by Ceridwen Brown
Los Angeles duo Alpine Decline released three albums in the US before a 2010 trip to play some shows in China made such an impact on them that they quit their jobs and moved to Beijing in the pursuit of new experiences. Eight years, six albums and one son later, they are now living back in LA, but continue to record and tour in China, to a solid established fan base.
Describing the conception of each new album as creating a new world, drummer Pauline and guitar/vocalist Johnathon meet me the day after their Shanghai show, an early date in the national tour for their new album ‘Return to Desolation Lake.’ In the basement of Shanghai’s beloved Uptown Records, they talk about the new album, Pauline’s lifelong love of the drums and their greater cross cultural adventures in the Chinese underground music scene.
Return to Desolation Lake was recorded in Beijing, with Yang Haisong, right?
(Yang Haisong is a hugely influential figure in underground Chinese music. Musician turned producer, you can read more about him here)
Pauline: Yes, it was recorded this time around a year ago; the process took about three weeks all together. We’ve recorded 3 or 4 albums with him at this point. He’s the only guy we’ve worked with in China and he also played bass on our album ‘Life’s a Gasp’ and the new record.
Jonathon: He’s kind of a visionary guy. From the moment we even decided to visit China he was one of our first points of contact. When we moved to Beijing we ended up sharing a practice space with him and became very close friends. It’s kind of amazing to think about, in the time that we lived there, the amount of records that came out of that little garage studio. He’s got his hands on everything. Part of the fun of working with him is choosing the kind of adventure you want to have. For each record we made, we had fun trying to think of how to do it. For ‘Life’s a Gasp’ we went to his house up in the mountains north of Beijing and recorded there and the record before that was a synth record we made with him in our apartment when Pauline was pregnant.
Pauline: ‘Go Big Shadow City’ was recorded at XP (a venue/club) over Chinese New Year break. We kind of took it over while everything was shut down…including the electricity. It was just as cold inside as outside. The record before that we did at this place… I don’t even know how to describe it…
Jonathon: Indescribable (laughing) it was like a migrant worker squatting place…
Pauline: It has been torn down now. But yeah Haisong is always down for bringing his gear out anywhere and setting up wherever.
Jonathon: Whatever your idea, his response is ‘come on baby, lets go!’
So nine albums in, can you define Alpine Decline’s style and how much its been influenced by the move into the China scene?
Jonathon: Pauline and I played in some bands before Alpine Decline in L.A; when we stopped that we took a lot of time to think about the kind of music we wanted to make going forward. What would make it valuable? What kind of a writing process would make it meaningful for adults to be doing with their lives? We really wanted to translate our personal experiences into something a little more universal and if we wanted to talk about things with any kind of honesty, we felt like we had to go out and live it.
Pauline: We love collaborating with other people but the core of Alpine Decline’s music is the two of us. We think about music in the same way and had similar ideas about what we wanted the band to be. We’re always talking to each other about things in our lives, our thoughts and feelings; and those conversations always evolve into the music and the next project. We already had three albums as Alpine Decline before we met Yang Haisong in L.A when he and some Chinese bands performing in town; from there we got chatting with them. Later when we came to visit, he took us around for a day and showed us some Chinese music and we thought it was a very different and interesting place. We’d met a handful of people and we loved them off the bat so we just decided to move. Quit our jobs. Sold so much stuff I think I was giving it away by the end y’know? When we got to Beijing and started to play it was just one interesting person after another. People were mostly within rock or experimental, but they were also into different types of music, that was a big part of it. There’s a real sense of community there.
Jonathon: The best thing about playing music is you get to meet really creative inspiring people. Sometimes in L.A you have to swim around a bit to get those experiences, but here almost everybody we met was kind and very thoughtful about what they were doing as artists.
As a duo, is your creative process entirely collaborative or do you take responsibilities for different aspects of the sound?
Jonathon: Well there are two parts of that process. There’s the craft part where we go the studio and pick up our instruments; there are duties there obviously, like Pauline always plays drums, but the bulk of the writing process is the two of us kind of mutually spinning up whatever the world of the record is going to be. The lyrics themselves take a final shape later on, but certain words and phrases usually come before the music. Certain titles and ideas become like Lode Stars guiding us for the album. Then when the music is done we have to turn that into lyrics.
If the music you released since coming to China is driven by responding to that particular new environment, would you call them concept albums?
Jonathon: No (laughing). We didn’t want to make something so specific that you could only understand it if you moved to Beijing. I guess the process of writing the records is to turn them into something with characterization or certain idea-lines that come together and share a common theme. Each one is a buildup of a certain world. Its not like we’d sit down and say ‘let’s write an album about dystopian urban chaos!’; that’s not interesting to either of us. If we wanted to write about certain things – anxieties about the future, or questions about how we’re relating to each other in the present, we also wanted to find where there was a cartoonish exaggerated version of them. An extreme version of them. China excels at providing cartoonish exaggerated versions of everything. All of that stuff was accelerated when we came here. I love that people who’ve lived here or been here can have this inside understanding of what we’re talking about and I love that this environment gave us a lot of visual and conceptual cues, but the goal is always to talk about something that everybody in the world on some level is feeling and can connect with.
And you feel like the payoff of finding those extremes and cues was worth some of the more negative aspects of living in China that certain titles and lyrics suggest? For example the album title ‘Life’s a Gasp’ or the lyric “the price you pay to have something to say”; did you feel you were consciously making sacrifices in order to have this genuine experience?
Jonathon: Yeah that feels very real to me. Obviously, you can pretend it’s not real or you can embrace it. I never think of anything we do as ironic at all; “Life’s a Gasp” I thought was kind of funny but we’re not trying to be clever. I think a lot of how you discover how to go through life and how you’re supposed to find happiness has to do with exposing yourself to and being aware of the darker side of it too. Sometimes life was hard in Beijing on a physical level and also it’s a very emotionally charged place.
Pauline: We loved living there and we’ve had the best experiences in China but there are definite challenges to living here too. Plus you’re away from your family, your home country and always somewhat of an outsider. But the challenges are also a part of what we love about it.
Do you think you’ll always be coming back and working between the two places because China offers you something that is lacking in L.A?
Pauline: We have no idea what the future brings, honestly. We’re not very good at seeing farther than ten feet in front of us. We love coming back here. Recording, playing, touring; all of that. So as much as possible we’d like to keep that going. As long as people in China enjoy our music and support it then there will be a way for us to get back here.
Jonathon: I don’t think China gives us something that’s lacking in L.A necessarily. L.A has its own really strong, thick energy, but Pauline and I work best in a bit of a bubble and China was great for that. Partly because of the exaggerated quality of it, but also just because we’re foreigners here…..it could have been anywhere – the weirder the better I guess! But I imagine a Chinese person coming to Los Angeles would find some of that same energy there. We rode that energy for a long time, but we’re also really aware going back that it’s a particularly important time in American culture for people to be making their voices heard and we don’t want to run away from that. There are lots of ways to make things happen though. We’re very interested in getting Haisong to come make a record with us in America, that would be fun.
Did you ever feel like the greater political landscape of China ever got in your way as foreigners?
Jonathon: We had things like cops sometimes shutting down shows, or we’d have to submit our stuff to the Culture Bureau of Responsible Ethics for Citizens of the Peoples Republic of China… department number 4 (laughing)…. and so on. I think after we had a kid, we did get a little bit frightened about being out in venues that were potentially going to have trouble. The thought of being separated from your kid puts things in sharp perspective, but I think as foreigners we largely get to play by a different set of rules. It’s really not fair that a Chinese band will encounter things in a different way.
Pauline: I did start to carry pacifiers and baby things around on purpose when we played live shows when our son Roland was little, just in case something bad did happen I could show the cops and say “I really need to go home.”
Jonathon: Like they would have cared!
‘Return to Desolation Lake’ was written in L.A even though you recorded it out here. It’s being called your most stripped back album. What inspired the world behind this one?
Jonathon: We started to write this record before we left China but we’d already started to feel like things were shifting, then when we found out we were moving back to L.A, we had a certain idea of what that was going to be like and it turned out to be pretty different. The record was written during a period of time when we didn’t really know what the future was going to be like and we were living in some pretty dire conditions with our child. The only things we had decided before that, were that for the next record we would take away some of the sound design stuff and that if our past records had been walking a mile in other peoples shoes, maybe this time around we could let people walk a mile directly in ours; to see if something more intimate could come out of that and I hope it did.
Pauline, can you talk about how you started drumming?
Pauline: I’ve kind of always been playing the drums since I was little. I don’t really remember what drew me to them honestly, but I had a toy drum set when I was tiny and I just banged on it until it broke. Then I remember distinctly when I was seven, I knew Santa was gonna give me a snare drum for Christmas and I was super excited. I picked drums when I was 10 at school and we had jazz band, concert band, marching band & orchestra so that was a big part of my learning. I got my first full drum kit at 13 and started playing with a friend who played guitar. I’ve kind of always been playing… I think my dad still thinks it’s a passing hobby (laughs).
Do you have any practice routines or a process in the way you think about drumming, or do you just come to the creative space and respond?
Pauline: You know, I think because I’ve been playing for a long while it’s different to how I first started. I spent a lot of time practicing and learning technique then. I loved taking lessons, loved trying to read music and play off sheet music & learning songs. When I first learned I was really into metal, I got into Rush at one point and those huge drums…
You went through a stage with a double bass drum pedal?
Pauline: (laughs) Oh yeah for sure. I definitely had a double bass drum. But you know, I would say earlier on it was about practicing to a click and all that stuff but now it’s more of a cerebral thing where I’m trying to connect what I’m thinking and feeling and expressing it on the drums. Just trying to have that connection where whatever I want to play can come out and be realized. I think that’s where I am with it now. Earlier on I would think more about what kind of style was I playing & who was I playing; that’s not really part of my thought process now. Now its more about what thoughts or emotions I’m trying to evoke. With Alpine Decline, we’re always trying to find new challenges and new ways to play because that’s what keeps it interesting and these days we’re trying to think more about dynamics. I’m almost trying to play as soft as possible or as light as possible. That’s kind of a newer thing for me, which is fun.
Did you ever feel it a struggle to be taken seriously as a drummer because you were female?
Pauline: I don’t know how much I ever really felt that. Personally I always just wanted to be the best drummer so I never looked at with a gendered distinction. Sometimes it almost felt like an advantage because people give you credit… kind of a backhanded credit; to say you’re a good drummer for a girl….but maybe it’s easier for people to think what you’re doing is cool. I guess when I was first starting, making sure I was always hitting solid and powerful was very important to me, you know? I didn’t want someone to think “oh she’s weak” or whatever, so I definitely wanted to prove I was a hard hitter and was gonna play LOUD. For the most part, I think there are gonna be people who are assholes anywhere but for me it’s just about drumming and being the best drummer that I can be.
I’m writing a series for Tom Tom about Chinese female drummers, as I was struck by the amount of them compared to the music scene back home. Did you make the same observation compared to the scenes you played in the U.S?
Pauline: Yeah, certainly the percentage is much higher in China. And not just drummers, but all the female musicians I’ve met here are so cool and totally badass at their instruments. I don’t know what it is, but they are all very strong & talented characters. I find that very inspiring.
Jonathon: It’s weird because it’s still not a normal or fair balance, but compared to what we’re used to as foreigners we’re like WOW there are so many girls in the bands here.
Pauline: It’s probably still way off being 50/50 but it’s closer. You’ve got drummers like Atom from Hedgehog, F (Lao Ayi), Dear John Letter, Next Year’s Love, White Tulips, & Dream Can who are one of our favorites. They’re all just really freaking great.
Do have your own setup in L.A? Seems like a place with a lot of space compared to Beijing.
Pauline: I did before China. Everyone has lockout spaces and monthly rentals in L.A. When I came out here I actually brought my drums and cymbals and everything, so they were in the practice space we shared with PK14, and Haisong was using them too. It just didn’t make sense to ship them back so he bought them off me. So they’re here now and going back to L.A I’m going to need to sort of build up a kit again. I’ve been thinking about what kind of kit I want to get. I haven’t decided yet and am keeping an open mind. I’ve started with just a drum throne and a pedal; I need to get some cymbals and a snare!
I have nothing of my own out here. It’s another nice thing about China; the fact that you can just turn up and play with nothing.
Pauline: It’s great isn’t it? I love it. You know, how in America and Europe you have to bring all your own gear and I was used to that… everyone has their specific gear. In America people don’t even like to share with the other bands. Coming here it was a challenge in the beginning to just jump on a kit and try and play well, especially when they’re often all over the place! But then I really came to love it. It showed me its not about your gear, its about you, specifically your hands and feet. This tour we had too much stuff so I didn’t bring anything. I really like that now and I wish it were the same way in the U.S!
Do you share music from Beijing back in L.A and what do you think is the future for Chinese alternative music’s reach to a wider global audience?
Jonathon: I have no idea!
Pauline: Yeah me too, I really don’t know…
Jonathon: Part of me thinks that the context for the music is important and then part of me thinks that I just don’t know. I do think that Chinese musicians are making exceptional music right now, but it’s not clear to me how it fits into the western context. We all have our idea of the history of music and how it’s shaped and that leads us to decide what we think is good music now. That’s a very subjective place to be. We’re helping distribute the records for Maybe Mars outside of China and when bands come through L.A we help them out. We just organized and played a show with Subs and Fazi.
Pauline: We had 2 bands staying in our house!
Jonathon: And we want to do everything we can to boost and support the artists that we love. If we have people over at our house we just put on the records from the Chinese bands and at some point someone’s gonna say “what the hell is this?!”… I think that’s the best way to introduce music to people.
Are you touring your new album in the U.S as well?
Jonathon: Yeah we’ve played some shows. It’s not exactly the same full on tour, it’s a bit different touring in America and we don’t have the same kind of support there as we do here as we’ve been away for seven years, so most of the people we had contact with back then are not really the people that can help us move things along now. We did a record release show in L.A before we came here and we’re playing some opening dates for Brian Jonestown Massacre when we get back.
Pauline: Ricky Maymi, their guitar player, is part of Far Out Distant Sounds who are the people we are working with to distribute the records around the world. He just loves Chinese music and he’s an amazing guy.
Finally, who does your amazing visuals?
Pauline: Our friend Tina Blakeney, who used to live in Shanghai and now is in Canada, did the background projections for these live shows and also did the video for ‘Blameless.’ She’s just another cool person we met in China and wanted to work with. All three videos this time were done by women which is pretty cool. The video for ‘Diamond Cutter’ was also done by a Maya Rudolph, a filmmaker who was out here but is now in L.A. The third, ‘Dispatch from the Guest House’ was done by our friend Kristel Brinshot.
Jonathon: She did our ‘Life’s a Gasp’ album cover and loads of our artwork actually; her and her fella. Then they kind of got out of the design world and got into VR Animation. Really futuristic stuff. We said “Hey Kristel, you wanna do this album cover for us?” And she’s like “How about I do a lendicular cover?” “Cool, you wanna do a music video?” “Oh how about I just do this mutated generated browser experience?” (laughing) We just say go ahead with it!
“Return to Desolation Lake” is out now. Listen to it and earlier Alpine Decline releases here.
Psstttt, have you visited our web store? Check it out here for all your Tom Tom merch needs!