Difference is magic: Matt Hsu chats his Obscure Orchestra, and the rapper he needs to complete it

Along with his Obscure Orchestra, Matt Hsu is currently undertaking one of the freshest feeling projects in Australian music right now. Having created a 20-instrument backing track all by himself, Hsu is now on the lookout for vocalists to finish things off.

Prioritising diversity in all fields, from his vocalists’ background to the kind of instruments he plays, we’re beyond excited to see who answers the call – not to mention hear the final product.

As the project ticks ever along, we caught up with Matt for a chat.

matt hsu's obscure orchestra
Photo: Aimee Catt Photography

Matt Hsu is looking for upcoming rappers to join his Obscure Orchestra: a experimental collaborative project culminating in a unique new hip hop track.

HAPPY: Hey Matt, how’s it going? What are you up to at the moment?

MATT: Enjoying the tonic of the wilderness and wandering under green cathedrals of trees — in between teaching at uni and making music every chance I get. Feeling good!

HAPPY: Obscure Orchestra is indeed an obscure project. Tell us a bit about how it came to fruition.

MATT: As a kid of immigrants, I was exposed to all kind of music. Mum would play these Taiwanese pop songs one moment then The Carpenters the next, and dad has this huge collection of jazz, latin, film scores, everything. So I was immersed in music from places around the world, and I think that feeds a desire to explore those interesting overlaps and spaces in between cultures in my music — including using rare ethnic instruments and thinking about how music changed through history as it moves from place to place.

The musicians I most admire, like Tom Waits and Björk are described as ‘stylistically plural’ — they don’t like being boxed in by any one musical style or scene, but also refuse to chase what’s trending. They use these raw materials of sound to continual make something completely new — and probably don’t overthink what they’re doing too much, they just go. I love that and take a leaf from it.

HAPPY: Your proficiency with such a wide range of instruments is pretty staggering. Where did it all start for you?

MATT: It started the same as most people, with a terrible squeaky recorder in primary school. I just never gave up on making terrible sounds and they became less terrible, maybe.

When I started picking up trumpet and drums, I remember a moment of panic listening to my favourite album (I think it was …art by Regurgitator). Instead of hearing the music as a cohesive whole, I started discerning each instrument and thought I’d never be able to enjoy music innocently again. After I while though, in seeing all the moving parts I could appreciate the purpose and effort of each instrument. I’d listen to songs on repeat, zeroing in to a different instrument each time. I didn’t know it at the time, but I started understanding the ingredients I needed to create music.

Then when I joined The Mouldy Lovers eight years ago, I was exposed to more ‘ingredients’. Being surrounded by musicians, I got to play around and have friends give me crash courses with all these instruments. It’s been the best time, I got to travel Australia, tour internationally, and meet some of the most crucial people to my life.

HAPPY: As such a wide-ranging multi-instrumentalist, where do you find your passions lie the most?

MATT: More than any particular instrument, I’m kind of infatuated with natural sound. Mountain wind, food carts, foot traffic, animals, rain, leaves, hiking footfalls, chatting grandmas, train doors. I make these experimental videos called Found Sound where I combine field recordings from travel into a sort of musical narrative. There’s so much potential sound in the world we inhabit not yet considered for music – and I want to catch them all.

HAPPY: I see you’re playing an erhu in the Obscure Orchestra clip – how does oriental music fit into your creative vision?

MATT: That’s actually a saw that I’m bowing, which Victoria Falconer from feminist comedy troupe Fringe Wives Club taught me how to play over a video chat. It has that sometimes creepy vaudeville quality that Tom Waits wields so well.

But yes, I definitely use instruments outside of the Western musical vocabulary and I’ve been looking for an erhu. I think using these instruments with more conventional ones is a way for me to explore that overlap of culture. Like how we’ve incorporated the word ‘zeitgeist’ or ‘umami’ into the english lexicon to express things better or fill in meaning gaps, why not do that in music with instruments. Use an mbira (African thumb piano) with a banjo, with a shakuhachi.

HAPPY: I know you’re open to all rappers for to finish off the song – but do you have a dream collaborator for the project?

MATT: I spend a bit of time performing with Indigenous band Apakatjah at Woodford last year, and it hammered home the idea that music can be such a powerful vehicle for messages. When that thoughtfulness and is combined with charisma, it’s a beautiful thing.

Sampa the Great and Remi are supernatural in that combination of thought and charisma. But I’ve talked to some people lately who have it in spades.

HAPPY: Have you dabbled in rapping before?

MATT: Haha, when I was 15 was in a metal band, I’d rap covers of Rage Against The Machine. I was all over those Zack de la Rocha lyrics. Man. He’s still the raddest.

As a ‘real’ musician, I’ve never dabbled in hip-hop util now. It was a nice challenge to create some of those familiar hip-hop sound tropes, without using samples, loops or electronics — and I can’t wait to spend time with and learn from rappers and vocalists soon.

HAPPY: How do you envision vocals and lyrics fitting into the track? Is there a coherent theme that you have in mind?

MATT: The one thing I have on my mind is diversity — if not as a theme then motivating the makeup of the collaborators. I want to create something that takes into account diversity in sound, style, experiences, thinking and gender (including non-binary people), over things like notability of artist.

HAPPY: You said that Emily Wurramara are interested in featuring on the track – have she actually jumped on board?

MATT: Yep, Emily Wurramara is dong the choruses. She recently had a baby but she’s committed and ready. She’s delightful and a force to reckon with. We met at the QMusic Awards last year, and we’ve had nice chat, but to make sure it’s a well rounded collaboration, we’ll have deeper conversations once everyone is onboard and has a chance to pitch in concepts.

HAPPY: How do you imagine all the vocalists working together? Will it be completely fragmented, stylistically?

MATT: That stylistic variety in vocal style and rhythm is kind of what I’m hoping for, secretly. It’ll be great to see how each artist interprets the theme and instrumentals. I think in the differences of each artist, including myself, holds it’s own kind of magic. Difference is magic.

HAPPY: Any last words for anyone open to submitting?

MATT: If you’re interested, get in touch with me at my Facebook page.

At the end of this all, I’ll be making one ‘official’ version of the song. I hope we get to work together on it! But if we don’t, and you like the beat, feel free to use it to flex your skills. If you do release it in some unofficial form, just title it “[Your name] x Matt Hsu’s Obscure Orchestra – [Your title] (unofficial)”.