If you haven’t read Layabozi’s review of Nova Heart’s Beautiful Boys EP, you should do so. These are questions our correspondent came up with while he was reviewing said album. Thanks to Helen for her swift and verbose responses.
Layabozi: I think I know how the collaboration with Rodion came about after you met in Turkey, but I was wondering what exactly his role was. I have read that he took tracks you made and “tapped them with the disco wand.” Does this mean you sent him demos of tracks with lyrics and he just changed them a bit or did he create whole new tracks to go along with lyrics or what?
Helen Feng: It was complicated. I started by sending him a version along with split stems of the track, usually with an idea of some hooks, a beat structure, synth line guitar etc. Vocals were done with just gibberish lyrics for most tracks. Ed (Rodion) listened to the tracks, decided what he wanted to keep and what he wanted to lose, and would send me a draft. Then we email and Skype about different details down to the sound color. Sometimes he liked stuff I didn’t like or I liked stuff he didn’t like, but most of the time we came up with a compromise. And if we didn’t, Ed generally won.
Around June last year, I was in Rome at Rodion’s studio. Some of the stuff I had laid vocals for in a studio in Beijing a few months back, at Yuli’s Studio. We forgot which tracks they were so, unfortunately, we forgot to mention them in the liner notes…that’s a bit shit. Props to Yuli, a buddy of mine in Beijing that I’ve worked with for a long time, including during Pet Conspiracy days. He is a fantastic engineer and probably the best guy at mastering in China right now.
Anyway, at the studio, we worked through all the unfinished tracks, came up with new ideas, recorded some new hooks or chopped off some old ones. We had problem areas that we didn’t like before going to the studio, so in one week we worked through most of them and came up with new ideas and recorded vocals for almost all of them. It was actually ridiculously efficient time, considering how much of it we spent eating. Songs like “Beautiful Boys” completely changed while we were there, inspired by the cheap hotel I was staying at in Rome, on a street which was apparently THE PLACE for transvestite hookers. I came up with lyrics for most of the tracks in his studio, literally between joints and eating pasta and getting cooking lessons from Ed.
Then Ed flew out to Beijing, to gig with us here for Zebra Festival (which got canceled cause of natural disaster), and DJ at one of our parties, and we went back to the studio with the whole band. “Good Ideas” was ripped apart and rebuilt on the spot with the band members who we later recorded at Universal Music’s house studio here in Beijing. That’s the version that you hear on the album…so to answer to your 2nd question, yes, everyone did play on this album.
LYBZ: I have seen Nova Heart playing in Shanghai a couple times now and you certainly played more than four songs each time! Was there a reason for only releasing four songs right now? Was it just a matter of wanting to get something out at this time? Is there more recording in the works or already completed?
HF: A couple? Wow, we only played twice, so thanks for that! Even since the last time we played in Shanghai we’ve tweaked the music more. We’ve spent more time with the tracks and I’ve been writing, and we have more new tracks now that we haven’t even sent over to Ed, including one super raw number that we used in the Blogoteque video.
But the reason for a four track release is these four tracks are cohesive and I already feel that as we get together more as band, new ideas are popping out about certain other tracks. I could go on tweaking my music until eternity before releasing something, but then the music gets old and dusty, and so these four tracks felt the most finished and we had to get them out. Also I’m big fan of EPs.
A lot of times, you have an album with two or three good tracks and seven filler tracks that just barely pass go to fill out space so it justifies an album. Releasing an EP gives me some breathing space to get stuff out so I can focus on the next set of songs, ideas, performances, and move forward instead of trying to finish filler tracks to justify an album release.
But an album is coming, and we’re already starting on that process now. Or maybe another EP, who knows? But we do have tracks lined up for the next release.
LYBZ: I know you are definitely out of Pet Conspiracy, but what’s the status of Free the Birds? Is that over, too?
HF: Hiatus, definitely hiatus not over. Zhang Jie, the bassist for Free the Birds, is now basically the head of the label we’re starting under FAKE so he’s super busy with figuring out distribution licensing, and all that stuff for the Nova Heart. He’s the best friggin’ label guy ever and he really worked hard to make this release possible!
One of the Free the Birds guitarists is now the guitarist for Nova Heart (Wang Zongcan). The current time drummer for FTB went back to Xin Jiang and got married because of his family and Mao Mao, our original drummer, is semi-working with us to fill in but isn’t permanent because he has several projects. And the other guitarist has just returned to Beijing after almost eight months away also because of family stuff.
Music is important; bands are like family, but they can’t substitute for the obligations you have to your real family. When you get to this age, the actuality of mortality hits you, and you can’t just hide from obligations anymore behind the screen of youth. You take them on as best you can. But now, life traumas are slowly cooling down. After we’ve started the new label, we are discussing finally finishing that album that got put on hold for so long. But, first things first; we do things one step at a time now. Sadly, because of these bumps and attentions diverted, it will take a bit of pushing to get this train back on the tracks, but you should see something from FTB after the summer.
LYBZ: Do you consider Nova Heart a Helen Feng solo project, a collaboration with Rodion, a band, or something else? In other words, would you do something else with a different producer and/or musicians and still call it Nova Heart?
HF: In the beginning I would have said solo project, because Ed was in Rome and we just started working together and there was no band. But now I find that when you start really including the input of each of the musicians involved, each with a very different feel, it changes the project, and it stops being The Little Miss Helen Show and starts to get some real bones and complexity to it. We could work with a different producer in the future, but whatever happens Rodion helped build, define, teach, and give us direction. He is a full-time producer who works with a lot of artists, so we don’t hold any delusions that he’ll drop his life and come touring with us permanently. So in the future, when we do work with other people and still call ourselves Nova Heart, The Band, I hope we can preserve some of the goodness that he gave us in our music.
LYBZ: Finally, just a quick one about the packaging, which is really cool. What made you want to make it that size? Is it an allusion to vinyl 7-inches, and vinyl is just too expensive to press these days?
HF: There’s vinyl being pressed still in the US and Europe for not that much (around cheapest I think is 1 euro a copy for 7-inches), but there’s no one doing it here in China that I know of, and they’re ridiculously expensive to ship from overseas. Also, this is for China, and last time I checked few people here have a vinyl player. But I just love the look of them so much.
I’m one of those retarded people who still picks up vinyl on tour even if I don’t actually own a vinyl player. I’m also surrounded by vinyl fanatics, including all the DJs that Philipp (my partner/boyfriend/manager/love slave) brings for the Dance Dangereux Parties (name drop: Mike Simonetti, Munk, Rodion, Holy Ghost, and soon Pat Mahoney).
So I thought, “Yeah, let’s make it look like a 7-inch even though it’s not. Nobody’s ever done that before, at least that I know of.”
Our super awesome designer, Fei, otherwise known as TRYTOBEGOOD, came up with a design, and it took a lot of work with the printers to get it done because this was such an odd request on our part. We had two or three redos to make the final version work (in fact I think you have version 2.0, not even the finalized distribution version which is even sweeter) [Ed. Note: hook up version 3.0!], but the end result is something everyone is really proud of.
It’s nice to do something where at the end of day, the whole team looks at it and says, “Damn, that’s perfect.”
When we took it on tour with us to New York, people were taking photos of our merchandise table and we sold all of our tour version CDs.
That was a great feeling.