Some words defy easy translation. Take experimental psych band Chui Wan’s name, which is inspired by ancient Daoist existential philosophy.
“It means different things give different sounds, and there’s lots of sounds, and there’s sound in everything,” explains Nevin Domer, who is originally from Baltimore, and who is the COO of Chui Wan’s label, Maybe Mars Records.
Today, Domer is our translator, and he’s joined the band after they decamped to an Italian restaurant in Beijing next door to Maybe Mars HQ, which in turn sits above a music venue and was deemed too noisy for the interview. Some words — though few in this conversation — need no explanation: “Exploration!” yells bassist and singer Wu Qiong, answering a question regarding inspiration for the new album.
“There’s some new ideas put into this one,” Domer concludes after that one word launched a volley of Chinese. He’s talking about their self-titled second album, a mix of twentieth-century minimalism, Asian folk, jazz, pop-spy soundtracks, and pre–Dark Side Pink Floyd. (The album saw its American release on May 1, after which, due to visa issues, Chui Wan were forced to scrap some early West Coast dates.) “The band took a lot of different styles that attract them and mixed them together for this record,” says Domer, seated at the table alongside Wu, guitarist Liu Xinyu, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Yan Yulong, and new drummer Li Zichao. “They draw a lot from twentieth-century experimental music, but they all…have very different influences they bring to the music.”
Those influences include Goat, Lamonte Young, John Cage, Silver Jews’ David Berman, and Lovely Records — the latter a Spanish dance label specializing in classic house music (and perhaps something of an incongruous addition to the list of sound- and space explorers). Wu also likes “traditional American black music,” r&b, and jazz artists such as Coltrane.
And let’s not forget Kraut-rock, one genre embraced by all four members. That’s the kind of thing that brought Wu, Li, and Yan to Beijing — Liu was already living there — after they’d found one another on an internet music message board five years ago, discovering shared passions for bands in the postpunk underground (not to mention the Velvet Underground). Click!
Outside of Beijing, music like Chui Wan’s is rarely made or heard. There aren’t many bands like Chui Wan in Beijing, either: It’s a very small scene, they say, and its leaders are people like psychedelic noize guitarist Li Jianhong, who plays on the album’s closing track, “Beijing Is Sinking.” As for rock ‘n’ roll, Domer says that most people listen to metal or Britpop, and that a band like Chui Wan will play to a maximum of 400 people, with 70 being more likely — which sounds familiar when compared with similar stateside bands, really.
“Beijing is changing very quickly and it’s the feeling of being drowned in these changes”
Three years ago, Chui Wan released their debut, White Night, an album more aligned than the simpler Chui Wan with the psych movement, all layered drone and noise. “The reaction was pretty divided. Some really loved it, but some really hated it,” Domer interprets. It fueled a big online discussion, Liu laughs. Compared with White Night, Chui Wan’s sophomore album is sonically and rhythmically direct.
The band has played outside of China before, and finds that those audiences “have a deeper understanding of their music than Chinese ones right now,” translates Domer. “The venues are better and more professional than China,” he adds.
One might presume a post-Tiananmen underground band would have strong political views, but Chui Wan’s members say they don’t feel constricted in how and what they express musically. That’s because, they say, they’re not politically motivated and don’t engage in politics. Wu says her songwriting is more influenced by “everyday life.”
“Take the song ‘Beijing Is Sinking.’ It’s not talking about the government, but talking about living in a big city like Beijing. Like most of China, Beijing is changing very quickly, and it’s [about] the feeling of being drowned in these changes.
“The changes are uncomfortable,” Wu continues, via Domer. “The youth culture is changing very quickly and the speed of life is increasing. There’s a lot more pressure put on people — commercial pressure, rising cost of living, the environment, the pollution.”
Chui Wan hope they have common bonds with people in other parts of the world. Their goal right now, they say, isn’t complicated by racial barriers, or politics, or overthinking the situation. “It’s pretty simple,” says Domer. “They just want people to like them and to play with bands with similar ideas and sounds.”
Chui Wan perform on May 15 at Baby’s All Right. Tickets are available here.
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