Public Library Commute on Nostalgia, Inspirations, and His Latest Record
Fresh off the release of his latest EP, Sienna 1999, Public Library Commute talks modern day interpretations of genre, memories of sampling Hawaiian music in his parents’ living room, and the origin of his unique stage name and more in this exclusive WIUX interview.
Conrad Hsiang, a senior studying Music Industry at Hamilton College, is better known on the internet as Public Library Commute, or PLC, for short. If I had to guess what Conrad was doing right now, I would guess that he was making music. And this guess would probably be right. He is responsible for producing some of the smoothest sounding alternative hip-hop cuts of the past few years and has found himself landing credits on blockbuster projects such as Healy’s Subluxe and Felly’s Wild Strawberries mixtape. On September 26th, Public Library Commute released Sienna 1999, a follow-up to his self-titled effort from 2016. And now, after steadily cultivating a loyal following of more than 4,000 fans on SoundCloud since 2013, Conrad is quickly breaking out from behind the boards and turning his own masterful instrumentals into absolute hits. I caught up with Hsiang last week to find out more about the new record and himself as an artist. I left feeling thoroughly inspired. Read our conversation below:
Where are you from? Tell me a little bit about who you are.
I’m from a small town in North Jersey called Mountain Lakes, and I lived there pretty much my whole life and right now I’m living in upstate New York going to school. I go to Hamilton College, which is like, 45 minutes east of Syracuse. So yeah, I’ve spent the past three years here. I’m a senior now and I’m finally in my last year. But yeah, I’m originally from North Jersey.
How did you start making music? What is your musical background, your influences, and who are maybe some of your favorite artists over the years?
I played trumpet in school and that maybe did a little bit to fuel my interest, I guess. But I think it was mainly when I started playing the guitar in 8th grade. I don’t even remember who it was specifically that got me into it, but I listened to a lot of folk music and I wanted to play some folk songs. [Laughs] So I picked up the guitar. Then, sophomore year of high school, so I was like 15 or 16, I saw a Kanye beat video on YouTube where he was, like, using that MPC or whatever, and I thought, ‘that just looks like the most fun thing ever.’ So I started figuring out how to do that on my own. Kanye inspired me a lot along the way, that was the first hip-hop I got into, which then got me into producing. I used to listen to a lot of Blue. I used to like all of his jazzy stuff. But recently I’ve been listening to a lot of old jazz stuff like Julie London I really like and Joao Gilberto. He’s great. So a lot of different stuff.
That’s interesting you say that because I definitely hear some of those types of influences, especially the jazz, come through in some of your recent work. Of those names you mentioned, are there any specific aspects of your sound that you can attribute to being that way because of a certain person or album or moment of inspiration?
Yeah definitely. Hearing you ask that makes me realize I left out a pretty big name, which is King Krule. I used to- I mean, I don’t know how familiar you are with his stuff but a lot of the guitar sounds I use, the chords, the sort of reverb on the electric guitar, that’s definitely derivative of his work. I found him junior year of high school and I fell in love with his music. He’s probably the reason, because I was really into producing at the time and I kind of forgot about guitar, that I stayed with the guitar and tried to incorporate it more into my music which sort of created that hip-hop, guitar hybrid that I think is kind of cool. So King Krule definitely, with the guitar but in terms of the other people I listed, sampling jazz I think comes from Kanye. He used to be very big into sampling, still is actually. And, like, the jazz chords, the major sevenths, that’s just the type of sound I really go for and it’s definitely because I listened to those artists.
Why the name Public Library Commute? Where does that come from and what does it mean?
[Laughs] Yeah I get that a lot, the “where does it come from?”. It started out as PLC. Honestly, that was kind of like… I don’t know I thought it was cool, you know, like RZA, GZA, all that type of shit. I thought the three letter thing was kind of cool so I just liked that. And then, I think it was my brother, this was probably late high school, who was like, “you could make every album or every project you work on be a different acronym for PLC.” And so the first one we came up with was Public Library Commute because I actually used to work at the library in my town. [Laughs] Just briefly. I used to drive my minivan, I had a minivan, over to the library a couple afternoons a week. So that’s kind of where it came from. It was pretty random I guess, but I kind of like it. I think it has a cool ring to it and it’s definitely not what you’d expect from an artist’s name.
Yeah, for sure. I remember a tape of yours was called, in 2016, Public Library Commute and it was listed under the artist “PLC.”
Yeah, that’s the exact origin of it, right there. That’s an old project, it’s cool you know it.
Before I ask more about where you are at right now in terms of your creative process and the new album, what are some of your passions and interests outside of music?
It’s interesting, I mean, I’ve always loved music that’s always been the main thing. But more recently, I’ve been in school in some art history courses and I’ve taken some painting courses. I really like that sort of visual art and I’ve also messed around with some graphic design. I do all the album art for my stuff just because I like doing that sort of thing. I’ve been really into Impressionism recently, the paintings and the era, and learning about them in school and everything. So yeah, art, definitely. Other than that, I mean, I really spend a lot of time doing music. [Laughs] I used to be really into soccer, I’d say that used to be it. Soccer and Mountain biking, those are my things. And snowboarding too.
I understand you volunteered at Her Majesty’s Prison working with the inmates there on using Ableton, and other music production and recording techniques. Can you tell me a little more about that experience?
Wow, yeah. Dude, that was the craziest thing. So I was actually down there for school and it was this, sort of, volunteer trip during spring break. They said they needed someone who was familiar with music production techniques and so I was like, “Yeah that sounds awesome let’s do it.” So I went down there and we were working with this program called Operation Future, a really cool program. There’s actually a lot of gang violence, unfortunately, on the island of Nevis, so a lot of young kids get wrapped into it. Operation Future works to develop these kids’ interests in the arts and athletics and education, all these different things. It’s a fantastic program. One of the things there I was working on was a rehabilitation through music program. They had recently donated a laptop and software and some MIDI controllers and some keyboards for this program, so I got to go down there and give a demonstration and a presentation on how to use all that stuff to the prisoners. They were all such, you know, good guys and so much fun to work with. It was a really cool experience and I’m really thankful to have had that happen. I don’t think any kids my age would have been given that opportunity. It was really cool.
Getting into the album a little more now, when I first heard your single Buddha a couple weeks ago, the opening lyric “Still the same Buddha on my desk” kind of took me by surprise because I used to have a little golden colored Buddha that would sit on my desk in my freshman dorm room and it was a weird story I used to tell people about how it got there and why I even had a Buddha figurine. So what’s the story behind yours or is there a story? How did it get there, what does it mean to you, and why do you keep a Buddha on your desk?
My grandmother a few years back gifted me that Buddha, the Buddha that I’m talking about, and it came from me sitting at my desk writing the song, looking at this Buddha being like, “damn I’ve had this for years.” But really what I think it’s about- it’s about growing up and, you know, dealing with the new stresses and new responsibilities that come with doing that. For me, these physical or sensational remnants of my youth, like the Buddha on my desk, or like, summer, I talk about my summers a lot in my music, really mean a lot to me. They are answers to how to cope with these new experiences and responsibilities. So I guess I was commenting like, “It’s still the same buddha, I’m still the same kid.” From there it goes, “Easier to read when I’m stressed out,” so, yeah. It sets the scene for still being the same kid.
What is your creative process like?
I mean, I’ve gotta be in a good mood first of all. When I sit down and make music I really just want to make something beautiful, like something that sounds beautiful. So I try to empty that mind state of – it’s sort of transportive, it’s bringing you to another place. I want to be in the mood to create something good. From there I’ll pick up a guitar, either electric or acoustic, and I’ll kind of just mess around. I never got any formal instruction with guitar I just kind of learned myself and so I’ll mess around and play whatever chords I know. If I come up with a melody or something, I’ll put it down and then usually from there, just layer things on top of it, add the drums in, and then sit with it for a while and see what it makes me think about. If it makes me think of something, then I’ll start writing. If not, usually no one ever hears it. I probably go through twenty or thirty projects before something hears something off of it, you know.
What does the time frame look like on that, in terms of inspiration to mastering the final product?
When I make a song, I’m usually in the same mindstate for the whole thing, so it usually happens within a day or two. And then from there, sort of going back and checking on the mix that I did and maybe making some small updates. I’m pretty picky about my stuff. I have to be really happy with it to send it in to mastering. I probably get one song I like every few weeks or so, if I’m lucky. From there I usually wait to put the whole project together before I go and get it mastered. So this last project probably took about eight or nine months, the whole thing. I finished making the tracks around January.
Now I’d like to know which you prefer: Autotune or Melodyne?
I use Melodyne. I mean, I’ve used both. Recently, a lot of the stuff that I think people hear now has some Autotune on it, but that’s just the effect. I think it’s cool, unless you want to build more intentional melodies. I think it just sounds cool. But Melodyne gives you a little bit more control and I kind of like that sound. It fits into clean Autotune and organic vocals. I’ve definitely recently been leaning more into that, sort of, gentle, Autotune feel.
The tape we were talking about earlier, your self-titled EP, came out a little over two years ago now. How has your sound changed or grown since then?
I think it’s grown a lot. Certainly from a production standpoint and probably more from a writing standpoint. Obviously, I’m my own biggest critic, but I think a lot of the production on that album was, not flawed I guess, but just not refined. I think I’ve tightened things up a lot. I try to write with more intention these days and I think my writing has improved a lot since then.
In the past I’ve had difficulty categorizing your music into a genre. How do you categorize your own music? Do you see yourself as operating within a genre, if any?
Yeah, I mean, I don’t know what I could call it. I guess maybe like Alternative R&B, Alternative Hip Hop or something. But I mean that’s something we struggle with, finding a name to call it. Even ourselves, we struggle to identify it. I think it borrows elements from Hip Hop, elements from R&B, pop music, definitely that King Krule influence I was talking about earlier, that sort of guitar sound. Honestly, I haven’t and maybe this is because I think it’s not really worth my time to think about it, but I usually just don’t think about it. It was funny uploading these tracks when we were submitting them to get published and we were just like, “what genre do we go with?” We couldn’t really figure it out. I think we settled on Alternative, just Alternative. So, yeah. I haven’t really thought about it, don’t really plan to. I think it’s cool to just, sort of, do what I think sounds good.
What can listeners expect from your upcoming record, Sienna 1999?
Yeah, so, it actually comes out tomorrow, which is crazy. I’m pretty excited about it. It’s cool because I wouldn’t say it’s all over the place but it definitely explores different sounds that I’ve been interested in. It doesn’t really stick to the Buddha sound or the Fake Hawaii sound or anything. It kind of weaves in and out of different ideas. Man, I don’t even know. It’s all very grounded in nostalgia like, how was I talking about my attachment to these remnants from my youth. That’s sort of the inspiration for all this music. And it also comes from in the past few years, feeling like I’m actually old now! Even though I’m only 21, I’ve been feeling like I’m old. So a lot of it is about finding peace in that nostalgia and feeling young for music again, I guess. That’s what it’s all, sort of, rooted in. But sonically it’s pretty interesting. I think it goes in a few different directions. I’m excited to see how people react to those different directions.
The 1999 Toyota Sienna was a car correct? What does the title Sienna 1999 represent? How does it capture this idea of nostalgia and growing up?
The 1999 Toyota Sienna was the car we had growing up that my brother and my sister and I would always pile into the back of and then my mom and dad would drive us for long drives. It’s the car we had all my life and then eventually it was mine. It was the car I drove to work at the library, it was the car I drove to school every day, and in my senior year of high school it just gave out. It was so old it just stopped running. My siblings and I, I know, all hold that car… you know, there’s a place for it in our hearts. As ridiculous as that sounds, it’s kind of where we grew up. So it’s that same thing of an object just representing so many different experiences to me. And that’s pretty much it. I had a song actually, it’s called Sienna, that I took off the project just because I wasn’t ready to put it out yet. It was definitely one of the more personal tracks. That was the one where I wrote about the Sienna and that’s where the idea for the EP came from, the concept of it.
What’s your favorite track you’ve produced or been a part of?
It honestly might be “$150 / roll widdit” which is a Healy track I produced. I think I really like that one just because I produced it in between my junior and senior years of high school in my living room on my parents’ desktop computer, which was what I was working on. I don’t even think I had speakers, I was just using the laptop speakers. I had my old record player set up so it ran into the computer because I was really into sampling. I had this Hawaiian record that I chopped up these vocal samples from and that beat just came out of it. It’s been like four or five years now since I finished it, so it’s just so cool to me that so many people enjoy listening to it. It sort of feels like the start of my work. So that’s probably my favorite track I’ve been a part of to this point.
Tell me about Braintrust. Who is Braintrust?
Okay, so Braintrust is Ethan Healy, Chaz, who manages Healy and me, and YOG$. That’s Braintrust. There’s four of us right now. We’ve never really described what it is. I think it’s just family. It’s who we like to work with and we just kind of operate as a group. We’ve never sat down and been like, “alright this is a record label” or “this is a collective” or whatever. It’s just, this is our team.
How did you connect with each other? How did it get started and become what it is today? And where you do you see the collective progressing?
So Ethan (Healy) and Chaz have know each other for years before I met them. I posted the “roll widdit” beat on Bandcamp and Ethan came across it, made the song, then sent it to me. I was like “this is awesome, dude, we’ve got to keep working.” Then we kind of just watched the song grow together and it got to the point where it was clear that we should keep working on new stuff. I think we officially linked up in 2015 or something, so three years ago, and I met YOG$ the same day I met Ethan. We were all at a concert and Chaz was there too. And then we just kind of continued working. It wasn’t long after first meeting them that Chaz became my manager and then Grant (YOG$) became a part of Braintrust. It was really organic.
Your collaborations with fellow Braintrust member Healy have produced some of my favorite tracks in the past couple years in songs like, “$150 / roll widdit” that you mentioned, as well as Phantoms and Slalom, and most recently the single California. What’s it like when you two work together and what do those sessions look like?
That’s awesome those are some of your favorite tracks, that’s so cool. It’s funny actually, because Healy and YOG$ are upstairs right now. We are at Airbnb right now in upstate New York, kind of in the middle of nowhere. We’re here for two weeks, just making music and hanging out. A lot of Subluxe was created in Joshua Tree, also at an Airbnb. So it varies, it goes between when I’m in school and when I’m not. I usually make stuff in my bedroom and I think Ethan operates the same way. California was made through the Internet. I had the beat, the lyrics and recorded my part, and then he heard it and told me it was awesome and wanted to put some words down, if that was cool. That’s how that track happened but it goes between that and then being at these locations and working together. I think that’s the way we all prefer to do it. We usually can come up with some cool sounds when we’re all in the same room so that’s definitely the preference.
What came about from those Joshua Tree recordings and what was the experience of creating in the desert like?
It was really cool because something we talk about a lot is how our environment influences the music we make. The greatest example is probably “Chaparral,” if you’re familiar with that one. We had this photographer with us and she was from Phoenix or Tucson or something. She was telling us about chaparral which is this desert plant that – you know when you think of the smell of the desert? That’s chaparral. So it’s stuff like that. It’s living in these areas and going out and experiencing all there is to draw from in terms of creating. Also, Joshua Tree is breathtaking. It’s such a beautiful place. And this place where we are right now is beautiful in the same way. There’s a lot of good energy that comes out of being in these places.
Another frequent collaborator I’ve noticed and artist whose music I very much enjoy is Felly. You have production credits on “Bring Me My Money” and “Doing What I Like.” How did those tracks come about and what is it like being in the studio with him?
Felly’s a really good guy. I actually haven’t been working with him as much recently just because I think he’s out in LA now. But “Doing What I Like” I made in Brooklyn with him and it’s through Grant (YOG$) and Healy that I know him. “Bring Me My Money” was actually a record I had on the Public Library Commute mixtape and I guess he really liked the production so he reached out and we worked out a deal. And then he made that track with it. We made “Doing What I Like” at his place in Brooklyn but other than that I’m usually pretty busy with school to get in the studio. When Healy can come up for two weeks or when I go out for two weeks, those are when we find the best times to work. It’s hard for me to get in the studio sometimes. So with Felly, it’s been a little more scattered.
Now if you could collaborate with anyone in history, who would you most want to work with?
In history? Let’s see… Man, that’s a tough one. I mean, probably Archy Marshall. King Krule. His music, the ambience of it, resonates with me so much. I’d probably have to go with him. I think it would be cool because he also did some hip hop crossover stuff, so it would be a cool little session.
Where have you performed? What are your favorite and least favorite venues? And do you have any plans for future tours?
I have actually never done any shows with my own music. I mean I’ve played guitar for people in high school and stuff. [Laughs] But I am yet to do a show. I think it’ll probably be pretty hard to until I’m out of school. But I could definitely see something working out and if it were to, I think it might be in the next year or two. I did get to go along on Healy’s tour this summer and I think I got to go to 25 or 26 stops. Man, all the venues were so cool. Every venue in Texas was pretty sweet. That was really fun. But yeah, I hope to do some shows at some point. We’ll see.
And finally, my last questions I have for you. What is your ultimate goal with your music and where do you see your artistry progressing in the coming years?
I think my ultimate goal is creating music that is able to transport and have my listeners be able to hear something and remove themselves from whatever you’re dealing with. It doesn’t have to be something bad that you’re struggling with, but just if you need a break from your day. If you can listen to one of my songs and it takes you somewhere else then I think that’s the coolest thing because I know, growing up, I needed a way to do that. I would listen to summer music in the winter and that would bring me out of negative mind states so I hope I can give people a similar experience. In terms of the way my music is going, there’s really no plan. [Laughs] I really just want to keep getting better and I don’t even know what that means yet in terms of what direction to go in. Obviously, I can get a lot better. I’m just saying I don’t know what that means I need to work on. I just want to keep making better music. But yeah, no plan yet.
Thank you so much for talking, and good luck with the release.
Thanks for doing this. And I appreciate you listening.