采访: Yan Yulong Interview

By , 2015年 11月 5日


Been a busy year-plus for Yan Yulong. Chui Wan, the band he co-founded with guitarist Liu Xinyu and bassist Wu Qiong in 2010, released their sophomore album over the summer, and took that abroad with grueling tour schedules in Europe and the United States. In contrast to the densely effected maximalism of their debut, White Night, Chui Wan’s self-titled, second album reflects a deeper commitment to process and a refined, streamlined output.

Chui Wan is literally an experimental result, one of the clearest examples of how improvisational and exploratory performances at the recently discontinued Zoomin’ Night experimental music weekly show series have been filtered into the evolving opus of some of Beijing’s most active and consciously progressive rock musicians. Both Yan Yulong and Liu Xinyu have been at least as active individually as they have been with the band, regularly performing solo or as a duo on Tuesday nights at their now defunct home base, XP, and in experimental scene progenitor Yan Jun‘s monthly Miji shows. (Yan Jun’s Sub Jam label released Awaking, a slow-moving, live improvisation by Yan Yulong and Liu Xinyu, in February of this year.)

Just as Chui Wan reflects the compositional outcome of the band members’ last several years of collective improvisation, Yan Yulong’s personal path of receiving and filtering influence has led to a few new compositional works, which he will unveil this Saturday and Sunday at School Bar for the fifth Sally Can’t Dance avant-garde music festival. Yan will headline the first night of Sally 2015 (on Saturday, Nov 7) with the debut of his solo composition “Jegog”. Earlier that day, he’ll perform in Jun-Y Ciao’s piece — “Two Half Matches — Composition for violins and reeds” — and on Sunday evening, he’ll close the festival out with the latest performance of “Píng Zè”, his collaborative composition with Carsick Cars/White+ frontman Zhang Shouwang.

Ahead of that, I sat down with my old friend and former bandmate to discuss Chui Wan’s major moves in 2015, the problematic topic of the “East/West distinction” and the difficulties of unlearning it, how he’s re-composed an Indonesian percussion performance style for an ensemble of Beijing noise guitarists, his current bathroom reading material, et al…


pangbianr: Chui Wan had a big year, including major US and European tours and a slot at Austin Psych Fest, where you shared a bill with the legendary 13th Floor Elevators. What were some interesting, enlightening, funny, or weird experiences from the last year as a band?

Yan Yulong: Aiya, I’m not an interesting interview subject… I can share one general observation first. On the European tour we did before recording the second album, the show we played in Helsinki with Bo Ningen was really revelatory for me. It wasn’t so much the show itself… what struck me more was that the four members of the band, even though they’re Japanese, they all live in London and and are active in the music scene there. It made me hope that more Chinese students studying overseas will become active like this, not just organzing events like Mentha Project, but also making bands.

Tour stories… Before our US tour, our visa approval was delayed by several days [after the tour was supposed to start]. Fortunately we got them just in time to make Austin Psych Fest. Because our US visas were delayed, we didn’t have time to get our Canadian visas, so we had to cancel a few important shows. On the bright side, we were able to organize some last-minute shows in Montana. The geography of Montana is so beautiful, reminds me of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau.

pangbianr: This year you released your second album, Chui Wan, which I think shows maturity and a distinct evolution in your songwriting process as a band. What was your concept when you began to write new material for Chui Wan? How did you want to make it different from White Night?

Yan Yulong: Ha, thanks for saying that. We worked really hard to get better. I think the influence from experimental music is more evident on Chui Wan. We wanted as much as possible to get rid of excess adornments, to make the base of the music more solid, to put more emphasis on playing on our instruments and less on our effects pedals. This could be considered the bones of the record.

The branches and leaves are different every year. There are some influences from different types of classical percussion, influences from German rock and pan-Asian music… everyone in the band contributes their own ideas. The final form of the songs is reached when we all meet in the practice room.

pangbianr: How was the audience reaction to Chui Wan when you were on tour this year? Do you sense a growing interest in Chinese music abroad?

Yan Yulong: Of course Austin Psych Fest was crazy, it was a truly unforgettable experience. In Minneapolis there was a couple that jumped on stage during our set and started dancing, simply and elegantly, that was really beautiful. It’s so different from the cool and indifferent, cosmopolitan vibes we’re used to. That made it heartwarming and somehow even cooler. Of course, in general, as Chinese musicians we naturally receive more attention [abroad].

pangbianr: How about back at home? Do you think the audience for underground or experimental rock is growing?

Yan Yulong: The recent development of Beijing’s experimental music scene is clearly better than the rock scene’s. It’s much more vital. After D-22 closed, and then XP closed, I feel that the flourishing period of the Beijing rock scene or rock club culture has passed. On the bright side, outside of Beijing and Shanghai, a lot of cities have begun to mature in terms of musicians and audience. Cities like Chengdu, Hangzhou, Xi’an, a lot of others. This is clearly the biggest new development. Of course, every new generation of listener will be different, but more importantly, for the music itself, the winds drastically change direction every two or three years. It’s hard to say whether or not it’s growing, maturing… the standard is hard to define.

pangbianr: What new bands do you see coming out of Beijing and elsewhere in China that you find really exciting?

Yan Yulong: I haven’t seen many shows lately. As far as bands that have popped up in the last six months, I think The Eat is really good. I’m looking forward to their debut album.

Chui Wan at XP

pangbianr: Can you explain to me your concept for “Jegong”, the piece you are composing for this year’s Sally Can’t Dance festival? I know it’s based on your recent travel to Indonesia and your appreciation of gamelan music. How will you adapt it for local musicians, and to the medium of electric guitars instead of tuned drums and gongs?

Yan Yulong: “Jegog” certainly has its roots in Indonesian musical styles, but it seems that gamelan music can already be heard everywhere. Actually I’m really undecided how I feel about it. First, maybe it’s inappropriate to borrow the name of a classical style. Second, it’s tampering with the East/West distinction.

For the piece, I wrote a few very simple rhythms and performance directions. Speaking as a performer, they’re very easy to play, but the requirements are very strict. It requires a very calm demeanor and a certain stamina of stillness.

When you turn a guitar into a percussion instrument, the texture of the sound is quite nice, especially the rhythmic effect formed between the clashing frequencies of the six strings. Perhaps looking at it from this perspective, the most suitable instrument is a wooden, acoustic guitar, but electronic instruments always produce many unanticipated mistakes, and I like that.

The prepared guitar element is not something I’d put any emphasis on before, but I’ve been thinking about it more recently. Shouwang and I performed together at XP’s final show in July, he’s a prepared guitar master. I’ve learned a lot about working with prepared instruments through studying from Shouwang.

pangbianr: The theme of this year’s Sally Can’t Dance is “composition”. Of course, none of the participating artists, including you, are really “composers” in the classical music sense. So, what are your definitions of “composer” and “composition”? How does this differ from improvisation?

Yan Yulong: If improvisation is embodied by the act of performance, then it has a very pure definition. Composition is different, it inevitably requires restrictions. There is composition inherent in improvisation, and improvisation is also an element of composition. You could say that composition is more thoughtful and rational, but improvisation is not merely about freedom or spontaneity.

At this point, “composition” has developed into so many different categories and styles, it’s very complex and not easily understood. But improvisation has also been developed through experience, and also requires training. Improvisation is one method of composition.

pangbianr: What have you been doing in your free time? What music have you heard, films have you seen, or books have you read that have inspired you recently?

Yan Yulong: I’ve been really lazy… Recently I’ve been listening to Alvin Lucier, because the apartment above me has been under construction. Also Ava Luna, No Wave and Soul. I’ve been watching films by Kim Ki-duk on and off. My current bathroom reading is Mao’s China and After

pangbianr: The other day you told me that Chui Wan has been back in the practice room, working on new songs. What do you have so far? How do the new songs differ from or move on from the songs on Chui Wan?

Yan Yulong: We’ve been busy recording the last album and touring for over a year. Now we can finally, slowly start to write new songs. This is what we really want to do, get in the practice room and look for new inspiration together. It’s really imperative to have this downtime to seek a breakthrough. As for style and inspiration, there is really no limitation…

pangbianr: One Chinese fan of Chui Wan recently told me: “Chui Wan to me is just something totally different. The scene has been building up to this point, that’s something so new and different, it doesn’t sound like anything in the West right now.” She also said that Chui Wan comes close to defining a “Beijing sound” that is truly original, different from Western psych rock or other influences that are in your sound. What do you think about this?

Yan Yulong: Thanks to that fan for her words and expectations! However, lately I’ve gradually begun to study how to forget the East/West distinction, even though regional difference is a constant topic. Everyone has their own definition of the “Beijing sound,” but for me, it’s always surrounding me. Starting from the moment I make contact with it, it’s an ongoing process of development. Since I’m inside of it, my perspective is necessarily not objective enough. My real feeling is, no matter the situation, I still, and always will, have expectations for this city’s future.

pangbianr: The title of Chui Wan‘s closing track, “Beijing is Sinking”, was ripped off in a recent Noisey article claiming that the Beijing music scene is dead, and that the Shanghai music scene is on fire. What do you think about this? Is the Beijing music scene sinking? Or is the song talking about a different element of Beijing life or culture?

Yan Yulong: No matter what, whatever can be sinking is by definition still above water level… As for the song, that could be talking about anything. Make yourself at home with your interpretation. Generally, I feel that the quality of life in Beijing has been declining over the last few years… maybe all big cities are like that.

pangbianr: What plans do you have — either for your solo work or with Chui Wan — for 2016?

Yan Yulong: For Chui Wan, most importantly, we’re returning to the practice room. We have a few important shows booked for April… I really hope that by then we’ll have a lot of new songs to play, haha. My individual plan is pretty loose, I hope I won’t be so lazy. Read more books, listen to more music…

Yan Yulong will present his original composition “Jegog” at the 2015 Sally Can’t Dance Festival, which happens on Saturday and Sunday, November 7-8 at School Bar (4pm to midnight both days). At the festival, he’ll also present “Píng Zè”, which he co-composed with Zhang Shouwang of Carsick Cats/White+, and perform in Jun-Y Ciao’s piece, “Two Half Matches — Composition for violins and reeds”.

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