Time flies! Back at the end of 2013, Auckland DIY bands God Bows to Math and Carb on Carb arrived in Beijing to kick off their tour of China at one of the city’s most well-known venues, MAO Livehouse. I met them, I liked them, and I followed them to Suzhou.
And so, it is with much sentimentality that almost two years later, the God Bows to Math and Carb on Carb China Tour Documentary is online now. Check it out.
Filmed by the bands. Edited by James.
Over two weeks, the bands carved through China’s eastern provinces to the south coast, accompanied by their aqua haired Chinese tour manager Vivian.
Rather than just playing the main centres, God Bows and Carbs got the train to the outlying cities of Zibo 淄博 and Zaozhuang 枣庄 in central Shangdong, where the hyped up locals proved that live music has life in the small centres, and that is no crowd too small for crowdsurfing.
I wagged class, bought a train ticket, and met up with the bands again at Wave Livehouse in Suzhou 苏州, a quaint little town full of canals to the east of Shanghai. After the show billed as ‘Kiwi Rock Night,’ we were invited into a neighbouring bar by a local guy called Randy, who we hung out with over free red wine, snacks and fruit! Local hospitality was a constant theme that presented itself throughout the tour. That, and cheap beers. Xie Xie!
Handmade merch sold out, the tour cut inland to Nanjing 南京 and Shaoxing 绍兴, before a show with friends and tour instigators Pairs in Shanghai 上海. No tour of China would be complete without a stop at the legendary VOX Livehouse in Wuhan 武汉, and even Changsha 长沙 got a show in, too. The tour wrapped up the Cantonese-speaking south of Shenzhen 深圳 and Guangzhou 广州, the latter organised by the famously hardworking, lovely folk at Full Label, a collective of friends who love DIY music.
The God Bows to Math and Carb on Carb China Tour 2013 was organised by Tom Mattessi at This Town Touring, check out the interview here.
Big ups to James from Carb on Carb/Papaiti for inviting Kiwese to premiere this documentary!
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!
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.
Got munchies? Aucklanders (奥克兰人 Àokèlán rén) Carb on Carb completed an epic eleven date tour of the Middle Kingdom back in November with good buddies God Bows to Math. Kiwese followed them from Beijing to Suzhou and recently we reminisced about their first foray into Asia and how Chinese cabbage and eggplant dishes are exponentially more delicious than in New Zealand.
I first met the duo behind Carb on Carb, epic diva (天后, tiānhòu, lit. ‘Heavenly Queen’) Nicole Gaffney and handsome guy (帅哥, shuài gē) James Stuteley in the grungy merch area at MAO Livehouse in Gulou, Beijing. I quickly scrawled the phonetic pronunciation of “da jar how” [大家好, Hello everyone!] on Nicole’s hand before they took the stage for the first show of the tour when it struck me: these guys, fresh outta the Auckland underground, are here playing their music around China. That’s gotta mean something. It is awesome.
Carb on Carb are the kind of people you wanna be mates with. Their outlook is fresh, fun and friendly, they are really nice, keen to chat and down for whatev. Their music is like Crunchy Peanut Butter machine-gun fire that makes you wanna thrash about like a voodoo doll, yet its stripped back in a way equally suited to lying on your bed with headphones, dreaming about your crush.
Self described as post-punk/noise pop/pop-gaze, Carb on Carb do most of their shit themselves, from the recording, mastering, poster design, album art and photos. They embody a genuine DIY spirit, not in a Mitre 10 Dream Home sense, but in a similarly inspiring way that shows what can be done if you put your mind to it, work hard and do it for the luv of it. From seeing them sell their CDs for a criminally low price, to the “All content is free for you to enjoy and distribute as you please” message on the Papaiti Records website, it is clear these guys are playing music just cos they wanna play music. Word.
After we drunk a bottle of báijiǔ chased with beers, I made the executive decision to follow the bands to Zibo, a small town out in the wops of Shandong. Waking up on a friend’s couch the following morning with no information about Zibo (ie. where da fk da venue??), I decided to push ahead and catch them down in the river town of Suzhou instead, known as the ‘Venice of China.’ Despite the small, sedentary nature of the audience at Wave (New Zea-land hip hop / stand the fuck up!), Carbs were well-received, scored some free booze and made some choice mates after the show, which is the point after all right?
You can/should download and emo out to Carb on Carb’s EPs no body perfect (2012), Ladies Mile (2013) and their single Eden Terrors, which was released just before coming to China. All their songs are free to take but koha where you can aye! Also the new video for Eden Terrors features some exxxclusive China footage and is the best thing on YouTube right now.
Hey guys! You’ve just spent quite a lot of time in China and South-East Asia, any weird reverse culture shock back in Nu Zilland?
J: It was strange to not have such overloaded senses all the time, no bike bells and horns, people and noise. To come back and feel like your senses are deprived cos its not loud and it doesn’t smell [laughs]
N: After being in Asia for so long we’d gotten used to not understanding the language around us. I found myself getting really annoyed when I heard the way people were talking about others, like “hey don’t be so mean!”
How did you guys get involved in the China tour? GBTM says they had a connection with Pairs.
N: During the Pairs tour of NZ, Rhys talked about China as a really achievable kind of goal after doing Australia. We thought that instead of doing America or Europe we may as well do China, because it’s closer, cheaper, we can get by with contacts and play to a hungrier audience.
So how was it? Did you have any expectations going into it?
N: Having the time to go sightseeing was incredible, but obviously I loved the shows too.
J: I had some sort of expectation but actually being in China made me realize how little we know about it. Coming from a Western culture and not knowing much about the history of the hugest country in the world, then seeing all these crazy castle complex things like the Forbidden City which have immense histories, but we just think of them as sights. I studied the Manchurian invasion in high school but that was it. I really didn’t know about the Nanjing Massacre.
N: Yeah, the Nanjing Massacre Museum was pretty intense.
Is there a community of local NZ bands that are looking towards China?
J: I don’t really think there’s a ‘community,’ but there’s certainly bands interested in doing it.
N: It seems like mostly Wellington bands have done it in the past, as well as Die! Die! Die! from Dunedin. But for a small band like us to tour China, we can talk to other bands in Auckland about our experiences and help them to see China as a doable thing. We are telling people they should do it! Why not!
The ~*Internet*~ seems to be an important tool for getting your material out there. How’s your online presence in China?
J: We made a Weibo page which Nicole has recently updated. We also got Rhys and Tom [This Town Touring] to make us a Douban because working out the Chinese was just way too confusing. Thankfully Bandcamp isn’t blocked in China.
N: We have a Youku as well! We tried to research a bit about it just to put our stuff out there. Even if it was in terrible translated Chinese, at least people would get the general idea: that we were a band and we were coming.
I know I’ve said it before but I love the tour poster! Got a signed copy from all you guys from the Beijing show.
N: Thanks! I drew it when I was at work [laughs]. My boss was pretty excited though, she’s from China.
I saw some pretty impressive use of dramatic hand gesturing and sign language from you guys in China. How did you find the language barrier?
N: The language was really hard. But having our tour manager Vivian with us made it a lot easier. I wish we learned a bit more, it would have been really cool to communicate with the people who liked us at shows, even just to be able to thank them properly and understand what they have to say. I used the ‘Da Jar How’ at every show!
J: It was interesting to experience what its like to not be able to speak the dominant language, it helped us understand how other people might feel. In New Zealand we just expect everyone to speak English. Very educational to be on the outside.
How was it coming from the NZ scene where you are quite familiar with the crowds to China where no one knows you?
J: It was pretty bizarre being presented as ‘Kiwi Rock Night’ in Suzhou.
N: That’s what I love about touring, just getting to meet new people and not playing to the same crowds over and over again. So it was really exciting to see fresh faces and have people react freshly to our music when they haven’t even heard it before.
So you guys hit up some pretty niche places, tiny towns in Shandong that no ones ever heard of. What’s the scene like down there?
J: At the show in Zaozhuang there was a big group of about fifteen friends and they were real keen to talk to us – they’d try out their English with a few words, then we’d say a few words, and all of were just cracking up. These guys were crowdsurfing and moshing with no one else in the bar. The people were really cool, they just had less barriers. They would spend more time talking with us and taking photos with us, generally way more excited to see some bands.
N: Yeah, they kept buying us loads of beers, being almost forceful with it! Hanging with them was really fun and different from other crowds we’ve met. The bar owner in Zaozhuang also took us out for an amazingly delicious dinner before the show and shouted us the meal! He even drove us to the train station in the morning! People at all of the shows were so generous – it was pretty overwhelming.
Were they actually into your music?
N: We were selling our EPs for 20RMB and they literally bought all our merch! The people we met were having a good time and having the experience of meeting us and talking to us. The same was with Randy who gave us the wine in Suzhou! He was just as keen to meet us as we were to have free wine [laughs]
As far as touring and performing goes, did you guys have any issues?
N: At our first show in Beijing I found the indoor smoking quite intense from a singing perspective. Before coming to China, we pretty much knew there were gonna be loads of bikes on the roads, but with the smoking in bars I wasn’t quite prepared!
J: It was quite hard not playing with support bands at every show, though we did play with a few locals like Illness Sickness. Next time we would definitely try have a local band play at every show.
Any little things in China you found yourselves appreciating?
J: It was really cool to be able to take food and drinks anywhere, I was surprised how much I enjoyed that, in NZ if you walk in to a place you cant take your food in. Hot water was available everywhere too… we just used it to make noodles and drink tea.
N: Ohh I miss it so much! Buying a beer at a bar here and your like “WHAT? $8?!” You feel like a king in China.
Cheesy question – what kind of advice would you provide to other NZ bands hoping to come to China.
J: Talking to you probably [all laugh].
N: Learning a bit of the language would be good. Mentally prepare yourself. Eat as much as you can. Drink as much as you can. Yep, those are my tips.
Next time? Is there a next time in China on the cards?
N: We definitely wanna come back. I know God Bows are planning another tour for 2015!
J: I’d like to visit Xinjiang, the Tiger Leaping Gorge and the Three Gorges Dam. It would be great if bands started coming to New Zealand as well, it’s only an extra hop more. If anyone asks to play in NZ just tell them to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
You’ve just gotten back from a mean beach holiday up north, but what’s the plan for Carb on Carb this year?
N: We’re hoping to put an album out in the next year or so and just wanna keep touring where ever we can.
J: We’re doing a tour around New Zealand with Bare Grillz from Australia in a few weeks, just around the time of Camp.