Blistering Eardrums, From New Delhi to Beijing

Posted by Pete DeMola on 14. Jun 2009

Unknown to most residing in our fair city, experimental music, much like its jazz, electronic, folk and post-punk counterparts, is a thriving genre in this country's musical climate.

At the forefront of this scene are Hot & Cold, two Canadian-born expat brothers who create music that sounds if a tag team of boa constrictors and wasps wreaked havoc in a recording studio.

With the Terminator.

Their shows are volatile, furious and drift into the realm of supercharged performance art (they may or may not involve Simon Frank, the duo's keyboardist and lead singer, rolling cymbals down aisles and out into parking lots, or climbing up walls).

Sonically, menacing walls of noise are carefully constructed from the duo's (the other guy is Josh) massive arsenal of effects pedals, singular keyboard, one cheap drum machine and bass. Melodies abruptly emerge from dissonant squalls; synthetic spoken word vocals often give way to unguarded shrieks.

The universe and all of it's sounds -- from ambient chanting, spooky distorted Theremins to the mechanical click of traffic blinkers -- are fair game to be imitated and fed through their sonic meat grinders.

And it's not for the faint-hearted.

They will release their debut LP, Any Monkey is Dangerous, this weekend (Sat, June 20 at D-22) on Maybe Noise Records, the Maybe Mars subsidiary headed up by Zhang Shouwang, the Carsick Cars frontman and one-half of the acclaimed experimental duo White.

Here, Josh and Simon Frank fill us on their unconventional approach to music, the recording sessions for their new record, and tales of monkey madness from their former stomping grounds in New Delhi, India. How would you describe what "noise" or "experimental" music is to those who aren't familiar with these terms?

Josh Frank: "Noise" or "experimental" are very broad terms. I would say the best noise musicians break musical conventions by experimenting with different sonic textures: prickly feedback, oscillating drones, rich distortion. Many people probably consider Jesus and Mary Chain, who tore apart their own pop songs, to be a noise band, but the spectrum goes out all the way to a group like Shanghai's Torturing Nurse, whose music is more akin to roaring TV static. All this goes to say that the "noise" label often better describes an approach to music rather than one specific sound.

WLIB: Describe Hot & Cold in five words.

JF: Minimalist euphoria stop drop n' roll

WLIB: The Beijinger's Lisa Liang, in her review of the record, said that "as musicians, they still have some ways to go," criticizing the "repetitious sound experiments" and indecipherable lyrics." Isn't that completely missing the point of noise music?

JF: Well, we'd be the first to admit that we don't play our instruments in a traditional sense. And though it's perhaps an unimaginative way to describe our music, "repetitious sound experiments" isn't a ridiculous tag.

To answer your question though, yes, that does miss the point to some extent. Whether you like a band like Hot & Cold or not, we clearly have an unconventional approach to music-structure, lyrics, melodic elements, even instrumentation. It's disappointing for us to be assessed according to the mainstream music criteria which we reject.

We don't really ask much of our listeners, except a certain degree of openness. I truly don't think we're that noisy. At least not all the time. Especially in performance but also on our record, we both feel a certain affinity for energetic abandonment and instrument bashing. Isn't that the point of rock n' roll? Cantopop is noise.

WLIB: Tell us more about that New Delhi show involving small children and candy. We're intrigued.

JF: In retrospect, that was the first Hot & Cold performance. We were living at the Canadian High Commission compound in New Delhi, and decided to do something special for Halloween. We set up Simon's keyboard and my bass on our parents' balcony and pounded out improvised music in as spooky a way as we knew how, stopping to lower candy in a basket to kids. We also pelted candy at people we didn't like much.

WLIB: Your shows are intense. From where do you draw that passion when you're performing?

JF: From the first shows that Simon and I both played in India, I think we've always had a certain desire to prove ourselves. As in "Yes, we're onstage, we're making weird music, we're fucking enjoying it, and maybe you should too." There's really not an intention of being alienating. It's extremely gratifying to surprise people. Sometimes it's because of our energy, but it can also be because of our songs, and the way we play together.

Simon Frank: When I'm onstage and playing music, I just want to start jumping up and down. I can't explain it. First time I played a show in our band before Hot & Cold, I wasn't planning on freaking out or anything, but by the time we finished our three song set I was rolling on the stage screaming wrapped in the microphone cord, while our friend jumped up to smash a cardboard box with a baseball bat. I think in Hot & Cold I also want to compensate for having a keyboard in front of me, which I feel puts a barrier between me and the audience.

WLIB: "Hot" and "cold" really seems to sum up your sound -- the interplay between quiet and loud dynamics, particularly onstage. Is that a coincidence?

JF: It's flattering that you say that. Initially our dynamic was probably better described as loud/very loud. When Simon and I first started getting into the kind of music that we like now, we were really into the Pixies, and they have a really strong sense of dynamics, and noise vs. melody. I think that has carried through in some ways. To be honest, we often worry about how hard it is to vary dynamics, especially because of the fact that we don't have a drummer, and use so many pedals.

As for the name Hot & Cold, we took it from a drinks shop we saw in Burma a few years ago. Hot was written in blue, and Cold was written in red. We liked that the colors jarred with the meaning of the words. We hadn't played much music before, nor had we really found our musical "personalities," so the way many people see our name as quite appropriate is a bit of a happy coincidence. The whole point of the band name was that either of us could be Hot or Cold, that it was interchangeable and inverted.

SF: It was actually on that trip to Burma that I bought a megaphone and we started playing together.

WLIB: Lyrically, you remind me of the Beats. Who are your favorite Beat poets and authors?

JF: We're definitely quite fascinated with the Beat era, though not necessarily one particular person. The Beat fascination with seeking out startling or revelatory experiences has definitely informed how we process our own experiences -- from reality, our dreams, or our imaginations -- into lyrics.

But more directly, Dadaists like Tristan Tzara (and I guess Allen Ginsberg fits in here) inspired us to feel confident in using the absurd and repetition to create some kind of clarity or interesting disorder.

SF: I actually haven't read very much by the Beats, but I am also very influenced by Dadaism. Authors that inspired me lyrically include Haruki Murakami and Franz Kafka. Conceptually, I'm very interested by what William Burroughs was doing with cut-ups and strange juxtapositions. On the other hand, I'm aware that some of the best rock lyrics are meaningless and embarrassing. Sometimes it's the matter of finding an intriguing turn of phrase and saying it with conviction.

WLIB: What's a typical songwriting session like?

JF: One of us comes into the balcony of my room where we practice and starts playing loudly. The other gets excited, sets up, and joins in. Then we write a song.

SF: We may come up with riffs or ideas improvising by ourselves beforehand, or while playing together. Drum loops and samples are usually added after if needed, but in some songs, like "Subhas Chandrah Bose" and "Simon's Angry Song," the drums are programmed first and a song is built around it. Lyrics are usually from a stream-of-consciousness perspective, but can be written beforehand, or inspired by things we've read.

WLIB: Are there aspects of Beijing that had an effect on this album that wouldn't have developed if created elsewhere?

SF: Firstly, Beijing is a very noisy, loud city. I think living in environments like this can either make loud, barely-musical sounds acceptable to your ears, or make you want to make your own sound as a reaction. So while we're not explicitly influenced by cars and beeping traffic signals going out of phase with each other, they do make you think about sound and music in a certain way.

Beijing bands were a huge influence on us musically. Though I don't think we sound like any other band, I've been introduced to so much music and ideas about making music from watching and talking to groups like Carsick Cars, Snapline, Mafeisan, Ourself Beside Me, and more. Though the music scene here is now getting too big to define this bands as creating a explicit "Beijing Sound," I think all of these groups share something that inspired Hot & Cold and we very much fit in with.

These bands are all not afraid of using noise or losing structure, but all try to return to structure and melodies (except for maybe Mafeisan). These musicians are all very serious and proud of their work, but they do have a sense of humor. Even if they are not professional musicians, I think music is more important than a hobby they can mess around with.

WLIB: Zhang Shouwang produced the record. How did he shape or influence the recording process?

SF: Shouwang is a good friend to both of us, and since we moved to Beijing he has provided a lot of inspiration and encouragement for us to play music. Shouwang had been giving us his opinion on our songs before we recorded him. Though we recorded by ourselves and I mixed the album, each step of the way we played the latest versions of the tracks to him, and he gave us advice on ways we could bring out the songs better, through different mixing of the vocals, instrumental parts, and more. He obviously has a good ear for noisy and powerful music that still has a pop sensibility and we were honored to have his help on the album.

WLIB: How do you anticipate this autumn's move back to Canada will influence your sound?

JF: It's hard to say now. I suspect playing with different bands will help us refine our performance and composition, but who knows what those bands will be or how they will affect us.

SF: Since we mostly play together in short bursts in winter and summer, I've noticed that weather actually changes our sound. In winter I feel we generally write more drone-based, wall of sound type pieces, while in summer we have a bit more aggressive, staccato sound. So perhaps we might become more dense and melodic. Only time will tell.

WLIB: You guys lived in India for four years: you must have more than a few crazy monkey stories...

JF: Before we first arrived in New Delhi, India-Pakistan tensions had flared up, and the Canadian compound had been evacuated. In that time, rhesus monkeys started living there. One of my first weeks in Delhi, I was walking down a road on the compound and got stared down by one of them. They also used to play in the kiddie pool. The High Commission hired a trainer with a bigger, langur monkey, to chase the other ones away.

Also, I think an Indian Member of Parliament died after being chased by the parliament itself.

SF: I believe it was actually the vice mayor on the balcony of his house...

WLIB: Anything else you'd like to share?

SF: Don't be afraid of Hot & Cold.

The release party for the duo's new record Any Monkey is Dangerous will be held on Sat, June 20 at D-22. Ourself Beside Me, the Offset: Spectacles and Nanjing's 8 Eye Spy (who are also slated to release a record this month on Maybe Noise) will support. The third full-length recording from South Korea-based experimental duo 10 will be released as well, sans band.

Photo courtesy of Ray Deng. Simon is on the left.

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