Photos by Dani Grant
Today P.K.14 starts their tour around China. They are just coming back from Russia, there they played at V-Rox festival, and now they will play thirty one concerts during the next two months. They will trip our republic driving their own van.
This interview was done long ago, when P.K.14 and Maybe Mars were thinking 1984 was going to be ready around March this year. Due to several delays with the production of the physical album the release of 1984 finally is officially happening this week.
P.K.14 is one of the most popular rock bands from China. One that has actually lived long to survive until now, and one that has evolved very well too, keeping their motivation authentic, and expanding their audience and their machine to allow them to produce their music with better resources.
P.K.14’s most popular accomplishment has been the use of rock to spread words of reflection, one of the greatest values of rock around the world but yet not totally well develop in China, for pretty obvious reasons. After this interview I realized that another strong characteristic of this band is their true love for the practice of art in all its ways, even though they call themselves not professional musicians, they do live as professional artists, just probably not totally aware of it.
I met them before they played at Booshkabash last year in Shanghai. We had a long talk while Nova Hears was doing their sound check before the show. Yang Haisong, Jonathan Leijonhufvud, aka Tan Tan, Xu Bo, and Shi Xudong were there. The conversation was in English, and Jonathan and Yang got pretty quickly very much into it, and Shi Xudong and Xu Bo, also very quickly, abstracted from it, either to smoke, chill, or stretch around.
While we were talking, soon it began to happen that Leijonhufvud and Haisong were insisting on the fact that they were just common/normal people, it seemed that there was a misunderstanding floating in the air between us. Specially when I tried to know if they were interested on reproducing some of the things they saw while recording 1984 in the States, to bring some of that for other bands in China. It wasn’t so much that they were avoiding to acknowledge their leadership,but it was more like they were really ignorant of its existence.
I have interviewed other bands that get intense about establishing well the point that they are not “rock stars”, yes, with quotation marks. There is a lot to say about those bands really, but not now, because I am confident that this was not the relevant thing happening here. My feeling is that they are becoming adults, as a band I mean, so the definition of their own identity, the clear acknowledgement of their character and role in their own world is yet a bit diffuse.
Some things didn’t make sense, I know Yang Haisong cares about other bands, as he has produced many bands in China, I know they take seriously their music, other way they wouldn’t be crossing continents to record albums, but the shape and size of their band maybe is overwhelming them. They are definitely into keeping themselves connected to its original motivation, which is fantastic, however their experience is pushing them to fields bigger than what they were originally expecting, it seems.
So like when you go through the process of adjusting between your own idea of yourself, and the idea that the world around you gets from you. Discovering yourself in the eyes of the others, understanding the role that fits you and the one you want, and finding a way to couple them in a comfortable way for yourself, that is the process that I think they are or were experiencing when we talked.
As Yang Haisong sketched with ambiguity about it, 1984 is probably more about personal experiences than anything else. Then this is the time for P.K.14 to encounter with the dystopia of their own private experience as a band that’s growing to be a Chinese classic. And this interview is more like just one chapter of the story that is happening to them with 1984, specially during these next two months touring China, and then until their next album. Or just until they find a comfortable position to rock themselves in the hammock of “classic”.
Layabozi: About the new album, what is the name of the album?
Jonathan Leijonhufvud: We have a project title
Yang Haisong: Yeah, it’s called 1984
YH: We have a song titled like that. It’s about the book of George Orwell. It’s kind of a reality similar to China. And it will have a beautiful cover design by Jonathan.
JL: Yes, my day job is a photographer but my background is on graphic design. Like Yang Haisong says, the album title is open to interpretations, we don’t have songs about the book. It’s a reflection of what we see just in our daily life. Like Yang Haisong says, George Orwell wrote that book so well that it doesn’t need music to be added to the book. So it’s not about that, we just think there are some interesting connotations, reflections on society.
YH: It’s hard to express. Personal life. Almost about everything. Living in China. It’s about… it’s hard to say…
LYBZ: I think the main subject of 1984 is the control of society…
YH: Yeah, but it’s also more personal. It’s more about our relationships between people. And people not believing in each other. This kind of stuff, betrayal, lies, everything like that. This kind of relationships. How to make people not to betray each other. Something like that.
LYBZ: Have you been betrayed?
YH: No. It’s not my personal life, but what we see around.
LYBZ: When it will be release?
JL: After Chinese New Year. Around March. We will press it in vinyl. It’s our preferred format. We wanted to do it since our second album, but we did not have the way. It’s a different way of consuming music. It’s almost like an abstinence to digital music, you can only listen to so much. You know, music is always being adapted to a format, so before recorded music there were different venues, churches, big halls, and temples, and these kind of things, and then progressed to recorded music, and vinyls, cassettes, and CDs, and MP3s. And then the way with MP3s is that there’s a volume board, which is really something because it’s not like before, if you wanted to feel the music louder you turned it up, but now you listen to digital music and your ears get higher and we are not crazy about that. For us it’s taking a step back, to slow down, and appreciate the art work and spend time with the music.
LYBZ: You haven’t recorded an album in four years, right? Why did you stop for so long?
YH: It’s no stop.
JL: Yeah, we are not a career band. Between the last album and the one before were three years. We dream of releasing an album twice a year, but it’s just a different way of operating, we are not a studio band, we are not professional musicians, and it takes times to do an album.
LYBZ: This album was recorded in the States, why?
JL: Yeah we recorded in Chicago at Electrical Audio studio, with Steve Albini. I think we had a very clear aesthetic goal and this studio has a very neat sound that we like very very much, and we’ve been inspired by the guy who runs it, the way he runs it, the way he records is extremely fascinating to us, we wanted to record our previous album there too but we couldn’t happen for money and time. But this time it all came together.
LYBZ: What are those characteristics that you were looking for recording it there?
JL: A natural sound as much as possible, to sound like the band is playing in a room and that’s not over produced. Also everything was recorded together at once in one take, all analog, there was no digital intervention, maybe the format was not so important but the method, the way he used the space, how he used the microphones, how the instruments sound together…
YH: Yeah, that’s the big difference between the digital music and analog. I mean for the digital recording it doesn’t matter the room, whatever room… you can do anything, just any small dry room, you can do a software later to fix it…
JL: Albini has been running this studio since the early 80s, nothing has change since then. And he has a very specific way of working, and also the bands that he has worked with, even he has his own band that we like a lot. That sound has always been in our head. Because is very classic and our instrumentation is very simple, electric guitar, electric bass, drums, and vocals. So this is it actually, and on paper it looks very simple, but to do a good job of that is not. And you know which is the right sound for you, and this has been our dream for a long time.
YH: Yes! When we started to record we were like Yes! This is our sound!!! (laughs)
JL: I’ll tell you a story… before, when we recorded we could spent half a day miking, setting up the mics, and then looking for the position, and constantly adjusting, adjusting, adjusting… and this time it took maybe one or two hours to set up the microphones. And he, the head engineer, does it all by himself, there’s no other people, just him, then he walks around a bit and he goes… “okay why don’t we sound check the drums?” And we sound check, bam bam bam, and he goes, “okay it’s fine, that’s it.” Extremely quick. Ten minutes! “Okay play a little guitar,” he says. “Okay. Now play a little bass, okay.” Then “why don’t you try something.” Okay. And we tried a song. Then he says “why don’t you come up and see how it sounds like“… and we had no comment! We had nothing to say! The first time we were “that’s what we want!”… (laughs) … So we just started recording. It was fantastic! It’s so strange. It’s almost formulated. He has a very specific way of looking at music and sound…. we really had no comments!
LYBZ: So what did you learn from working with him?
YH: It’s hard to say. He is a very unique person.
JL: He is unique! The way he approaches… it’s not only about the music. It’s also about the work. The way he runs he studio. He has recorded more than two thousand albums!… I don’t think many people can say that. Two thousand! … When you talk to a studio or a producer, they want to hear your demo to know if they like your music. He doesn’t care, he is just an engineer. He is like “I don’t care about who you are, this is your music, you have to live with it, it’s not my music. I have no comments. It’s not my music.” That’s what you get when you ask him about a song. But when you ask him what are the options for the sound, he tells you this, this, and this. And then we make the decisions. It’s important for us to be comfortable with our music, you know, there’s no middle man making decisions for us. We have also a long term collaborator from Sweden, he joined us in Chicago too.
LYBZ: How did you meet Albini?
JL: It was very simple really. We know his music. We just got in touch with his studio, there was a budget and then booking his time, and finding a slot to work with him
LYBZ: Would you be able to go back to record in China for your next album now?
JL: It doesn’t matter if it’s in Beijing or Chicago, it’s about knowing the sound you want.
LYBZ: Do you think this experience will help you bring this quality of recording to China? Because, you know, you are a band leading the scene in China…
YH: It’s a personal experience and it has changed us. It’s hard to say how to do this to other band, you don’t need somebody to tell you how to do things.
JL: To be very honest, what he does it would be very hard to do it here. I mean, this guy, even the bricks that are inside the walls he has researched about them, find the right density, and get them in a specific place in Mexico. I mean I don’t understand about this that much, but sure we can share the experience. But very important, we are not engineers, and this is a hobby for us, and we are very lucky that some people like us. Seriously, and to be honest, I’d say seven years ago, nobody cared about us. For us, the four of us enjoy making music together, if we don’t have anything to say through our music we would suck, it would be over, so… uhm….weather we influence other people is not for us to say, if they find something interesting in our music, great, that’s cool, but that wasn’t our plan.
LYBZ: Okay I understand that you are not with your head over the clouds, but you are aware that anyway you are influencing the world around you…
JL: We are not a career band. I can not say that enough. If we wanted this to be a career we would have gave this up a long time ago. We are not handsome enough, we don’t play well enough, our songs are not catchy enough. We are not a punk band. And we don’t have ambition. We never said we have to do this, or sell these many records, or we have to…. that’s never in the discussion. We are very comfortable where we are, as people and as friends. And if we said, if we wouldn’t enjoy playing together we’d stop. And again, we don’t have a manager. The only people who can tell us what to do is the four of us, there’s no outside party that can come in and say, hey I think you guys should do this… no. You want to talk to us, like you, you can talk straight to us. We don’t have any lofty ideas or ambitions to be this kind of band, or that kind…
YH: We just enjoy playing
JL: Maybe it sounds obvious, or stupid, but it’s very simple…
LYBZ: Yeah, but somehow not many bands survive in China for a long time, it sounds obvious, but…
YH: It’s their problem…
JL: Yeah, that’s not our problem
LYBZ: Okay, let’s go back to the album. Is there another subject around the album?
YH: I don’t follow a storyline really. If there is one, it’s more like a portrait.
LYBZ: You Yang Haisong write the lyrics but the music comes from the four of you. So what’s the connection of the four of you with the story of the album?
JL: The way we write our music is very democratic. The music is usually improvised, so we spend a lot of time jamming. For example we recorded ten songs, but we probably have sketches, ideas for seventy or eighty more. Now we try a lot of things, we combine them, we might be “hey remember that last thing we played last Monday, remember? Let’s see how it works with this” that’s how we write music. We all work on our music, lyrics is all Yang Haisong. But maybe our music is not so hard, if I could tell you in words what our music is about, I wouldn’t be making music, so, it’s for the listener to appreciate.
LYBZ: Is there any change or difference, evolution, between your past albums and this one?
JL: The way we made the music was exactly the same, the songs too, maybe because the way we recorded this time, everything was recorded live, so no over dub, no a lot of post production, so we had to prepare much for when we recorded in the studio, the instrumentation is the same.
LYBZ: No new gear, no new effects?
JL: No. We only tried new ideas. It’s very funny, many people have preconceptions about bands, about how they must do things like this or that… but actually it’s the same. A lot of our favorite bands, when we actually found out who are they like, they are just normal people.
LYBZ: Yes, of course!
JL: Yeah, so it’s the same. We think those guys probably have an special way of writing, or working, or recording… no, they don’t!
LYBZ: Maybe, but everybody has a different creative process…
LYBZ: That’s what I’m asking about…
YH: It’s the creation, all the creativity is based on very simple acts. Sometimes you wonder how people write this, how did you write this so amazing song… but sometimes is very simple idea… It’s a very technical question actually…
LYBZ: Well, yes of course, I’m decoding your work to write about it…. Okay…. So what plans come with your album, any expectations?
JL: We have no expectations about it. We are having a China tour to share it with people…
LYBZ: How long it took to produce it?
JL: Five days! To record it, and then the same to produce it.
LYBZ: Okay… mmm… this is maybe out of the deal now, but anyway… some bands begin to compete with themselves to make better and better albums, to become better… is this something that relates to you… ?
YH: For us it’s not about how to be better, we are just trying to make it very exciting, it’s not better… for the music how can we say what is better? We want to try this or that…
LYBZ: Okay. About your technical skills. Specially you Yang, you are not like a jazz singer, right? … So how do you approach your singing?
YH: I don’t know. I just try to use a natural way, to sing every lyric, to vibrate with them, it’s just nature.
LYBZ: And you Jonathan, have you evolved as a drummer?
JL: I don’t know, it’s like a life long relationship with your instrument, and at times the relationship is “What am I doing?” and other times is “oh, I’m comfortable with this” and we’ve had rehearsals that are unproductive and we go “oh that was a waste a time” but then we find a good idea that’s exciting and we build on that… again, you know, we are not professional musicians. I don’t know, maybe we have not evolved much as musicians, maybe we have evolved as people…
LYBZ: I have a last question, sent by Zack. What’s the effect of Underbaby on P.K.14?
YH: They are our friends. They are the first punk band in China, and our friends.
JL: Their attitude influenced us.
LYBZ: Okay guys, that’s pretty much all. Sorry if I pushed you… I’m trying to get information of you, I do understand that the message of your music is in your music, but I also think communication is import to transmit your experience, through words, you know… and it’s not that you can’t change what you say today, we do change… but the reflection about what you do, to talk about what we do to grow and evolve, you know…
JL: No no no, it’s okay. It’s just that we don’t have these kinds of ideas about our music and our future. We are not comfortable talking about us. We are just enjoying making music together. I have hundreds of photos of us around the world, and I keep building this collection. That’s exciting!
YH: And the message of our music is not only in our music, also in our actions.