By day, Julian Lai runs HOAX, one of the most well-respected luxury men’s shoes and fashion chains in Hong Kong, but at night, and on the weekends, he applies his well-heeled sartorial elegance to an adjacent but complementary discipline, creating synth-funk as Afterglow. Inspired by '80s US synth-funk, boogie, and electro, jazz-fusion, and Japanese city-pop, Lai’s electronic productions are pure drum machine funk, but they also ripple with the dynamic range that comes from playing live instruments. On Different Light, his debut album as Afterglow, Lai puts it together perfectly, evoking Tabu, Herbie Hancock, Toshiki Kadomatsu, Tetsuji Hayashi, and Tatsurō Yamashita, while alongside his guest vocal collaborators SOPHY and Yeung Tung, reframing his influences into an aspirational future funk soundtrack to life in Asia’s world city.

A luxury shoe retailer who lives in Hong Kong and knows his way around vintage drum machines and synthesisers with the best of them is perhaps one of the most genuinely vaporwave backstories I’ve ever come across, but Lai’s music is far from gaseous. Physical, full-bodied and heaving, it’s a fitting electronic pop exploration of funk’s distant fast and quickly accelerating future. Released through Shanghai Street’s grizzled and embattled White Noise Records, Different Light is available in vinyl, cassette, and digital download formats, and it’s worth the ride. Earlier in the year, I interviewed Lai about the project.

Can you tell us a bit about HOAX and your interest in fashion?

I started this shoe shop called HOAX nine years ago after I quit working as a reporter. I have three mall shops now, so I guess the label is doing ok. When the first shop opened, we played a lot of old punk and reggae. Most of my staff are very into music, so ee always go Clockenflap, the biggest Hong Kong music festival together. Some of them play music too. I generally pay more attention to Japanese fashion houses, like N.Hoolywood and Beams because they fit Asians much better than western labels.

How interlinked do you think music and fashion are in Hong Kong?

I think there are different gangs here. If you go to an indie guitar-pop gig, there will be a lot of what we call ‘art youth’, who have an innocent and calm style. When you go to a shoegaze/post punk gig there probably be more hipsters. In a vaporwave party, people have a different look. They wear vintage '80s track jackets and stuff. I would say the audience in Hong Kong are quite fashion conscious.

How did you get your start as a musician, and what has your musical journey been like?

I played guitar in a guitar-pop band when I was in university. At that time, drummers are really hard to find, so like many bands, we used a drum machine. That was when I learned how to programme music. After I finished my studying in the UK in the late 2000s, I started a duo. We played trip-hop and dub, and we released an album. At that time, was more support from outside. We had the chance to play at raves, art shows, pub shows, and got interviewed by radio and magazines. After that, I got into other things like switching jobs, buying flats, getting married, and starting a fashion business.

What are your general thoughts on the music scene in Hong Kong?

Unfortunately, I don’t really belong to any scene here. There are very few people doing electronic music. This modern-funk and boogie thing I am doing, I don’t think many people here understand what it is, let alone how to create it, and I’m not a DJ. Urban music never really creates much conversation in Hong Kong, not R&B, soul or funk. That’s why I had a tough time finding people singing on my tracks. Another reason is I have a family; therefore I don’t party much and make connections.

Could you give us an idea of how you came up with Afterglow?

I have been listening to soul, funk and AOR from the US and Japan for a very long time. I guess I want to make music to reflect that. I set up some rules; the first is I don’t use samples. I want to make all original music like people did in the '70s and ’80s, but I admit there is one cover or remix on the album. I don’t use generic DJ technique or effects like filtering, sidechaining, or the drop. I want the songs to have structures and arrangements like '80s pop. I also banned myself from using guitar this time.

There has been a resurgence of interest in Japanese city-pop over the last five or six years. Do you feel like it’s had a resurgence in hong kong?

It’s hard for outsiders to believe, but for the whole of the ’80s, 80% of the Cantonese pop that played on the radio was cover versions of songs, and many of them were of Japanese songs. This city-pop thing has long been in our blood. Because we are so close to Japan, their culture is deep in our daily lives: We all watch anime growing up, there are cup noodles in every home, and we often travel there for holidays. When city-op became a genre, we accepted and enjoyed it very naturally. Although city-pop is a broad term, to me it’s always equated to Japanese adult-contemporary. It’s sophisticated, funky and masterfully arranged and played. Sometimes I wonder why it took so long for the West to notice this treasure. Now we have city-pop parties here regularly, so you can say there is a resurgence.

Could you describe how it feels to be making and releasing music in Hong Kong?

The good thing is Hong Kong is such a small city that you can access all resources easily. I can drive to White Noise Records from my office in five minutes, to talk about plans. Another fifteen mins will get me to a mastering studio to check on a mix. We have pressing plants and printing sites in China, which is really close. A test print can be done very quickly. Technically, it’s easy to release music. However, we don’t have many outlets for promotion. Radios here only plays mainstream Cantonese pop, and almost all the music magazines died in the last decade. There are basically only one or two online music media sites left. It’s pretty difficult to tell people a release unless you play live a lot.

What do you enjoy the most about making music?

What I find to be the most enjoyable is when I make something different to other artists or producers. I’m not saying my music is better, smarter, or newer, but I am happy that I can make this type of music differently, and apply approaches that nobody thinks of using. Lastly, I love when I create a beat that makes me dance.

Different Light is out now through White Noise Records.