was about the time Koreatown started to open itself up to other people and now you have all your friends going to eat Korean BBQ. And you have a place like this which is essentially not a Korean Restaurant. It’s a Korean-American place. But it goes to show the kind of diversity in LA. It’s also significant to me because Beer Belly opened when I moved to Koreatown. I didn’t come here to make music. It’s not that kind of place. It was a location to go hang out and participate in things that had nothing to do with music, to be honest. I think that’s just as important as the music making part. You need that space in between being creative and doing other things so you don’t wear yourself out. You have to come here and drink with your friends, eat some fries—that’s just as important as going to Low End Theory and making music and all that.
GR: When did you move to K-town?
TM: After college. I think it’s in 2012. If my math is correct that’s five years. But I grew up in Torrance, so I very much grew up around LA. My mom would take me to Koreatown and we’d go to the Plaza Market and do grocery shopping. I used to come here when I was in college and drink underage, which they don’t let you do anymore. No one can do that. But you know, Koreatown was the Wild West and there was almost no laws here. And it was really cool. So, this is a lot of my personal culture which comes from just being able to come here and hang out.
GR: Was there a pretty big Korean American community in Torrance at the time?
TM: Yes. Definitely a bit of Asian American presence in Torrance and Gardena, a lot like second/third/fourth generation Japanese and Korean Americans Chinese Americans—lots of Asians in the South Bay. But not just Asians either you know.
GR: Where did music all start for you? Piano?
TM: Getting into piano was not voluntary. You know it’s a very common hobby that is sort of forced upon you by lots of parents, not just Asian parents, but definitely Asian parents. I did cello, violin, and flute. So I took piano lessons from when I was 6 to about 16. When I was really young I really liked music, but I wasn’t sure if I really liked lessons. I didn’t like being forced to practice. It was almost like I had this love for something, but the way that it was presented to me and the experience made me resent it. “I don’t want piano lessons, and I don’t want to practice.” I didn’t want to do all those things. My mom was always complaining. If I decided just to play on the piano, she didn’t like that and just wanted me to play structured songs. Room for creativity wasn’t there. In a lot of ways that’s the thing with classical music. You’re playing someone else’s music. You’re almost like a cover artist and you’re just trying to do your best interpretation of someone else’s songs, right? And that leaves room for a certain amount of individuality. You can do a cover or remix or a modern interpretation of something, but you can’t change Vivaldi or Chopin. Those songs are already made.
As I got older I discovered other types of music. My first introduction was classical, but then I discovered hip hop, electronic music, and all this stuff. That led me to create and produce, and the piano background ended up being very integral to that. Even though I didn’t like the lessons or practicing, without that background I might not be making music today.
GR: What you said about classical music is true but something classical musicians don’t really want to admit. As a classical musician, we don’t want to admit the whole cover artist role. I feel like if you want to be an active musician you have to find an avenue to compose yourself. Once you get locked in, there’s not much room for creativity. When you started to explore other genres, was there one song that opened that door for you?
TM: C.R.E.A.M. by Wu-Tang Clan. I know that sounds strange, but when I listened to that I was like, “Woah, music can be so cool.” That song’s really old. I mean, I started listening to it when the song was already becoming a classic. But when I discovered it, it was neat. It was different. It made me want to consider creating more music. That’s when I started delving into underground music and MP3 file sharing, forums, and finding out how deep I could go with the music that I didn’t hear on the radio. That was my Aha moment.
GR: How did you get that music? Was it something like Napster?
TM: Napster was a big one. I think the very first time I got MP3s was through AOL file sharing. I had a friend who’d get full albums sent to her. She would email them to me or I would log into her account and download them. There was Napster, LimeWire, MegaShare, torrents. There are currently some elitist torrent sites that bootleg my own music. But I’m just like, it’s cool, whatever. At the end of the day I just want people to hear my music. It would be nice if they paid for it, but then I’m not going to say I haven’t done that. I really found a lot of music that way. Now I pay for all my stuff. I’m now on Spotify and Apple music, etc.
GR: When did you start making your own music and putting it out there?
TM: I started making music in college. I had a friend who said, “Oh, you should download FruityLoops.” And that’s basically how it started. I didn’t know anyone in a scene. I didn’t know any cool people or rappers or bands. I was just this kid in a dorm at UC Irvine making beats. When I started going to LA, I met people there–producers like Mike Gao, who has been very integral. I met people like Dumbfounded from the Blowed. Project Blowed was the precursor to Low End Theory. When I got more involved with Low End Theory I made a lot of friends with other producers and we started a collective. That’s how I became a part of Brainfeeder.
I guess that’s how it all kind of worked. Very casual though.
GR: What's the vibe in the electronic music scene? I know from the classical world it's very isolationist. It's like everyone for themselves.
TM: It’s like the art of collaboration. It’s a very LA thing to collaborate with people and this is a different sphere you know. Someone from the electronic scene might work with a rapper, or classical harpist, or an indie band. Then they get remixed by their friend who’s a DJ. I guess it’s an electronic and LA thing. So many people in the electronic scene live in LA. Open collaboration is this awesome sharing of knowledge that happens especially with SoundCloud culture. The thought that in this world you can make friends with a producer that lives in Seattle, but you’re from Boston, and you really like each other’s stuff and then you share music with each other and make these collaborations just because of SoundCloud. You throw your crew with them until you’re all collaborating with each other. It’s a very common. I think it’s just the openness of modern music and the fact that everyone is not restricted to only listening to classical, or cello, or underground hip hop, or the golden era of hip hop from 1992, or just the first three albums of Radiohead. It’s cool to try new things. By trying new things your palate expands. It’s just like everyone’s more into food than ever and it’s because people realize there’s just more than spaghetti, pizza, and hamburgers.
GR: Now it's bulgogi tacos.
TM: Even the food thing is very collaborative. It’s important to see that if we allow this openness and sharing of knowledge we all become greater as a group.
GR: You did a collab with Roy Choi awhile back.
TM: Even The first time we did a collab was when I had a private listening party for my last full length album, Half Shadows. I was a fan and we met at A-Frame. We were talking about doing this sensory eating experience, where we would play the album while food was being brought out to compliment the music. It allowed him to be super creative. There were no plates on the tables, just butcher paper, and when a song came on food was thrown on the table. But not in a disrespectful way, in a cool dramatic way. It’s real and you’re getting it fresh.
The second time was for my Desiderium release, which was at Red Bull. He made a custom Toki Taco which sounds weird out loud, but it was a rabbit taco and it was actually really amazing. As of now, he’s just kind of one of the big homies. I love seeing him around. I respect him so much and it’s awesome to see him shine and do great things. He sets an example and precedent for everyone around him. When you see someone that big and amazing be that humble, kind, and giving, why would you not want to be the same?
GR: Over the past few years you had to deal with a pretty serious medical situation, in which you struggled with but overcame, moyamoya disease. Do you mind talking about it?
TM: It’s difficult to talk about it, which is why I kept it to myself for such a long time. I thought really long and hard before I decided to come out and share my story. I could have just continued to exist without telling that story. No one would have known since it didn’t impact my work output, my flow, or anything like that. But sharing the story comes with a lot of responsibility and I’m aware of that. That’s something I’m taking on, but it’s worth it to be able to help share this story and hopefully people out there gain perspective on their own pain and suffering. Suffering is very internal, you know?
I was diagnosed at the end of December 2015 with moyamoya disease and I had to get surgery the first week of January 2016. Basically it’s a neuro vascular disease where the blood that feeds into the main arteries, that feed into your entire brain just start to shrink. It constricts an occludes until they’re just shot, and at that point you have no blood supplying to your brain. You get a stroke, or an aneurism, or a number of things. You know, not really cool. Doesn’t really lend itself to a very long life.
The surgeries were successful, but there were some very un-fun side effects. I was unable to speak or to communicate in general. I couldn’t understand speech anymore. I couldn’t walk. Then I found out I couldn’t make music. That was really difficult to deal with. I was cognitively aware the entire time but I couldn’t speak. It was strange because I should know how to speak. A part of my brain was bruised and I was left in a very lonely place. When I discovered I couldn’t create music anymore or wasn’t able to listen to it, what was there to create? It was heartbreaking and frustrating because all this happened and I couldn’t verbalize my emotions.
I couldn’t reach out for help. I would just tell my sister: sad, or tired, or sick, headache. I couldn’t string words together. But I had this small bank of words I could pull from. As time progressed that bank got larger and larger until I was able to speak at basically full capacity. As time progressed, it was 70% and then 90, 95%.
Music took a bit longer. I still made it out okay. I have my faculties now. They all came back. I was able to create. You also gain a new perspective and mentality towards how to create and how an artist should be. At one point, sounds just sounded like shrapnel metal craziness. Music just sounded like metal poles. I’m not talking about obscure music, I’m just saying normal music would sound like that. Over the next few weeks it would start to mellow out. Eventually, the music started to make more and more sense to me. It’s hard to explain. I’m grateful now because I’m here and was able to create a wonderful album (Lune Rouge) as a result of that sort of amazing experience. I would rather not go through that again to make an album, but I can say that I made it through all of that. This body of work that I’ve created, I’ve never been more happy with. It’s ultra personal, but satisfying. It brings me great joy. It’s a complete celebration of just being alive.
GR: Your experience is very much what Beethoven went through. He started hearing this ring in his ear and became deaf while he was composing some of his greatest works. Chef Grant Achatz lost his taste buds when he had cancer and couldn’t taste any food. People go through these extreme circumstances but then come out as a reborn artist. You’re newest album for instance, has a genre-less feeling. I’ve read somewhere that you describe your music as genre-less. Not only that, it has a real spatial understanding of sound. When listening to Lune Rouge, you can’t just listen from your laptop. You got to have a great pair of headphones or speakers to really enjoy that sonic landscape. Each song is so individualistic.
TM: It’s with past albums and projects, I’ve always looked at them as a book. Each song is a chapter in the book that lives and tells us the entire story. With this album, I look at it a little differently. It’s more of an anthology and each song has its own book, but there’s an overlying theme. Sometimes the songs are like a two part book. They belong together, but in a way they are their own story. There’s an incredible amount of music, but the ones that ended up on the album are the ones that I felt were above and beyond and deserved a place next to each other because they told a larger story. This experience was full of hardship. It was traumatic, difficult, and at the end of the day, I was able to make it. The first song I was able to make after all of that surgery is called “I Wish I Could.” It showed me that everything was going to be okay. When that song came to be, I was like, “this is my beacon. This is showing me that if I can make this song, I can make tons of songs.” I just continued to create and challenge myself to build a body of work without limiting myself to what people think my music should be or shouldn’t be.
That’s not the way I want to exist as an artist anymore. I just want to make and create an album. I hope in the future I can put together a more classical album. My hope is to collaborate with people from different spheres and do things I’ve never done to just continue to challenge my creativity and myself as a musician—allow myself to be multifaceted. I know a lot of people expect one thing from one person. But I like that I’ve always been this weird artist that has always gone a different direction and whatever I wanted. Not many people understood that in the beginning. But why do we have to be restrictive? And it loops back into the conversation we had earlier today. Why don’t we just listen to everything, even if you may or may not like it? You have so much to pick from and listen to, that you don’t have to be prohibitive. I hope that everyone can listen to my music with open ears and hopefully enjoy the album.
I also don’t want people to feel obligated to listen to my album because of the story of where it came from. The story is my experience of the album and if the album sucks to you that’s totally okay with me. I just want people to listen to it without judgement.
GR: I was listening to your first album and it reminded me of an artist I studied in college, Sun Ra. Some of your tracks had this Sun Ra vibe.
TM: He's amazing. I love Sun Ra.
GR: He's probably the most weird of all. He had his own religion.
TM: I think that when you look at my stuff no one assumes I listened to Sun Ra. But I totally do. I have his vinyl and stuff. I also look through the Lorde album and listen to anything. I’ve never been judgmental about what I listen to. I don’t listen to Sun Ra just because it’s cool. I mean it’s cool, but it’s good music. It’s really interesting sonically and I listen to his music the same way I listen to Aphex Twin or Squarepusher. It’s challenging how I can listen to music. I’m just a product of all the things I listen to, from Sun Ra to Justin Timberlake. I’m more in tune with artists with sort of Sun Ra’s ethos. I like that you can kind of hear that. I never thought anyone would ever mention Sun Ra to me, but I’m glad I get to talk about it.
GR: Yeah, music should be listened to for what it is. Your music for instance, is not just a beat people dance to. It’s composition. It’s serious music. You can hear all these influences and it’s exciting. In classical you kind of fall in the trap of listening to one artist for a certain composer. Just Arthur Rubinstein for Chopin or Yo-Yo Ma for cello music (I mean both are amazing). But when you venture out and listen to the new things Joshua Redman is doing with jazz, or the things Kendrick and Chance are doing with rap and hip hop, it’s more exciting than just always listening to the golden age of whatever.
TM: I think there’s room for all types of people. I thought about this a lot. You need a few people to stay super true school. In a lot of ways, these people help maintain that culture. When people lose sight of something, then you might lose it permanently. It’s like when languages go extinct. Culture is going extinct in that way, so there’s room for everyone I think. There’s always room for all types of people, all types of music listeners, and participants.
I like that “to each their own” mentality. You can be super truthful and respect that other people are doing different things or respect people that only listen to one thing. I think that’s how everyone can live in harmony. It’s when people start judging each other or being pretentious, that creates conflict. That doesn’t need to exist in a wonderful world of music.
GR: Your album artwork is incredible. It’s obvious you care about the artwork with your albums. Who are the artists you work with? I believe one of them appeared at one of our group shows at the Giant Robot 2 Art Gallery, Chris Chan.
TM: Yeah, he’s awesome. He’s actually the guy who introduced me to FruityLoops. I’ve known him for a very long time. Technically, Chris is kind of the reason why I started making music. He’s a really good friend. He was working with Nike and now he’s pursuing solo projects. He didn’t do the artwork for Lune Rouge but he helped create the merch.
I’ve always wanted to extend my label to young art. I just overall like a creative kind of label. We would love to use the music that then goes along with a gallery and have Chris show his works or curate more artists to do cool things like that. It makes total sense he would be apart of Giant Robot. I love Giant Robot.
GR: The album art for Lune Rouge is very 80s esque.
TM: We were kind of going for something Moebius-esque. He’s such an amazing artist, years ahead of his time. But I didn’t want it to be a derivative. Were not trying to copy Moebius or anything. I was on Instagram and there’s this amazing visual artist named Max Prentis. I asked him quietly if he’d be open to working on this project. I don’t know if he really knows my music or who I was. We’ve done a good job telling the story, and as more singles come out, you’re going to see more artwork come out and create this overall narrative. He’s amazing and it’s been great able to build an idea and concept together. Chris did Desiderium. Brian Yoon did Fovere and he has also done really cool artwork for Dumbfounded.
GR: Any dream collaborators?
TM: I always say the same people. Missy Elliot and Bjork. Those two together would be really cool. I would shut down. Maybe there wouldn’t be a song out of it because I wouldn’t be able to function if I was given that opportunity. I respect them a lot as musicians. Not even specifically because they’re women, but most because of the way they create their art. Their music fascinates me, and it’s so amazing and so challenging. I could sit in a room and watch them make music and be really happy. Maybe if I do enough interviews saying their names enough times they’ll hear us talking about them.
GR: We can tag them on Instagram.
TM: I should just do a post and tag each of them like 100 times, and for no reason tag them in all my Instagram posts.
GR: What’s your advice to musician starting out?
TM: If you have a computer, you’re kind of good to go. You can augment that setup with a midi controller, good speakers, an audio interface, things like that. But I’ve seen people just make music on their computer and get really famous. It just depends on how good you are with the tools you have. More doesn’t mean better.
Having a $10,000 studio doesn’t make you a better musician. The more important aspect to be a successful musician is to be really unique. It’s good to be weird. If you’re not weird, you’re just the same as everyone else. Being unique is good and it sets you apart. We don’t need another version of someone who already exists. It’s hard to take that risk because it’s so much easier to do what everyone else is doing. But if you want to create a unique voice, you have to show it. That’s what I think is important.
GR: Any last words?
TM: I really like Giant Robot. I used to go there are a bunch to work like when I was like working a regular job on Olympic. I'd walk by there and go to Nijiya and get stuff. Wasn't there a restaurant?
GR: Yup! gr/eats!
TM: I used to go there for lunch a bunch. Oh it's been so long. I loved the meatball.