Adrian Leung (Drexler) is a London-based multi-instrumentalist, composer, and producer from Sydney, Australia. With a background in classical music coupled with a passion for contemporary sounds, Drexler crafts his music in a modern cinematic style that is raw, earnest, and textured. His music combines modern-classical, ambient, folk, and indie elements, and as his parents hail from Hong Kong, his music often nods to his Asian heritage. Today we are chatting with Adrian about his debut album “Handles”, released July 17th through boutique Brooklyn-based label Rhodium.
You’ve mentioned that Handles came about out of a desire to create something that represented you as an artist after a history of playing in bands, composing for advertising, and collaborating on film. Can you share more about your journey through these other aspects of your musical career and how this led to the creation of your debut record?
I knew I wanted to be a composer around the age of thirteen when I self-taught myself guitar and started writing songs. The songs were total rubbish but that feeling of release, singing these songs over and over to myself, was cathartic. My best mate Sam McNeill—who features on Blossoms—and I started a folk-rock band whilst studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Being in a band with my best friends resulted in some of the best years of my life. I loved playing gigs and working on songs collaboratively but it was also very tiring—constantly asking people to come to shows, making flyer posters, driving across the country playing in tiny pubs to no-one. I’m so glad I don’t have to do that anymore! During this time I was really into folk music—acts like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Damien Rice, Wilco, and Nick Drake. I can still hear these artists represented in my new chapter as Drexler. Releasing music as a solo artist is quite different. You’re putting yourself out there more, which means you experience the highs and lows on your own. Those successes and failures feel more extreme when experienced alone.
I started writing music for adverts and film projects around the time my band went on hiatus. I loved the idea of writing music for other people’s projects—it felt purposeful that people could see it on TV or in a cinema. It can also be a very enriching experience collaborating with a director and most projects have taught me a lot about myself as a composer. The advertising work also really helped my writing and engineering chops as you need to be adept at writing in varying styles of music—from orchestral to drum ‘n’ bass—to following briefs closely whilst meeting deadlines with quick turnarounds. An experienced advertising producer once told me to always be searching for new sounds. He said, “don’t just record a violin, try putting it through a guitar amp and you’ll get something more interesting”. I try to remind myself to do that on all my music projects—to juxtapose contrasting sounds and create something unexpected. I love listening to a score or piece of music and having no idea how the sound was created.
When I moved to London 8 years ago I was so focused on making and working on other people’s projects that I never really had the time or felt the need to work on a solo project. I later realized that I needed to dig deeper into what my voice was and have a body of work that represented me as an artist. That’s the reason why “Drexler” started and I’m now really glad I have a piece of art that will be out there for people to listen to potentially until the end of time.
Going even further back, what were your earliest musical memories? Were you involved in music from childhood? Did early experiences in music heavily shape your musical direction, or is your solo work a result of more recent influences and inspirations?
My very first musical memory was Sail Away by Enya. My dad used to play Enya all the time! I started learning piano and violin at the age of five and it was always a big part of my life. I was on a music scholarship at school, competed in Eisteddfods, played in youth orchestras every Saturday, and went to band camp on my Summer holidays. I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with music at that time. I knew deep down I enjoyed it but I felt so uncool carrying a violin on the train, hated waking up early to go to choir or orchestra, and would often rather be playing basketball or seeing my friends instead of fulfilling my music commitments.
In saying that, there’s no denying how big an influence all that has had on the music I’m now creating. Piano and strings are the core elements of Handles. All those weekends playing orchestral music may have paid off a little! There are more recent influences as well but I believe this album doesn’t reflect just early or recent influences, but a collection of all my memories, emotions, and inspirations.
What makes this record uniquely “you”? Are there particular aspects of the music that you feel are very characteristic of your sound as a solo artist?
Handles is distinctive in the way I’ve combined different instruments and the way I’ve processed these sounds. A lot of this has to do with the album being completely self-funded and I simply had to rely on the instruments I could play or knew well. I think hearing piano and strings is common-place—but adding folky guitars, ambient pads, and field recordings is quite unique. Regarding how I process these sounds, the most interesting moments on the album are when the sounds have been manipulated in a certain way—that may be soaking a string harmonic with reverb, mangling a vocal with delay, or playing with the stereo imaging of a vocal take.
I think the field recordings are in themselves very unique—no-one else has access to them. It’s pretty cool that it’s physically impossible to replicate these exact recordings captured on my zoom because we now have access to so many different sound libraries and samples. On top of this, it’s the personal memories I have of these field recordings that have inspired the pieces they live in.
How long did it take to create the record from beginning to end? Was it a lengthy process or something that evolved very quickly?
It was looooooong. I started writing these pieces more than two years ago and at the time I had no idea what the end product would look like (or if I’d even release them at all). I wanted the experience to be organic and would only focus on them when I had the time or when I was feeling inspired. Taking that approach is a good way to self assess—starting a piece of music and then coming back to it weeks later. It’s great to have the luxury to step back and listen to your music with fresh ears. This way you can discover what the piece is about. I then recorded the string players, singers, and pianos, and then had it mixed and mastered. As I started to have a better understanding of the music I then knew what style of artwork to look for and how music videos could strengthen the visual side of my music. Having little to no budget meant I had to follow the filmmaker’s schedules. There’s that saying that you can’t expect something that’s quality, quick and cheap so I had to sacrifice the time element.
It then took some time to find the right label to partner with and I’m really glad I took the time to diligently research my options. There are lots of labels out there that will happily take a cut and just distribute it, but I wanted a label who would help me grow as an artist. Rhodium has been great for that reason.
Sure, part of the length process had to do with me being a little unorganised, but part of it was because it began as a self-funded side project and I was constantly learning things on the fly with it being my debut album.
How did you go about creating the record in terms of bringing together a cohesive body of work? Do all of the works tie together thematically, or are the tracks standalone “chapters” in the grand scheme of the album?
To be honest, it’s not really something I considered during the composition process. The cohesiveness has happened naturally, probably due to me writing the music at similar periods of my life—and feeling certain emotions during those moments—as well as the instrumentation that runs throughout. I began writing all these pieces on the piano so having that as the core instrument brings the album together. Upon reflection, I’ve noticed some structural patterns in my pieces where it starts small and grows into something quite vast and expansive, often fading to a distant granular sound. There were a number of themes that I leant on during the writing process. I saw Drexler as a new musical chapter in my life and that brought up ideas of new beginnings, rebirth, and reincarnation. For some pieces, I pictured tiny glowing particles that were surrounded in darkness and how they could survive and even thrive in such an environment. It’s quite abstract and hard to describe in words but the dark/light idea kept reoccurring as a visual theme.
There are quite a number of instruments that feature on the record. Can you share more about the instruments used? As a multi-instrumentalist, how many of these instrumental parts were performed by yourself and how much of the album was a collaborative venture?
I played all the instruments (sampled or live) apart from the violin, cello, and some of the vocals. I could have recorded the violin but I couldn’t pass up the chance to work with Sonja [Schebeck]—she’s freakishly talented. I’d happily sit back and just watch her play all day. Most of the music was notated and given to the string players and vocalists. The track Fluorescence was an exception to this, and Sonja improvised various ideas which I ended up chopping up, selecting my favourite sections. Like I mentioned earlier, lots of the instruments on Handles are featured because I either knew how to play them or how to write for them. Some instruments, like the kennel and autoharps featured in Ivory Tape, were just sitting in my studio, so I’d grab them and experiment and see if they worked.
Are there any weird and wonderful elements to any of the tracks that you’re particularly proud of? There are also quite a few field recordings in there—can you tell us more about these?
There’s an interesting little story about the vocals on Ashes, sung by Vivien Conacher. The recordings that ended on the piece actually came about because we were running out of time. We spent a few hours trying different things but none of it seemed to work. In the end, we were running out of time so I just asked her to sing a scale in her operatic style, which I later extracted the melody out of later. I think it turned out really well because it’s sung unconventionally and adds to the outer-worldly vibe I was aiming for. Sean Carey, my mixer, then ran it through a tape echo to get these warped changes to the pitch and delay. It’s just funny how you can spend hours trying to get something right, and then end up using the recording that you did in the last 5 minutes of the session!
Some composers like to experiment with their field recordings but I quite like leaving them in their original state. Most people take photos on their travels but I think there’s something really powerful about the memories these sound recordings can bring. For example, the final track, Wollondilly Nights, features the recording of a camping trip I went on with my dog and my girlfriend (now wife) in rural NSW, Australia. The composition became a musical representation of that evening—the crackling fire, the stars shining bright, being surrounded by nothing but bushland and that wonderful feeling you have when you’re at the start of an exciting relationship. I also like recording trains and water. To me trains symbolise journeys, going into the unknown, and a sense of adventure, while water represents a sense of calm, inner-peace, and the passing of time.
Give us an idea of your recording set up. Where was the record predominantly recorded? How did this work with your collaborators?
I composed the record in my home studio in North-West London. My set up is relatively simple—Logic X, Golden Age preamp, Universal Apollo Twin, Adam A7X monitors, and the main mic was a Sontronics Aria. I’ve got a collection of instruments in my studio—a violin, viola, guitars, and other bits and bobs. With samples, I’m using lots of Spitfire (including some of their LABS instruments which I highly recommend), Native Instruments, Zero-G soft synths, 8dio, and lots of other libraries. For plugins I’m mostly using UAD, Valhalla reverbs, Fabfilter, and lots of Soundtoys. I recorded the strings in my lounge room, which was a much nicer space than the studio. My friend Bobby Williams recorded the pianos in Bloomsbury—the Challen upright lives in his studio and the Steinway grand is in a studio nearby.
Speaking of collaborators—you have created stunning music videos for three of the tracks on the record: Blossoms, Ghosts Have Arrived, and Lightness. How did you meet the filmmakers, and how did you choose the tracks for film?
Thank you! I feel incredibly lucky to have met the filmmakers who shot the music videos. It’s such a unique experience to have your music represented in imagery. Jonathan Caicedo-Galindo and Sebastian Olmos were the filmmakers behind Blossoms. I met Jonathan through BAFTA Crew, which is a network of emerging people working in film/TV across different disciplines. We hit it off at networking drinks and have been mates since. Sebastian is a friend of Jonathan’s from film school.
Ben Ogunbiyi directed Ghosts Have Arrived and I oddly got to know him at my wedding! Our mutual friend (another filmmaker called Terry) was filming the wedding and invited Ben to come along and help. We’ve since become really close friends and I’ll be scoring some films he’s been currently developing. Ben is a total film nut and he’s always sharing art, music and general inspiration my way. Lightness was directed by Ben and Bobby [Williams]—who I mentioned had recorded the pianos on Handles. It was done quite last-minute and decided over a beer (of course)! Bobby is a man of many talents and works as a musician, sound engineer, filmmaker, and photographer. I met Bobby through Viv—my opera singer friend who sang on Ashes. This is what I love about London—there are so many creative people here who are passionate about making stuff. I chose to create music videos for these specific songs because I felt they were either one of the stronger tracks on the album or that they could translate into a story effectively.
How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it before? Are there any notable influences (whether musical or otherwise) that have shaped your work? Would Handles appeal to fans of any particular artists?
I always find this question quite difficult to answer. I think there’s a quote … “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. I think instrumental music, being without lyrics, really allows people to use their imagination to consider what the music sounds like or is about. If I had to describe it I’d say my album combines pianos, ambient electronics, textured strings, folky guitars, and field recordings to create a sound world that is influenced by classical music with a contemporary twist. The narrative of my pieces is often sweeping and vast but sonically raw and intimate.
There are lots of composers that I’m inspired by but it’s often a very specific thing that I’m drawn to—maybe the reverberant space of a recording, or a type of bass sound, or the way the guitar interlocks with other instruments. Some of my heroes include Sigur Rós, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, Bon Iver, and Rival Consoles. It’s great that artists like Nils Frahm, Max Richter, and Ólafur Arnalds have really spread the appeal of modern-classical and ambient music, introducing that style of music to a new audience. The music is probably best suited to people that are quite open-minded and have an eclectic taste in music.
What usually inspires your work? Do you have a regimented schedule when it comes to composing, or do you work as the inspiration takes you? What does a day-in-the-life-of-Drexler look like?
This changes project by project. With Drexler, I prefer to wait until inspiration kicks in but I might force myself to sit down and do some writing if I’ve been lazy and not written in a while. I don’t always have that luxury with other projects—with adverts you’re often expected to deliver a professional sounding demo within 24 hours. If I’m working on a film project I will approach it with normal work hours to make sure I’m working on cues efficiently and consistently.
I’m really interested in how different artists approach songwriting and composition. I read in an article years ago that Nick Cave will go to his office and make sure he writes every day, treating it like a job. I’m sure it’s a lot more organic than that but it’s an interesting mentality nonetheless. That writer’s block can be solved by just sitting down and writing until you break down the metaphorical wall.
What are you working on right now? When will we hear more from Drexler?
I’m currently in between projects—I’ve recently scored two short films and am scoring a feature documentary that’s currently on hold. I have a bunch of tracks from Handles that have been remixed by some great composer/producer friends of mine which will be released before the end of the year. I’m really looking forward to sharing that one. I have a number of other potential ideas for Drexler. I actually sat down at the piano this week and started playing some famous Aussie pop songs and really enjoyed reworking those. I won’t say which songs I might cover but they would be vastly different from the originals. I’ve recently bought a new Kawai piano so I’m just looking for an excuse to record it.
I discovered Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices a couple of years ago and was so moved by it that I’m tempted to work on a choral work. I’ve never written for voice before but am really interested in all the different sounds a voice can make, as well as the many vocal traditions to draw from. It’d be a great challenge. I’m also curious to push the Drexler music into a more electronic and beat-heavy realm. Again, it’s not something I’ve done a lot of or have a natural knack for, so I’m excited about the prospect of getting out of my comfort zone and seeing what surprises come of it.
Handles Limited Edition CD