Knowing that it’s not often that rock bands from China come stateside, a crowd about a hundred didn’t mind that Beijing psych-rock band Chui Wan (吹万) was scheduled to take the stage at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right a minute before midnight on May 15. The pride and excitement of Chinese fans, who made up about two-thirds of the audience, that a band from their home country was playing in New York could barely be contained and must have kindled the curiosity of those unfamiliar with China’s indie rock scene that could easily find a home in Brooklyn. Their patience was rewarded with a two hour set in which the band guided them through peaks of jagged energy and lulls of gently swirling calm formed from influences like the German experimental band Can, shoegaze, and John Cage.
The band’s name comes from Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi’s Qi Wu Lun (齐物论), a mystical work on the relationship between nature and human life. The spirit of Zhuangzi’s thought is reflected in the modern Chinese idiom: “谓风吹万窍，发出各种音响.” – “When the wind blows, every sound may be heard therein.” One quickly realizes that Chui Wan’s modern influences are not that distant from the ancient Chinese philosopher.
Lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Yan Yulong (闫玉龙), guitarist Liu Xinyu (刘心宇), and drummer Li Zichao (李子超) talked to us by email about touring abroad, their sound, and contemporary Chinese culture while on the road for their two-dozen city North American tour in support of their eponymous album released on May 1, 2015 on Maybe Mars. You can listen to Chui Wan on Spotify and at Maybe Mars where the album can also be downloaded and lyrics found.
This is your first North American tour, and it’s really extensive! You’re playing almost every night. What are your expectations for the tour as a band and as individuals visiting so many cities across the continent?
Li Zichao: As a band, of course, I would like to do our best during the tour. As an individual, to experience a tour is an opportunity to see many other interesting bands and to further experience the cultural and music atmosphere in another region.
Liu Xinyu: For myself, I want to buy interesting instruments and effect pedals. I bought an auto harp made in the 80s. For the band, I wish to meet interesting bands that share our mission and values and have good conversations with them.
Yan Yulong: Different music culture and different landscape. In general, everything is so exciting.
Are audiences outside of China different from audiences in China?
Zichao: Audiences in different countries vary. I would say Chinese audiences might be more restrained. Sometimes in America, you won’t really have awkward silence on the stage even if there is a small audience. Americans are very very enthusiastic!
Xinyu: I think American and European audiences are much more passionate. They tend to talk to you about music or say “great job” after the performance. But this is not the case in China –– people are just shy.
Yulong: Chinese audiences are more introverted and lovely, while European and American audiences are more polite and enthusiastic. They are all very nice!
Tell us about how Chui Wan formed.
Zichao: I joined them in early 2013. The band was already there before I joined. I had only seen their performance once and liked it a lot; so, I sent them an email when I saw that they were looking for a drummer.
Xinyu: I had a No Wave band back then, and there was one time the drummer had an important exam. So, Yan Yulong came on stage himself to jam with us! Nobody knew him yet, then.
Yulong: We pretty much met through the internet.
What’s your songwriting and recording process? How do the “minimal drone [and] maximal sonic layerings” translate in live performances?
Zichao: We don’t really write music in a traditional way – everything’s improvised in the studio Each band member finishes his own part and we combine them together. If everybody is happy with it, then it will be a new song.
Xinyu: Almost all our songs are studio improvisations. Usually one of us comes up with some interesting melodies, and the rest of us will add our own melodies to keep up with it. I do not think that we will be able to appear to be minimal drone related, since it’s something deep in our thoughts and can’t really be expressed.
Yulong: We make music together in the studio, and improve them through our performances.
Tell us about your new album.
Zichao: The new album is indeed different from the last one regarding its expression. It’s not just because of changes in lineup. We want to simplify the album and cut back on the production to make it sound more like live performance.
Xinyu: Every band might have the fear that its second album will not be well accepted; however, I don’t feel this way. We are pretty confident about our second album in which I believe we figured out our desired direction.
Yulong: Simple, modest and not overly embellished.
China’s indie rock scene is typically known as having roots in post-punk. But your sound is closer to noise, psychedelia, and shoegaze. What bands have influenced each of you? What was it like discovering these bands? What influence does Chinese culture have on your sound?
Zichao: When I first started to play music in the band, I especially liked British punk music. Recently, I’ve been more into krautrock, surf, and rock based on American roots music. In the past year, Can has had a great influence on my drumming. I really like their drummer. Maybe I am subconsciously influenced by the surrounding environment. That’s why many people classify the music in different ways.
Xinyu: The style of Chinese bands is often like a trend. Post-punk was popular in the beginning; then, it became post-rock, and now everybody is into shoegaze. I don’t think this is a good thing. We should focus on music that we really like. My favorite Chinese band is “憬观: 相同叠”. They have a great influence on me.
Yulong: So many. Such as La Monte Young, John Cage, Lovely Records. As for influence from China, I’d say it’s more spiritual.
As I understand it, this rock scene is relatively small. Do you think it has the chance to catch on in China like “alternative music” did in the 90s in the United States?
Zichao: I do not know, and I do not care.
Xinyu: It seems to be difficult. A majority of the public do not have their own aesthetic or taste, and they do not really know what they like. They only know that if someone is frequently featured on TV, he or she is a celebrity, and they will become fans. The large number of talent shows in China further harms people’s aesthetic standards for music. Pop music in China nowadays is even less genuine and pleasant than it was ten years ago. Many people just treat music as a fashion fad.
Yulong: No. It might be similar though. Beijing and China can only have music scenes that belong to themselves.
It seems like Americans often look for traditional “Chineseness” in contemporary Chinese arts, be it visual, performance, or music. Is there anything identifiable that defines contemporary Chinese culture? Is there a need as artists to dissociate from notions of “Chineseness” or for audiences not to have these expectations? If so, what will it take to get there?
Zichao: Maybe “Chineseness” refers to the old Chinese culture. I don’t think contemporary China has culture. I am not exactly sure. However, people from different places have different working methods and ways of expression. From the perspective of a foreigner, any Chinese people in the music or art field will carry this “Chineseness” with him/her, just like I have my own opinions about American characteristics.
Xinyu: I’ve thought about a related issue. Now the internet is highly developed, and if I really like Nepali music, I can download 100 CDs from the internet, and they will have a subtle influence on my music creation. Yulong and I guess that after 100 years, artists and their art from each country will not have distinct features. Everyone is well connected internationally and will become similar due to mutual influence. This might be a frightening thing to think about.
Yulong: For me, this might be the reason why China is not well understood.
The band continues finishes up their tour with seven dates in the Western United States:
- 5/26 Missoula OLE BECK VFW POST 209
- 5/27 Seattle LO-FI
- 5/28 Portland FOGGY NOTION
- 5/29 Nevada City COOPER’S
- 5/30 Los Angeles CAFE NELA
- 5/31 Los Angeles THE GRAND STAR JAZZ CLUB – CHINATOWN
- 6/1 San Francisco BRICK & MORTAR
If you don’t catch any of the live shows, here they are in action:
Uue Maailma Festival, Estonia
Club Bohemia, Cambridge, MA
Concert reporting by Xiao Fu. The band’s replies were translated from Chinese by Hansi Liao and were lightly edited for clarity. Lead photo by vbai, courtesy of the band.