Interview with Tenzenmen

It should come as no surprise that DIY and punk circuits around the world are pretty tight knit affairs; friends, acquaintances and friends of friends trading off information and contacts for venues, promoters, distributors, labels, other bands to tour with, many of these roles being the same group of people wearing different hats. Yet of course there always people coming in and people going out; grow up, have kids, get a HD television along the length of your house or whatever it is people aspire to these days. At the same time there will always be some scene, some little nook or cranny, that isn’t on Facebook and you haven’t come across. Simply put, there is always someone new to meet.

Yet in the Pacific region there is one name that comes up again and again across scenes, and that name is tenzenmen. It’s kind of like that game with how many handshakes you are away from Kevin Bacon, except you’ve realistically got to scale it down to the DIY scene in Asia and Oceanian and it’s Shaun tenzenmen you’re after, not a high school outcast who goes and throws shapes in empty warehouses when he gets pissed.

If we go back to the list of aforementioned roles tenzenmen fulfills almost all of those mentioned, from touring bands to helping put out their music and get it distro’d over the world. As a label tenzenmen has been instrumental in exposing Chinese music to a wider audience and forging transpacific links, like a hub for good music going on anywhere. Sadly it seems like tenzenmen is in its final chapters, so we took this opportunity to talk to the man behind the label about how it all happened and his role in the recent split release between Pairs and God Bows To Math, that tenzenmen helped release.

What got you started putting out records?

Around 2002-2003 I was playing in an improvised jazz noise group and the leader from that decided to leave the country. He decided he was going to carry on the name (Hinterlandt) and keep creating music in the meantime. So I set him a challenge to write me three songs for an idea I had for a compilation CD series. He did that and so did I. That CD series was called Eccentrics and featured three albums and wide range of bands and styles of music from a few different places around the world. After that I just never stopped!

What influences the artists you choose to work with?

This has changed over time. Originally it was my friends that I was releasing — or new found friends with the ease of finding new music on the internet. After a visit to China in 2007 I started to work with Maybe Mars and just decided to release their whole catalogue. The depth of their catalogue genre-wise suits my tastes and complements the tenzenmen aesthetic very well. Later some bands started approaching me to work with the label — some of them didn’t even want me to do that much as they had everything already sorted — they just wanted to be part of what I was doing.

To me, tenzenmen is a punk label in the truest sense. It’s just not possible to pigeonhole releases across the catalogue. So my criteria is more related to what artists want and expect from me and their understanding of how I work and, importantly, how they work. I have made serious financial losses running the label and it’s been worth every penny!

Have you ever made a profit off this?

The closest I have personally gotten to making a profit was last year — and I still lost about $10,000. Actually there is a good chance I will make a profit this year but that is for other reasons I’ll talk about later. I have only ever wanted to support the music I like and enjoy and hopefully help bring it to new ears.

For myself and I think most bands I work with, we know we’re never going to make money doing this. Running the label is relatively easy and that has allowed me to expand the catalogue at a rapid pace. Once things are in place they don’t change that much. The internet is a great boon for music fans like myself — it’s so easy to find great new music. The only time I’ve been annoyed by piracy is when I found a Russian site trying to sell mp3s of some of my releases — but even giving that some thought who the hell would actually pay them anyway? Any kid who knew about these releases and wanted them badly enough would figure out a way to get them for free. Luckily there is a fairly supportive sprinkling of fans who do buy product and most of my sales these days are for digital downloads.

Shaun in ‘Fusion’, circa 1992

This release between Pairs and God Bows to Math sees a number of scenes being linked together, between New Zealand, Australia, the U.K. and China. What made you decide to jump on board with this release?

I’ve worked directly with all the people involved before except for Bomb Shop and it just made sense to be part of this release to help give it an outlet in Australia (where God Bows to Math have toured and where everyone knows Rhys from Pairs too).

When Nevin started Genjing I asked him to keep me in the loop with any releases he was working on and if it caught my interest I’d commit to some involvement.

Likewise, with Muzai in New Zealand we’ve both helped each other find interesting bands to work with and support. This type of international co-operation is quite prevalent in the punk and hardcore scenes across South East Asia. Bands can get the support of many labels around the world to take small quantities of product and spread the costs at the same time as spreading their art.

What’s the value of physical artifacts to make these links between scenes rather than just creating a Facebook group so dudes can share giraffe fail videos and other shit?

It’s probably most important now because the only way to even make a little money is to play shows — and the best place to sell you physical product is to a roomful of prospective customers. All these links enable bands to travel further afield and discover new music, new cultures and new friends. What better way to see the world?

What can bands elsewhere in the world learn from those operating out of Asia?

Many bands who have returned from tours in Asia are extremely humbled by the support they receive over there. Things might seem mighty chaotic to us but they will come together. If your mind is open you will make life long friends in these places — even people you might only meet for one night at one show. They are SO appreciative of your effort to visit them. So I hope that we learn that we can do the same to those who take the time to come and visit us in our own towns, cities and countries.

Depending on your theological beliefs after we pass from this mortal realm there is either, heaven, hell, reincarnation as something without opposable thumbs, or absolutely nothing. Regardless, what we do in the here and now won’t be transferred to the afterlife, so what gets you excited to continue doing projects if not eternal salvation?

For many years I would consider myself quite directionless, not quite sure how I could define myself. Running tenzenmen has helped me achieve that. It’s really just a personal thing. Of course I really appreciate the positive feedback I get from time to time and that sometimes helps me through when I wonder ‘why the fuck am I doing this!?’

The only thing we CAN do is here and now, so let’s do it. There really isn’t time to waste.

What’s 2014 going to be like for tenzenmen?

2014 will see tenzenmen wind down as a label as I have to utilize my money for other things. I’ll still work on projects that don’t involve and financial commitments so things will still tick along for a while, and I still have a few releases in the works. As my financial input decreases this actually increases my chances of making a profit this year so long as I keep selling things. Stock is low on quite a few releases now and it will be great to reclaim some space on my book shelves and in the garage! I have already sent out care packages of old distro stock and some releases to Indonesia and Myanmar — I’ll probably do that with anything that’s left. I have kept one copy of everything I released for my own personal collection and it will be nice to look over that legacy one day.

I have a book written that I need to sit down and edit sometime too. But I’ll probably just watch movies and play Xbox instead.

Any final words to share?

Support your local musicians any way you can. Don’t sit idle — do something. Anything.

Do yourself a favor and follow tenzenmen on facebook and tumblr. You can also hear his catalogue and purchase both physical and digital releases from his website and bandcamp.