I’ve become a bit of a shoegaze junkie as of late. There’s something comforting about being drenched in dreamy nostalgia and shit tons of reverb that simply tinkles my fancy. So when Singaporean label Middle Class Cigars reached out to me I jumped at the opportunity to dive into what was brewing down south in the Lion City. The label is bringing up shoegazers Cosmic Child for a five-city China tour, one that kicked off in Hong Kong last weekend. The band whose ‘pastel-washed dreamscapes’ are ever present in their 2016 debut Untitled, finishes up their tour with a stop at Beijing’s Hot Cat Club this Friday, March 31st. I was lucky enough to have a chat with frontman Zhang Bo about nostalgia, lethal recording experiences, and the indie scene in Sinagapore and beyond.
– Shoegaze has long transcended its Western origins and has resurfaced in Asia in a big way. What do you think it is about shoegaze that’s so universal?
Zhang Bo: I think shoegaze in general has made quite a comeback in recent years, with bands like Deafheaven pushing the boundaries and redefining what the genre can do.
I also think the main themes of shoegaze – loneliness, romance, bittersweet – are even more relevant in society than ever before. This generation is probably the loneliest generation, everyone’s got some kind of social anxiety in some form or another and we love nothing more than to romanticise it – I mean, just look at the memes…haha This is especially prominent in Asia, in big modern cities like Singapore, Tokyo, Bejing…etc. probably due to rapid pace of everyday life in a fast, ever changing environment. Everyone’s lonely and wants to connect with someone but everyone’s awkward and shy, so we write sad introspective pop songs drenched in warm reverb and distortion as a replacement for emotional warmth
– Nostalgia plays a big part in shoegaze – though of course it echoes differently for each person. What feeling or better yet, distant memory does your music try to recapture?
Zhang Bo: I think by nature I’m a very childish person so I probably subconsciously channel that through the music. A large chunk of the album was written while we were transitioning between high school to college, army or to working life. It was definitely a shocking and awkward process and all I wanted was to be a kid again,
Actually, I probably didn’t have that great of a childhood and I don’t really remember much of it, nor did we intentionally write about growing up. I guess the music just ended up coming out that way.
– You mention in your credits for your debut LP, Untitled that you guys nearly killed yourselves making it. Was it a long process? How bad did it get?
Zhang Bo: The album was actually recorded and mixed all within around a week or two. What happened was that we were really good at procrastinating and really bad at playing our instruments. We stayed over at the studio and took turns doing 12-hour shifts, only taking breaks for the occasional coffee, cigarette or lunch break. Sometimes I would think that it’s the afternoon only to walk out and find out that it’s the middle of the night.
It was really quite disastrous, the playing was terrible due to sleep deprivation, the mixing was horrible cause it was done in 3 days, we had no time to send it for mastering and we hated each other. I’m actually extremely surprised that people like it.
– A little gear talk for all the geeks out there– what kind of pedals will be making the journey?
Zhang Bo: Well personally my approach to effects and pedals is more like mixing and applying plugins. I use both multi-effects (boss gt-100) and analog pedals for the best of both worlds. I don’t really think you can tell a lot of difference between a good reverb plugin vs some 5000 dollar reverb unit, same goes for delays and EQs. It also gives me the option of swapping patches mid-song. Only for overdrives and fuzz I use analog pedals cause i don’t really like the sound of digital overdrives. Oh, I also have an analog phaser pedal cause I can’t seem to program the multi effect phaser to sound like it.
Daniel – the other guitarist – also uses a multi effect which he hates, and some analog pedals. He tends to swap stuff around more often and tweak knobs while he’s playing rather than going for the “one size fits all” approach. He mainly uses two reverb pedals, one at the start of the chain and another at the end. Having the reverb at the start of the chain produces a more washed-out sound, while placing it at the back of the chain gives it more attack. Other than that, he uses a couple of drives, fuzzes and phaser. Occasionally he has some delay and chorus going on to shake things up.
Honestly, you can probably play shoegaze with just built in amp overdrive and reverb. It’s really in how you strum the guitar and what chords you use to set the mood.
– There seems to be a close network of shoegaze bands across Asia. Who are some of your favorite contemporaries in Asia?
Zhang Bo: Well, I really like Thud from Hong Kong, Skip Skip Ben Ben/Boyz and Girl from Taiwan, The White Tulips from Xiamen, China and Shojoskip from Japan.
– Singapore like China is no stranger to issues of censorship and government intervention though in actuality not too many bands will ever come across these obstacles. How much do issues like this affect your band and the scene as a whole?
Zhang Bo: Honestly censorship in Singapore has never affected me personally, I don’t think the government is too bothered by kids writing weird music and I don’t cuss in songs. I guess the only problem we’ve had is sometimes shows require lyrics for approval and that sucks cause I don’t write lyrics.
However, it’s quite hard to put together a DIY show as you need to pay quite a bit of money for a show license but most of the time we just make do without a license and pray that the police don’t catch us.
– A lot of us are unfamiliar with the music scene is Singapore, though we have seen more and more acts, like The Observatory, make the trek to China. Give us a quick rundown of how the scene operates there. Would you say it’s doing well?
Zhang Bo: Well, the underground music scene is definitely better now compared to 10 years ago. It’s much more lively, more interesting bands are popping up, you have more ways to get your music out there, the government might even give you grants for recording and touring and there are more shows to play.
Every scene operates differently; the jazz scene is comparatively very different from the punk scene. But how it usually works for us is that a promotor will plan a show, they’ll book a venue and ask a couple of bands to play. Most of the time the bands play either very different music or very similar music. Then there will be other shows like festivals and magazines launches and stuff…
– The cost of living in Beijing has made it increasingly difficult for musicians to make a living off their music? Do you all have regular daytime jobs in the city? Do you imagine one day you’ll be able to bask in the riches of being a full time musician?
Zhang Bo: Hahaha, that’s the dream isn’t it? But honestly i don’t think we’ll ever be full time musicians, we suck too much at our instruments.
Currently everyone’s either in universities and doing part time jobs or serving National Service, running around with guns. However, I do hope that I’ll be working in something media related in the near future so I don’t completely waste my diploma.
– The music industry is a wildly different these days, mainly thanks to how music is consumed, distributed and paid for online. You released your debut LP Untitled, on Middle Class Cigars in both digital and physical formats. How did that relationship form? What are some other prominent labels to keep an eye out for in Singapore?
Zhang Bo: Originally, I met Nigel from Middle Class Cigars while I was playing bass with my other band Subsonic Eye. He had just started the label and wanted to sign us after some friends showed him our demos. We eventually became friends over some drinks and I trust his vision and direction. So when he asked to sign Cosmic Child after our album launch I agreed straight away. Basically I just wanted someone to handle our dirty admin work so I can be lazy hahahaha…but seriously Nigel is amazing and we probably wouldn’t have gotten this far without him.
– Finally, what’s on your bucket list of things to do in China? Anything you’re looking forward to most?
Zhang Bo: I’m most definitely looking forward to the food. I think food in china is amazing. I’ll also be looking forward to the cheap Tsingtao beers because beer is crazy overpriced in Singapore. If time permits, I’ll love to walk around and explore the old towns of Shanghai and the Hu-tongs in Beijing.
Catch Cosmic Child this Friday, March 31st at the Hot Cat Club – with support from Beijing’s own shoegaze torchbearers, L