As Shanghai continued to broil in a prolonged heatwave this week, the local boundary-pushing rock duo Pairs offered some relief on Monday with the release of their sixth full-length studio effort, Your Feet Touch Ground, A Carousel, a record that they made available to download for free through their website.
The prolific pair’s first electronic album is the latest in a long line of experimentation for the restless lo-fi rock outfit. It follows last November’s If This Cockroach Doesn’t Die, I Will, a sprawling monster of a concept record that Sean Hocking, head of the band’s Hong Kong-based label Metal Postcard Records, hailed as one that will eventually come to embody the experience of expat existence across Asian megacities. Despite being ten months old, it continues to rack up accolades from a number of influential Western critics and gain new audiences.
Shortly afterwards, the band quietly released the piano-and-vocals-only album Eltham Join, a subdued effort that was quickly followed by a series of solo releases and collaborative efforts from drummer, vocalist and chief songwriter Xiao Zhong throughout the spring and summer.
The band’s latest spontaneous gift to the world, an independently-released effort that was written, recorded and mixed by the duo in a Shanghai living room, continues to drift further from their original explosive guitar-drums-vocal outbursts and instead relies heavily on laptops, programmed drums, acoustic guitars, one “smashed-up iTouch” and a practice space amplier, said the band in a press release.
Premiered last Thursday on VICE China, the effort has already elicited strong reviews from domestic critics: “Whether you like it or not, we should remember that Pairs are a band that embody an extreme punk spirit,” wrote VICE reviewer Wang Ge, who admitted that he was torn about whether or not he liked the record. “But the fact that they promote themselves and seize every platform so that more people hear their own things, as well as their brave willingness to change themselves, make them a hundred times stronger than so many other bands out there.”
We agree. While the record’s swirling atmospherics, adrift vocals and unconventional song structures may put off even the band’s most ardent fans, the six-song effort acts as another direct portal into one of the expat community’s most fascinating creative minds, that of Xiao Zhong, the 27-year-old Melbourne native who dove into Shanghai’s creative community in 2010 like the Tazmanian Devil, inciting a maelstrom that has only intensified in the nearly four years since, leaving just even the most plugged-in observers breathless and unable to fully absorb the band’s frenzied activity.
From DJ gigs to the band’s wild performances and the daily blog posts of gossipy insidery tidbits that participants of the country’s independent music biz devour like hunks of raw meat, Xiao Zhong’s energy is seemingly limitless yet also streaked with the undercurrents of fatalism that runs all aspects of life here in the Middle Kingdom, that the party can’t possibly last forever and we’re all living on borrowed time.
In a music scene where so much emphasis is placed on public image, bandwagon-jumping and a near-transparent desire for bands to hit rockstar paydirt without putting in the necessary amount of shit-eating, Pairs’ utter lack of ego, self-deprecation and willingness to throw caution to the wind to just do what feels right makes them one of mainland China’s most genuine and important bands.
And unlike other rock bands within the country, what makes the Pairs Experience™ so special is the relationship that the public has with the band and their music.
Having Pairs in your life isn’t limited to simply watching them perform live — although they do that, too, having recently wrapped up a Southeast Asian tour alongside playing regular gigs at various Shanghai live music venues (they’re also set to tour Korea this October) — but is rather a constantly whirling kaleidoscope of interaction with the duo that includes blog updates, social media blasts, secret recording sessions, shout-out to pals in their songs, collaborations with fellow creatives and unscheduled 6:30am blitzkrieg interviews for Slink Rat, the band’s aforementioned blog.
While it’s often difficult to separate the band Pairs from Xiao Zhong himself — F, the band’s guitarist, seldom gives interviews and is content to cede the spotlight to her bandmate — we picked his brain to learn more about the new record, the loneliness of expat existence and his secrets to time management.
On making an electronic record
We like taking risks and trying new things because you can’t keep sucking the same old dick time and time again. Doing something creative will always trump doing sweet fuck-all. It also keeps us off the streets and keeps us interested. We’re going to die someday — not just as a band, but as people, so we may as well do as much as we can before we get thrown in the ground. Some people are going to absolutely hate this record, some people are going to like it; some people will appreciate the idea but hate the execution; some people are going to drunkenly approach us and “tell it like it is.” The vast majority will not care at all and it doesn’t really matter. We dug making it and we’re happy with it. What you do with it now is totally up to you.
On the new single “Vatican Colours”
Lyrically, it’s just one line repeated over and over: “You’ve been gone / For such a long time / How do you know we’re going to be here when you get back?” It’s pretty simple and I’m sure a common thought for most people living abroad or who move around a lot and are tired of saying goodbye to people and not really sure where they belong.
On the often lonely existence of being an expat
This record focuses a lot on that. I’m the opposite: I don’t have a lonely existence at all — I have too many friends all over the place that I would love to be with. But how can I be with my friends in China and with my friends in New Zealand and Australia and the United Kingdom at the same time? It’s impossible, so eventually, I have to chose a place to settle down.
On time management
My advice is simple: Don’t just watch movies on long flights. Work in airports and while waiting for flights. Don’t play video games. Get a good night’s sleep and allocate downtime. For example, I’ll relax after 8 pm or I won’t do anything on Sunday except hang out with the wife. And never put something off you can do straight away and never look at an email and say, “I’ll reply later.” Those are my tricks.
On the band’s prolific output and high profile
I really, really don’t think we’re that high profile. On the grand scale of things, fuck-all people know about us. While people seem to get confused and maybe even a bit tired of us releasing shit and doing stuff, I see us as a band with a deadline or an expiration date: One day, I will move away from China. It’d be different if F and I were both Shanghai natives, then we could go for longer — but if you see the finish line ahead, you’re going to push yourself.
On how travel influences the creative process
It makes it better. There’s way more deadtime just sitting in terminals and you can get a whole heap done on 11-hour flights. Plus, you see a lot of people in different states of mind and it gives you time to think or for inspiration to strike. I’ve written a lot of lyrics on flights and in the shower: they seem to be the two places where ideas are born. Take from that what you will.
On his “heart on the sleeve” lyrical style
I feel that it’s a bit odd watching bands here because I know a lot of the musicians: I know enough about them — where they work, who they date and the basic kind of shit they like — and yet when they play their songs, I can’t see their personality at all. It’s like the songs have little relevance to their life and I find that odd. While I can’t help but wear my heart on my sleeve if I’m writing, some people here seem to be able to bypass their experiences for some song that holds no real importance or connection to anyone.
On his evolution as a lyricist
I’ve gotten a bit better at stretching out one idea or observation over the space of a couple of verses. I used to write long-winded emails home to everyone when I first got here just to let people know what I was up to, but I no longer do that — I now put my observations and experiences into song. While this latest release is probably a little step back as I didn’t want the lyrics heard that clearly, I really dig the lyrics to “38,000 Feet in the Bathroom Line.” But the lyrics to the new Pairs songs are actually pretty good and something that I can stand behind. It has been a prick remembering all the lines, but once they’re in your head, it’s easy enough. But yeah, I’m focusing way more on the lyrics and pushing an idea. It’s probably the one compliment F has given me: “Your lyrics are getting better,” she said. She’s usually not one for praising me.
On the future
I’ve told people I’m toying with the idea of heading home and quite a few people have said, “Oh man, you’re going to be so bored there and it’s going to drive you crazy!” While I see where they’re coming from, that’s only until I open a Melbourne gig guide and see all the amazing shows from international and local bands alongside the festivals, exhibitions and opportunities there. However, I know when I move back, I’m going to miss a lot about living in China. It’s a very common thought, nothing new there, but as my time gets closer to actually fucking off, I’m just trying to figure out how I feel about it. I think I’m ready to get into a more relaxing lifestyle where work isn’t so hectic and people are more laid back. Guess it comes with old age and shit, plus I have already lined up some shit to do when I get back, like a podcast with the Hobbs Goblin, and I’m sure I’ll keep playing music.
Your Feet Touch Ground, A Carousel is available to download for free on Pairs’ bandcamp page. They’re also on Weibo, Douban, Facebook and Tumblr. While the band currently has no scheduled performances in Beijing, Hong Kong readers can look forward to catching them at Saffron on the Peak on September 14 and 15. Details here. Shanghai readers can see Xiao Zhong perform tonight at Yuyintang with his shoegaze duo Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes in support of Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Sophie Koh: 9 pm, 60 RMB.