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TheKhue and the Experiments of a Working Stiff

The daytime hustle of an artist does not define them. Ask them what they do and their secondary answer may include terms like “day job” or “paycheck,” but rarely “career.” It carries too much weight. It suggests that so-called work life is fulfilling and secure. It pretends that there is only one path in a world of infinite possibilities.

Small-time musicians often tend to confine their creativity to off-hours, usually after dark. Such is the case for Irvine’s Khue Bui, a graphic designer for boutique business development agency. When off the clock, he operates as electronic stalwart TheKhue. His recent album, The Quiet, was a product of the night and serves as his proudest release yet.

When looking to satiate his musical curiosity over a decade ago, Bui found a program called Acoustica Mixcraft on his desktop. For Mac users unfamiliar with it, Mixcraft is a Windows program like “Garageband, but a little more advanced,” according to the tinkerer himself. This was where his first forays into music production began. Through a great deal of trial-and-error, he eventually emerged with quantifiable skills that he would continue to hone ever since.

Bui’s earliest work is not available online, but a scroll through his YouTube page will reveal an artist who is constantly learning and changing. He first became interested in electronic music through artists like Swedish House Mafia and Deadmau5, who are both known for simple yet aggressively danceable rhythms. Bui’s first remixes took on this style. From there, he slowly edged into the niches of the genre, emulating artists like The Glitch Mob.

Courtesy of Lauren Schorr

On some releases, Bui has described his music as experimental, but he is careful to explain what he means. “I like to experiment,” he declared, “but I also know that the term ‘experimental’ has become more and more weird, because there is less and less uncharted territory in music these days.” His “experiments,” then, are closer to sonic science. After testing several figurative hypotheses, he discovered what sounds he is most comfortable making; today, his music is practically cinematic.

His early remixes and first batch of original material came under the name Caro Music, which was just one arm of a fantasy entertainment conglomerate Bui had dreamt up as a kid. ‘Caro’ translates to ‘checkers’ in Vietnamese, which has little significance other than a succinct, trendy name. Aesthetics and maturity as a musician are what ultimately drove him to change it. “I only kept that name as long as I did because people started listening to my music and I didn’t want to change all of a sudden,” he said.  

Self-preservation is often at odds with building notoriety. Change is natural, but it’s not helpful in our age of personal branding. Bui’s move from Caro to his new moniker marked a significant change in the way that he saw himself, and it taught others how to perceive him: as the one and only. He is TheKhue.

Without resources to participate in an industry-standard “album cycle,” Bui has changed his perspective on the process. He told me, “I like to release things and pretend they’re albums, but I’ve never released anything all at once.” He sees his ‘albums’ as eras, reflecting a certain period of time of his life. Before The Quiet, each was fairly arbitrary.

His story begins with an EP in January 2015 which features a title that may sound completely made up. And it was — it has no relevance to the music, but came up when Bui was hanging out with his brother one day. He was on his laptop, contemplating what would become his first body of work while his brother was lost in a video game. “‘Okay, I need a name for this EP,’” he recounts saying at the time, “‘Just say a sentence.’ The map [my brother] was playing [in his game] was tunnel, and so he said ‘tunnel is a good map,’ and I was like, ‘well, Tunnel is a Good Map is a good title,’ then it turned into Tunnel is a Good Map is a Good Title.”

He took his next release more seriously, in every way. Bui fosters curiosity across a range of subjects, and Good Prisoner reflects an interest he’d taken in sociology, particularly the concept of a ‘prison nation.’ To oversimplify the term, it is the idea of governing a populace in order to keep them down. The subject became the heart of that 2016 record.

Granted, only the collaborative single “Prison Nation,” made with Evil Americans, truly addresses the namesake topic. That’s because of the haphazard lifestyle of an underground musician. Some songwriters will hole themselves up in a cabin for weeks to write a dozen songs, but artists like Bui can’t take that time off, away from their regular lives. To come up with that many songs may therefore take a year, maybe longer. Sure, that doesn’t inherently detract from the quality of the music, but listeners seeking a concept will be left disappointed.

Yet, with The Quiet, Bui breaks this barrier. He describes it very loosely on Bandcamp as an embodiment of the small morning hours, adding that there was “a plan for the ultimate package since the first song that I released. The idea was pretty simple: I wanted every song to be at least loosely connected to the inspiration for that song, which was ‘New Being.’” That track appears last on the album’s tracklist, acting as the grand finale for this era of TheKhue.

Courtesy of Lauren Schorr

With that, “New Being” provides prescient insight into the rest of the album’s ten tracks. A pitched wail cries like an extra-terrestrial and conjures alien abduction folklore. The title track opens the record with a piano melody and a drone. The first key change is the real start of The Quiet, illuminating the darkness like a dying flashlight — enough to see that we don’t exist in a void, but not enough to discredit our demons.

It took Bui over two years to write and arrange his latest LP. The concept never lost its stamina, and the songs that appear on it were all created in the period between 2016 and 2018. The Quiet was finally ready for release last July. It wasn’t until we had been talking about the record for several minutes that Bui revealed its secret. “If you read the name of each track on the album, it forms into a weird sentence.” A poem, if you will, about how the nighttime can open us up to new sounds and new ideas.

Where will he go from here? “I’m still figuring it out,” he admitted, acknowledging that his graphic design work takes priority — and a lot of his time. But this is certainly not the end; his curiosity will always lead him back to his experiments.