INTERVIEW: ALPINE DECLINE ON ALPINE DECLINE
With the Beijing pollution index hovering around 500 PSI a week and a half or so ago – seriously people, the sun was literally blocked out for something like FIVE WHOLE DAYS – we figured Jonathan and Pauline of Alpine Decline were probably busy sitting around their flat, staring daggers at one another with bleary, bloodshot cartoon eyes, so we thought it best we give ’em something to do before an impromptu Russian Roulette session ensued. That something, as it turned out, was the task of interviewing each other, ‘cuz, you know you wanna know everything there is to know about what makes these happily married museos tick, at least, we do…and we’re a pretty damn good representation of, er, you…I guess? Also, the fact that we goaded these kids into doing this saved us a whole hell of a lot of transcription legwork! Ahem, right. Many thanks to J&P for actually taking the time to sit down and hash this bad boy out – yadda, yadda, yadda. So now, ladies and gentle-people, children of all (emotional) ages, without further adieu…
Jonathan: OK, hello, and welcome – this is Alpine Decline on Alpine Decline.
Pauline: That sounds horrible.
Jonathan: It does. We’re going to interview each other using some questions from Genjing Records. We’ll just take turns asking each other these questions. Feel free to chime in on my answers.
Pauline: Does that mean you’re going to chime in on my answers?
Jonathan: OK then! Let’s start, question number one. Hm, why don’t you ask this first one.
Pauline: OK! Jonathan, question number one. What does your typical songwriting process look like?
Jonathan: Pretty much as soon as we’re done with one album, we start working on the next one.
Pauline: By finished, like, you mean when we’re finished with it and ready to move on to the next thing.
Jonathan: Yeah, I mean that’s been different for different records. Sometimes we’re finished with it before it’s even mastered, but sometimes because we’ve been touring or something, it’s a couple months after we’re done with the recording stuff.
Jonathan: Did you try anything different in that respect for this release?
Pauline: This is the first release we’re working with Genjing.
Jonathan: It’s really exciting and interesting to put out each release, where we’re kind of putting together people who are into what we’re doing and want to support the record. We’re basically a completely underground band, but we’re finding a way to make it work in a kind of non-conventional way.
Pauline: I feel like you have a long term view of the whole thing – like you’ve planned this story ahead.
Jonathan: Yeah I mean I think more about the overall story of Alpine Decline than the focusing on each album release as the next big thing. It’s easiest when you’re trying to promote something to say it’s the new big release, the new killer shit, a masterpiece and we gotta go all out for this one, but I guess I’m more interested thinking about it like we’ll have this big collection of work that explores all this different stuff and each album drops you into a different chapter in our world. But that being said, GO BIG SHADOW CITY is the new killer shit, it is a masterpiece. This just happens to be the chapter where we’re firing on all cylinders.
Pauline: Jonathan, with GO BIG SHADOW CITY being your fifth album in four years, is it hard to come up with new ideas, musically or otherwise, and avoid repeating yourselves?
Jonathan: Woah, already with the hard hitting questions. No I don’t ever worry about repeating myself or running out of new ideas, but because I think it’s OK as artists creating an album or a performance to return to things in the craft that we’re drawn to, or that are particularly effective for whatever kind of expression we’re trying to make.
Pauline: So you’re not worried about running out of new ideas?
Jonathan: Are you? I don’t worry about that because I don’t think our job is to crank out a bunch of new ideas. Yeah of course I think it’s important to really express something in our music, whether that’s a specific idea or just trying to express some part of our, like, human experience, but I guess I think music is the tool or process by which you and I can actually explore our experiences, and for whatever reason you and I have both been drawn to music as the way to do that as opposed to like, some other kind of art, or professional ambitions or whatever.
Pauline: So you are justifying having no professional ambitions?
Jonathan: Wait is that one of their questions or is that you asking me that? Are you asking me that as Alpine Decline or as my wife?
Pauline: Do we discuss music that influences us throughout the songwriting process or is that completely off the table?
Jonathan: We talk about music all the time, but not really in relation to Alpine Decline or it influencing us.
Pauline: But we also talk about Alpine Decline’s music all the time too.
Jonathan: Yeah, but that’s separate.
Jonathan: How much time do you spend writing lyrics?
Pauline: None, zero.
Jonathan: I guess I spend not a lot of time writing lyrics, but for a really long time. Like I don’t sit at my desk with a notebook and a cup of coffee writing lyrics all day, but starting to put the words together is how we start working on a new album, and then I’m doing that for a few months until it’s actually the day I need to go in and sing the vocals. And then there is a scramble to sort of finish everything and put it all together.
Pauline: And you feel like this produces your best work?
Jonathan: Well I can get a lot more personal pleasure like this because there’s a really fleshed out concept for the album and each song and stuff, but there’s some spontaneity so that then later I get something meaningful out of trying to interpret what I wrote, as opposed to it being 100% orchestrated like I’m some master.
Pauline: Could you do that too?
Pauline: How did you come up with the title Go Big Shadow City?
Jonathan: It’s a mistranslation, but I knew immediately it was going to be the title of the album, even though I’d only just starting thinking about the album like, the day before. Then it kind of loomed over everything and influenced everything for the rest of the way.
Pauline: As songwriters and instrumentalists, how do you fight against complacency at this point?
Jonathan: Oh I mean like, at the end of writing music and recording you have an album, but that’s just the product of the process, it’s the result, not the primary goal. The process itself, making music, is something we love and helps us understand our lives, our relationship with each other, everything.
Pauline: We’ve both been drawn to music our whole lives.
Jonathan: Yeah I don’t think that’s going to change, we’re lifers.
Jonathan: Next question! How much did living in the tropical paradise that is modern Beijing influence GO BIG SHADOW CITY?
Pauline: Ha, ah well – you’ve heard the record.
Jonathan: Or if not you can listen to it now online- pretty much everywhere you can listen to music.
Pauline: It’s our lives here in Beijing.
Jonathan: I think we try to use the recording process to create as much of a landscape or geography for each album, and I think it’s fine for some people to get into the world of this album and think about it as Beijing, but we’re trying to write records that are more like a reflection of reality, like a novel, than a documentary or something.
Pauline: I think you’re mixing your metaphors. Are you talking about books or movies?
Jonathan: You get what I mean. Maybe some people can make a laser-sharp album about Beijing or something specific like that, but I think I just enjoy the kind of novel thing more than the non-fiction thing, where through the art of writing you can touch on all these deeper human experiences and issues and stuff. If GO BIG SHADOW CITY was just about Beijing, for anyone outside of China it would just be a kind of voyeuristic connection instead of something more personal.
Pauline: But the landscape of this record is influenced by Beijing?
Jonathan: Well I mean it’s like you said, it’s our lives here.
Pauline: Jonathan, how long do you think we’ll stay in Beijing?
Jonathan: You don’t have to say “Jonathan” at the beginning of every question. It’s gonna be typed up, they’ll know who’s talking.
Pauline: Jonathan, how long do you think we’ll stay in Beijing?
Jonathan: I feel like if we could, we’d stay in Beijing indefinitely, but with Roland [editor’s note: Roland is a six month old baby] you realize there are better places for a kid to grow up. Pauline: We’re not planning on going anywhere anytime soon, but I think we recognize we can’t live here forever.
Pauline: OK Jonathan, another question. You’ve worked with Yang Haisong [P.K.14, After Argument, Dear Eloise -Ed.] twice now, how much did he inform your process while in the studio?
Jonathan: Welllllll, we’re pretty aware of how we want our process to work–
Pauline: When I transcribe this, how many “L”s should I put for that “Welllllll?”
Jonathan: Seven. But that process for us involves having a person who is in tune with our intentions, you know, and is also willing to care and be personally involved in the album.
Pauline: Yang Haisong is great because he’s very professional, but he focuses on what you’re trying to do in a really genuine way.
Jonathan: OK I’m going to just read this next question verbatim: Maybe I’m way off base here, but sonically, GBSC sounds much more, er, human – a lot richer, than your last release. How much of a goal was it to step things up on the production end? Do you think we were consciously trying to step things up on the production end?
Pauline: No, I mean…I think the second time working with someone you are more comfortable and you understand what everyone means when they are talking about the music being better, so it makes sense that the record sounds better.
Jonathan: Or maybe not even “better,” but more coherent. We were able to do a better job realizing ideas in the recording process.
Pauline: Jonathan, what issues do you have, if any, with the state of modern music?
Jonathan: It’d be cooler if there was actually a room of press shouting questions at us like we’re The Beatles or Bob Dylan. But it’s just you and me sitting in a room asking each other questions… is this interesting to anyone?
Pauline: Jonathan, the question was, what issues do you have, if any, with the state of modern music.
Jonathan: I think I’m probably too self-interested to really be all that focused on the state of modern music. I’m probably just focused on our own thing.
Pauline: You rant to me about music all the time.
Jonathan: Rant? [It’s cool, Jonathan, we rant about all manor of shit over here! -Ed.]
Pauline: Next question?
Jonathan: OK. Pauline, have you had any truly disillusioning moments as a band, thus far? Maybe that question makes sense more if I say “have you had any truly disillusioning moments in your life as a musician, thus far?”
Pauline: [Long Pause] Disillusioning?
Jonathan: Uh, huh.
Pauline: No. Not really.
Jonathan: You could say how your approach to playing music and being in a band has changed though, right?
Pauline: Yeah, we do things differently as a band and as musicians than ten years ago.
Pauline: Jonathan, as you know, you guys just got back from touring Australia and are about to embark on a fairly lengthy China tour, what’s next after that?
Jonathan: The US for the summer and then hopefully a tour in the UK and Europe in the fall.
Pauline: And we just finished a record of the tape machine stuff and now are working on the next album?
Jonathan: Is that a question?
Pauline: No, I don’t know why I said it like that.
Jonathan: Next question. Pauline, how far in the future do we have releases planned out? Like, are there heaps of Alpine Decline tunes lying around that you’re planning on throwing out there as one-offs or do we tend to work in batches?
Pauline: It seems like we’re always working on something.
Jonathan: You sound tired.
Pauline: It’s not like we’re working in batches and then there’s stuff laying around, it seems like we’re just eventually done working on one thing and then we just start working on the next thing.
Pauline: Tell us a joke?!
Jonathan: Knock knock.
Pauline: Who’s there?
Pauline: Are you serious?
Jonathan: Just do the joke. It’s funny.
Pauline: Fuck who?
Jonathan: Don’t you mean “fuck whom?”
Pauline: Agh Jonathan that is sooooo stupid.
Jonathan: How many “o”s should I put in “sooooo stupid?”
Jonathan: Pauline this is labeled as a “personal question” from Genjing. They want to know if there are any “drone” sets planned for the China tour. [Sheesh! Isn’t anything “personal” any longer. -Ed]
Pauline: Well, I think we’re going to keep doing the drone sets. A lot of times, there are good ways to fit them in on tour playing non-club spaces where drums and guitar amps don’t make a ton of sense.
Jonathan: Yeah and we’ll be doing more of these kind of sets in Beijing and Shanghai in May and early June before we go to the US.
Pauline: And the record is just finished.
Jonathan: The Cuttlefish and its Ink
Pauline: Is that it?
Jonathan: That’s it! That’s all for Alpine Decline on Alpine Decline.
Pauline: OK then.