Pairs, the Shanghai punk duo of Xiao Zhong (vocals, drums) and F (guitar), burst on to my scene with the Bomb Shop released Summer Sweat tape in February this year. As ever with Bomb Shop it was packaged in such a way as to make the whole thing irresistible, but the music within was at odds with the meticulous detail that goes into their product presentation. Pairs, you see, are about as lo-fi and scuzzy a punk band as you get these days, and they make no attempt to hide it. Their own website describes the music as “awful” and everything they do is made available for free download (even Summer Sweat) because the band figures “even nothing is too expensive for what we make”. Even still, I think this is precisely the kind of music cassette tapes were made for: three minute, over-and-out, screaming lo-fi punk rock about – as we shall see – “Australian convicts, a girl… [and] doing good shit before you die.”
I spoke to Xiao Zhong about Pairs, living in Shanghai, working monkeys, hernias, ladyboys and why more bands should consider touring in China:
First question… You’re based in Shanghai. How did you end up in China?
F was born here and her family and friends are here, so that’s how she ended up here. My move here was a knee jerk reaction to people in my course who felt that once they graduated they had to move to London. It was kind of hard for me to understand as I see London as Melbourne senior, and whilst it’s an amazing place with ridiculously good gigs and easy to travel from, but still, if you can speak English it’s not much of a challenge or anything. My take on it is, you can do UK and Europe at any age; it’s easy if you speak English but China and Asia is more of a young persons game with the naivety and arrogance that comes from being young. Also, the body because old man knees will crumble at a squat toilet and the old man body probably won’t be as accommodating of an 18 hour train ride as young man body. My theory is shot to pieces though, when you come to Shanghai and see how many old white guys there are here with the hottest Chinese women on their arms.
Are they definitely women, though? I mean, over there don’t they have ladyboys and all that?
That’s more a Thailand thing. Very rarely see it in China. Once I saw one at a club in Xi’an where my sister was in a pole dancing contest for a giant teddy bear. The bartenders said ‘do you like that girl over there?’ and pointed to a super hot girl. I nodded. Then they laughed and said ‘that’s a boy dressed as a girl’. Still nodded. Then I went and danced on this piece of the dance floor that had springs under it, so it was like Saturday Night Fever on a trampoline.
You were watching your own sister pole dancing? Are your moves anything like Travolta’s? I don’t think he could cope with a trampoline…
We went to this club in Xi’an and they had this contest that anyone could enter, and being the only white female in the room, she was peer pressured in to getting up and winding her body around a pole. I had to translate what the MC was saying. She ended up winning and got a huge teddy bear. If there was ever any myth that I am not a white male, my dance moves dispel it pretty quick. I haven’t really danced for awhile, but when I do, I face a corner and clap and kick as I don’t really want any girls to think I’m giving them the fuck eye. It’s easier to face a wall and not be a sleazy creep.
OK, let’s talk about music. Pairs – how did the band get started?
Originally, I was writing shitty songs on a guitar and looking for a drummer. Sadly, decent drummers were hard to find and I kept meeting people who called drumbeats ‘chops’ which is generally a fairly good indication that they are a fuckhead. But then at the X Games, F just came up to me and started talking crap and she seemed to really like music so I asked her if she wanted to sing and I would play guitar with loops and stuff. She said yeah and we meet at the studio, and when she saw the guitar she started playing an Am and I got behind the drums and we just started playing some shit really fast. I think we wrote two songs that day. That was it. But when she started she could only play Am and Em, so each song has pretty much been a different chord to help her learn the basics. Now she shreds hard. but at the start, she couldn’t set up the pedals and had no idea how the fuck to get the amp sounding semi OK.
So it’s a 3 minutes max kinda thing? Could you ever imagine yourselves going beyond that?
We have longer songs, I think. We wouldn’t put a limit on that stuff. Sometimes it’s fun to just play the one chord for ages and see how long we can push it for. We just wrote a new song on Thursday that does that. But once we feel the song should end, it ends. There’s always that Pandora’s box of bullshit that says “let’s do the chorus one more
Pairs "Summer Sweat" cassette on Bomb Shop
time” or “let’s add a noise part to end on”, but really it’s the same as trying to jack off after you’ve climaxed. It hurts, it’s good for no one. There’s nothing left in the tank and who are you really doing it for? Just clean up and move on to the next thing.
Wherever I look you’re describing your music in less than endearing terms. Is that posturing or do you genuinely believe that what you’re doing is shit?
I don’t think what we are doing is shit [but] in the grand scheme of things, we are just some shitty band and these songs won’t be remembered by anyone but us. Even we may forget them. But the songs and the ideas and the lyrics really excite me and they are super fun to play. Once they aren’t, we don’t play them anymore. Saying we’re shit is a bit of knee jerk reaction to all the bands we seem surrounded by who take their press release or interviews overly seriously and talk about face melting mind blowing morphing punk rock riffs with soaring harmonies. Fuck that. I think it’s also a bit of an Australian thing, as the second you show any sort of ego Tall Poppy Syndrome
kicks in and people quickly humble the fuck out of you.
What would a Pairs concept album sound like?
The last recording we did in November was going to be a song each about a different person in the Shanghai scene and my feelings toward some of them or whatever, but it would have been heaps judgmental and probably earned me way more enemies. Not worth the hassle.
The lyrics in your songs aren’t always the easiest to pick out, being as they are quite often screamed and surrounded by an almighty calamity of noise. Is there a particular theme going on?
I never used to write full lyrics, just a few lines here and there and then mumble the rest, but for the new songs they are way more lyric heavy and I can actually remember the lyrics and they are lyrics I’m proud of and actually want to have heard and understood, so we’ll see how that goes. I can tell you what each song on Summer Sweat is about. First song is about Parkinson’s Disease, then not wanting to become your parents, making your own traditions, a lead singer of a band I like, Australian convicts, a girl, Chinese marriages, the Tate Modern being shit, treating people badly, a guy from Bendigo, bogans, Tianjin, doing good shit before you die and the last song is a bout how my body is falling apart and how I’m 26 years old and have had two hernia operations. Benjamin Button rock.
How did you manage to get two hernias?
The two hernias thing is just a combination of having an inherit weakness and carrying gear every week, loading shit in and out, on to buses and planes and other bullshit. But mostly just being real weak. My grandpa had heaps of them. I’ll have more, I know it. It’s a real jerk. Had the second operation in China which caused me way more distress than was ever necessary. Won’t be doing that again.
Tell me a bit about the music scene in Shanghai. I’m sure it’s not the first place that springs to mind for most people but I imagine it’s pretty rad…
The music scene is ok. The thing that makes it good also makes it not so good. It’s a small scene and that creates a network of support and all that, but it also means shit turns in to petty bitchiness pretty quickly and people get bogged down in that kind of boys club way to operate. Also, people come here with naught experience and form a band and get quite a few shows which is awesome as it means anyone can do it and that’s always good, however sometimes people with no experience or any real original ideas can work their way on to shows and on to some good press with shit that just wouldn’t fly in the Western world. Kind of like seeing a fat, balding, middle aged white guy dating the hottest Chinese chick ever. You’re glad you got her, and he must be really happy and she’s probably getting something out of it but it’s not something I want to go out of my way to see. But the law of averages means there has to be some good, honest people doing good stuff that’s worth listening to and engaging with.
They didn’t try curing your hernia with crushed tiger bones and rhino horn did they?
They may as well have. They lied and said I had told them I didn’t want painkillers, medicine or food for the five days I was there. Real bullshit. If it wasn’t for my girlfriend’s dad crushing some skulls, I would have probably gone insane.
You said in an earlier email you wanted to get more international bands touring in China. Would they go down well over there?
The thing with international bands touring is that it’s way easier than they think. Every Chinese venue supplies a full kit, guitar amps, bass amp, sound guy and a door guy. Not like in Australia where you need your backline and sometimes even your own P.A. Taxi’s are 24 hours and never hard to find, hotels are dirt cheap as is food which is 24 hours. It’s a pretty ace place to tour.
"Summer Sweat" artwork
I’m a bit of a music history geek so I think what would excite me most about Chinese music would be the traditional stuff. Do you get to experience much of that?
With the traditional stuff, what do you mean? Like the old Beijing opera kind of stuff? My girlfriend’s Dad plays in one of those bands and it’s pretty awesome – it can drag on, but it’s pretty awesome. There isn’t too much history in Shanghai in terms of music or rock bands. Like, no real local legends. per say. China has Cui Jian who they call the grandfather or Chinese rock. I went to a rock concert that celebrated 30 years of Chinese rock and pop, but it was mostly pop with an extended guitar solo. Very, very, very little of it could be classified as rock. The Rock In China Wiki
is a good place to start, as is the new book Red Rock by Jonathan Campbell.
With the traditional stuff I mean like old man in hills playing bizarre Chinese instrument surrounded by monkeys and tortoises. Is that my imagination getting the better of me?
A little bit. You can see that stuff in the park at any time of day. There is a beggar around town that has a monkey on a chain. The monkey runs and jumps on you and you pay to get it off you, I think. It’s jumped on me twice and I freaked out. But I have to cross a huge bridge to get to work and their is always some guy playing some fucking thing for some coin. It’s all right, but gets old pretty quickly.
Ha! That’s pretty funny that you have to pay to get the monkey off you. I’m going to a bar near Tokyo in a few weeks that has monkeys serving beer. We might get to see them having a bath in the hot mountain springs too when they get a day off.
That’s awesome! We once played a bar in Hong Kong that had a fucking tarantula that roamed free across the bar. I said on stage that having a huge, hairy spider guarding their main source of income may not be the best business move. They closed down the next day. Seriously. Just suddenly, morning after our set – cleaned out and locked the doors.
I fucking hate spiders but as an Australian I wouldn’t have thought they bothered you that much. It’s one reason I don’t think I could ever visit. That and the crocodiles, poison-clawed water mammals, venomous snakes, baby-stealing wild dogs and great white sharks.
I’m fucking terrified of spiders. They are the worst. There are two things I know that are going to happen in my life, that as scared of them as I am and no matter what I do, they’re going to happen. One is a gall stone or a kidney stone, the second is a huge spider crawling across my windshield whilst I am driving. Won’t happen in China which is why I am here for ever. Fuck Australia. Fuck spiders.
What has Pairs got in the box for 2012, then?
Plans for us wise. We have a secret show coming up at the end of March which is us working with a secret team and loading up four buses from four universities and driving them to a secret location, playing with 2 other bands and then driving them home. Shit’s all free too which is cool. Other than that, we just got our cassette released by Bomb Shop. Just got them in the mail and they look real nice. We’re doing a festival in April, then might do some shows out in the student districts – a few shows out of town. [We] want to do three releases this year. Already recorded the next one, just waiting for it to get mixed. Written the one after that, just got to get it recorded. Probably going to do a Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia tour over Christmas. Other than that, just continue to be jerks…
OK I can’t think of any more questions. Is there anything you’d like to sign off with?
I rarely push a product or do the lame sell, but Bomb Shop have been super nice in doing the Summer Sweat
cassette. Every one is hand done, hand numbered, hand wrapped and hand tied so they are something pretty cool. Let’s be honest, we aren’t making any money off this and I will be very surprised if Bomb Shop make their cash back, so if it’s easy for you to grab some of their goods – have a think about it. If any bands want to come to China to tour – shoot us an email and we’ll be sure to reply and help you out, put you in touch with people, answer questions and all that.
Thanks for listening to me shit on