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Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Becoming ScandinAsian: Visionary band tours imaginary continent


It’s been a long time since our last blog post but we’ve been keeping quiet for good reason. Rather than surfing the web for more e-pap to offer you, we thought that 2014 would be the year that we travel the world with our wares and show people what it really means to live your life for leisure. We ended up hitting five Asian cities in six short days. This is what we remember (and the footage we managed to capture).


THE BIRTH OF 'SCANDINASIA'

Ideas can enslave people. The nation is one such idea. Bands can liberate people. Scandinavia is one such band. That’s why we invented a new continent, big enough to hold all our dreams (and yours too). We call it: ‘ScandinAsia’. 


Creating a new continent is not easy. We wouldn’t have succeeded without Art Urquiola, founder of Artefracture Records. He brought South East Asian flair and a wealth of contacts with bands and venues in China and beyond; we brought Scandinavian sensibility and a taste for all things leisure. Together we booked a string of shows in Hong Kong, Manila, Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing. ScandinAsia was born.

HOW WE USED OUR BRAND

Warrick is normally the businessman in the band, but for ScandinAsia he found a foil in Art the DIY impresario. After some discussion we decided on a number of stunts to pull in advance of our looming tour. The first of these was a tour poster that conveyed the merging of two worlds. With the help of Ali Reid from Turtlemedia, we created a silhouetted mountain-scape that echoed the hills of both Lillehammer and Fuji.


Our second big stunt was a new release on Artefracture. It was Art who initially suggested a teaser album, but after a brief discussion with the band it became clear that this was the perfect occasion to release our first greatest hits collection. We decided to call it IDEOLOGY: A Beginner’s Guide to ScandinaviaWarrick tried his best to derail the track-selection process by tampering with the Excel spreadsheets, but in the end we agreed on a track-listing that covered most of the highs from our three studio albums. The idea was to pump as much Scandinavia as possible into Asia before our arrival.


The third prong in our marketing meat-fork was a t-shirt to turn IDEOLOGY into legend. We left this to the last minute, but luckily our friend Vickie from Chantown Creative was able to put something together for us while lounging by a pool in Bali.


We decided to go with a classic Swedish colour scheme, and a xerox-like rendering of Bill Clinton playing sax on the Arsenio Hall show. The image of ideology, we thought.

HONG KONG CHERRY POPPERS

Our first stop was a homecoming of sorts for Warrick, A Mean, and Miriam, all of whom grew up in Hong Kong. With Art's help we managed to book a gig at The Warehouse, a historic youth club in an old police station where the expat punk scene first emerged in the late 90s. Warrick's first band, Tokyo Sex Wale, were pioneers of the early Warehouse scene, and A Mean's old sci-fi hardcore outfit, The Fascist Giraffe, also used to practice and perform there.


For some reason the Warehouse stopped taking gig bookings during the mid-2000s, and Art had to work hard to convince the new managers that we were the right ones to reopen the Warehouse band room. Luckily, what Art lacks in charm he makes up for in guile. He even got us an interview on RTHK, Hong Kong's government radio station. The show we were on was called 'Morning Brew', and was hosted by a laid back cat called Phil Whelan. You can stream the interview from here.


Despite a typhoon blowing through town we had a good turnout for the show. We can probably thank Art's carefully selected roster of opening bands for this. Every single one of them had erased all the spaces between the words in their band names. Emptybottles sounded like Stephen Malkmus fronting a Toe cover band. Onedaymore were like Osker except younger and with even worse manners. PONYBOY were the best minor-melodic emo band we've heard since 1995. 


We suspect that most of the audience came to see PONYBOY, but that worked out for us just fine. I think this was the only show where we played an encore. And it wasn't even our idea.

THRILLER IN MANILA

We spent our first hangover of the tour on a plane to Manila with our new touring partners, The David Bowie Knives. We didn't know it then but this was the beginning of a truly beautiful inter-band romance. Manila itself was full of hand-customised commuter buses, homegrown US-style fast food joints, and LOTS of traffic. Apparently we got off lightly; we used the time saved to watch As Good As It Gets in our hostel. Now that is a good movie!


The gig itself was at a place called B-Side, a bar tucked away inside an outdoor mall somewhere in Makati. We played with a great local band called The Strangeness, who used the triple-guitar technique to great effect. The bouncer there, a guy called Jo Jo, told us they normally hold rap battles there. Jo Jo was without a doubt the toughest guy we met in Manila. 


He was also a really great guy and introduced us to a beer called Red Horse. Red Horse is so strong that some people say it is a combination of beer and gin. Others say this is horse shit. Others still say that Red Horse is just shit. Either way, it is a very strong beer that produces a rush not unlike drinking beer with gin in it. 


We all began riding the Red Horse before our set, and then headed off afterwards to an unusual bar with Jo Jo and the Bowie Knives. It was like something out of a David Lynch movie. The last we remember was eating tacos and then piling into an airport bus at about 5am. Oh yea, and immigration officers taking all our money, leaving us with nothing to buy water with. Real nice.

SHOWDOWN IN SHENZHEN

When you think of Shenzhen, what comes to mind is a grittier, shittier version of Hong Kong. Or at least that is what we were expecting. It probably exists, but the Shenzhen we saw was more like a really polluted version of LA. After lugging our obscenely impractical merch bag across the border by foot, we were whisked away by taxi to a government-funded cultural district that felt like a hip university campus, all full of concept eateries and book shops with Leonard Cohen LPs in the window. The venue itself (b10) had a capacity of 700 and what is reputed to be the best sound system in all of China. Needless to say we were excited to play on such a rig, but we were also worried because the promoters had told us they were going to make us pay-to-play if the turnout was too low. In the end they actually paid us, which was a pleasant twist.


We were on fire in Shenzhen. The sound was great, and our tour teeth were cut sharp from two days of rough pwnage. This is probably where we first played our Ramones-style cover of Lionel Ritchie's 'Dancing on the Ceiling' - a new party number prepared just for ScandinAsia. At one point in the song a drunk man in a shirt and tie jumped on stage and forced Miriam to nail cans of beer as the rest of us guitar humped him. What a swell guy. It was also in Shenzhen that A Mean really began to perfect his 'deep lunge' manoeuvre. 


The deep lunge is a unique thrust posture involving a minimal groin-floor gap and a sassy bass grip. A Mean was already deep lunging in Hong Kong, but with each gig it became more and more integral to our live rendition of 'Dumb Tunes'. During our new extended intro to the song, A Mean would wade out to the crowd's edge and deep lunge into the audiences' arms, allowing Miriam to take a heartwarming group portrait. We've used some of the these photos to make a short instructional video - our first foray into the genre, but probably not our last.

SHANGHAI KNIGHTS

It was on the journey to Shanghai that Fortuna began to stretch us over her wheel. We were all giddy when we arrived at the spectacular Shenzhen airport (see below), but by the time we boarded the plane some of us were beginning to hallucinate from sheer lack of sleep. 


After a long taxi ride we eventually arrived at our hotel, which was a gargantuan cylindrical structure that reeked of the 1980s. The venue we played was much cooler - a scuzzy rock bar squeezed between a road and some kind of park.


This was the first of our weekend shows, and the place was packed full of rockers dressed in various shades of black. This probably had very little to do with the last minute 'interview' we did with the Shanghaiist MagazineIt was also here that we and the David Bowie Knives began singing each others' songs backstage over a bottle of duty-free Glenfiddich. The show itself was probably the best of the tour, with plenty of good-time characters in the crowd strumming away on their air guitars. Afterwards we all headed back to the hotel for some late night snacks and a failed attempt at karaoke. Some members of the band refused to turn in and instead played Hall & Oates songs on their computer until it was time to head back to the airport.

BEIJING BLOWOUT

By Beijing we were really hurting, and could think of nothing we'd rather do than watch Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore star in Music and Lyrics. Alas, it was not to be. After checking in at our next hotel we headed more or less straight to Temple Bar, another Chinese rock and roll institution. Upon arrival we learned that we were to be paid in watered down beer. We drank the first of these with our new tour partners, Natalie of Shatalene and a self styled gonzo journalist from the South China Morning Post called Charley Lanyon. Charley was determined to join our rock circus but ended up writing an article mostly about himself. Still, he was a real blast to hang out with, and his piece does do a good job of capturing the mixture of fatigue and elation that characterised our final show of the tour.


We were a tight and well-oiled machine by this point, and banged out our songs with one last buckshot of vim. The crowd took a while to warm to us, but by the end of the set we had a bunch of them onstage with us to sing out the final choruses of 'Dancing on the Ceiling'. Things got a bit blurry after that, but basically we roamed around the venue until the wee hours of the morning, and then headed out to a nearby noodle joint where we drank bowls of pig's blood soup with The David Bowie Knives.


When we awoke the next day we immediately went in search of ice cream sticks and a travelling hospital that could salve our wounded psyches. We found both of these by the Forbidden City, and then crossed over to enjoy the open space of Tiananmen Square. We ended our one day off at a vegetarian restaurant with Jonathan Leijonhufvud, ex-Warehouse rocker and now drummer for Beijing post-punk kingpins PK-14. Jonney and his partner were excellent hosts and taught us a great deal about the art and rock scenes in Beijing. Thanks guys!

ONE LAST WAN CHAI

We almost didn't make it back to Hong Kong after a needless conflagration at Beijing airport. This would have been a pity because Art had a organised one last hurrah for us - a secret show at 
The Wanch in Hong Kong's red light district Wan Chai. This was a real family affair, with a lot of old friends coming out of the woodwork. We played a suitably sloppy set, and washed it all down with roasted and barbecued meats at a nearby cha chaan teng. We don't have many photos from the night but this one pretty much says it all. Look how happy we all are!


After another day in Hong Kong we all headed our separate ways, back to our places of work and various states of post-tour depression. It wasn't long before we began sending each other emails about getting back into the rehearsal room.

LEISURE RULES, OK?

What next for the band that knows no limits? With our newfound passion for live performance and international travel, discussion has already turned to a potential Benelux tour in summer 2015. We are also toying with the idea of visiting key cities of the former Habsburg empire. Only time will tell where fate and ambition lead us next.


Before we hit the road we will definitely be writing and recording a fourth album, tentatively entitled 'Leisure Rules'. This is the name of a new song that we took on tour, and which proved a favourite among the bands and audiences alike. We envisage the album as a return to the questions raised in our debut 'Good Living'. Expect upbeat and catchy numbers, with cameos from Ferris Bueller, Chandler Bing, and some of our other pop culture obsessions.


Finally, we have booked the Stag's Head in Hoxton for our annual soiree. This year's event will be a '90s flatshare' themed party, complete with pizza and some of our more dubious, musically-inclined friends and hangers-on. You are all invited, and we hope to see you there on December 13th! In the meantime, you can just enjoy our tour video again. Noice.



Wednesday, 23 October 2013

A better, brighter Scandinavia: New bassist A Mean Salmon speaks out on his transition from fandom to bandom


Joining a band that has already spent years honing their sound is never easy. Even the most well endowed musician will feel a quiver of anxiety as they approach a celebrated body of work, redolent of past successes. But when the musician is a fan of the band in question, this anxiety strikes a rich and bittersweet note. In order to rise and meet the challenge, must they make mortal what was once to them divine? Rock history is littered with stories of how fans and bands have negotiated this dilemma. Now is Scandinavia’s turn.

Long time fan and all round bass-hound ‘A Mean Salmon’ joins Scandinavia as they regroup following the disappearance of their Singer-at-Large, Nadim Samman. Samman decamped to Berlin shortly after recording the band’s second album, ‘The Gods’, and rumour has it he can be found mixing with the down-and-out in Charlottenburg’s Kumpelsnest Bar.
 
Samman proudly displays some of his peccadillos
The new line-up are now back at Guy Denning’s Granary Studios in Lamberhurst, Kent, putting the final touches on their follow-up to ‘The Gods’. They are sanguine about Salmon’s prospects for making a smooth transition from fandom to bandom. According to the group’s resident multi-instrumentalist, Tommy Parkinson, the problem that rock bands face when recruiting new members stems from a longer process of cultural change in the rock world.

Parkinson ponders rock history
Traditionally there has been a strict relation of dependence between fan and band: rock bands need fans, but fans need rock bands even more. In recent years this relation has become more fluid, and the border between band and fan has become porous. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear of bands wilfully effacing the distinction between fan and band.

Norway’s Turbonegro, for example, have pioneered a new form of fan club modelled on motorcycle gangs. The aspiring Turbojugend, as they are called, can apply to the band for permission to start independent chapters in new towns and cities. These chapters periodically meet up to drink together and fraternise, but the climactic union comes at Turbonegro concerts themselves, where the band and fans fuse into a beast with two-hundred hairy man-backs, all clad in sweaty denim cuts. It should come as no surprise then that when the band’s vocalist Hank von Helvete decided to step back from the band, his replacement, Tony Sylvester, was drawn from the ranks of the Turbojugend.

The Turbojugend prepare to enter Tony
Sylvester has done reasonably well with Turbonegro, but the band has yet to recapture the glory of their debut album, ‘Ass Cobra’. This is not uncommon, because when fans join bands they set in motion a deicidal process that is hard to forestall, let alone reverse. We all know this, but at every turn we are confronted with late rock music’s myth of upward mobility. Fans, we are told, can scale the Mount at Olympus and join the pantheon of Rock Gods, providing they have big enough hearts and crazy enough dreams.

This at least is how the reformation of 1980s giants Journey has been narrated. After years in the wilderness following the departure of their original vocalist, Steve Perry, the San Francisco band found a video of the Filipino singer Arnel Pineda while surfing on YouTube. Pineda was immediately called to the aid of the flailing band, and before long he was on Oprah’s couch with them, where they all traded stories of how their union had transformed everyone’s lives for the better.


According to Oprah, Pineda has ‘reignited the soul of a band whose Journey had stalled’. For the group’s original guitarist Neal Schon, ‘just knowing Arnel’ has made him ‘a better guy’. For Arnel, though, joining the band has turned him into literal proof that the band’s most famous lyric rings true: ‘Don’t Stop Believing’. After a difficult childhood in the slums of Manila, Pineda had turned his rock dreams into a reality. 

Arnel and Neal improve each other's lives onstage
Oprah is famous for peddling such myths, but Pineda and Neal are not the only ones to cast the trials and tribulations of rock musicians in this light. Steven Herek’s 2001 film, Rock Star, tells the story of Chris Cole, a fanatical fan of the heavy metal band Steel Panther. Cole faces constant ridicule for staying true to his teenage dreams, but when his voice comes to the attention of the band, he is brought in to replace the band’s original singer Bobby Beers.

Cole eyes up a cardboard cutout of his hero Beers
Cole quickly meets and surpasses the standard set by an ageing Beers, but as the lifestyle catches up with him he starts to let things slip, and before long he too finds a younger fan in the crowd, ready and willing to overtake him. He passes his microphone over to the fan, and the scene fades out as his successor runs out onto stage to take his place.

Cole's band mates watch as he begins his downward slide
While the film itself is flawed, Cole’s story nevertheless reveals something important about the how the ideology of the rock band functions today. We tell ourselves that great rock bands arrive fully formed, having already found each other in the stars or the suburbs, but we know very well that the life of a band is shot through with compromise, mundane coincidence, and above all hatred. And money.

Nowhere are these factors more evident than in the recent history of rock goliaths Metallica. While initially lauded for their lean brand of speed metal, the band has since lurched from crisis to crisis, growing ever more bloated each time. The first of these crises came with the death of their original bassist Cliff Burton, whose pick-free playing style was the foundation for their sound. Upon his death, the other members of the band found themselves torn between a hint of sadness and their now insatiable appetite for booze and fame. In the end they resolved to go on as if nothing had happened. Enter Jason Newsted.

Newsted was a die-hard Metallica fan, and on the surface he was the perfect choice. Every time the band played, he would become a Dutch Windmill in the night, whipping his undercut around with psychotic passion.


But behind all the head banging something was clearly awry. In lieu of a proper mourning for Burton, bandleaders James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich found themselves bullying their new bassist without relent. Constant comparisons meant that Newsted could never escape the spectre of his predecessor. For the most part he remained confined to the margins, an outsider in his own band.

Burton haunts Newsted from beyond the grave
And so Newsted was confronted with the archetypal fan-cum-band-member dilemma. When one joins a band, they are no a longer fan. But the band is no longer itself either. Lost between these two non-places, the new recruit has two choices. The first is to remain in liminal discomfort, watching as his soi-disant band members fall further and further to earth. The second is to stiffen his sinews and head for the summit to be with the Gods, leaving behind both the band and his fandom.

Newsted went with second option, eventually leaving Metallica to pursue his ill-fated Echobrain project. When that failed he back pedalled, joining the Canadian band Voivod, who were striving to recreate their former glory in a way not dissimilar to the Metallica Newsted had just left. Finally, when that too grew tired, Newsted decided that he was the messiah, and began a band called, simply: NEWSTED.

For their part, Metallica have again gone on in bull-headed denial. After Newsted’s departure, they embarked on an aggressive hunt for the ultimate bass mercenary. In the end they chose Rob Trujillo, a behemoth in his own right, famous for playing in the LA crossover outfit Suicidal Tendencies.

The heavy metal commentariat turn on Newsted
Rock critics immediately began comparing Trujillo to Burton’s original replacement, but the band opted to instead compare Trujillo’s pick-free playing style to that of Burton himself. In a truly cringe worthy scene in Some Kind of Monster, Kirk Hammett and his band mates congratulate each other for ‘not settling’ (like they did with Newsted), and speak in pseudo-spiritual terms about how they could almost feel Cliff in the room when Trujillo played the song ‘Battery’.

Trujillo enjoys an insider status always denied Newsted
This attempt by the band to resuscitate their dying creation myth was understandable; they were struggling. Yet beneath the appeals to a wholeness now regained were the usual suspects: compromise, coincidence, and hatred. And money (Trujillo was bought off from the start with a million-dollar golden handshake).

Trujillo himself has excelled in the band, but Metallica as an entity has morphed into a giant cartoon whose delusions Trujillo is only too happy to indulge. He is their only levee in an endless battle with the waters of decline, and he doesn’t seem to mind getting wet.

What then of Scandinavia? Where does this band find itself in the cosmic order of things? Are they with the gods or the mortals? How will they negotiate the entry of a fan into their body musical? Will they succumb to the deicidal rot that is laying waste to bands like Metallica? Will they drink too deep from Oprah and Journey’s jar of snake oil, mistaking themselves as each other’s salvation? Or will they chart a new path?

As any true Scandinavia fan will know, the band is well attuned these sorts of challenges and pitfalls. Their first album, ‘Good Living’, was an exploration of what it means to live a good life – as good a sign as any of a band with its feet on the ground. Meanwhile, their second album, ‘The Gods’, paid lip service to their enduring concern with the theosophical dimensions of rock music. With their third album, tentatively entitled ‘Our Future City’, the band brings these two themes together, posing searching questions about humanity, mortality, and transcendence. If any band today can survive a fan joining its ranks, it is Scandinavia.

A new Scandinavia commune beneath the crashing boar
On the obverse, if any fan can survive entry into their favourite band, it is Salmon. After years of being Scandinavia’s only fan, Salmon has recently had to welcome new followers to the fold. Throughout this process he has displayed a selflessness that makes him an ideal addition to a band as committed as Scandinavia. At the same time, though, he has always felt his best when overflowing, stretching upwards, and making a mockery of the meek. These dual qualities will stand him in good stead as he and Scandinavia begin their dance with the cosmos.

A Mean Salmon mounts Olympus in Lamberhurst, Kent
Where many bands before them have failed, this one will not... 
FOR A BETTER, BRIGHTER SCANDINAVIA!