Awesome people, free red wine, glamorous poodles, unexpected blackened chicken feet fished out of wonton soups… Kiwese had a yarn with God Bows to Math guitarist/vocalist Martin Phillips about their latest tour, the underground post-punk scene in China and how to make soup dumplings.
The noise they emit is as raw as a dodgy steak. They play each show with a psychopathic intensity, whether its for two people or two hundred. They have played too many gigs to count, dozens and dozens a year for like five years. Who knows, I’m crap at math.
God Bows to Math is Martin Phillips, Sam Cussen and Tom Morrison – the trinity that was resurrected from the dust of previous bands back in 2008. Over the years, they have ceaselessly toured around New Zealand and Australia, making friends, meeting bands and leaving a trail of deafening amplifier feedback in their wake. It’s that “fuck it why not” attitude that led God Bows to Math [神弓至数学 Shén gōng zhì shùxué] to pummel Chinese audiences with their churning fist full of noise last November, and chat with them over a couple of Tsingtaos afterwards.
I hung out with the lovely folks from God Bows to Math and Carb on Carb after the first show of their eleven date China tour in Beijing. Whether it was the hypnotic drone of noise, the fondness of their Kiwi accents or the effects of drinking baijiu straight out of the bottle, I decided to ditch school, call in sick for work, buy some train tickets and catch them again 1,379km south down the country in Suzhou. The fact that a pair of bands from Auckland had come all the way to China to play music was just too much for me!
“他是Tom, 他是Sam, 我是Martin, 我们是God Bows To Math, 谢谢” [He’s Tom, He’s Sam, I’m Martin, We are God Bows to Math] panted Martin into a microphone of feedback, as he introduced the band after blasting through several tracks at MAO Livehouse. Whether it was saying xie xie after each tweak during soundcheck, Tom approving of the sea-salt cream coffee in Suzhou, finding unidentifiable animal parts in our wonton soups; they were here in China and enjoying the differences that were thrown at them.
What drew you guys to China? It doesn’t seem to be the typical next destination after you’ve toured NZ and Aus?
Not many NZ bands seem to look in that direction. But in Australia heaps of bands do, with the Sino-Australia exchange and Shaun at Tenzenmen there are more links between the two scenes. Plus, Australia is closer to Indonesia so a lot of Aussie bands we know tend to tour South-East Asia as well. There’s a growing feeling about China from NZ too – Disasteradio has toured there and so did Die! Die! Die! in recent years. Getting more than one person to do something like that is tough.
Tell us about how you guys got hanging with Pairs.
We were introduced to China through Pairs in Shanghai. When Rhys and F came to NZ, Benji [MUZAI Records] and I booked their tour for them – so that’s when the idea came about. Rhys basically used the New Zealand tour as an advertising campaign to get people to come over to China. It was a bit of whirlwind tour, we managed to fit in nine shows over two weeks: Tauranga, Wanganui, Hunterville, Wellington, Auckland, Dunedin, Christchurch and a house party in Auckland. It was around Chinese New Year as well so I think they paid a ridiculous amount of costs. It’s pretty hard to convince bands to do that, but those two are always down to do a crazy amount of shows in a short amount of time.
So the 7” split idea came into fruition from those long road trips down the North Island?
Yeah, Rhys said he knew someone who was interested in releasing a split record so we jumped at that opportunity as well [Nevin Domer from Genjing Records]. We met James from Bomb Shop in the UK through Rhys, as they had released Pairs album over there, and then Shaun Tenzenmen in Australia who again we knew from touring and various people, so along with Muzai, it became this four label, cross-global release.
Has the split helped you guys get more exposure in China?
Yeah I definitely think so. A lot of it has been Rhys, Tom from This Town Touring, Nevin at Genjing and Dann Gaymer, who have done a lot to promote it over there as well. Same with our album too, it seems a few people had gotten to hear it. Internet wise, we got a Douban page before the tour. We don’t have a Weibo yet, but baby steps! I can’t handle social media, I let Cuss do all the Twitter and that.
What were your perceptions of the Chinese music scene before coming on tour?
The book Inseparable by David O’Dell. He lived in Beijing in the 1990s, the punk era of bands like Underbaby. It culminates with the rise of D-22 and bands like P.K 14 and Hedgehog, more about the punk and hardcore scene. I know Nevin helped with distro so he would know where to get a copy. I bought mine from Shaun but I think he sold out. [editor’s note: everyone should read this interview with O’Dell]
As far as logistics go, how was touring China for five Aucklanders with no Mandarin?
The whole thing went really smoothly, though when you are on tour, ‘smooth’ takes on a different definition to what it does in normal life, because there’s bound to be things that go wrong. All in all it was definitely one of the easiest things we’ve ever done organization wise because Mattessi took care of most of it then our incredible tour manager Vivian took care of the details. The transport was great – I love China’s fast trains. It definitely beats nine hours of driving. We’ve done Australia where we’ve driven from Melbourne to Newcastle in one day, by the time you arrive at the venue you’re nearly dead and you’re not really in the mood to do a show. Whereas having a nap on the train, reading a book, then having dinner and showing up is definitely a different feeling. We had five people from two different bands on a tour of China, I’m proud that we managed to get there.
You had studied a bit of the language before coming to China?
“Wǒ xiǎng hē píjiǔ!” [我想喝啤酒, I want to drink beer]. That was a key phrase. I think people were good about me speaking without tones, though I’d like to learn more. It is very difficult to learn a language from books and Chinese pronunciation is pretty tough going. In China I found myself being really drawn into all of the signs and trying to work out the characters!
Any Chinese food recommendations?
I’m gonna try keep a journal of my efforts to make soup dumplings. It’s a local Shanghai thing. Shēng jiān bāo [生煎包] from Yang’s Fried Dumplings in Shanghai. It’s just incredible and so cheap. I ordered like a dozen of them and a wonton soup as well. Delicious. It’s basically just fat in gelatin, so unhealthy.
What’s the music scene like in Auckland these days?
I think the scene in Auckland is really healthy at the moment. There seems to be a lot of good bands, more people coming to gigs and enjoying it, which means everything benefits – venues do better, bands do better, people make more of an effort. Though some of the best venues still have trouble keeping their doors open and even when things go well, their share of the night time entertainment audience is still a ridiculously small slice of the pie. I never subscribe to the old Ian MacKaye ‘DIY should be about the music’ vibe, I like going to bars and seeing bands. I like being able to have a beer and watch them. They’ve just changed the alcohol licensing laws and made changes to when bars can close. Whammy and Lucha feel the pinch because they are late bars and have late shows, yet they aren’t the ones that have problems with people spilling out onto the streets and having drunken fights, those are from the shitty clubs which make enough money to stay afloat anyway…
Tell me about your own plans with the China-NZ music relationship.
It’s one of those things that is hampered by a lack of money and a lack of time. I’d like to get some more Chinese bands over here. I tried to convince [Yang] Haisong to get either After Argument or P.K 14 to come to NZ. He appeased me by saying yes but I don’t know if they will [laughs]. That would be a bit of a dream. Hoping to get Nevin’s band Fanzui Xiangfa over at some stage as well. Actually one band is coming in 2015, Guiguisuisui. Most people we speak to are like “woah, whats China like? There’s music over there? That’s crazy!” But China have an amazing underground scene and it would be nice to share what’s happening there. It is fairly easy to find out about the underground scene in America and even Australia, but there’s not much awareness about what’s happening in China. I guess it also has something to do with different mediums, it’s hard to find Chinese bands on Facebook, you don’t have the same avenues for sharing it. We should get links to show people and create a bit more interest.
In recent years there have been a a growing number of DIY bands from NZ touring China, but there doesn’t seem to be a reciprocal effort from local Chinese bands heading to NZ.
I think it has something to do with the size of NZ and the fact that there are more opportunities in China. It’s the same reason it’s harder to get Australian bands over to NZ than it is to get NZ bands to Australia. Carsick Cars have been to Australia heaps. If you had the option to play festivals with some of your favourite bands at home, that’s something you should pursue over going on holiday to NZ. Though if anything people are attracted to the idea of NZ scenery. We lost a lot of money going over to China because we did it like a holiday, but I guarantee you would lose more going the other way. Then there’s the language barrier as well. There isn’t the same network of tour managers in NZ as there is in China. There’s no one who has ever tour managed a band in NZ that can speak both Mandarin and English. Every band we met over in China spoke English a hell of a lot better than I spoke Chinese!
A few Chinese bands have been funded come to NZ in the past, but they don’t seem to reach the same sort of audience that they do in China. For example, Chinese heavy metal legends Tang Dynasty playing at the family-orientated Lantern Festival in February.
It really depends as a band. It is hard to go somewhere you have never been before and end up in places that you wanna be. I know this band from Germany who got really lucky and ended up booking themselves an amazing tour of NZ playing these underground venues, but it could have just as easily ended up with them playing at the local pub in East Auckland to the wrong people in the wrong environment, billed the wrong way. It is really difficult to know the intricacies of scenes. With metal bands, there would be a lot better places to play than the Lantern Festival, that’s like if we went over to China and played at some sort of NZ cultural event, or even at a televised rugby match, it wouldn’t really feel right.
I guess there needs to be something special to entice bands to come on their own, something they can’t get anywhere else.
The Hobbit. Start a sub-culture of Tolkien underground noise rock.
to be continued…
Deafen yourself and bow down here.
Watch them perform live at Mao Livehouse on Youku, though you might have to sit through a KFC ad first.
Now check out the interview with Nicole and James from Carb on Carb.
Cheers to Nevin at Genjing Records for the insight and Nicole for some of the pics!