A Siamese cat emerges from flames in a shower of money. Smily faces and skeleton bands flash on the LED screen behind a rippling rainbow of parenthetical curves. Synthetic melodies rip through the room with a sugary-sweet screech, then abruptly cut. The images and lasers flash in circles like a gif. Someone off stage speaks, and a man in the middle of this cacophonous neon picks up the mic.
“Mmhmm,” Charlie Yin nods. “I feel like we should go full brightness.”
Yin wears a white, Gucci gag t-shirt and gray slacks. His simple black belt matches his Teva dad sandals and pulled-up socks. With a fanny pack slung over his shoulder, he looks purposely and almost painfully normal, but normal people don't play sold-out shows at San Francisco's historic Fillmore.
It's where The Velvet Underground and Nico soundtracked Andy Warhol in 1966; where the Grateful Dead recorded an industry-shifting live album in 1969. The table tops are decorated with old newspaper clippings. One headline praises Eric Clapton as “an exciting guitarist with the Cream.”
Every inch of its halls are lined with psychedelic show posters for The Doors, Aretha Franklin, Blondie and the White Stripes. Now, one hangs for this San Jose native, the son of two Taiwanese immigrants who've stopped asking him to give up music and be a doctor – but his poster doesn't say Charlie Yin. It says Giraffage, and like his outfit, it doesn't reflect the sheer color or nostalgic cuteness of his signature sound. It's just a white poster with a painted stroke of pink running diagonally across.
“At least it's not a giraffe,” his tour manager laughs.
He's traveling North America by bus in support of his debut full-length album Too Real. He lugs the 16-foot-tall light rig and 15-by-10-foot LED screen. It's his biggest production to date, and he made sure to bring a tight crew of friends on the ride, so “it almost feels like summer camp.”
He's joined by like-minded musicians Wingtip and Sweater Beats, as well as long-time collaborative partners Eric Livingston on lights and Anton Krueger on visuals. The Fillmore is show 16 of 28 in two months, but it offers the San Francisco transplant the comforts of home. Dinner with friends is easy-going at a familiar sushi spot in the nearby Japantown mall. Yin gets some surprise early birthday presents, including a cartoon kitty statue he balances on his water glass. They share stories of the road and memes before heading to an arcade where a Polaroid shows Yin winning a stuffed toy for his long-term girlfriend from the claw machine.
After soundcheck, Yin stands under the venue's shining chandeliers to regard the stage where he saw his first concert. “It was M83. I was like 16,” he says. “It's still one of my favorite concerts I've ever been to. It was right here, and now I'm playing it.”
In the near decade since, he's set his own skills against an array of vibrant backgrounds. Yin self-released two dreamy chip-tune albums as Robot Science, but a love for Toro Y Moi and Washed Out inspired him to change his moniker and give sample-based production a try.
Giraffage self-released Comfort, a quirky link between the Gameboy-sunset sounds of his past and the Yin of today, but 2013's Needs is where Giraffage found his stride. It mixed early-'00s R&B attitudes with Millennial chillwave haze. It also caught the attention of Porter Robinson, who hired Yin as an opener on his influential Worlds tour.
Watching Robinson build a narrative of sight and sound in an emotive live performance was again inspiring. He dropped a new EP, but this time, he couldn't rip samples. No Reason was put out by A-Trak's label Fool's Gold, and while the compositional style remained the same, each of its tickling sounds was his own. It's five tracks pop and fizz in the ears, bouncing in pastel shades between sounds of 56K dial-up and melodies that feel nostalgic because they are. Yin uses analog synths from the late-'80s and early-'90s layered over modern drum machine sounds to create the perfect balance between throwback and futuristic.
“It was this weird era where they were just getting into synthesis for pop music, so they were trying to replicate real instruments,” he says. “As a result, it sounds kind of shitty, but at the same time, it has this weird character to it.”
No Reason hit no. 22 on the Hot Dance / Electronic Albums chart in December, 2014. He's toured relentlessly since, despite releasing only a handful of songs. He set his sights on an album, a format within which he feels most comfortable. He moved to San Francisco proper, built an enviable bedroom studio, cozied up with his girlfriend, and started an Instagram account for their Siamese cat, Cheeky.
“Cheeky is seven years old,” Yin says. “It's my girlfriend's cat. I first met Cheeky when he was two. I'm the cool stepdad. I'm trying to blow him up.”
For a year and a half, he spent weekends touring and weekdays at home working on his album. Life was cute, except for one problem: He couldn't produce.
“I was definitely in a funk personally because I wasn't feeling creative,” he remembers. “I went into a deep hole. I didn't leave my room. I didn't really talk to anyone. I was just touring and talking to people in random cities. I was definitely in a hole, for sure. I had delivery food every day.”
Summer of 2016, he got an email from electronic artist Matosic. The New York City-based sent over a few sample toplines. One stuck out in particular. Yin listened to its words over and over.
“You can't push the sand down the hourglass if it's going to last,” Matosic sings. “If I miss your call, don't you overthink, perfect takes a while, and it's gonna be worth the wait.”
“The stars aligned a little bit on that one,” Yin says. He pitched the vocals and put them in a floral collage of textures and melody. The song sways between moments of explosion and reflection. Guitar and drums push dreamy synths out of sideways reveries before settling back into listless drift. “Slowly” was the first song on Too Real he finished. It became the lead single.
“That informed the rest of the album,” Yin says. “I had a really clear direction of what I wanted to do with my music and what I wanted my album to sound like. That definitely helped me so much mentally.”
Too Real is a deeply personal work. Each song represents a different moment in the three-year creative struggle. Listeners, however, are drawn down a shallower path, cleverly designed by Yin to mimic the chronology of a romantic relationship. Album opener “Do U Want Me” is the effervescent rush of a crush, followed by “Maybes,” a dizzying, hopeful response. Overall, the album is hardly depressing, but it does show clear signs of stress.
Energetic peaks come in vague dissonance. The LP uses dynamics to create the creeping sense of an overwhelming feeling, then takes sharp turns. It plays like a person lost in thought, blipping suddenly into new headspaces only to start the moody cycle again. There are hints at underlying personal themes, like the running nod to communication -- or lack thereof -- through phone vibrations and old AIM chirps.
“Edge” is a bouncy tune that builds out strong, but dissolves into a voice mail from an ignored call. It melts seamlessly into “Green Tea” with a simple pulsing bass drum. It's like its creator was momentarily ripped from his musical fantasy land, only to jump right back in. “Earth” is similar but much more jarring. It feels like an ice-scream sandwich of two totally different environments. Just when it's most violent, it effortlessly fades back into something almost joyful.
“I just wanted to make a more cinematic-sounding song,” he says. “That one was one of the last songs I wrote. I was frustrated when I was writing it, just trying to make everything. I had a lot of emails and shit, just general stress around that time. I wanted to convey my general mood, which is kind of erratic, kind of pretty, kind of angry at times.”
Too Real wants to end on a hopeful note. “First Breath” builds a start-stop melody on top of a heartbeat. It registers on the darker, heaviest side of the album with a special, Giraffage take on trap stereotypes. It ends with a simple piano melody that sounds perhaps not entirely finished, then the sound of a cassette tape deck opening.
It doesn't have a perfect resolution, but neither does life.
“I feel like it was a weight that I got off my chest, more than a learning experience,” he explains of the set. “There's just weird urges in me to make things, create things. It felt good to just finally create something and put it out into the world, because I haven't done that in a long time. I was basically manifesting myself in a physical form and putting that out into the world. It was cathartic in a sense, because I was leaving a piece of what I was feeling behind and able to move on.”
He's not entirely done with this chapter of his life. He's still in the middle of the tour, with a European leg featuring Hotel Garuda in early 2018. In the live setting, he has room to extend sections here, repeat sections there. He merges his eras by dropping Soulja Boy vocals over his pop-art beats. He opens with No Reason's “Tell Me” into “Edge,” creating a call and response with the lyrics “can you tell me” and “can I tell ya, baby.”
The show at the Fillmore is the home-turf grand slam. People scream “Charlie” and “Cheeky” like he's their best friend. Walking the few blocks to the sushi restaurant, he keeps getting recognized. Of course he would pose for pictures. Yin is a friendly guy, and it's clear he doesn't really know how to be anything but himself.
“It's honestly just kind of weird (playing this album live), because it's a piece of my soul, and I'm just like, 'Yeah dude, I was going through a tough time,'” he says. “I'm pretty introverted and shy by nature. I still feel weird about it. First and foremost, I just wanna make cool music. I don't strive to have fame or whatever. It's super weird. Honestly, I would rather be more low-key, but it's too late to start performing with a mask or whatever, as much as I would like to.”