Interview with Shanghai’s Round Eye
Experimental Shanghai punk outfit Round Eye are primed to bring their choreographed chaos to Beijing on Sat, Dec 1 in support of their upcoming release, Full Circle
Eight months after their formation, experimental punk transplants Round Eye have already made an outsized stamp on Shanghai’s live music community with their boisterous, freakshow-style performances paired with meticulous songwriting soaked in irreverent wit and cheap shades.
Taking a cue from their chaotic surroundings, the quartet have nailed together a series of disparate elements—a disembodied sax (“Carne Seca”), demented doo-wop harmonizing (“I’m So Young”), standard issue post-punk (“Kenting”)—alongside a boundless cache of thematic influences with their upcoming effort Full Circle, a split 12” with wild-eyed American punk elders Libyan Hit Squad that is scheduled to drop with a splatter on Sat, Dec 1 with a pair of Beijing gigs at the Old What and XP.
Three years in the making, Full Circle is a mercurial five-song exhibit that recreates contemporary China in its own image: a shambling, contradictory and complex work that just somehow manages to rein itself back before tumbling off the precipice.
In our discussion with the singularly-named Chachy—band mastermind, lyricist, guitarist and freewheeling provocateur—we cover everything from the upcoming release to those disembodied lips in the Rocky Horror Picture Show opening to making the saxophone and love songs cool again with spoonfuls of sugar.
Genjing: You guys are a new band, right? Can you tell us about the originations of Round Eye?
Chachy: We are indeed new and we formed slowly. Bob (bass) and I went to college together; Lewis (sax) and Jimmy Jack (drums) were introduced to us through mutual friends. That process took quite a while here in Shanghai because I’d been dabbling with musicians that I would meet through Craigslist and other forums but nothing gelled and nobody wanted to commit. I got lucky with these guys for sure.
Genjing: During the search for bandmates, what were some of the qualities you were looking for? Round Eye has a very eclectic sound…
Chachy: For starters, I’d say a firm knowledge of being in a band—the touring and the hard work ethic that is involved. I knew that once I put this thing together, we’d be hitting the ground running with a release already in the pipes.
I was nearly finished writing our EP before meeting Jimmy Jack and Lewis. Jimmy Jack’s a seasoned vet in music: he’s toured the Middle East and the US with his old band, Evelynn Rose. Lewis has a strong jazz background playing in big band ensembles in England—he played for the Queen!
With bass, Bob picked it up blindly. He’d never owned or played a bass before. I wanted him in the group nevertheless, though, because I needed someone close who could act as a good buffer between the new guys and us. Thankfully we all got on beautifully.
I wanted to know that we were open to have fun with it collectively. With the sax sound that’s associated with us, I needed a sax player who understood that I didn’t want to start Wham! the sequel or a Men at Work cover band: he needed to sound disgusting on that horn and have a good understanding of the drive in 1950s rock and roll and the attitude of first-wave punk rock.
Genjing: That sax is a very distinctive part of your sound. Was that top-down planning on your end?
Chachy: Yeah. And Lewis… it’s funny [laughs]. When we were in the studio, it took some coaxing to get him out of a shell and that’s understandable—I mean, he’d never recorded before and here I come dragging him into a studio to blow for eight hours a session with no practice or anything. I just stood there with him and made the sounds with my voice and conducted him with my hands on where the high energy and chilled parts of the tune are. So yeah, top-down for sure.
Round Eye brings their magic to 390 Shanghai.
Genjing: I hear a lot of X-Ray Spex, the Stooges and the Damned’s Music for Pleasure when it comes to that sax.
Chachy: Spot on! We covered X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” at our first gig. Regarding the Stooges, we met and showed [Stooges Fun House-era saxophonist] Steve Mackay around Shanghai when he performed here before our first show—that’s how I met Nevin. And the Damned—fuck yes.
Genjing: I love that Damned record. Most people hate it.
Chachy: Yeah, most people are pretty scared of sudden change in bands. I never understood that really, I mean why not? Isn’t that the whole point of punk in some respects—to shatter the mold? Fuck it—add a tuba in there and see what happens! Tuba! Fuck yeah!
Genjing: Do you guys consider yourselves as a punk band?
Chachy: Yeah, I’d say so—but not in the conventional sense: no Mohawks or leathers here. We’re considered to be a punk band the same way that guys like the Stooges, Talking Heads, Radio Birdman and others were considered punk—just the attitude and the abandonment of punk rock stereotypes. No protocol, just go with your gut.
Genjing: Who are some of your other influences? Round Eye is exciting because you guys tackle such a wide range of sounds. For example, I hear a nod to early atonal, downtuned Sonic Youth in “Kenting”…
Chachy: Each track on the record shows what drives the writing. With “Carne Seca,” we wanted to make another “Tequila” or “Rumble”—an instrumental that says nothing at all but implies all that is gnarly while keeping the good times intact.
“Kenting” was driven by some Chinese folk song that I heard an interesting melody to and joined it with surf influences from guys like the Surfmen and Lively Ones and a deeeeetuned E string, all the way down to a low A. I like Sonic Youth, but I’m not as familiar with them as most: I’m more of a New York, 1970s punker and into some of the first-wave UK post-punk stuff: Television, Talking Heads, The Fall, The Homosexuals, Mink Deville, Swell Maps… and doo-wop music is what I will always turn to when all other genres fail me.
Genjing: When you’re composing music, do you ever have a certain visual image in mind? Your songs all have a very cinematic quality, like “Carne Seca,” which conjures up scenes of a Pied-Piperesque sax-slinging figure leading kids to a twisted carnival.
Chachy: Always, always, always. As soon as the song is finished, I listen to it like a thousand times and try to imagine how it would look played out in a scene. “Carne Seca” is most certainly a party. There must be peaks and valleys for the hook to hold: Where in the party are we at two minutes? Does it matter? Is it losing steam at this point? What can we put in to keep stamina high? It helps immensely with our live show, too, because it provides a footing—almost a dance or a choreography.
Genjing: Describe the imagery of “I’m So Young.”
Chachy: Picture that mouth from Rocky Horror singing lead in a band of its own.
Genjing: Great segue to the next question: Describe this record in haiku format.
Sexy hell party
Satan played the big red horn
Don’t neglect yer roots
Genjing: How about if you had to describe the band and your vision as if you were at a pitch meeting?
Chachy: “A rock and roll band that’s trying to make the rock sax and love songs cool again with a spoonful of sugar”—or something like that [laughs].
We try to keep our shows as fun as possible, but we also try to keep a sort of tight ship in terms of performance. After every show, we learn to do something different at the next gig. There are moves—at the last gig, I covered the entire audience with flour and threw my guitar at someone to play whatever he liked as the band continued. There are segues into songs; we rarely stop to speak to the audience because we figure, right, we got twenty-odd minutes. And in this time, we have to make an impression—not a friend. That, right there, removes the need for conversation:
Bam-bam-bam-bam-song-song-song-noise—so our drummer can adjust or I can tune—song-song-song.
We have our banner with our logo and I buy novelty glasses by the thousands to give out at our shows so people will remember that, yes it’s a show and yes, you are around many people you don’t know in a “scene” or whatever, but hey—we’re here to make sure you have something ringing in your skull by night’s end whether it’s tinnitus or a tune with a drunken smile on your face.
We all got the same eyes, right? Let’s get fucking weird!
Here’s lookin’ at you, kids! Image: Thierry Coulon
Genjing: Sounds awesome! How’s the reception been?
Chachy: The reception’s been really fun! I come from a hardcore background in the States and you’d think that a mosh pit or some physical release is what you’d look for in terms of a reaction. But you really want the furtive comments for hours after the show that start with the exclamation, “Whoa! Yeah! Excellent.”
Shanghai’s been really great! It’s been loud and heckled and that’s great because I love when the boundaries between band and audience are completely lifted. At every show, we try to get our shit together a little tighter in regards to the movement of the performance. Johnny Ramone was a great teacher in that regard because he didn’t fuck around: Get up and give it to ’em. People see that and they dance, throw shit, goof off—it’s fucking silly sometimes [laughs]. Beijing and Hong Kong are in for a really weird party!
Genjing: Would you say that Round Eye has a strong DIY ethos?
Chachy: Yeah, I mean, DIY to the max. I know for sure that nothing will happen to those who simply wait for it to drop in the lap. We try to network and meet the players of Shanghai’s underground at all opportunities. And touring is going to be a real practice in the next coming months.
Genjing: Has the band toured China before?
Chachy: Never. Aside from Round Eye, the only time that I’ve ever performed in the East was when I played bass for Sikhara. I met and got to know them when they were backing Steve Mackay at YYT and really thought that they were great. Scott (singer) said that they needed a bass player for their gig in Xi’an, so I jumped at the chance to roll with them and it turned out to be a really fun gig at a place called the Aperture Club.
With Round Eye, I knew what we’d be getting into in terms of touring, and quite honestly, the sooner we hit the road, the better. We have two dates in Beijing; two dates with Big D and the Kids Table in Hangzhou and Shanghai (the Hangzhou date will be Round Eye’s first time playing out of town), a weekend in Hong Kong and Macau with our buddies Tigerbombers and we’re also planning our first full tour of the country for sometime in June, which is something that we’re trying to correlate with a gig in Mongolia that our friend B.O. is setting up.
Genjing: Sounds incredible. What do you think are the biggest problems facing the Shanghai music scene when it comes to the DIY ethos? Possible solutions?
Chachy: I often wonder what would happen if the bands of Shanghai, or China perhaps, were suddenly faced with the task of buying and hauling their own equipment—if all the backlines suddenly vanished. Back in the States, we hauled our shit everywhere and were thankful to have a PA or a goddamn mic stand. Here, fucking Phil Spector runs sound and Jimmy Page is my guitar tech [laughs]—but that’s just equipment.
With DIY, I think that it’s evident with people like Nevin, B.O., Toshi (Macaronians) and Xiao Zhong of Pairs that the ethos is in good hands. It’s all still so so young and it’s going to take time to really kick off. But what I think could help would be to simply endure and add to what is already firmly in place. We got bands? Great! Where’s the zines? Where’s the radio stations? Just keep adding and stay tenacious.
Chachy: “Look at that face: That face got me second place in Shanghai’s air guitar competition. Holy Divah!” Image: Thierry Coulon
Genjing: The upcoming release, Full Circle, is a split with American punk outfit Libyan Hit Squad. What can you tell us about the Libyan Hit Squad/Greg Ginn/Round Eye connection?
Chachy: I had played bass and sang for Libyan since 1999. We toured everywhere and met all sorts of people. My experience with Greg Ginn and Dick Lucas are the two that stick with me as time runs by: We met Greg when we opened for him and his Taylor Texas Corrugators and Jambang at a place called 1982 in Gainesville, Florida.
We got wind about them coming to play several gigs in the Southeast and called our buddy, Sterlo, who ran the place to see about jumping on the bill. There was no bill! Greg and his agent were strict about who would play with him because they didn’t want to attract the wrong crowd—like punks wanting to hear Black Flag songs because he does a totally different thing nowadays.
We were experimenting heavily with our sound by that point and had plenty of jazz fusion instrumentals to cover a set with—so that’s what we did: we played a vicious jazz set. There was maybe 15 people in the audience—including Greg and Sherry, his assistant at the time with SST Records. Well, anyway, he dug it and smoked us out [laughs]. After that, we just kept in touch. When we played a gig in Austin, he came out to see us—it was his birthday. We then asked him if he would like to be on our record and he said yes and asked for nothing in return. Very awesome man and he smokes in-cred-ible dope.
The Libyan and Round Eye connection is me. When Libyan died in 2011, I still had songs that were acting as loose ends and needed to finish them. “Carne Seca,” “Kenting” and parts of “Round Eye” were originally Libyan songs. I recorded two of those songs in a cave and at the Rialto Theatre in New Mexico where our buddy worked. His boss let us use the empty theater to record the drums and guitar for those two songs in the wee hours when the place was locked up. We only finished drums and guitar on “Carne” and “Kenting,” so when I came to Shanghai, I continued working bit-by-bit until I finally had a complete band to finish the record with. In all, Full Circle took three years to complete due to circumstance.
Genjing: Do you think that the songs would have turned out differently if you had recorded them elsewhere?
Chachy: Yes, I do. Full Circle was recorded in two locations in New Mexico, in Shanghai and in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Each place brought something that helped things along. Whether it was Li Weiyu (Postape Studios recording engineer) or Joe in New Mexico (former Libyan guitarist) or Xtian (Cocoa Beach engineer) offering a suggestion or some technical hiccup that sounded interesting enough to stay. The name “Carne Seca” refers to a burrito we happened to be eating in Tucson Arizona. It was a very open process!
Full Circle will be available in China on Sat, Dec 1 through Genjing Records.