In this exclusive interview, Kai shares his remarkable journey from stepping into the spotlight as a guitarist for The Sisters of Mercy on short notice to shaping the vibrant sound of Esprit D’Air.

From rapid song learning techniques to unforgettable fan interactions and the joys of independent music success, Kai offers a candid and insightful look into his multifaceted career in the music industry.

How did the opportunity to join The Sisters of Mercy come about?
Back in October 2023, I was on tour with my band Esprit D’Air and was on my way to France for rehearsal when I suddenly received a phone call from my friend and The Sisters of Mercy guitarist Ben Christo, who told me that a band is looking for a guitarist or bassist that plays in a particular rock style—he didn’t tell me which band it was for. I said I am pretty busy, but I could possibly do it!

The next day, he called again, and said it’s actually for The Sisters of Mercy, and that he only mentioned ‘bass’ as a red herring, so I wouldn’t guess it was actually for them. However, he told me that they needed someone as soon as possible. The earliest I could join them was after my last Esprit D’Air show on October 12th, which meant that I needed to fly over to Würzburg in Germany by October 13th, to join them for the show on the 14th. Now, that’s only a few days' notice to learn 20+ songs… Whilst on my way to Poland, and as crazy as I am, I said “yes” straight away because it was an opportunity I could not pass up on.

Considering you only had a few days to prepare for your first show with The Sisters of Mercy, how did you go about learning over 20 songs so quickly and ensuring you were ready for the performance?
So, I had Esprit D’Air shows on the 8th, 10th and 12th of October. It was pretty hectic because I was also the promoter, tour manager, and obviously, one of the performers for all these busy shows—that left me with the 7th, 9th, 11th, and 13th to learn the repertoire, and those were all days where I had to take a plane to fly to each show. I dedicated all my time to learning the songs on those days.

The only riff I knew how to play before learning the material was “Temple of Love” because I was a fan, and half of the material I needed to learn was unreleased, meaning that I had to search all over YouTube for phone recordings of these songs to learn the parts. I purchased a subscription to YouTube Premium, so I could download all the videos I needed on my phone, so I could watch and listen to them over and over whilst travelling on the plane. Once I got checked into hotels, I just spent the whole day playing the songs over and over.

Given the intense schedule and the unconventional way you had to learn the songs, how did you manage the pressure and stay focused? Were there any particular strategies or techniques that helped you absorb the material quickly?
On the Esprit D’Air show days, I tried to maintain focus on Esprit D’Air only, because it was important to ensure that those shows run smoothly too, and to make sure that my mind was in the right place for those.

As for learning the songs for the Sisters—to break it down, the first thing to do was to obviously learn all the positions on the guitar and how to play the songs. I used my ear and guitar to work out how to play them. Given the limited time and hectic schedule with the flights, there were many hours when I couldn't physically practice because the guitar is in a luggage hold. During these times, I found it incredibly helpful to mentally visualize myself playing the songs while listening to them on the plane or while traveling. This mental practice was crucial in helping me internalize the music. Half of the battle is physically playing the songs, the other half is mentally absorbing them.

That’s impressive! Did you have a rehearsal with them?
On the day of the first show, we managed to run through the songs in Chris Catalyst’s hotel room for about 30 minutes, and we also had a very brief soundcheck, so that was it, really. The original plan wasn’t to start playing with them on the first day, but to only watch the show and play along from the side of the stage, but I decided to just go for it and play the show in Würzburg. I thought, if I messed up, oh well—I had to eventually do it, right?

That’s brave! How was the first show? Were there any moments that stood out to you, either as challenges or as particularly rewarding experiences?
It was crazy. I was so caught up in learning the songs and being so busy with the travelling that the seriousness of all this did not hit me until I sat down at the catering area of the first venue and was served food. It was then when I started crying a little… “I am being fed food before a show…”, I thought to myself. It was only then when it started to hit me that this has become real, and that I am here now. This is my life now, and I am about to start touring with this legendary band.

I was, of course, nervous, as anyone would be in my position. However, I was met with applause and love from the crowd, and I was able to play through all the songs that I worked hard on learning, and even joined in on backing vocals on some songs. At the end of the first couple of shows, Andrew Eldritch took my hand to the center of the stage and got me to bow with him. I got really emotional. I couldn’t hold back my tears. I am forever grateful to both Andrew and Ben, who gave me their trust on this role and position. It has been truly a surreal and life-affirming experience.

Given your rapid integration into The Sisters of Mercy's live performances, have you had the opportunity to contribute to their songwriting process or bring any new ideas to the band's musical direction?
For the October/November 2023 tour, I didn’t really have much chance to, except to play the songs as faithfully as they were. However, since the start of this year, I have had the opportunity to create new guitar parts to their existing unreleased material, such as “I Will Call You”, “But Genevieve”, and “Eyes of Caligula”. I love those songs as they were, and they’re written so beautifully, but I wanted to add more depth with complementing sparkly clean melodies. Fortunately, they have been really welcoming to the changes and open with my involvement, which I am really grateful for.

As a vocalist, I've also noticed an opportunity to align some of our backing vocals more closely with the deep and operatic quality that defines The Sisters of Mercy's sound, so that has been really fun to do. Recently, I have also had the privilege to perform the Ofra Haza parts to “Temple of Love”, which has been a true honor.

That sounds awesome! Moving onto your project Esprit D’Air. Your last album Oceans was in the Official Charts for 9 weeks—peaking at #5 in Album Downloads, and you’ve also had a single “Leviathan” achieve top 10s. How does it feel to achieve these independently?
It's been an incredibly rewarding journey with Esprit D'Air, especially seeing our music resonate with listeners and achieve success without a record label or management. Oceans' chart performance and the success of singles like 'Leviathan' have been affirmations of our hard work and dedication to our art. It motivates me to continue pushing boundaries and creating music that we're passionate about.

Even though I've always approached music with the mindset of creating something true to myself rather than aiming to appeal to everyone. For me, it's about crafting music that resonates deeply with those who connect with our sound and message, and if that resonates with a lot of people, that’s a bonus.

Your recent European tour with Esprit D’Air was a tremendous success, with many sold-out shows. I understand that you book and promote these shows yourself. How do you go about doing this? What challenges have you faced, and how does this direct involvement shape your relationship with fans and the overall touring experience?
So, I contact the venues and I hire them out. I like to manage the logistics myself, so it allows me to maintain control over our touring schedule and ensure that each show reflects our vision. I get to choose the support band (if any), and I get to work with my own team of people I trust.

As for the promotion, I primarily utilize platforms like TikTok and Instagram to connect directly with our fans and promote our shows. It's a lot of work, but the direct engagement with fans and seeing the positive response to our efforts make it all worthwhile. It’s even more rewarding for me when I get to meet them all after the shows and get to hear their stories and experiences with our music.

I love doing all of it, from planning, to execution.

What's the most unusual or interesting fan encounter you've had, either online or in person?
I have been in a couple of funny situations.

When I lived in a houseshare about six years ago, I was doing my laundry, and my housemate noticed there was an Esprit D’Air t-shirt hanging. He said he likes the band and listens to them on Spotify. I just said, “yeah, they’re a cool band, right?” and never told him I was the singer. I was moving out anyway.

And at another place where I used to live, I was taking out the trash, and my next door neighbor noticed my Esprit D’Air t-shirt and said they listened to them and liked their music, too. This time, I did tell him that it was me, and his response was, “Well, that’s… random!”.

It's cool to think there are fans out there who enjoy the music but may not recognize the band members. I'm probably guilty of the same with bands I listen to—I often don't know what the singer or guitarist looks like!

Have there been any other instances where you've unexpectedly crossed paths with a fan in everyday life, and how did those interactions unfold?
There was this thing I used to do where I visited some of the cities I was going to perform in and put posters up to promote the shows. There were a couple of instances where I introduced myself to the shop clerks and they say, “I know about this show. I’m going to see you live!”. It is always humbling to experience the impact of my promotional efforts first hand, in person!

I don’t drink, but sometimes you’d find me at rock bars ordering a pint of diet coke or something. One time, I was at a metal bar with Sam from Dragonforce and a couple of people came up to us, and I assumed they were going to come up to say hi to Sam. I jokingly said to them, “Nice to meet you! I am Herman Li”, and to my surprise, their response was, “You’re Kai, aren’t you? I introduced my sister to your music”. Haha, I felt so dumb.

Haha! Well, your hands-on approach to booking and promoting shows clearly allows for a more personal connection with fans. Can you share a memorable interaction or story from meeting fans after a show that particularly resonated with you? How do these moments influence your perspective on the impact of Esprit D'Air's music?
There have been so many memorable moments, from receiving thoughtful gifts (as a vegan, I love it when they give me vegan snacks!), to hearing stories from fans about how our music has resonated with them on a personal level.

I believe that our fanbase is mainly cultivated online, so meeting fans face-to-face and hearing their stories in person adds a whole new dimension to our connection. It's incredibly humbling to see the impact our music has beyond just the digital realm and to witness the real, tangible effect it has on people's lives.

One thing that stands out to me is the relationships I've built with fans who I now remember by name. It's amazing to see familiar faces in different cities and hear how they've been following our journey.

Have there been any particularly memorable fan gifts or surprises that stood out to you over the years?
Yes! It’s the drawings I love the most. One dedicated fan even made a huge portrait of me using real diamond jewelry - I couldn’t believe it. Also, another talented artist did a really awesome 3D-printed figure of me. It’s heartwarming to receive such creative and thoughtful expressions of appreciation.

That’s really heartwarming! It must be nice to receive those. Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for your musical career in general? Are there any new projects or directions you're excited to explore?
With The Sisters of Mercy, we’re touring in North America in a few months between September and October 2024, with the awesome Blaqk Audio on support.

I am also working on a couple of new albums with Esprit D’Air. The first one being a compilation of unreleased songs, covers, and remixes, and the other being the third studio album. I am keeping my patrons up to date on our Patreon. More news on that very soon. We’ve also recently collaborated with the incredible Zardonic on a metal drum and bass remix of our song, ‘Shizuku’.

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Photo credit: Tim Kuipers