Interview: San Franciso’s Mr. Hong Aims to be at his Most Expressive through Music

There’s a quiet confidence to Mr. Hong that I noticed during our chat. He’s very articulate in describing the many stages his musical career has been through while recounting the life stories that have inspired the music he makes…despite self-proclaiming himself as not being “the best at describing [his] emotions in words”.

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That confidence extends itself to the music he makes, be it boom-bap hip-hop or jazz or even Bossanova. Challenging any new genre he’s captivated by head-on, these moments are when Mr. Hong is at his most expressive and also when he can be at his most revealing.

Whether if it’s on the two collaborative albums he’s done with Melbourne musician pastels or on his EP One Year Later, Mr. Hong has left little tidbits of his life hiding in plain sight if you know where to look for them.

Read about these moments in our interview below and listen to his latest album cafe p.m. here.

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Turntable Thoughts:

Tell me about yourself.

Mr. Hong:

My name is Matt and I go by the artist name Mr. Hong. I’ve been making music for about 8 years at this point, professionally since 2015. I’m originally from the San Francisco area, born and raised. 

The way I make music is that I pretend is like a diary entry. The idea and goal is to bring you back to that specific moment in time and how I was feeling. I wouldn’t say that I’m the best at describing my emotions in words (my girlfriend can attest to that) [laughs]. However, I can do that through music.

I also have a lot of influence from Jazz musicians like Chick Corea, Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery, along with more contemporary artists like Thundercat and Kamasi Washington.

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Turntable Thoughts:

What about your recent work?

Mr. Hong:

Last year or so, when quarantine started, I partnered up with a Melbourne musician. Her name is Annie and goes by the name pastels. We created an album together titled cafe a.m. and another called cafe p.m. in December of last year. 

The idea for both projects was about the 2 things we missed the most – coffee shops and the nightlife. We wanted each album to pay homage to those times and experiences of our lives.

cafe a.m. was about a coffee shop where two people met, along with all the vibes and feelings that come with it. cafe p.m. continues the story of those two people going for a night out, stopping at this cool Spanish piano bar, a diner for late-night eats, then a Korean bar for some soju and fried chicken. Finally ending the night where cafe a.m. started where it comes full circle.

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Turntable Thoughts:

Was the use of a connected narrative easier to convey the emotions that you had through the music?

Mr. Hong:

I would say so, yeah. Though that’s definitely more relevant for my solo work. When I was working with pastels or someone else, we’d think of a concept rather than actual emotion. For cafe a.m., there were a lot of instances and feelings and song/sound choices that were born out of emotion. 

As for p.m., we just wanted to make fun music. Since we’re trying to recreate that feeling of barhopping and drinking, we just wanted to make music that we hoped to hear when we were out ourselves. 

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Turntable Thoughts:

Since you put it that way, why was cafe a.m. and p.m. a narrative instead of just a collection of songs?

Mr. Hong:

Good question. I think Annie and I always wanted to tell a story through our music.  

Well, cafe a.m. actually follows the actual story of me and my girlfriend. While we’ve always had this huge love for cafes, we also wanted to tell a story that was cute or relatable. For example, the drink orders in the first two songs –  café au lait and cafe sua da (Vietnamese coffee). The former is usually the way I take my coffee if I don’t do it black. The latter is Annie’s favourite.

Actually, in a.m. the only storytelling done was in its track names. Only on cafe p.m. did we do actual narratives, like you can hear a door closing or someone saying “get the door”. There are a lot more theatrical cues. We did this because cafe p.m. had a lot more vocalists while cafe a.m. is completely instrumental. 

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Turntable Thoughts:

How’s it like to work with pastels?

Mr. Hong:

It’s great! We work together and she has such great cadence. We met through an online Facebook group called Asian Creative Network. I think she messaged me out-of-the-blue to talk about music, and then we started working on things together. This was all pre-pandemic by the way, around June 2019. 

We both use the same software – Logic and also Splice to collaborate. Even though our timezones were messed up, we were still able to find time to work together.  

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Turntable Thoughts:

Could you tell me about your solo music? What do you think is the biggest difference between that and your work with pastels?

Mr. Hong:

My music from 2015 – 2017 is definitely a lot moodier but also relaxing and chill. I don’t like throwing the term ‘lo-fi’ around but that’s definitely what my music was at the time. Since then, my solo stuff has been more sample-based.

In 2019, I released my first full-length album Midnight. A lot more old school hip-hop, whereas the cafe series was more jazzy and a lot of Bossanova. My own early work was very boom-bap, very much like J Dilla. That’s probably the biggest distinction so far.

I’ve also been working with a lot of other producers too just to expand my sound, whether it’s more trap or hip-hop. Then I picked up the guitar too cause I’m just looking to learn a lot of new things. 

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Turntable Thoughts:

Is there any specific musical influence that is a mainstay in your life while you experiment with different genres?

Mr. Hong:

Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of Whereisalex. He’s a producer based in Texas who has a very fresh style of combining gospel with hip-hop and R&B along with electronic. That’s the vibe that I’m slowly moving towards. He just has some crazy work and a recent inspiration of mine.

Overall though, I think a lot about J Dilla. I go back to Donuts at least once a week just because of the way he splices samples. Though to be honest, I haven’t played with samples in a long time cause when working with pastels, we tend to create everything from scratch. 

Still, just the way Dilla is able to manipulate a sample is just ridiculous to me. Like he could hear a snare from another track and use it from his own song and…it’s just some magic. It’s hard to explain. [laughs]

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Turntable Thoughts:

Tell me a bit more about your early sampled music.

Mr. Hong:

There’s a song on an EP I did in 2018 – One Year Later called “December 1st”. I actually had surgery on that day in 2017 where I had a growth on my forehead and at the time, we had no idea what it was. The song was born from the uneasiness I felt, not knowing what was going to happen or whether it was cancerous or not.

On that song, I sampled “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. There’s this part where Gene Wilder’s singing reminded me a lot about what I was thinking of back then; trying not to be too pessimistic about the situation, that life is just what you make of it.

It was a song that I heard in my childhood but now its relevant to the situation I’m in so I wanted to call back and change it up a bit.

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Turntable Thoughts:

What are your plans for the future?

Mr. Hong:

If the pandemic is over this year, Annie and I want to do a short tour. A lot of our fanbase is based in Asia, plus I just wanna go back cause I miss eating good food and seeing family.

In terms of music, we’ve been tossing around this idea of an album based on Hawaii. Island vibes, just something to listen to in the summer. Also, Annie and I along with my Chilean friend Alberto have a song coming out next week [editor’s note: actually out now!] called “Orchid Island”

I’ve mostly been working on singles though. One of my goals is to release an EP on August 1st of this year. That’s pretty much it for the year, we’ll see what happens!

Posted by

Based in Melbourne and Malaysia. Jensen is a part-time journalist and full-time music fan.

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