“I believe that a good film score is when you don’t notice it but you feel it, however with Drexler I can be a bit more adventurous and in-your-face without being worried that it’s disrupting anything”.
Born in Sydney to parents from Hong Kong, Drexler (Adrian Leung) began his musical journey at the age of 5, learning both the piano and violin. At 13, he began writing songs and teaching himself the guitar. Then on, he furthered his skills and knowledge in the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, though he admits that his course’s experimental avant-garde concert music was “a bit alienating as [he] wanted [his] music to connect to people.”
It wasn’t till he got to the Australian Film Television and Radio School, that he realised he could make a living out of writing music. Since then he’s made a steady career writing music for films, tv and advertisements.
Though Drexler enjoys working under the boundaries and narrative set by his film/TV work, he’s always felt the need to express himself individually. “A body of work to call my own,” he calls it.
Enter Handles, a multi-year project that saw him gathering his influences and collaborators throughout his life for a debut album that’s personal and, more importantly, a product of what he loves to make.
Listen to Handles here, and the full interview down below.
With all the film/TV work you’ve done, could you tell me what it’s like to make out a career as an instrumental artist?
Probably like a lot of artists out there, the struggle is real. I think I’m lucky in some ways that I also teach part-time, so I’ve always got that as a steady income. I also compose music for film, advertising and documentaries. There are just so many ways to creatively make music these days.
I guess my style of music is very niche too. This is my first album, so maybe in 5 years time I can give you a better answer. [laughs]
Still, it’s me working very hard, putting myself out there a lot, doing a lot of networking, and working to tight deadlines with advertising projects. Sometimes it’s like: ‘We need this music in 5 hours’ and you have to write 30 seconds of professional-standard music in that time.
In terms of Drexler stuff, hopefully it will get into films and adverts as well, having another life of its own. I think instrumental music is becoming a bit more popular now too – people that listen to it while working from home, when they study or sleep even. It’s exciting times you know, people are open to all sorts of music now.
How much did your film/TV work influence your current musical output?
A lot! As a composer, it’s great doing my film work where I get a brief of a story from the director and they tell me what they want with the music. But then the Drexler stuff allows me to be a bit more experimental and creative, allowing me to go to unknown places. The music is very emotive and cinematic, rich in emotion…I think in some ways that is influenced by my experiences writing for film/TV.
Let’s talk about Handles. How did the recording process go?
I’d probably started writing these Drexler tunes about 2 years ago or longer. It would be me starting on piano, either a real or sampled one, and then embellishing the melodies there. The album is very piano-based with lots of strings, synths, folky guitars and soundscapes.
There’s this orchestral influence, where every Saturday I used to play in a youth orchestra in Australia while also playing the violin growing up. In university I was in a folk-rock band, which leads to the folky elements I mentioned earlier. The cinematic sound comes from where I am at the moment – a film/TV composer.
The music really escalated when I asked some friends to come and record the string parts. Most of the music I had written involved sample libraries, my piano, guitar or violin but when I got these amazing musicians to come in, that was when the music came to life.
One of the things that’s unique about Handles is the field recordings I’m using. Those are recordings I’ve captured on my travels and holidays. Incorporating them made Handles personal to me.
Speaking of the field recordings, where was the favourite place you visited and also the favourite thing you recorded.
My favourite is in the final track “Wollondilly Nights” where I recorded the native birds in New South Wales when I was camping with my now-wife, then-girlfriend at the time. Went on a camping trip with my dog, very romantic and chill, and…just a beautiful time in our lives.
It just takes me back to the time by the campfire in the Australian landscape. I really love that memory.
In your press release, you said your new music was “freeing to write without any direction and purpose”, could you tell me a bit more about that?
I guess it’s a reaction towards writing for film and TV. When I do so, I’m putting myself into the music but at the end of the day, it’s all about the director’s vision. Whereas here, I’m the director of my own music.
I believe that a good film score is when you don’t notice it but you feel it, however with Drexler I can be a bit more adventurous and in-your-face without being worried that it’s disrupting anything.
I also wanted to talk about your folk-rock band. Tell me more about your time in it.
It’s funny. We released 2 EPs over ten years ago – before all this streaming business – and we just put our second one up on Spotify a few days ago. The band was called Saving Grace, probably one of the worst band names out there. We were together for about 6 to 7 years.
I would write half of the songs while the lead singer wrote the rest. I also played guitar, piano and did backup vocals.
The lineup also consisted of cello, violin, drums and bass. It was a great time in our lives, touring around Australia and being with your best mates; writing music and doing gigs. But, I don’t think our music was very suitable for the Australian scene. That’s not an excuse for why we weren’t successful but our music was just kinda hard to pigeonhole.
For example, it wasn’t really like the Triple J demographic, too adult contemporary. Still, the musicians that I played with were amazing and they’re still some of my best friends.
Did any of them play a role in the making of Handles?
No one’s asked me this before but yeah, actually. The lead singer, Sam McNeill, lives in London, he’s my best mate and he sings on the track “Blossoms” at the very end. Sonja Schebeck, the violinist who played on most of the album, was also in the band.
In some ways, Handles is like a new beginning but I’m still relying on old friendships and working with people I’ve known for a long time.
That’s cool actually. Just having your past life experiences just come together for your debut album.
Yeah! Looking back, that might become my best memory of the album. [laughs] I say memory but it’s only been, like, a month old. I relied on a lot of people to be generous with their time and believing in my music. In that sense, I’m really grateful and the process in making the album feels just as great as the results that are coming in now.
Were there any specific influences that went into making Handles?
There was a lot actually. For example, the guitar picking style reminds me of José González, someone I used to listen to 10-15 years ago. Some of the electric guitar lines were inspired by the opening track from Radiohead’s album In Rainbows. The bass sound in the Sigur Ros albums was an inspiration too.
However, I don’t try to be influenced by them too much if not I’ll end up sounding the same. It’s always the little things – that one guitar sound or one finger-picking style or a reverb sound of a room, then kinda using them as inspiration.
Nils Fram is a pioneer in the modern classical style and one of the first people to record the piano with felt placed above the strings. It creates a very soft and delicate sound, very unique and intimate. I guess it’s about recording the imperfections of the music instrument, like hearing the pedals, squeaks or keys. That’s an aesthetic I’ve taken aboard as well.
Just to wrap things up, what future plans do you have for Drexler?
I’m going to release a remix album towards the end of the year. So I’ve asked a bunch of music composer and producer friends of mine to rework the Handles tracks, adding some beats and their spin on it. I’m considering composing a choral work – I was really inspired after hearing Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 voices. I’m also keen to experiment with more synths and electronics too. Other than that, I don’t really know what’s happening, just a bunch of ideas bouncing around in my head.