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In conversation with Kai Whiston

“Devastatingly beautiful symphony”

Kai Whiston’s music sounds like memories put through a shredder and stitched back together into an overwhelmingly eccentric collage. Born to a raver mother, who was a New Age Traveller, Whiston’s influences are deeply rooted in the dawn of what we know rave music to be. On his latest project, Quiet as Kept, F.O.G. , Whiston returns to the nostalgia (real and imagined) of that time, and narrates it through a never-heard-before brooding sound of everything from hardcore, breakbeat and trance to accompanying live string quartets. His distinct production style attracted collaborations from our favs like Shygirl, COUCOU CHLOE and Tommy Cash – and now it’s time for it to shine in full glory with his long-anticipated solo album. Described as a “devastatingly beautiful symphony”, Whiston’s work teleports us to a radical new ground, limitless in its storytelling and musical ambition. In light of the release, we caught up with the artist to deep dive into what’s hiding behind.

Hey! How have you been?

Good. I’ve been directing this video for an artist and preparing for the extended version of my album. Not so much admin stuff, which has been super nice.

Ah nice! Keeping busy after the release. How has it been having the project finally out?

It’s the biggest anticlimax ever. The only difference is that it’s on Spotify now. In your head, you think it’s going to reinvent everything. I find most of the excitement is in the buildup. When it does come out, you have like one afternoon of reading nice things here and there. But if I sit and dwell on it too much, I go crazy. Usually, it’s like post-release depression.

Like a massive dopamine crash.

Exactly, I have to keep working to avoid the comedown. I haven’t had much time to reflect on it, which is good and bad. But right own it feels good.

Could you tell me a bit more about Quiet as Kept, F.O.G.?

I started it very late 2019, around the release of my previous album, Drayan!. I was just dabbling into the visual world of all of it, trying to make these connections. I started with this foggy feeling, and wanted to create a sonic world around that. I was doing a lot of orchestral stuff, string arrangements and ambient music, like an antithesis to making a lot of percussion and drums and heavy bass. Then it developed into kind of dance-y music, which I found very interesting as it was coming back to the music I was listening growing up. My mum was a big raver and a part of the New Age Traveller community. It was an era of Massive Attack and The Prodigy, and it was so defining to be introduced to these artists at an early age. I wanted to use some tropes from that music, and also add that fantasy and mythical element to it, which is more in line with how memories work for me.

The album definitely gave me a dream-like, distorted memories feel.

Yeah, it’s around my memories of growing up, in a romantic and over-the-top way. It’s almost like these memories become mythological after a certain period of time, raw facts break away and it becomes emotion-based. I also wanted to create something that told the story of my mum and her upbringing, and where I fell in all of that. For a long time, I was critical of the community my mum was a part of, and how it affected my upbringing. After I left home and had my own freedom in the world, I reached a point of having this more rounded view – you begin to see the situation for what it is. This album is a musical exploration of that. Artistically and sonically, it’s a bit of a left turn from what I usually do, but explains this particular story better.

So, what was you mum’s world like, and how did you fit in there? Not to sound too Freudian, haha

My mum left home when she was about 15, in like late 80s. She joined the New Age Traveller community, which is this community of nomads, living off-grid in caravans and buses, with this idea of freedom and not being attached to one place. She was in the thick of it when Acid House was born, and everything around what we know to be rave music. They were just constantly chasing the rave. She was a visual artist, so was a lot of designing backdrops, flyers and murals for musicians. She did this throughout the 90s and then had me in ’99, so had to change up her lifestyle and get out of that environment. I think by that point she’d seen a lot of difficulties with kids in those communities.


Can you recall much from that time?

I was homeless or living in caravans until I was maybe one or two years old, but I still grew up around those communities afterwards. Our house was a hotbed of people coming in and out, a lot of my mum’s friends and many weird characters, sometimes problematic characters. It became kind of like a social little club thing. I’m still in touch with some of those people, but also have had a healthy distance. Which was needed, to not be overly sentimental or protective about these things. I have all these phone conversations with my mum interwoven into the album, her talking about all the romantic and amazing sides of that lifestyle, as well as some grim and horrible things. I tried to depict all of that in a balanced way – as balanced as an emotional view of the past can be. There are no big conclusions, it’s just an experience of that life. It’s been interesting to see the reactions to it. Most people listening to this album don’t know anything about the New Age Travellers community or anything, and then they become engaged through the storytelling, and find their own relevancy to it.

I feel like there is a lot of glorification of this nomadic hippie lifestyle nowadays. With so much chaos and uncertainty in the world, this idea of not conforming and living off-grid has become so romanticised. 

There is definitely a lot of movements and attention drawn to like van lifestyle. Now, it’s dressed up as a lot more glamorous than it was. Back in the 90s, it was very gritty, you had all these crusty punks and ravers who were considered to be outcasts of society. From what I see now, people have these fancy convertible vans and remote jobs – they’re still members of society. They just live elsewhere, but they still need Wi-Fi, you know? I think a lot of people want to live that lifestyle, and are drawn to the album through that nostalgia – more like fake nostalgia – of the 90s and the rave scene. I think others are drawn to the family aspect of it, and how personal it is. I didn’t make it with anything specific in mind, it was just cathartic. I wanted to make something that I myself would like to see in the world. It’s strange, it feels like past tense but it only came out a month ago. When it’s out, it’s not yours anymore. It’s just a strange letting go thing. You lose the romance of having this secret that no one knows about. Forgive me if I sound cold, it’s weird that it’s just out and people can listen to it without needing my reassurance or guidance.

Your listeners now have their own authority over how they choose to interact with it.

Yeah, and I feel like I always want to give extra context. All of my favourite records come from digging for all the additional context. I want to give all that. It’s strange like, damn, I spent three years of my life on that, my head’s already in the new thing.

I guess it’s just a creative cycle. (At this point, the interview gets interrupted by a marriage celebration outside of Whiston’s window.)

Apologies for the noise! Someone is getting married just outside my window. It’s literally the worst road to do this on, so bizarre, haha

Speaking of strange things – I guess they will always be following you! Where are you now?

In Dalston in East London.

How’s London been treating you?

I only moved to London about two years ago, Dalston is a nice little pocket of it. I’m mostly on my laptop indoors anyway, haha. I was living in Margate, a weird seaside place with my friends. Lockdown happened, and I moved in with my mum, which really helped the album. Having the first-hand reference point as opposed to thinking about all these things independently. It’s very much a retirement town, a lot of old people and strange kids.

Sounds like such a contrast to what you described your mum’s lifestyle to be like.

Yeah, it’s such a secluded place.

Growing up there, would you say it was a challenge or more like a blank canvas to express yourself creatively?

My friend Iglooghost was also from that tiny town, and we were able to learn and discover things together, just because we were the only ones who gave a shit about all of that. There were no cool communities around electronic music or arts or anything, so we were forced into this survival mode. It’s easier to break these original identities with the Internet. We were both Internet kids, we weren’t really into Dorset parties. We were always interested in what was happening in big cities, and always felt a bit outsider-y. We both went to uni for Bristol, and we had this idea that we’d join this amazing community and get discovered. In the end, we were still doing the same thing, hanging out with each other, being laptop kids anyway and finding own issues with Bristol. I’m now still growing into London, it’s still a bit alien to me. 

And back to the album, I’ve also read that there will be a novel to accompany it. Could you share a bit more about this?

It was a project I undertook with my mum, I did most of the writing and she did most of the illustrations. I wanted to create a parallel to this album as well – I directed a bunch of videos for it, but still had that itch to explore another medium. I also started to feel like I was becoming too much of a record label person, so I wanted to do something else. The story is around this character called Div, she is a New Age Traveller and it’s all kind of based around my mum, the way she speaks. It’s around her character but as someone who had just gotten into the community, has all this excitement and romance and is over-stimulated by this new world. Like a journal of her experience. It’s special – it’s like speaking to my mum through that character. She is a cleaner or unemployed most of the time, so she hasn’t had space to do her art and what she loves. This was a good way to prompt her, and she was really excited. Right now, there are about 20 pages out. We might come back to it and make it like a proper comic to publish.

You seem to go back to visual arts a lot. Has music always been something you wanted to do or just another medium to express yourself?

I always wanted to be able to direct stuff, but honesty just never had the resources to. I’m very visual in how I approach music, I need to know what the artwork and everything around it would be before I write anything. The first video I did for Between Lures was this gigantic spectacle, cinematic thing, which was super fun. I wanted to make a big expensive production for my campaign. Then I did this other video, which cost no money or time, it was just a collection of images and photographs played really fast. And that was the one that got the most attention.

I guess it’s a nice reminder that fancy production is not always necessary if you have a good idea.  

Exactly. But I’m very cautious of branding myself as this gimmick-y multimedia artist, I just want to engage with whatever the creative thing that feels right at a certain moment, as opposed to “oh, look at me, I can do videos, and songs, and blah blah”. I don’t want to brag or anything, I just think I’m alright at some of those things. I really don’t want to say that I can do anything – I cannot. I’m lucky to have a lot of talented people around me to learn from, and to mask my terribleness with their involvement.

All images courtesy of Kai Whiston

Words by Evita Shrestha