Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Interview with ROUND EYE

Round Eye consist of four Western emigrents living in Shanghai. They are one of the most amazing bands in the young history of the steady growing Chinese underground scene. Musically it's a hard to put them in categories. Their sound is chracterized by an experimental, open minded approach. Round Eye combine modern postpunk with 60s high energy rock'n'roll and easy-listening, but in the end it's their very own unique style. This interview gives an impressing insight into what's going on in China at the moment.

Who is who? When and how did you start playing together? What is the idea behind Round Eye?
Jimmy Jack: drums...we began last March or April....don't really remember.
Xiao Long Bob: Bob. Bass.
Lewis: ‘ello mate, English country yokel ‘ere. I play sax.
Chachy: Hey, Ni hao!  Chachy; I play guitar and sing lead.  We began sometime in late March, early April of last year. I constructed the band in order to help salvage what I had started several years before with “Full Circle”. The concept of “Round Eye” I guess would be a self deprecating / tongue and cheek jab at a foreign expat (ourselves).  China isn’t exactly the most considerate culture on the planet and pointing out obvious features on someone different themselves is seen as commonplace and unoffensive whereas in the states (and I’m sure in Aussie or UK) dem’s are fightin’ words!  So we thought it’d be funny to celebrate it. That’s the look and name, the sound came partly from my yearning for the replacement of saxophone into rock music and to fulfill a desire to play out after nearly two years out off the live circuit.

Have you all moved to Shanghai? If yes: where are you originally from and why have you relocated?
Jimmy Jack: I moved to Shanghai 2 years ago to pursue my career in education. I am a History teacher at an international school. I am originally from New York.
Chachy: I’m originally from Florida; Bob and I went to school together there. I came here for the same reason many come here: a sharp change of pace.
Bob: I relocated for adventure, personal development and to gain a sense of the world.
Lewis: I got the opportunity to work in an architectural design studio in Shanghai once I had graduated from the UK. I flew over to China; 4 months later I was rehearsing with the then un-named Roundeye.

Tell us about the Shanghai and Chinese underground scene. Which bands are worth to check out?
Chachy: The underground here is pretty young to be honest with you.  Chinese Rock culture in general is extremely young compared to neighbors Japan or Hong Kong’s native scenes.  Bands to check out: Top Floor Circus, Second Hand Rose, Stalin Gardens, Duck Fight Goose, Pairs, Stegosaurus?, Death to Giants, PK14, Carsickcars, The Last Three Minutes, Street Kills Strange Animals, Astrofuck, Guo Shen, X is Y and tons tons more...actually, a bunch of us involved with the scene out here have contributed to a compilation that showcases what we’ve been trying to push.  It’s called “We Are Shanghail Vol. 2”  Here you go:

Where do you recommend me to visit and eat when I go to Shanghai?
Jimmy Jack: This is easy. Stay away from clubs....these clubs are 'typical' if you go to one in a Western Country then it will be the same here. I recommend seeing the typical sites of Shanghai. It’s a really big city and it will be easy to get into any vice that you desire. Except strip dice. And i suggest to eat the various types of Chinese food. Hunan and Sichuan food is my favorite (I like spice) also eat some hot pot. It’s great. There is food from all over the world here that are hard to come across in the West. And when you are good and drunk and your watch is reaching daylight hours, well, then its time for some street food.
Bob: Hang out with us! If you can still walk, go to the Shanghai Slaughter House, built 1933. It's a pretty cool piece of architecture, the building is an engine, a machine of halls, spillways, gutters, pools, docks, big doors and torture rooms.
Chachy: Disagree with Jimmy Jack; clubs are shit for music, yes, but are excellent places to secure a night stabbing the bearded clam. I’d recommend checking out Yuyintang, Shanghai’s best club for live music.  At any given night you’ll catch one of the dudes on the previously mentioned compilation puking in a corner or passed out on stage.  Eat?  Gimme a call, I’ll take to you the ‘smashed chicken Dong Bei place’.  (dong bei = Northeastern food)
Lewis: ‘Green Tea’ restaurant near the Hongkou Football Stadium – pukka.

What do you think is the main difference between underground music in China and Western countries?
Jimmy Jack: The West is full of bands and you have much more variety. But here, well, I think the music scene is awesome. There are good Western bands and a lot of great Chinese bands. Beijing is the real scene, but Shanghai is budding.
Chachy: You know, you’d think that there would be some huge cultural difference when it comes to our hemispheres’ respective undergrounds but in reality there are few dissimilarities; same scenesters, trendsetters, clubs and drugs and work ethic.  For me the biggest and most relieving difference was the complete supply of backline in every club in the country.  Gone are the days of lugging equipment in a van across a desert of truck stops (though I strangely do miss them).  Show’s lately have been trying to start earlier for the college kids due to their early dorm lockups. But other than that, when it comes to Shanghai, the west and east share a lot of traits with how to push, listen, and live music.

Tell us about the punk community in China. Are there many people involved and is it hard to buy records, zines, etc.?
Chachy: Physical zines are almost non-existent which is a shame.  There is an excellent Xerox zine in Hong Kong called Cloak and Dagger but I believe that is the only one out there. Most word round here is spread using online social media networks such as douban or weibo.  Facebook, myspace, google, and youtube are all banned in Big Red. People are starting to get hip to buying vinyl around here but it’s still a very new prospect, downloads run rampant.  There are only a few record stores in Shanghai that I’m aware of and keep in mind this is a city of over 20 million people.  The punk community, as small as it is, works incredibly hard and is super supportive.  The foreigners and locals all work together to find more bands to play and more clubs to put them in.  It’s slow going but rest assured, it’s going.  It’d really tough building a cohesive scene in a country with little to no background in DIY ideals and expiring Visas but as of the last 5 years it seems that things are really starting to cotton on a global scale. China’s not as obscure or isolated as it once was just under a decade ago.  Plus it helps to have dudes like Xiao Zhong of Pairs, Nevin Domer (Genjing/MaybeMars records), Pete Jackson (Shanghai 24/7), Pete Demola (Genjing), DJ B.O., Yivan from Twin Horizons and The Splitworks productions dudes busting their asses to get the music out there by sheer diligence.  Without some of these guys Round Eye would never have gotten off the ground.  They truly are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.
Jimmy Jack: To be honest, I’m not that good at categorizing music when it comes to the various types of Rock music. Punk to you might be different than me. People have said that we are punk....I’m not sure I understand that.

The freedom of opinion and expression and human rights are major issues in China. What's your opinion about it and have you ever had any problems with the Chinese state?
Bob: I think many countries try to find the bad points of other cultures to pipe themselves up as better. China is a developing society that has come a long way in 60 years and remains the world's oldest culture, which there is a lot to be said for. Every nation has dealt with a list of assholes, China is no different. And, while their speech about the government is limited, a person here has more personal freedom than an American. For this I could site many examples, but simply China has fewer laws than the US and unlike the US is not a controlled police state where every citizen is a possible criminal. Police in China are pretty nice guys and left alone they prefer drinking tea and smoking cigarettes than running around controlling and ticketing. People still talk about the government but keep the negative points behind closed doors. I saw an old woman screaming at the government outside Shanghai City Hall. No one cared, not even the armed guards at the door. I saw this as I was cross-walking on six a lane street. China and human rights is a very broad topic and worth inspection. But I've visited several factories across china and I've seen some pretty aesthetically bad working conditions, but nothing dangerous or compromising. Just junk that could be cleaned or organized in one or two days. Factories are often the result of one person in a rice village having great grades in school making it to a university and returning to their help their hometown starting a factory and providing better paying jobs. Once this happens anyone in the village is welcome to come work and earn more money than they would growing rice, By the way growing rice looks terrible... With the added income more children from the village will get better opportunities in life. Americans who work behind a desk (a desk made in china), would be appalled by seeing anyone work in a factory setting. But, an American who works in an American steel mill would not see any difference. In fact, the latter American would complain that china is stealing their jobs. Speaking restriction is not just a government idea it is imbedded in their culture. Much of the Chinese culture we see is an offshoot of Confucius. Confucius has been reinterpreted many times but the text remains largely uninhibited. One Confucian proverb says, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered first.” This is very logical but this sort of thinking has been understood to mean, don't stand out. Stay normal and you don't have to worry. In America, we say, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.” So, stand out and get noticed. But just like up and down, ying and yang, black and white, stand in/stand out it's all the same and there is no right or wrong about its. It's just a different culture.
Jimmy Jack: Is this a trick question?
Lewis: We are yet to have any run-ins with the pigs. Unless you’re using the stage to openly peddle diatribe against the government then you don’t have to fear your visa being revoked and the rest. I think if we have something to say in the future that treads on such ground, we’ll utilize that well-known literary device, the metaphor, just to keep safe.
Chachy: Righteous, Bob.  I’ll let Nevin handle this one too.
Nevin Domer (Laoban /staff of Genjing Records/Maybe Mars in Beijing):  All records produced in China have to go through a censorship process before they can go to the factory. In general this isn't a problem for most releases but can be a headache during sensitive times, such as the National Party Congress. All labels, distributors, venues and record stores need to acquire the appropriate permits from the government which can also be difficult without guanxi--the personal connections important to all business in China. There are a lot of barriers here that keep underground music marginalized but a growing number of people that are willing to make the extra effort to seek it out.

Have you ever toured through China? Is it possible? Are there many venues to play shows?

Chachy: We’ve done short tours to Wuhan/Beijing/Hong Kong but our first real bout comes twice this Summer with New Orleans punk legends Masters of the Obvious (M.O.T.O.) and later with American surf monsters Daikaiju. It is definitely possible and it’s done mostly by train and plane.  All of the major cities of China have at least a club or two to play.  It helps if you know the language though, not gonna lie;)
Jimmy Jack: Yes we have been around the block here in China.
You've released a split full length with Libyan Hit Squad from Florida. How did you get in contact with them and why have you done the split?
Jimmy Jack: Luck and bribes
Chachy: I’m the link between the two bands. Libyan Hit Squad was/is an experimental hardcore band I’ve fronted from ‘99 to ‘13.  When I received word from Greg Ginn that he wanted to take part in the record I figured ‘well, ok now I have to get this out.’ So I decided to close the book on Libyan with the A side and open the book on Round Eye on the B side. It worked out awesomely.

I think your music is hard to be categorized and this makes it so unique. I think too many bands play music just to fit in a hip category. What's your opinion about it?
Lewis: I’m pretty sure that some do. I think that if you start out with that agenda though, writing in order to be ‘hip’ and to impress others, or start to veer in that direction, then you’re probably not going to be making something particularly interesting musically.
Jimmy Jack: yes
Chachy: Even with LHS I faced an uphill battle of going against conventions.  I dunno, I’ve worked with bands that were of that caliber and noticed how impersonal, shallow, and utterly ‘safe’the music they laid down was and knew that I never wanted to be associated with that adjective ever in my life in the arts; ‘safe’, man what a drag.  Music from bands like the Minutemen, Black Flag’s “Process of Weeding Out”, and dudes like Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, and the pop sensibilities of Alex Chilton and Doowop; those are the guys I really cottoned to aesthetically.  I dunno, I play with my gut and I like to think my gut will always points me in the direction I’d be happiest.  Full Circle was great because for me it’s an amalgamation of everything I’m a die hard fan of; hardcore, sax based early rock and roll, doowop, first wave English punk, etc.

What do you think about the evolution of punk at all und which current bands do you like? 
Chachy: I’m very picky. Bands these days that get tons of hype like Fucked Up, Gallows, Merchandise and many others I’m not particularly moved by but that’s not to say I’m closed to checking them out.  They probably put on a cool live show. For me living all the way out here in Shanghai, the value of a record’s sonic impact has taken on a whole new meaning because the chances of me actually seeing the gig live are slim to none.  However, with hardcore/thrash, I’m more of a fan of groups that make me wanna grab my dick, rip it off and kick it around the room like No Qualms, Holy Shit!, Knife Hits, early Municipal Waste, early Runnamucks, Magrudergrind without actually having to be at the gig but that’s not to say that live music isn’t a key point with me..  Current bands, yes, yes, I loved watching Thee Oh Sees (though I’m on the fence about their band name;).  Ice Age are interesting and I loved Duck Fight Goose’s and Stalin Garden’s new records. Check those out for sure. The evolution of punk, man what can I say? Haha did it really evolve and if it did how far from the beaten path did it go? Sure there’s a lot of experimentalists out there pushing boundaries and making some truly beautiful noise but there’s also a clutch of completely uninspired crap that is perfectly happy rehashing record after record of fucked facsimiles of bands and sounds long recorded and noted.  I suppose we could be seen as a point in that evolution but honestly I don’t really think of ourselves as a truly ‘punk’ band.  Maybe punk in the sense that we do exactly what we feel like doing and if that’s the case then I’m gonna say that my favorite punk idols were Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart, Sun Ra, Instrumental Black Flag, The Fall, Wire, Devo, the Minutement, and the Flamingos.  Hmm I wonder if that answers the question at all haha.
Jimmy Jack: Well, this question is hard to answer. I just know that I don't like Blink 182

I wrote about your record "sounds like a lost SST release from the mid 80s". Do you actually like SST releases and what are your favorites?
Jimmy Jack: me
Chachy: My top five (well six at the moment):
1.    Black Flag “Process of Weeding Out”
2.    Minutemen “Why Man Starts Fires”
3.    Meat Puppets “Meat Puppets”
4.    Negativland “Escape from Noise”
5.    St. Vitus “Saint Vitus”
6.    I also like the Leaving Trains
This label was at one point the label everyone wanted to get onto because whatever was on there was certified as the underground’s high art and fucking killer. It was fearless expressionism, rage and reckless aesthetic (Pettibon) that lured me in.  Every record, every band for nearly a decade was a showcase of a totally new direction in musical thought and they all worked together and fed off each other.  It was the punk rock Borg.  It’s always been a dream of mine to have a release on that label haha, maybe I should ask Greg about it...

What are your most important influences, both musically and lyrically?
Lewis: Musically - everything. But jazz is the centre; coltrane, hubbard, bill evans, mingus, kenny garrett, brad mehldau… Lyrically: Nick Drake, Carole King, Jagger/Richards, Doherty/Barrat, Lou Reed.
Jimmy Jack: My influences range. I learned how to play the drums by Hip-Hop. early 90's rap mostly and from there I have been trying to find my groove. I am always experimenting with different types of drum styles. Round Eye is the first time that I have played this type of music. Imagine, playing every song with an open high-hat. Never thought I would be playing a more tom driven type of music. I just had a 3 year stint with 'southern rock band' So I'm always learning and growing. Lyrically, well, I like the emotional tarp of Pink Floyd and Fiona Apple as well as the everyday issues of Radio Head as well as the off the wall lyrics of Beck. Lyrics, for me, have to speak to me in some way. Or at least make me think in another way. A good artist leaves his/her art to be interpreted from viewer to viewer. Lyrics are the same for me but I have to be honest, I have no idea what Chachy is singing about. Nor do I even care. Sorry buddy.
Chachy: musically, I’m in line with the dissonance of punk rock and avantgard music like Swell Maps and Captain Beefheart mixed with the discipline songwriting of Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, or early 50s doowop.  Lyrically, I love Joe Strummer and Alex Chilton.  Strummer’s irony and word play and Chilton’s seemingly coy demeanor.

What do you prefer: music blogs or printed fanzines?
Jimmy Jack: I like to hold what I am reading.
Chachy: Probably digital for now being that I’m forced to read almost everything digitally (living in China). I see the benefits of both but there was a time when I went mostly to print solely for the fact that I could bring it to the toilet with me.  But alas, the kindle is in my possession and I’m riding the white porcelain once again.  So unless rapture comes and technology fails us in the near future, both are awesome with me.
Bob: Printed fanzines. They reach more people. When you find one it's like opening up a small unexpected present. Looking up anything online is an expected pleasure, plus the screen bothers my round eyes.

What are your future plans?
Chachy: Tour. We have a split 7” with Daikaiju (US) and a 3-way split with Guo Shen and M.O.T.O. coming out round summertime and I’m currently writing our first full length LP. But still, tour, tour, tour, tour!  Oh and our first music video (Carne Seca) will be premiering on the 23rd of March!  Look out for that!
Jimmy Jack: To not teach....just play music

Anything else people should know about Round Eye?
Bob: We are working hard to make the world a better place and only Jimmy Jack is a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Jimmy Jack: We all like Lionel Richie.
Chachy: There’s a lot going on in China at the moment and we’re doing our very best (with Ride A Dove’s help too;) to bring it out of isolation. The bands here get crazier with every release and the scene is flourishing with ever new gig, blog, podcast, whatever. We’d love to have anyone/band come and visit to show them what we’re a part of. Thanks so much for the interview guys. Hopefully our tours will find their way to your neck of the woods!