Beethoven and a Broken Laptop Turned Korea Town Acid into Toronto's Buzzy Beatmaker

"My relationship with these machines really affects my sound. The longer I play them, the more they know me inside out, and vice versa," says Jessica Cho
Beethoven and a Broken Laptop Turned Korea Town Acid into Toronto's Buzzy Beatmaker
Photo: Paddington Scott
Jessica Cho energetically reaches toward the numerous drum machines and synthesizers that not only make her Toronto apartment's living room table look like an android's innards, but also help her create the futuristic and frenzied music under her alias Korea Town Acid. Among the multitudes of buttons and wires, she points to one of the smaller consoles, a pale white Elektron Model:Cycles that she has been particularly fond of as of late. She turns its dials, making it give off a deep-water warble and a soft glow that contrasts sharply with her neon orange painted fingernails and equally bright dyed red hair. "You can make kick drums, a hi-hat and synths with this. It has such a pure design. Its manipulation is so easy," she enthuses while tapping the groove box's buttons and turning more of its dials as its percussion begins to pop and thud.

Her fondness for colour and sound spectrums is indeed obvious during our recent Zoom call ahead of the release of her new album Elephant in the Room (out today via URBNET) and a run of exciting summer performances, including festival sets at New York's esteemed Paragon and Montreal's MUTEK. She says, "I'm just wrapping my mind around what I will bring with me during my upcoming sets. I have a new mixer with so many effects, which is great because it will let me not bring a bunch of machines. I have to be so intentional now with what I bring to the table for live performances."

That sentiment is evident in her performances and on her songs, because she is by no means a DJ who merely presses play. Cho has made a name for herself by building intricate soundscapes live on stages and in the studio, prompting Cadence Weapon to tap her to produce "Play No Games" on his Polaris Music Prize-winning album Parallel World, and helping her performances and recent albums — Metamorphosis and Cosmos, both released at a breathless pace in 2021 – all gain a fervent fanbase.

Assured and inspired as she sounds before these summer shows, Cho felt the opposite while creating her latest album.

"Right now I'm having more fun experimenting with machines and going harder, because things are kind of back," she says. "But this album captures my state of mind during lockdown, which was a very challenging time for me personally. So this is very moody music."

Not to say she's only getting innovative now, ahead of these new shows. She broke new ground on Elephant in the Room, including running drums through a Elektron Digitakt sampler for a sound that she calls "very experimental." During seven months of lockdown in her home studio, she strove to stay balanced but steadily productive – both for the sake of her artistry and her mental health — by creating some of those tracks meticulously on her computer, and others in one take with a modulator. "And some are layered and have the best of both worlds," she says of the different approaches, adding, "I have a different recording method for every track."

Cho's vast range of beat-making techniques, especially the more hands-on examples, echoes her musical origins, in a way. But they couldn't seem more different on the surface. During elementary school in her native Seoul, before she moved to Toronto, Cho's mother enrolled her in piano lessons at a music school. "I'd be sent to my room to practice for at least three hours, four to five times a week," Cho recalls. Then: a conspiratorial grin, as she adds, "At one point I recorded myself practicing, then turned that recording up loud so it sounded like I was still playing, even though I was reading comic books. My mom was so disappointed." Tough as that period was, it paled in comparison to her cousin's eight-hour practice periods on a grand piano, with the aim of becoming a classical pianist. When Cho heard her cousin play the third movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, she recalls thinking it was "weirdly complex and really moving, instead of the happy, boring pieces I was learning." But her piano teacher insisted it was too advanced, so young Jessica returned to her room and taught herself one of classical music's most sophisticated pieces, tapping into the elaborate sonic strata and headstrong drive that fuel her music to this day.

"The practices I adopted, and the musical memory and ear I developed then, are still helpful for me today. But, honestly, I'm more of a experimental and intuitive person, and want to be genre fluid," she reflects.

Despite the familial pressure, Cho was far more fascinated by rap and K-pop — but not today's BTS-style chart toppers. Rather, the more underground and eclectic acts like Humming Urban Stereo, Roller Coaster and Caske, who created subgenres under the K-pop umbrella.

One day at music school, Cho's teacher showed her a Yamaha multi-instrumental synthesizer that used bulky floppy discs. At the time, the niche K-pop and Korean movie soundtracks that she ravenously listened to inspired Cho to create "moody soundtrack-y piano things on that Yamaha at school. That was very exciting for me. And, from there, I wanted to learn about other synthesizers and invest in them. Eventually, I sold some of my stuff and busked, and kept trying to find the next machine to express myself."

In Toronto, she would occasionally busk at Kensington Market and other outdoor attractions to boost her exposure. She remembers, "I wasn't busking all the time to make a living or anything. I was really just young and clueless, but when you're that age and naïve, you put yourself out there. But I'm glad because it helped fortify me." She says becoming a finalist at Honey Jam in 2009 "gave me the assurance I needed." She played in bands and in a duo called CHOBO before striking off on her own as Korea Town Acid, dropping her debut EP, Mahogani Forest, in 2018. After the Cadence Weapon collab and her breakthrough album Metamorphosis in early 2021, she capped that landmark year with Cosmos in October. Its key track, "Sobriety," was nominated for Underground Dance Single of the Year at the 2022 Juno Awards.

Before she became Korea Town Acid and her career kicked into high gear, Cho made much of her music on a laptop with a MIDI controller. When her laptop died and she lost swaths of music, "It was traumatizing. But sometimes you need shit like that to have a turning point. That's when I got really into live hardware," she says.

And now, Cho's live beat-building prowess sets her apart and compels the likes of Cadence Weapon to choose her instrumentals.

For Cho, that hardware is so much more than a set of instruments. As she puts it: "My relationship with these machines really affects my sound. The longer I play them, the more they know me inside out, and vice versa. Sometimes in a relationship, you don't talk every day, and that's okay. Then when you talk again, and pick up right where you left off. So yes — these machines really bring out parts of your personality."