Tires Leave the Pavement, Lifting Native Wizards Skywards

Posted by Pete DeMola on 19. Jun 2009

It's been a intense two years for Carsick Cars, the infamous local rock act who skyrocketed to the frontrunner position as China's ambassadors to the global independent music community (as well as influenced countless neophyte bands in this country's underground music scene) after the release of their eponymous 2007 debut record and a series of high profile performances throughout both this country and abroad.

After touching back down in Beijing last month from their ambitious Grand Tour 2009, a two-month, 23-city trek across the country with label mates the Gar in tow, the hometown heroes are now gearing up for the release of their sophomore effort You Can Listen, You Can Talk (Maybe Mars, 2009).

It's an engaging, inventive piece of guitar-saturated, borderline experimental rock and roll that, in addition to pushing numerous musical boundaries, firmly entrenches the band alongside contemporary indie noise rock heavyweights like Pavement, Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins and, dare we say, Sonic Youth.

You Can Listen feels exciting, joyful and ultimately, shapes up to be an effortless body of work that presents a band who have effectively-solidified their status as this generation's respected leaders of the Beijing rock scene.

Recorded last December at Beijing's A-String studios with famed NYC-based musician and producer Wharton Tiers (Sonic Youth, Helmet, Dinosaur Jr.), You Can Listen, You Can Talk ranks among one of the most engaging, accomplished, sophisticated and best-produced rock records (four superlatives is enough) that China's underground musicians have yet created.

From the dreamy-yet-confident opening hum of "One of Them" to the ethereal shoegaze charm of album closer "She Will Wait," the trio, which also consists of drummer Li Qing and bassist Li Weisi, have pulled off something long since forgotten in this contemporary climate of instantly-attainable packets of bite-sized information transmitted primarily via iPhone apps, YouTube snippets, ringtones and scattered Twits (and Bubbles): album-oriented rock -- an impeccably-produced colossus of a record that demands to be experienced in its 54-minute entirety.

With headphones.

"Dear Friend" best embodies the four-year-old band's leit motif of finely interlocking elements and stellar compositional frameworks.

Opening with lazy guitar noodlings anchored by Li Weisi's confident bass thump, this live set staple steadily builds in intensity and tempo as the threesome gradually add increasingly-intense layers of shimmering sounds and effects that culminate in a cathartic blast of crashing cymbals and unguarded riffs.

"Pan" crackles along briskly before ending in a transcendent jam that seamlessly segues into "The Great Firewall Killed Our Cat," a brief instrumental that soars into the stratosphere before dropping back down to orbit with the mid-tempo stomp of "Invisible Love," where Shouwang uncannily channels the earnest baritone croon of the Velvet Underground's Lou Reed over hard-driving, brittle guitars speckled with tremolo flourishes.

The biggest departure from their debut effort is the record's centerpiece, the schizophrenic "At the End of the Day." Bookended between the warbled radio advertisement static favored by cabbies citywide, the six-minute track ambitiously pedals through numerous compositional ideas, where squalls of feedback, abrupt stops and unpredictable tempo changes are given texture by wild-eyed, heavily-textured guitars and Li Qing's aggressive percussion. It all churns into a maelstrom before settling nicely into their familiar jangly bass-driven territory awash in a sea of ringing feedback.

This track showcases, above all, that the band's strength lies in the collective talents and collaboration between of each of its three members: Each add their own irreplaceable flair into the songwriting pot that gives Carsick Cars their special sound.

Lose one, we think, and the structure collapses.

And that's just the first half of the record. The remaining five songs, including the wiry "A Friend from Big City" and "Silence," where ambient knob-twirling swirls alongside a quiet-loud-quiet staccato crunch, exhibit the same vibrancy and compelling vision.

We caught up with 23-year-old guitarist/vocalist Zhang Shouwang shortly after his return from Spain's Estrella Damm Primavera Sound Festival last month, where the trio continued to ramp up their international profile, sharing the stage with rock gods like Neil Young, the Jesus Lizard, Yo La Tengo and one of the biggest influences and shapers of their sound, Sonic Youth. How was the Primavera Festival? Tell us about it.

Zhang Shouwang: Of course it was very exciting to play with so many legendary musicians in front of such a large crowd, and this was my first chance to see Neil Young. This is the second time I played in Barcelona -- the last time was with White at the Sonar festival -- and I really like going there. Of all the festivals we have played in Europe, that is one of our favorites.

WLIB: We were told that the crowd was singing along to "Zhongnanhai." How did you feel about that?

Shouwang: I couldn't believe they knew the song. We were surprised and very happy that many people in Europe know our songs.

WLIB: Tell us about the post-production process for You Can Listen, You Can Talk. We've waited a long time.

Shouwang: We were so nervous about making sure that this record was a good one. And of course working with someone like Wharton Tiers made us even more nervous because so many of our friends were expecting something very special from us. It has been slow because we wanted to take time to listen to each song and fix any mistakes.

WLIB: What was it like working with him?

Shouwang: Amazing, but it also made us very nervous. He played in Theoretical Girls which is one of my three or four favorite bands, and he has produced so many of the bands that I really love. But he is also very nice and easy to work with.

WLIB: Did anything happen between the release of 2007's debut LP and the recording sessions for the new record to affect or influence your sonic direction?

Shouwang: Yes. We got almost two years older and we played so many more shows.

WLIB: What is your favorite song from the new record, and why?

Shouwang: The ones that are most important to me, I think, are "She Will Wait" and "Pan." [The first] is kind of song I have never written before. After I recorded it, I redid it in different ways with different instruments. It's a very open song with a melody that I can experiment with. "Pan" is about Zhan Pan from Gar. He is one of my best friends and, I think, one of the best musicians I have met. It's a true story, so this song means very much to me.

WLIB: What can we expect at the LP release party?

Shouwang: We are planning some surprises, but we can't say right now.

WLIB: All cities have a unique sonic footprint. What is Beijing's?

Shouwang: I don't know since it often takes many years later before we know how to describe any scene. I think in Beijing we love electric guitars, and many bands write really good songs. I also think that Beijing musicians like many kinds of music and are not afraid to mix every kind of idea.

WLIB: Say your life was a movie. Yourself and your bandmates excluded, who would score the soundtrack?

Shouwang: I don't really know. I hope Ennio Morricone, or maybe Duke Ellington.

WLIB: Describe a perfect night in Beijing.

Shouwang: Watching PK-14 play a show and then after going with them afterwards to eat hotpot.

WLIB: What was the first record you ever purchased?

Shouwang: Michael Jackson's Bad. I still love that CD, but of course the first Velvet Underground CD [The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967] is the most important one I ever bought.

WLIB: What kind of feelings did the Velvet Underground record give you when you first heard it?

Shouwang: It's hard to explain because before that CD, I didn't like music very much. I liked some music but it wasn't important to my life and I never thought that I wanted to be a musician. But after I heard it, I wanted to be a musician.

The music was so beautiful and very strange, and the band played sounds that I had never heard before but I felt as if I knew them already. Also, I couldn't understand all the words, but they were singing about their life in New York and it was a very strange life but it was also very true, and it made me think that I didn't have to live in a beautiful famous place to write about my life but I could just write about Beijing.

WLIB: Anything else you'd like to share?

Shouwang: No, except that I like your website very much. It is great that you are helping so many bands.

WLIB: The pleasure is ours.

Carsick Cars will release You Can Listen, You Can Talk on Friday, June 26 at Yugong Yishan. Show kicks off at 9pm, admission is 60 RMB and the Gar will support.

You can watch the David Harris-directed video for the track "Mugu Mugu" from their 2007 debut record here, and you can listen, you can be astonished here with the streaming audio of the new record.

Photo courtesy of Maybe Mars Records. From left: Li Qing, Li Weisi, Zhang Shouwang.

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