“It’s All About the Love”: An Interview With Lionmilk

Kevin Crandall links with the LA native to talk about music as a spiritual experience, being improvisational as an artist, sci-fi influences and more.
By    April 5, 2023

Image via Lionmilk/Instagram

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Kevin Crandall will miss Rudy Gobert in a Utah Jazz jersey.

For the last several years, give or take a pandemic hiatus, the LA-based label Leaving Records has played host to the Listen to Music Outside in the Daylight Under a Tree event series. The grassroots concert takes place the first Saturday of each month at Montecillo de Leo Politi in Elysian Park, and has been gracing the surrounding nature with everything from violin ballads to the muses of poets and rappers. Pianist and Leaving Records artist Lionmilk has been a staple at the park since the event’s inception, regularly performing and soaking in the sun with like-minded creatives and friends.

An LA native, Lionmilk (born Moki Kawaguchi) has always been about community. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, he dropped off homemade cassette tapes to friends and family he felt might be struggling with anxiety or depression. The tapes, aptly named I Hope You Are Well, were a hit, leading to a formal release of the album on streaming platforms in early 2021. For his most recent album, Intergalactic Space Terminal 222, Lionmilk has approached the release with a similar DIY flair and passion for others. He currently has cassettes with homemade, multi-media collage Jcards up on his Bandcamp, and the music itself has a propensity for encouragement and peace. The album begins with a space broadcast exclaiming that “this is Lionmilk speaking, and you are tuning into the Intergalactic Warp Terminal 222” before dissolving into soft bird chirps and jazz piano to put the mind at ease. Further on, tracks like “treat yourself like a friend” and “i’ll love you, forever” ease the hearts of those who have tuned into the otherworldly transmission, depositing self-care affirmations and love into the cosmos.

Warping through time signatures and space, Lionmilk has fully embraced the healing powers of music that have guided his life since his studies of classical piano as a child. Intergalactic Space Terminal 222 jumps through the many minds of Moki Kawaguchi while enveloping listeners in the same levels of serenity and calm as a weighted blanket. Piano rhythms steady the heartbeat while the occasional voice of Moki ensures that you are loved and valued. Stars twinkle amongst static as Lionmilk presents a level of soul restoration that rivals Mother Nature herself. Intergalactic Space Terminal 222 is affirmation-filled and soft—“music to feel less whack to” as he puts it.

A healing musician with a disarming demeanor, talking to Lionmilk leaves you with the same comfort and warm optimism that his compositions instill. The week of the official release of Intergalactic Space Terminal 222, the LA musician and I sat down and discussed his star-dusted new album, DIY habits, and the spiritual power music can possess.

(This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

I’m really fascinated by the cassettes you’re making and have up on Bandcamp, what made you want to put those out?

Lionmilk: Because it’s fun. It’s fun to make.

Do you have a preference for cassettes over CDs or other forms of physical media?

Lionmilk: Nobody wants to hold a round CD. Cassettes is kinda cute. Cassettes is easy, quicker and cheaper, but vinyl is nice too if you have the money for it.

You went to New York after high school and then came back to LA right?

Lionmilk: Yeah, I went there for college. Then I came back.

Was your plan always to come back to LA?

Lionmilk: I think it just worked out like that. Who knows, I might go somewhere else. Life takes you places.

When you got back did it feel like returning home?

Lionmilk: Yeah it did. I mean I was with family. Coming back to the LA world it was kind of shocking, because it had changed a lot, but there were also familiar faces. It’s all been a linear life around here. Gotta adapt here and adapt here, always adapting. But it was nice to come back. Nice to see family and see old friends. Try to live the music life.

Did you know a lot of people from high school who were at that time pretty entrenched in the music scene?

Lionmilk: Not really. I mean some friends, though. I had some friends that were more into the jazz world. I was kind of all over the place, just hopping around.

In LA, who were some of the most important people to your journey since 2017?

Lionmilk: Definitely the people in the beat scene. And the jazz scene too. Jumping around, all kinds of genres. All kinds of people. The MNDSGN/Swarvy crew. When I think back it’s hard to remember. It’s a lot of people. A lot of my friends, too. Caleb, Will, Diego, those are my bandmates. The homies from Brainstory. Georgia Ann Muldrow. All the great people from here.

How did you meet your bandmates?

Lionmilk: Friends of friends. We’re just all in the same world. It’s funny how that works. You go back home and you’re interested in music, and you know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody.

And from there, how did Lionmilk Quartet start?

Lionmilk: I had a bunch of tunes I’d wrote and I wanted to play it live. I like doing solo stuff, but I like to play the keyes. I wanted to get back into that so I needed to build a band. Those were the homies that were around. Diego I’ve known since high school but we weren’t that close back then. It was like “oh shit, I remember you,” and he was like “oh shit, let’s play.” Same thing with Caleb and Will.

Pivoting to Intergalactic Warp Terminal 222, I’ve seen it described a lot as healing music. What do you think of that branding?

Lionmilk: I guess people are definitely saying that, yeah. It’s out there. If people want to call it whatever they want, let them.

Do you find it healing?

Lionmilk: It definitely was healing music for myself first, and I guess everyone relates to that somehow. I’m thankful for that. At least someone’s not like “ugh this is so abrasive. I can’t listen to this shit, it’s too crazy.” Who knows, some people might think that, but a lot of people don’t think that sort of thing.

What made you want to go space-y with this album?

Lionmilk: How did I get there? The concept was, I have all these tapes that I record for myself, really, just to play and improvise. Playing helps me feel better about everything. I have a bunch of tapes scattered around the room—other projects as well, not just tapes but recordings and stuff like that. I just compiled that into a portable cassette, and it sounded all crazy. That’s what the texture is of the album. All those tapes and recordings remind me of certain parts of my life. Like, “oh wow, I was going through that,” or “that was a good time.” And it feels very different, like, “wow, I used to exist in that kind of place.” I used to exist in New York. I used to exist in LA. I used to exist in this kind of mindset. I used to exist in this kind of thought.

It feels like I’m just jumping around. We all have our own little reality, and it feels like I’m just jumping around that. So that’s where the space theme comes from. But it’s more so like welcome to this little portal into what’s been going on in my life. I guess it does sound space-y in that way. It’s like a sci-fi thing going on. I guess I just did that unconsciously, from all that television. I used to watch a healthy amount of sci-fi things. I have friends who like that stuff. It is an interesting concept for sure. We all have our different ways of thinking, different ways of experiencing life. Everyone channels it in their own way. It would be cool to have a space theme for people who cook or a space exploration for people who like to dance.

Did you have a favorite sci-fi film/tv show?

Lionmilk: Pops was into Star Wars, but that’s not really– I guess Star Wars is space. [laughs] Maybe this kind of stuff is more related to some 2001: A Space Odyssey type stuff.

For sure, it definitely has that vibe. You always start improvisational with your music, yeah?

Lionmilk: Yeah, I’m one of those guys.

From there, is it all by feel, or do you have a system?

Lionmilk: All feel. Well, there’s feel and then trying to figure out what that feeling is. There’s some songs that need some fleshing out. I’m only human so I get blockages.

How do you work through blockages?

Lionmilk: Sheesh, I’m working through one right now. Gotta maintain, right? Gotta keep your mind level and sane. Whatever you need to do to get through that, whether it be exercise or sleep or water, the essentials at least. You gotta stay happy. Try something different every day.

A lot of your vocals are affirmation-filled within Intergalactic Warp Terminal 222. Is that just how you were feeling when you made it?

Lionmilk: Yeah. I think sometimes music is so I can feel better about life. But sometimes it’s for friends. Sometimes I’m thinking about a friend and I hope they’re doing better. Write a message for them. I think the ones that aren’t vocal are usually so I can feel better.

One of the lead singles you put out in that vein was “treat yourself like a friend.” What made you choose that track as a single?

Lionmilk: I have friends who—and me too, we all judge ourselves and treat ourselves pretty harsh sometimes. It gets into a loop, y’know? I think it’s good to remember you are a person. Although it’s good to be disciplined, sometimes you gotta give yourself some space like how you’d give your friends some space. We spend a lot of our time with ourself, so we gotta buddy up with that. I’m no expert at it; I’m working at it too like all the rest of us.

The finale, “i’ll love you, forever,” very affirmation-filled as well. What made you want to end the album with that piece?

Lionmilk: All in all man, it’s all about the love. For sure. That one is for not just my friends but my family too. There’s people we gotta love unconditionally, and there’s friends we gotta love like that as well. Things give and take, it’s just a part of life. All in all, I think it’s good to have love in your heart more than any other emotion, or a tangent or parallel emotion. It’s a good way to end an album. Maybe you can end it like “man, screw everybody, life is trash.” I like happy endings.

When you were choosing tapes to put together for this album, were they more raw? Or did you have to do a lot more composing?

Lionmilk: Some of the songs, yeah, for sure. There’s always the mixing and that aspect for sure. This album was rather quick though, probably five months from inception to end. I have something else I want to put out after this. It was a little thing in the middle that was like, “oh, I want to put this out so why not.” I didn’t put anything out last year so there’s finally a reason to do it, why not? A little thing.

How big of a span are these tapes from that compose this album?

Lionmilk: Probably a year to three years. A lot of them were very new. A lot of them were within a span of two days, and then there were some other ones. Just doing that for one or two days just made me feel like “oh wait, there’s other stuff for this.” Then it was just a matter of swapping in and out.

Were those couple of days the catalyst for this album?

Lionmilk: Yeah, definitely.

Would you want to take me back to those couple of days and the making of the bulk of the tapes?

Lionmilk: Yeah, what happened? I was probably feeling some type of way and I need to express that. I usually record either on Ableton or just pop a tape in—put my Rhodes in there and I start playing. I think my tape player wasn’t working. I had this portable cassette, the handheld one, and I was just like, “whelp, I’ll use that one.” I didn’t want to use my phone because sometimes the compression of that is… So, I just put it directly into the cassette. And then I was like “it’s a vibe.” It sounds shitty and I like it–well, I wasn’t thinking that, that was afterwards.

I plugged it in and poured my heart out and then recorded it into this thing and forgot about it for a day. Then I came back and it was like, “oh, wow!” This is something I really poured out. Whoops, spilled myself. Then I thought, “well, I haven’t put out anything this whole year, maybe I could put it out by the end of the year.” So I was like, “oh, I’mma just make this real quick.” I was planning on putting it out around November, December—just, oh, here ya go! There’s something. Then Leaving [Records] was like, “oh, why don’t we just make it an actual thing. Do the whole run.” I thought I was gonna just drop it off, put it out, but they were down to help me.

So then that’s why the delay happened? Marketing and everything.

Lionmilk: Yeah, all that jazz. Making videos.

For the music videos, do you have a specific idea in mind or do you treat those as improvisational like the music?

Lionmilk: Improv. I have some kind of idea, and that was the VHS type vibe. I like old looking things. I’m just a nostalgic person and that’s a nostalgic thing.

Goes along with the retro space sound.

Lionmilk: Yeah. The cassette sounds like shit, so if the video looks like shit too, it’s matching.

For the chunk you recorded in a couple of days, how did the curation from that point go?

Lionmilk: Yeah those two days or week—I can’t remember how long it was honestly. I remember it was two days of just like *bgggss* but, I think it was another week and throughout, as it got closer, I was like, “oh I changed my mind, I’mma throw something in.” Probably Side A is mostly all that stuff/I think the second night I did another tape of recordings. Yeah. Wow, you’re really trying to get my memory straight. I think it was another tape of recordings, and it was supposed to be called “going home” or something like that, it was written on the tape itself. Yeah, I think maybe for a week or two afterwards I was swapping around, and from there it was just mixing and stuff.

The names of the songs are all very personal, how do you go about naming the songs when the creation process is so holistic?

Lionmilk: The power of god, man. Like, “Do this!” *pshhhh* [chuckles] I don’t know, it’s instinct. Gut feelings, man. My whole life is about gut feelings. Following your gut.

You’ve described your music as being spiritual, was making this album a spiritual process for you?

Lionmilk: I think any kind of music I make is. Any kind, even when I play. Whether it’s recorded or not, music is an expression. Yeah, it’s a spiritual experience.

Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?

Lionmilk: Yeah, I am.

Do you have other spiritual outputs as well?

Lionmilk: I pray. We all gotta pray for our lives, man. Yeah, I pray. I think music could be a form of prayer. What else is there? Religion? I’m not really religious. I sometimes pray, sometimes meditate. I sometimes sit there and stare at the sky. I believe in spirits. I believe in the afterlife and all that. I think my family taught me some of that for sure.

With music as a spiritual output, do you ever create music with the idea of spirits listening in mind?

Lionmilk: I think sometimes there are spirits, or like, my angels. I definitely believe I got angels, I’m blessed with that for sure. I think I have good angels watching over me, and they help me throughout life for sure. Let it be expressing myself honestly or making the right decisions. Not doing bad things. I think there’s angels/spirits, good ones that help me out. I think they’re listening to that.

Do you feel similarly spiritually about other creative forms—the cassette making and such—as you do with music?

Lionmilk: I didn’t practice drawing or doing the other stuff. I feel the most connected to music because I just obsessed over that. I think art is something I haven’t obsessed over, but I enjoy it. I think it’s fun right now. It’s not too serious. I think music is too serious for me, but drawing and making those tapes, I like making stuff for people. It’s a good excuse for me to just have fun and make stuff and people can enjoy it. I think I find joy in that.

Did you have specific people in mind when you’re making the cassettes?

Lionmilk: Yeah, when I was dubbing them and stuff. But now it’s kind of free flow. I think of this and “oh, that’d be cool to make. That would be a good idea, huh,” just think of a random person and think what kind of cassette cover could I make for them to be happy. Maybe someone in a different country or someone with this personality, that would be cool. You got me thinking man, thank you.

Yeah for sure, I think the individuality of the different cassette tapes is really cool. What type of materials did you use for the cassette covers?

Lionmilk: You know Daiso? Man, they got all the goods man. I just go there. Whatever I can afford. I can’t afford expensive, nice shit, so I find whatever is nicest but also affordable. A kid doesn’t need fancy things.

Where did you get the photos that you used on the cassettes?

Lionmilk: That’s my friend, shoutout Sabrina Sharifi. You should check her out man, she’s a dope photographer. We just went walking around and I was like, “hey, I have this concept for the album as warp terminal, what would warping look like?” I would just jiggle around.

And where did the concept of warping come from?

Lionmilk: The tapes. I was just warping from this period of my life to this period. It felt like that going back through those tapes. I felt like a little bug flying through those moments of my life, rewatching certain memories. Like, “woah, that was good,” or “wow, I was not feeling too good.”

Do you feel like you strongly connect past experiences and memory with sounds?

Lionmilk: I think I’m an emotional person for sure. I tap into that.

Is sound the strongest memory-inducer for you?

Lionmilk: I think sight for me. I remember what happened when I see things. I don’t really remember sounds like that. Maybe scent. Like everyone looks at something or smells something and is like, “woah, I remember that.” I feel like I’m just always remembering things because I’m just that nostalgic.

Do you feel like leaving LA for a period of time makes the city more nostalgic for you?

Lionmilk: I think I’m just at a point in life where a lot of things are changing and things have been changing really fast, so I’m just like, woah. The city’s changing too, LA is changing a lot. Good things happen, bad things happen, and it just makes me remember – wow, those were good times, those were bad times. Things [rapid snaps] change like that. Yesterday it’s one thing, next day completely changes. One day you can go outside and everyone’s chilling and one day you have COVID. One day everybody’s not really wearing masks anymore.

Now we have a war going on. Now we have this going on. There’s a lot going on. I think I’m the type of person that can’t live life all like, “ah nothing’s going on.” Everybody’s got something going on, and as much as I would love to live in a world where it’s just like ha ha lolly lolly, you’ve got to deal with the things that are uncomfortable. I feel like I’m dealing with all those things like everybody else, and I just have this little thing called music that I can funnel everything into to keep myself from going crazy. Everybody has something.

Do you feel like you being a more reflective person drew you to music?

Lionmilk: Yeah, definitely. I had moments in my life where it was helping me through life with things that are out of my control and things that were affecting me. Everyone goes through shit; I was going through something and it helped me. It’s been helping me in all kinds of ways. I love doing it, I love playing music and it’s fun and all these things. You gotta do what keeps you happy.

Were you drawn to the jazz and the beat scenes because of its space for improvisation/experimentation?

Lionmilk: Out of those two I think the beat world is a lot chiller, for sure. I think that I’m in those worlds because of the friends I’ve made and the music that I love. There’s a lot of people that love the same kind of music I do and we were all pulled together. I love jazz, I love hip hop, I love R&B like a lot of other people. I also love all other kinds of music. It’s always like getting swirled around into an all-encompassing genre of friends. It’s all around.

Did you ever feel like the beat scene was a place where all these genres met?

Lionmilk: I mean, even the beat scene is such a vast place too. There’s a lot of beat heads that I wouldn’t vibe with. I think it’s personality. I became friends with the people I became friends with because it clicks. Not so much the scene.

For sure. And then lastly, for this album, what is one thing you would want listeners to get out of it when people listen?

Lionmilk: I hope you don’t get angry. As long as you’re like, “oh cool.” If you don’t like it, you can throw it away. [chuckles] It’s to each their own. Simple answer: I hope they enjoy it.

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