This interview appears courtesy of popbollocks.
Gong Gong Gong are Joshua Frank (bass) and Tom Ng (guitar and vocals). popbollocks recently spoke about the duo’s first US release ‘Siren 追逐劇‘. But we’d fallen in love with the band when we heard that they were supporting Parquet Courts for a number of tour dates. An online search of the band provided a string of guerilla-looking vids, and some incredible recordings – available via their bandcamp page.
Singing, and writing in Cantonese, Gong Gong Gong convey a sense of unity through otherness. Their approach to craft is as compelling as it is captivating. Refined poetry sits within a visceral, drone-rock-blues sound. They simultaneously occupy a psychedelic, and straight-forward space. They are exact, but they are experimental. They are something else.
With a recent flexi-disc release ‘Down Quantity Road’ on Wharf Cat Records, and a new string of upcoming live shows on the east coast of the USA, it seemed like a good time to catch up with Joshua and Tom.
We spoke about the duo’s approach to writing, production, and editing. Ae learned of Gong Gong Gong’s roots, and how they preserve spontaneity in performance. Check out ‘Down Quantity Road’, and then see what Joshua and Tom think about all this stuff:
不安穩 不斷開 不可知的上限裏面
在雨中 被研碎 往河裏沖
在海中 還繼續 隨水流動
DOWN QUANTITY ROAD
Quantity’s nightmare, feverish rise
Quantity on quantity, connect and entwine.
Unstable, unbroken, under an unknown ceiling.
Lines shoot from eyes, straight into the air
Lines over lines, interlocking in the sky.
Vanishing points weave into an unreliable plane.
In the rain, pummeled to pieces, swept to the stream.
Out in the ocean, at the mercy of the tide.
Finn: It doesn’t seem like long ago that you were touring the West Coast of the USA. Now you’re preparing to play a string of dates on the East Coast. The Gong Gong Gong sound is very much attuned to the atmosphere of performance – can you speak to the value of a live show?
Joshua: We enjoy performing. I think playing live also gives us an opportunity to directly show people how we create our sound. Our recordings might sound like we’ve done overdubs or added layers, but in reality everything is created live, using our minimal setup of guitar, bass and a few simple effects pedals. In a live setting, the starkness of our instrumentation contrasts more with the fullness and variety of sounds we try create.
Tom : I think the physical aspect of our music is as important as the musical aspect so seeing our live set completes the full Gong Gong Gong experience.
Finn: Many of your compositions rely on the texture of a drone, or the undulation of a rhythm. How much time to you spend exploring the constraints of different amps, pedals, and gear? And second to that; does the equipment you chose for composition shape your approach to the recording, and performance processes?
Joshua: We’re very interested in exploring the peculiarities and limitations of instruments or equipment. The bass I’ve been using has one fret more than most standard basses, and that’s definitely impacted the kind of riffs I play. That being said, we don’t usually switch around our setup too much; at least up till this point, all of the songs we’ve recorded have been with roughly the same instrumentation and equipment that we play with live. The exception is the President Piano Co. tape, where we used the guitars and amps at a rehearsal studio in Hong Kong which has been open since 1978. In that case, it was more about embracing the atmosphere and limitations of the space.
Tom: The way we create music (so far) is to explore ways to maximize our very limited setup to make it sound as full as we can musically as well as in the frequency spectrum. That’s why we sometimes sound like a drum set with bass and guitar, sometimes I play the bass line with guitar and Josh plays the lead with his bass. It’s like juggling 3 balls with 2 hands but it’s always an interesting trick to watch.
Finn: Much of your music carries a visceral quality. Spontaneity is less synthesized, and apparently more natural than many records. Yet there is a tightness between you and Tom. How much energy to you put into refining a groove before committing it to record?
Joshua: We’ve done a few releases that are entirely improvisation, but our recent 7” single Siren 追逐劇 and Down Quantity Road 數量的王國 (our song on our tour flexi disc with Flasher and Public Practice) are pretty much fixed, composed pieces, as is our upcoming LP. Usually we write songs by refining improvisations and gradually settling on a structure. It can be a slow, painstaking process.
Finn: Speaking about developing a groove – can you speak of the dynamic between you both, and of the evolution in songwriting that’s happened since your first session.
Joshua: It’s fitting that ‘Siren 追逐劇’ is our first US release, because it’s actually one of the first songs we wrote together, in 2013, about two years before our first show. Things just clicked. Our songwriting process has remained pretty much unchanged—we usually begin by improvising together and jamming out grooves, then slowly settle on a structure, figure out how balance out the guitar and parts, and then Tom finalizes the lyrics. Creatively, it’s pretty evenly balanced between us.
Tom: Yeah as a two piece band I don’t think there’s any room for role domination.
Finn: Can you describe the first time you played together; how you met, and how you decided to work together?
Joshua: We’ve known each other for almost 10 years, and were kindred spirits in the Beijing music scene. Both of our previous main projects—Hot & Cold, which is my brother and I, and the Offset: Spectacles, which was Tom’s band from Hong Kong—used to play a lot of shows together in Beijing. We all started a label together called Rose Mansion Analog. Tom has recorded almost every single release Hot & Cold has done. When I was starting to think about moving back to Beijing in the summer of 2013, we got the idea of starting a new project together, and things slowly built up from that.
Tom: Yeah, I got the riff of Siren after seeing a gypsy jazz performance. Played it to Josh who just got back to Beijing and he played what’s on the recording right away. And that’s how we started making music together.
Finn: Tom’s lyricism, especially on ‘Down Quantity Road’ carry a formal style of poetic composition. They could be stripped of music and continue to carry weight, beyond simply being ‘rock n roll’. Is traditional poetry a significant part of Gong Gong Gong’s life?
Joshua: Tom writes the lyrics, but I translate them. It’s been an interesting and really challenging process, because his lyrics are quite abstract. The translation process is also a conversation between the two of us. I have to say that the translations for Down Quantity Road are probably the ones I’m happiest with.
Tom: I think the poetic aspect of the lyrics came from the language itself really. Cantonese is much more similar to the ancient Chinese language compared to other Chinese languages. And because the pronunciation of Cantonese has to be exact (or you would be saying another word if you change its pitch), the melody or even the chord has to compromise to the language sometimes. Although it’s not intentional, the language does drive my lyrics to be like a stand-alone poem at times. And Josh put a lot of effort to translate the meaning into English while it still keeps the poetic aspect of it.
Finn: Can you speak a little on ‘Down Quantity Road’ and that Flexi-disc release on Wharf Cat Records – what makes it special, and why did you chose that particular song for the release?
Joshua: It’s one of my favorite songs of ours, but didn’t fit well with our LP tracks, so we kept it aside.
Tom: The lyrics are inspired by some situationist book that I read and Once in a Lifetime by the Talking Heads. And I really like the ‘water’ effect at the end of the song, which was created by a pedal that I wrongly bought. Haha.
Finn: Tom sings in Cantonese. Can you speak a little on the limits and freedoms of singing in a language that many English-speaking audiences in the USA don’t understand?
Tom: I seldom play to an audience that understands my language: Since my time with The Offset: Spectacles in Hong Kong (whose songs are also in Cantonese), we always have weird reactions from the crowd because most of the bands in HK sing in English. I still don’t get why people think singing in their own language is a strange choice. Maybe they want to avoid being seen as another Canto-pop band?
Then when the Offsets relocated to Beijing, China, where people speak in Mandarin, people liked us because it reminded them of Canto-pop which was really big from the 70’s up until the late 90’s. But then no one could really understand what I sing unless they read the lyrics (Cantonese and Mandarin pretty much share the same set of characters).
And now playing in the US, the musical genre becomes the shared language which we use to communicate with our audience. And it seems totally fine.
Finn: All music takes the listener away from the construct, and time constraints, of the regular clock. A distinguishing quality of the Gong Gong Gong sound, and significant affect of your music, is that it quickly becomes quite hypnotic; stretching the ‘now’, and drawing artist, performer and listener into a shared ‘otherness’, which is almost trance-like. During a performance, how do you balance the thrill of entering the ‘now’ with the requirements of giving structure to art?
Joshua: One of the things that we aspire to do musically is create a sense of forward motion and rhythm with the barest of means. We’re not machines, but we’re good at keeping rhythmically locked-in with each other. Even though we might stray from a metronomic definition of rhythm, the groove is undeniable—I think that helps draw listeners in. The power of repetition is also such that you can feel a strong sense of structure and progression while perhaps also being able to enter a more meditative state.
Tom: The togetherness of the way we play is way more important than keeping the song at a constant tempo. I like to see our music as ‘music played by real human beings.’
Finn: Can you speak a little about the Beijing Underground recordings, the video that’s shared on the Gong Gong Gong Facebook page – and if you have plans to play or record in any similar places in the USA?
Joshua: The tunnel video I think you’re referring to was shot in a pedestrian underpass in Beijing where our friends often hold performances in the warmer months. It was our first full performance as a band, and I think actually really encouraged us and gave us momentum. We’re definitely interested in unconventional spaces and responding to the environment of different venues. Black box rock venues aren’t that inspiring.
T: If the environment has an interesting sound then why not? We played at Outpost Artists Resources in Queens last month and I was surprised by how good we sounded in a huge empty gallery space with wooden floor.
Finn: We mentioned the East Coast shows in the USA. There’s a string of European dates in the new year. But what else is on the agenda for Gong Gong Gong – what’s next?
Joshua: We’re touring Europe in February, and will have our first LP out this year. We’re also working on our second LP.
Tom: Yeah I think working on new material would be on the top of our priority after our Europe tour in early 2019.