In the last few years, Shanghai has a developed a thriving live music scene. From a few local venues and musicians has sprung an assortment of music-centric clubs, DJs, musicians, bands and media that create, support and promote Shanghai music. The Shanghai music scene holds its own not only against Beijing, but it’s also gaining a growing presence around the world as a spot for original and inventive independent music. This is due in no small part to the bands and musicians in Shanghai who are made up of and aimed towards foreigners in the city, giving Shanghai-based music a chance to compete with other English language music around the world. Bands like Rainbow Danger Club—a progressive rock quartet of foreigners who all met in Shanghai—is one of several prominent bands currently doing well in Shanghai. Rainbow Danger Club has been a regular fixture on the Shanghai indie music scene since they came together in 2009, playing shows regularly in Shanghai and around China, releasing albums, and now planning their first American tour.
But it’s probably harder than you imagine to put together a band in a city like Shanghai.
“I lived in Shanghai for three years looking for people to play with,” says Rainbow Danger Club guitarist and lead singer Jesse Munson. “I would audition people and nothing would work, or I’d audition someone and they would leave town, or I’d audition someone and we’d have totally different musical tastes, or I’d jam with someone and we didn’t get along, and I’d audition someone and they would borrow money from me and it was horrible.”
“And that’s how we started!” jokes Dennis Ming Nichols, the bassist for RDC.
They both laugh. “But eventually I found Nichols and Michael Ford, the drummer, and we just started playing in my bedroom,” says Jesse. “I honestly didn’t think it would be a real band.”
“I didn’t really want to start a band because I thought I was only going to be here for one year,” says Nichols. “But eventually I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll be here another year,’ and then we started it and it was just the three of us for a long time, doing instrumental mostly. Then we just started singing. And then we picked up Michael Corayer [on trumpet], because he was guesting with us so much and we had a previous history with him.”
“Also, he lives upstairs from me,” adds Jesse, “so, convenience.”
And that’s pretty much how a band can come together in Shanghai—from friends, auditions, colleagues, next door neighbors and probably a lot of luck. Since Rainbow Danger Club formed in 2009, they’ve produced and released several projects: first, The New Atlantis EP in 2010, which would serve as a preview of what was to come for them. After their EP came a full-length album called Where Maps End in 2011, which received both local as well as international attention, due to their distinctive sound and compositions. Rainbow Danger Club is unique right now on the Shanghai scene: their music is distinctly different from what others are doing.
“We tried a bunch of different sounds [at the beginning],” says Jesse. “We experimented. What does the post-rock thing sound like? Garage-rock? Dance-rock? But it seemed like the stuff where we seemed to be a little bit stronger was in this sort of magical musical-ness. It seemed to be where we were naturally stronger.”
Rainbow Danger Club does have a magical musical-ness about them, in that their music is grand and lush, with a certain intenseness in the orchestrations, melodies and lyrics. They’re whimsical but complex, and Where Maps End is a strong album, linked together through repeated melodies, instrumentations and themes, somehow creating the feeling of a Victorian-era sea journey while still being very progressive and modern.
“I remember a distinct moment where we started thinking about our songs as a cohesive one story,” says Nichols. “We really started developing songs. It was like, ‘Oh, let’s start here…let’s make this song about this and then let’s connect it with this other song and then that’s one story.’ It started there and then became what it is.”
“You’re always in the back of your mind thinking, ‘How is this going to sound on a record?’” says Jesse. “I don’t really enjoy working on lyrics, but I was like, ‘I’m going to force myself for these next couple months to just come up with ideas. And the things that kept coming up were the things that sparked my imagination, which is the idea of a flat earth and explorers and the idea of a Jules Verne universe where it’s the exact same world that we know now, but little things are able to be tweaked. Little things are able to be changed.”
“There’s a little magic,” adds Nichols.
“Yes, a little bit of magic but it’s still like the real world. To me, that was where it really resonated. That was the record we wanted to make. I remember asking myself, ‘What record would I like to hear that doesn’t exist right now?’ That was a big change for me. Instead of saying, ‘What do I want to sound like?’ which is what most people—including myself for a dozen years—would ask, I said, ‘What record doesn’t exist that I wish existed?’ And to me it was that sort of whimsical, Jules Verne-esque turn of the century adventure record and seemed to work. It seemed to be a good enough idea to move forward.”
Where Maps End was well-received and reviewed both domestically by media in Shanghai and Beijing, Layabozi included, but also internationally by outlets like The Guardian, CNNgo and MTV Iggy. Rainbow Danger Club also continued to play regular shows in Shanghai and Beijing, as well as around China as a frequent booking on the Chinese festival circuit playing to both Chinese and foreign audiences, and they have used the opportunity to define their music and sound, develop songs, and try new things.
Says Nichols, “It’s funny because the way we play all of our songs now is very different from what’s on the album, but I think that’s actually a strength. I think that’s cool and to me it’s a good progression. But I wouldn’t change anything on the album, because it represented who we were at the time.”
“There’s actually a more interesting tension between an album that is played totally faithfully live and an album that is something totally different,” says Jesse. “There’s more artistic tension there, even though it’s not ideal. This is how you want your album to be but if the album is exactly how you play it live—“
“It’s boring!” says Nichols.
“Also, we’re incapable of playing anything twice the same way,” adds Jesse.
“But that’s just because we fuck up so badly.”
“Well, mostly you.”
“Yeah, mostly me!” Nichols says, laughing. “And for the new album we’re trying to do the same thing we did before—just writing songs that we like, that we would want to hear if we weren’t in a band. We’re writing those songs that we would have liked to hear on our own.”
Says Jesse, “To me the big question is that is sort of constantly on my mind is, ‘How do you write a song that is good on a record and that works live at the same time?’ Because a lot of times you might notice that people’s favorite things to listen to on their headphones are not their favorite things to watch live. I think heavier things tend to work live, and more melodic, softer things tend to work on a record, so how do you balance those two things? And when you write a song, you’re usually—at least I am—I’m in my apartment or something. Usually the songs that you write when you’re alone are sort of different than what works live. So for me there’s a huge amount of tension there.”
“Our new stuff—we’re playing it live and kind of making adjustments to it after each live performance,” says Nichols. “We think about it—think about what worked and what didn’t. So actually, our next album might be more similar live…at least at first. But we’ll eventually diverge and it will be a little different from it too.”
Since Rainbow Danger Club has already made an impression in China, including releasing a live album in 2012 in addition to their other albums, as well as contributing to a Shanghai music compilation, they’ve also played nearly every venue in Shanghai. So naturally the next step was to plan an international tour in America, as that’s where all the members originally hail from.
“It’s on my bucket list to tour. I just knew that we were good enough to at least try it, and I knew we’d have a good time. And who knows where we’re going to be years from now so let’s just do something; let’s have an experience!” says Nichols. “It actually started with this band that just played in China called the Noise Revival Orchestra. They started talking to me, saying, ‘You guys should come to Austin,’ and Jesse and I both love Austin. And I thought, ‘We should at least play Austin,’ like, let’s all meet in Austin and at least play a couple of gigs. Then that turned into, ‘Well, while we’re there, let’s play our hometowns,’ since we’re all Americans and we’re all from different places in America, so let’s do that and then that turned into, ‘Well, if we’re going to do that, let’s just play all the cities in between.’ So that’s exactly what our tour is. It’s Texas, then all of our hometowns, starting in Boston which is where our trumpet player is from, going down to Pennsylvania—our drummer—down to the south—South Carolina, where I’m from—and then up to the mid-west, where Jesse’s from. So that’s exactly how our tour was planned.”
Says Jesse, “It’s really different for us because the thing that we do in town here—I don’t know if people who watch us know this, but we try to do something that we’re totally uncomfortable with every time. Each time, it’s like: here’s a new idea; we’re not comfortable with it but let’s try to make it work. When we go to America I think that’s going to totally change. We’ve never done that. It’s always been about learning something.”
“In Shanghai we play so rarely so it’s hard. You realize what you did if you did something wrong but then you don’t have a chance to correct it. You forget about it,” says Nichols.
“You totally forget about it because you’ve had so many Suntorys and Tsingtaos between gigs,” adds Jesse.
“We won’t have that luxury on this tour. We play a show, and then a day or two later we play again and we have a chance to correct those mistakes.”
“Basically, our only job is to play a good show and get to the next show and play a good show and that’s totally different than working for three weeks and then maybe making another set, like we do in Shanghai.”
“But our goal is basically just memories,” says Nichols. “That’s number one—just having a really good time. But we would like this tour to be successful so that if we choose to we could do another one.”
But even though these guys are about to start their first American tour, they still recognize the importance that Shanghai has played on their music and development as a band.
“We wouldn’t be the same band if we were living in the States,” says Nichols. “Not at all. Shanghai affords us some luxuries, I think. People who live here are very open and not very judgmental. We thrive in that environment. I’ve been to other music places where when people go to a show they go to judge. I feel in Shanghai—this is kind of a party city. People come here and they go out specifically to have a good time and it’s less judgmental.”
Says Jesse, “There’s a sort of curve where a scene on one hand could be so empty that everyone is desperate for something to happen but then a scene can also get so saturated that it’s just this vicious competition and people who are really valuable don’t get the attention that they need. Shanghai is somewhere in between that so there’s a sort of cohesion in the community. People are pretty supportive. We’re in that sort of weird place where it works as a community.”
On Friday, June 29th, Rainbow Danger Club will play one last show in Shanghai at Yuyintang before leaving for the US.
Their 2012 USA Tour begins on July 6 in Austin, Texas, and finishes August 4 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Check out the complete tour information on their official site.
Find more information on Rainbow Danger Club on their website.