The night before the show i meet Beijing krautrock/minimal band White+ in a rainy and windy Amsterdam, after their radio interview for CRTV (China Radio & Television). We go to a bar for a drink. When we walked in, the waiter called for the last round... not a really good moment for an interview. Luckily, the band stays at my (Jeroen) place in Utrecht. So, the next morning, after coffee and breakfast and after I got Shouwang (the initiator of White+) away from my organ - which he would have bought if it would have fitted his bag - it was finally the right moment to start the interview. Time to find out how it is for a Chinese band to tour abroad, what inspires them, and how important the Beijing scene has been for them as musicians.
Drummer Wang Xu (left) and Zhang Shouwang (right), the man on the knobs, synthesizer and vocals.
Until now, the tour must have felt like a holiday. You played one show in Paris, went to Brussels and Amsterdam, and now you’re in Utrecht. How is it to be in Europe and how is touring in Europe?
Wang Xu: It’s nice to be in Europe, it’s very beautiful. Every area and country has its own culture and that makes it really interesting to be here and see all those new cities and cultures.
Shouwang: I have been in Europe before. Touring in Europe isn’t very different from touring back home, it’s quite similar. Music is like a global language that everybody understands. Even when you sing in Chinese, people can understand the expression.
How did the tour come together?
We always wished to go to Europe to tour with White+. This tour started with the Mama festival in Paris. The festival organisation invited us, so we asked Julia from our label Maybe Mars to help us build a tour around it. For Chinese bands it kinda always works like this; you first need an invitation from a festival who also pays for most or all of your transportation, and than you can start thinking of setting up a tour around it.
And how does it work in China?
In China it’s pretty easy. We have a lot of connections so if we decide we want to tour we just ask around and can book a tour really easily. In the USA it’s different. We have a good network there and there is a big Chinese community, but it costs a lot of money to go there, so you need a really well-paid gig.
In what kind of places do you mostly perform; and what kind of venues/places do you prefer and why?
Shouwang: We try different things. Normally we play in clubs, but looking back to our first record release we tried different things such as D.I.Y. venues, book stores, coffee shops and we even played in a gay bar in Shanghai. And recently we did a White+ dj-set in a dance club. It is really interesting to try different things and it’s a good way to reach a lot of different people as well. We get inspiration from all those different venues. In a danceclub, people wanna dance, in a rock club or a book store it’s something else. It forces us to adapt to the environment.
How did White+ start?
Shouwang: There have been many White-projects. I think each White project is very individual, they are not really related to each other. Maybe i’m also too lazy to change the name every time I start a new project. Although the minimalistic idea of composing music is what bounds all the White projects. Every White project I worked with different people so it always was something new. In the beginning it was a 6 guitar band, then there was White-2J, Big White and now i’m playing with Wang Xu it is something totally different.
Wang Xu: Before White+, me, Shouwang and a Canadian guy called Simon were in a band called Speak Chinese or Die. After a while Simon went back to Canada but we still wanted to play together and decided to go for White and make it White+.
How do you write your music?
Shouwang: For White+, rhythm is the most important thing, in contrast to other bands we play in. Normally one of us comes with a rhythm part and we play around that. Sometimes it can be a synthesizer or an other instrument, but always with some rhythmic sound in it. We create very structured music with White+. It’s like carefully building up something. We have certain rules, but there is always room for improvising.
Wang Xu: When we play, each performance is different. Within the songs there are parts that are open for improvisation, or for jamming, so that happens every show.
Shouwang: The way White+ works is very different from rock music. We became tired of A-B-A-B structures; so boring. So it’s more complicated and also more fun because there’s more freedom to fill in the songs.
Do you have an idea about how to name the style of your music and do you fit in a genre? Is that important or totally irrelevant to you?
Shouwang: It is totally free. Our next album will be very different from the first one. There are so many ideas that can not be played in the rock band set-up i have with my other band Carsick Cars. The fun part about both of us playing in a rock band (Wang Xu also is the drummer of The Gar) and White+ is that sometimes you can bring the rock ‘n roll energy into this electronic and experimental music, but also i can bring some interesting experimental idea into rock music. Probably if we didn’t play in White+ we’d probably would quit the rock band. (laughing)i>
Wang Xu: We can do what we like. Beside the normal gigs we did the dj set or for example we’ve been improvising with a jazz musician and tried a jazz set. Also, actually we have another drummer who already played several shows with us in Beijing. The rhythm and purity of his drumming and also digital percussion opens new ways for us to make music which is very different from our previous work. For this tour he couldn’t come with us but officially we have 2 drummers.
Shouwang: Recently our generation of musicians in Beijing who play in a rock band they now try and play another instrument or start new projects with different music. Sometimes when they come to our rehearsal space they get inspired by all the different instruments… We like to work together with other musicians, also on tour it is nice to jam with other musicians. You always learn something new because they have their own style and their own ideas about music.
What band or musician from the past would you have liked to work with?
Shouwang: For me that would definitely be Lou Reed. I managed to see him live in the end, but all the other times he was sick. I always bought tickets and then he cancelled the show. I met his wife Laurie Anderson, also a musician, but i never met Lou Reed. Also i would really like to work with the german krautrock band Neu!. We actually have been in contact because we wanted one of them to produce our album but he was busy with some other projects. So maybe for the next record, it would be really great.
Wang Xu: Well i think i would like to have played with Miles Davis. I’m not really good in playing jazz music but Miles idea really influenced me. Two years ago i read his biography. Somewhere in the book he says: “The way you play music is the way you hear the music”. This is really important and true for me. Lots of musicians, after they’ve played with Miles, they have their own creative style and are almost like masters in music. I really would have loved to be able to play with him, maybe he could have opened my mind or something.
I hear you both listen to a lot of different music. What kind of music do you listen to?
Shouwang: I listen to different music in different periods. Now i listen to a lot of electronic music and minimalism. Thinks like Steve Reich, Terry Rilley and some german musicians like Can. Also i listen to things like Sonic Youth and Velvet Underground, many different things.
Wang Xu: This year i listen to a lot of jazz like Don Cherry, but also electronic music; Chemical Brothers, Kraftwerk, and many more.
Shouwang: And i also listen to some Japanese music like Boredoms
Wang Xu: and Acid Mothers Temple
How does it come both of you are also interested in a lot of German music?
Shouwang: It’s actually recently that we started to listen to most bands i mentioned before, but there have always been German bands in my record collection. Maybe it came through Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzende Neubauten, he also produced White’s first album. We know each other from Beijing, he lived in Beijing a long time ago. He was looking for local musicians to work with and went to a lot of shows. He saw the 6 guitar-band and decided to work with us and produce our record. We went to Berlin to record White’s first album. We could use all the strange instruments that were build for Einstürzende Neubauten, except for one that had some kind of ‘only for EN sound’ but anything else we could try. It was great working with him and i got more connected to the German scene through him.
Moving to Beijing, he must have known there was a pretty big underground scene in Beijing. I’ve heard that it is a really devoted community.
Shouwang: The Beijing scene, especially our scene worked like that. When we started back in 2005 i actually organised some showcase shows under the name “No Beijing”. It’s sort of a tribute to the ‘No New York’ album (a compilation album under the curation of Brian Eno documenting New York City's late-1970s ‘no wave’ movement). It was with several bands like Snapline, Carsick Cars, White-2J, Big White, Nezha and Queen Sea Big Shark. They always played together in a really tiny bar near the Forbidden City. There was only room for 20-30 people and soon it was always really packed with people even standing outside the bar. It was a really fun time, we really supported each other but that stage is really to small for any band to take it to the next level.
In 2006 Michael Pettis (blogger and indie-music impresario, a former banker who initially moved to China in 2002 to learn finance to graduate students) opened a club called D-22 that really pushed the scene. He gave everybody a stage to perform and to get our own audience and also it was a space for us as musicians to communicate and work together. After a while Michael also started a label Maybe Mars and signed many bands that played D-22, all young unknown bands. All the musicians always supported each other, played shows together and were really connected. I think that worked very well in that time. You need to support each other on your way to success but when a band starts playing shows in a big venue and have 800 people coming to their show things change. They don’t need each other for support anymore and in the end everybody will go for their own success, which is understandable. A lot of bands are still friends. Maybe when we get older we will all get back working together, back to the good old days. It was a wonderful time!
The most important thing was that you hang out together and see each others performance. But it’s not only helping and supporting, it is also competition. When other people do something new you want to do better than that. We are all frenemies!
After the interview we left to ACU for White+’s performance that night but not before Wang Xu took many pictures of pittoresque Overvecht saying it is looking so nice, green and beautiful and that you can breathe so much fresh air. Well, okay, it’s pretty green around my place but i’ve never seen it that way. But i guess a lot of places are cleaner and greener than Beijing.
White+ is on a 2 week tour in Europe. They performed for Pollination in ACU on October 22nd. You can watch a live video from their song “bluE” on our youtube channel.