"Experimental freak punk outfit" Round Eye, who've been nurturing the local music scene and putting on raucously energetic shows for the past three years, have released their debut full-length album. From scratchy minimalism to raging punk to an unexpected saxophone, the self-titled record transports you deep into the twisted psyches of these local punk-rockers.
Before their album release show this Saturday night at On Stage, we spoke with Round Eye bandmembers Pete and Chachy about expat bands, what to expect at the show and why their new album is "the plaque behind Shanghai's teeth."
Music video for "City Livin" shot, directed & edited by Alessio Avezzano
Pete: This album is designed to be listened to all in one go, and so is very structurally different to Full Circle. Full Circle was us in "party rock" mode, as I think we were described by this very magazine. This new album has some rocking three minute tracks on it, but a lot more of it is abstract stuff, where you can't really distinguish which track is which, what's live and what's not. Thematically it's kind of a critique of urban life.
Chachy: The main theme of Round Eye is metropolitan accumulation or build up of cross-cultural residue. This album is the plaque behind Shanghai's teeth. Confusion, abortion, what cultures accept and reject from each other and how they interact or take advantage. It's a freak show.
The songs are different because Full Circle was fun and lackadaisacal. We were dirty, but we didn't sing about our surroundings at the time. Frankly, we weren't really affected so much at that point. We were still on honeymoon with China. Now we're arguing about bills and unwashed dishes.
Full Circle album art
How did your collaboration with The Stooges' and Violent Femmes' saxophonist Steve Mackay come about? What do you think his influence adds to Round Eye?
Chachy: This all started out with me writing a fan letter to Steve during his and Sikhara's trip to Shanghai back in 2012. At that time, Round Eye hadn't played any shows and we were just getting to know each other. To my surprise, Steve responded and Scott Nydegger (Sikhara/Steve's manager at the time) wanted to get together. Steve and Scott asked if I'd like to accompany them to their next date in Xi'an playing bass for Sikhara. I said yes, the gig at Aperture Club rocked hard and the relationship was formed. And here we are!
Steve's presence on the Stooges sophomore LP Fun House changed everything for me as a musician. Replacing the sax as a lead or backing monster on a rock record is just correct in my head.
But when making this record, we knew we didn't want Steve to just come in and "Fun House" the whole thing. My intentions with having him on board was for him to act as a sort of director moving the narrative along.
I mean, what we try to do in Round Eye is obviously very much derived and influenced by his style of playing, so why not have the king himself lend us a hand at creating a monster. Lucky for us, he was super keen on being a part of what we wanted to do. The man is a legend and we're honored to work with him.
Legendary saxophonist Steve Mackay
What's the story behind the cover art of the album? Who drew it, and what is the significance of Saturn in the background and that trippy sea anemone in a glass case?
Pete: The amazing Gregor Koerting of IdleBeats is to thank for that. The sea anemone in a glass case stems from an idea we were working on with him, that one day the remnants of the natural world will be preserved and wondered at like religious relics. So in that sense it reflects the themes of decay that pervade the album.
I think Saturn is more alluding to the fact that the cover is referencing the design of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, just adding a bit of fantasy to the whole thing. I don't think it has any astrological significance!
The new album
Your Douban page says that Round Eye works on “bridging a wide gap between the eastern and western hemispheres of punk rock.” How do you go about doing that?
Pete: We try to collaborate as much as we can with Chinese artists, as you can see on the album. We also try to play with as many Chinese bands as possible and build networks as much as we can.
We've invited many Western bands (MOTO, Daikaiju, Paul Collins, The Boys) and musicians over here, setting up tours for them, trying to show them the country and introduce them to our local heroes, making a point to hit up as many second and third tier cities as we can. We'd really like to do the reverse and take some Chinese bands with us to the West -- that's more difficult, but we're working on it.
When we're [touring] the States, we're there to sell our own record, but we are also repping Shanghai hard, and trying to get more people to visit.
Photo by Rachel Gouk
Many of Round Eye’s songs on both albums poke fun at either elements of Chinese culture or the experience of being a Shanghai expat. How do you walk the line between parody and mockery?
Pete: Ultimately, we are a punk band, and so we call out hypocrisy and bullshit when we see it. But in everything, we try to be even-handed, and to punch up rather than down. A lot of the negativity on the album is directed towards universal problems, like exploitation, ignorance, pollution, and the grind of life in a big city. You can apply our message to Shanghai, but you could apply it anywhere. There is also a strong element of self-parody and self-mockery -- we're not excluding ourselves when we critique expats at all.
When we do look at China-specific issues, like we did in "Suntan," we were careful to discuss the song with our Chinese friends extensively before we went ahead with the video, and we found it resonated a lot. And that's because at its core, it's dealing with universal issues of parental interference and arbitrary beauty standards. It is a fine line between affectionate parody and outright mockery, but we do honestly try to stay on the right side!
Chachy: [We walk the line] by being a fly on the wall. We never make our own comments. We just tell a story of what we see and find corroboration with our native friends. For instance, "Suntan," to someone who is not privy to the superficial standards of the Eastern Vogue might find the subject derogatory and offensive but to someone who is Chinese (or even Asian for that matter) the issue is humorous and excellent foder for parody or criticism. We do our homework and are fine ruffling some PC feathers.
What Chinese bands are you fans of right now, or have been most influenced by in your songwriting?
Chachy: Oh damn, Pangu. The best and punkest punk band in the country, in my opinion. Nanchang's very dirty little secret.
Photo by Rachel Gouk
Chachy, in an interview with Shanghaiist when you were a fairly new band, you called Shanghai "one of the most supportive scenes in the universe.” Do you still feel that way three years later? Why or why not?
Chachy: I do. The Boys fiasco [cancelled shows in Shanghai and Nantong] last winter proved to the nth degree that the people and bands we work with here in Shanghai will bend over backwards to help the best things happen in the worst situations.
Also, the casual spectator might not realize just how much work goes into planning a tour of the mainland and bringing someone here. From the legalities of their stays to the food they're going to eat, there's someone behind each and every detail. I still stand by Shanghai.
Rock fans in Shanghai are always joking and/or griping about how expat bands form and then break up when their members move away. Do you think it’s possible for an expat band to make a lasting impression on the scene here, even if they are only around for a few years? Some seminal punk bands, like The Sex Pistols, were only active for about three years.
Pete: Let us start by saying we're not going anywhere! We are happy to announce an LP release that isn't also a farewell show. But can an expat band make an impact? Sure. Look at Pairs (OK, half expat band). Xiao Zhong built amazing links between China and Australia, and was a real anchor for the scene.
Or look at bands like Boys Climbing Ropes, and Rainbow Danger Club, who've made albums that people are going to be listening to for years. Or Mike [Herd] and Xiaoxinyiyi, who have organised budget shows that have given student bands their first break. Or Nate Sidoti... the list goes on. It doesn't matter how long you're here for, if you put your heart and soul into making great music and putting together great shows, if you create something other people love and appreciate, then you've made an impact.
What can we expect at your album release show?
Pete: We'll be collaborating with Junky, AKA Torturing Nurse, who is not everyone's cup of tea (and neither are we, haha), but has been doing his thing for fifteen years and is certainly one of Shanghai's most unique assets.
We'll also be featuring three saxophones, as alto sax player Lewis is back in town, which is going to be great! And then the star of the show will be Steve Mackay. We're going to be doing a lot of stuff differently to showcase him. We've got a whole load of extra musicians, and it's going to be a very full-on, almost theatrical experience. It's fair to say you'll never see another Round Eye show like it.
Photo at top by Rachel Gouk
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