Alpine Decline are a Beijing based duo and releasing their 5th album in less that 4 years. Ricky Maymi from the Brian Jonestown Massacre is a big fan and asked them some questions ahead of their first trip to Australia. Alpine Decline formed in LA before making their way to Beijing.
How did your band form?
Jonathan: We’d been playing in different bands together for a long long time when we decided to blow up everything we’d been doing, alienate everyone, hide on a mountain and imagine Alpine Decline.
Pauline: That’s a pretty literal description of how things went down.
When you say a long long time, how old are you? When did you first get into music and what kind of bands were you doing back then? What kind of music industry background lead you to the conclusion to self release your records?
Jonathan: I’m 31. Pauline is a lady and you shouldn’t ask that question tsk tsk.
Pauline: But yeah we’ve both been doing this our whole lives. I’ve been playing in lots of bands for a long time, even for a little while in Asia a long time before we ever met…
Jonathan: Our approach to releasing music with Alpine Decline is a direct result of the 8 or 9 years we spent playing in bands together before we struck out on our own. We’ve recorded in big expensive studios and little home studios. We’ve put out records funded by labels and promoted by promotion companies, and we’ve self-released, and we’ve done everything in between.
Pauline: OK and so yeah, there’s a big conversation about self-releasing and DIY we probably shouldn’t step into.
Jonathan: People get ideological.
Pauline: Our recording process is a little different – it makes a big expensive studio unfeasible. And what we’re looking for in a producer is a different, uh, skill set, than your typical big deal producer has to offer.
Jonathan: Our timeline is different too – we work at about an album or two a year now, but when we started we did three records in a year, with the idea that we were making them for someone to discover picking through the post-apocalyptic rubble in 1,000 years. It had nothing to do with promotion schedules [laughs].
Pauline: We’d spent a lot of time where the thing you “do” in a band is not making music, but just trying to get more people to like your band.
Jonathan: And you’re just waiting for someone to help you make the next record–
Pauline: –And everyone who could help you won’t do it until you’ve got enough going on your own to not really need them.
Jonathan: Fuck that.
Pauline: Fuck that!
Jonathan: But we’re not exactly DIY either. I guess we’re DIF – we Do It with Friends. If punk taught people that anyone can start their own band, the collapse of major labels in the 90s just taught people that anyone can start their own label. Musicians are still saying, “Fuck labels” but most labels we know that exist now are small and no-budget, run on passion by like, one person, who loves music. For band it’s incredible, because if we can make the album – record, get the artwork together, bar codes, work with the factory, whatever – we can create the artifact and small labels who are into our band – in Europe, China, Australia (ahem), the US, wherever – they can work with us to promote and distribute them without a huge risk because they can just take however many copies they want, what they can handle, and other labels in other territories will do the same. We can make records, press vinyl, and at least get those records into the world at cost and then do the next one.
Pauline: So yeah, you need to be active, you need to take responsibility for everything you can – recording, touring, promoting – but you are not alone.
Jonathan: We need a very small percentage of the 7 billion people on the planet to like us for it to make biz-sense.
Pauline: It’s like when you [Jonathan] find the one other sweaty guy who loves Les Rallizes Denudes and make out in the corner all night–
Jonathan: I don’t uh–
Pauline: –I mean it’s probably more meaningful in the long run to be that kind of band… maybe anonymous and lost to time but there are like, 50 people around the world obsessing and blasting your music through headphones in a dark room.
What influenced your music initially?
Jonathan: We just, ah, where do you go with this one?
Pauline: Well Jonathan was like, everyday, taking a bunch of —
Jonathan: –Woah woah no no… uh, do you mean like initially initially or with Alpine Decline?
Pauline: When we started Alpine Decline we felt like we’d sorta seen a lot of curtains pulled back in the Emerald City… a lot of music that’s well-executed but sort of a pale shadow of other music.
Jonathan: We wanted our own lexicon, to sound only like us, so if one of our albums or songs somehow comes on–
Jonathan: –you know right away it’s Alpine Decline, you are immediately dropped in our world. So we just stopped thinking about what bands or musical aesthetics we were into or even our own natural inclinations playing guitar or drums…
Pauline: We knew we could do the music part, we felt confident the songwriting was good, so we focused on everything else – just talking about what kind of listening experience we wanted on the record, what kind of creative process or rituals would be most rewarding to us in our daily lives–
Jonathan: –what kind of stories could we write to open up our experiences, emotions, our humanity to listeners… what kind of sounds best express those stories, create that world–
Pauline: –and then the music would just like, appear like condensation. Just like, drip out fully distilled.
Jonathan: That makes everything sound very serious high-minded heavy, but the reality is it’s not very fun to go see a band that’s just showing their exquisite taste and aesthetic style, even if they’re really good at it. And we want to have fun.
You guys will bring the fun to your shows? Do your compositions lend themselves to improvisations or do you tend to just play as per the recordings? I heard you can adapt your performances to drone and experimental sets too – tell us a little about that?
Jonathan: Hahaha – I meant fun for us.
Pauline: You are not promised any fun.
Jonathan: We’ll have fun. You might not.
Pauline: No but the shows COULD be fun. We both care deeply about being in the moment and playing with passion. We’ll bring some projections and do what we can to help create a vibe to really feel free and dive into the music.
Jonathan: There’s no real way for us as a two-piece to recreate the records live, so our shows end up sounding pretty different – a lot more raw and energetic…
Pauline: There’s something super fragile about trying to make a big sound as a duo… if one of us goes off the rails the whole thing collapses, Jenga-style.
Jonathan: The no drums/no guitars performances came out of necessity when Pauline was pregnant. We actually played shows pretty late into things, but eventually she was too pregnant for drums.
Pauline: The snare was basically right against the baby’s head.
Jonathan: But it wasn’t really practical for us to just stop making music either, so we started doing something different.
Pauline: It wasn’t like, “Hey, we can do experimental drone music too!” It’s not really “drone” music… I’m not even sure it’s “experimental”…
Jonathan: On our records most of the songs kind of emerge from an atmospheric or instrumental landscape, speak their part, and then submerge back into the soup. We try to build up a broader musical architecture with tape machines, synths, field sounds, and of course magic. The no drums/no guitars music is an extension of this stuff. I think it’s still really narrative, it’s not “sound as art” or trying to explicitly break tradition. I think/hope it’s recognizably us, clearly Alpine Decline. Different tools, same humans.
Pauline: It gave us a chance to play a different kind of show. We’d turn all the lights off in the club, wear particle masks and hoods, and just drive this really deep, cinematic music through a bunch of tape machines and a super loud PA.
Jonathan: It was a heavy scene…
What inspired the move to China?
Jonathan: Well we fell into this weird psychological trap where we were creating the fictional narratives and environments of the records as a way to explore and channel our real lives, and then we started to feel compelled to live out the story we created for the albums, to embrace it in reality.
Pauline: So yeah, on the first couple albums it was like, if we wanted to have a vibe and write about remoteness or otherworldliness, we needed to actually go to some really remote, otherworldly places. Those experiences really did inform the music…
Jonathan: Then our third record “消失/Disappearance” began talking about, uh, well, disappearing, vanishing, crossing over to some other side, some other place. So it became necessary, we felt compelled to live out that story…
Pauline: It’s our lives, y’know? We were ready for something really different. We didn’t imagine we’d be very visible or anything – just kinda bunker down way out on the edge of Beijing and live in our own totally weird bubble.
Why China, Beijing? How does the last and new album fit into the narrative? Do you consider yourself part of the Beijing scene or are you still out on the edge?
Jonathan: Yeah there was a bit of dystopian fantasy… we didn’t want to just move to Beijing, we wanted to live on the fringes. It seemed to fit with the way the story was projecting out. We thought we could literally sit in a bunker and make albums that might be discovered under some rubble in 500 years…
Pauline: If “消失／Disappearance” had themes of leaving, crossing over to the other side, then “Night of the Long Knives” finds us stepping out of the crash site and into the crumbling chaos where we landed…
Jonathan: Yeah, I mean, it’s not right to say these are just like, pure fictional narratives — no one thinks a person writing novels is just trying to tell a story that is totally separate from their emotions, their reality, their experiences and perception of the world. We’re not writing novels, we’re just a rock band hopefully writing some good tunes, but this is the way we’ve chosen to express ourselves, and we’re not afraid to take it seriously.
Pauline: “GO BIG SHADOW CITY” clearly belongs with the other records, it fits right in as the next episode in our pulp series, but it’s much much more fully realized and stronger than anything we’ve done in the past.
Jonathan: Yeah right from the end of making “Night of the Long Knives” we dove into the writing process and we could tell as we were spinning it out that this was going to be a killer record.
Pauline: But yeah, I don’t think its our place to break down the themes or what the record or songs are about. That’s for YOU dear reader…
Jonathan: As for being a part of the Beijing scene…
Pauline: We’re sort of a part of the Beijing scene, but maybe with an asterisk?
Jonathan: I think we’ve been really warmly welcomed into the Beijing scene, or scenes as it were… but as foreigners in China, we have a different reality than Chinese bands. What’s happening is their story to tell, not ours, which why it’s the perfect place for us to be… it allows us to keep on doing our thing. We came here to continue creating and exploring Alpine Decline, not to transform or find some different direction…
What advice would you give to a band that wants to perform in China?
Pauline: I think if you already want to perform in China, you’ve already gone 75% of the way… there are plenty of people willing to work hard to help you get over and play some shows and have a deep experience.
Jonathan: I don’t think most people in the west are even thinking about the Chinese music scene – it hasn’t broken the blogozeitgeist in any meaningful way…
Pauline: It was a great experience starting to perform in China because in LA, you have your own drums, amps, everything is all dialed in for your sound, but here you gotta work with what’s there, learn to coax your best performance out of the gear.
Jonathan: Yeah totally! It hyper-focuses you on the reality of being in a room performing for people, instead of standing on stage wrapped up in your thing and floating mystically apart from the rest of the room. Your going to play for some really passionate music fans – but touring China you’re probably also going to play a smoke-filled dice bar, and dice can really fuck up your timing…
Pauline: –I’m sure there are a lot of other places like that… I think we should talk more specifically about China, right?
Jonathan: Advice: use the new 72 hour transit permit to visit Beijing without a visa.
Pauline: Carry toilet paper.
Jonathan: That’s fucked up.
Pauline: No, that’s helpful advice.
Jonathan: Things change super fast in China, duh, but if you just contact a few people here they’ll be way more eager to help you than almost any other place we’ve been. When we first came to China in 2010 on tour, we literally just like, spent a few minutes on the Internet and then sent emails to a couple people that seemed like they were writing about music here or putting on shows — that’s how we met people like Yang Haisong and Nevin. They helped us then, and for the most part those same people have become some of our closest friends and biggest supporters after moving over.
How would you compare the Beijing scene to the scene in LA?
Pauline: Well so OK you can’t really compare China with western scenes in general because the conditions are so so so different. And the personalities, the history, the general weirdness and vibe of Beijing in particular is so so so different from everywhere else, even in China…
Jonathan: LA’s proper scene is maybe a little devoid of stuff that’ll really blow you’re mind, and the venues in LA lock the gates up real tight, but the underground scene in LA and the US in general still breeds some of the wildest and weirdest music-makers on the planet.
Pauline: There’s a fluidity around genres in the Beijing scene that’s I guess sorta situational, but you are free here to explore whatever sounds you’re interested. It’s nothing weird for a true harsh noise-r to play with a savvy post-punk band, or a hardcore dude to listen to some electronic bleeps and bloops.
Jonathan: You could probably wear basketball shorts onstage and it would be OK.
Pauline: Let’s not get crazy…
Jonathan: I’ve seen it.
Pauline: Is that a good thing? Are you going to start wearing–
Jonathan: That’s not the point! That’s not the–
Pauline: –what’s the point then?
Jonathan: Well it’s just–
Pauline: Too long. Let’s move on.
Haha! You guys are a couple and with a 6 month old (?) child. How do you separate yourselves from being a couple, being individuals and being a band? How has a new addition to the family influenced your music too?
Jonathan: The boy is coming on tour with us.
Pauline: He can’t even carry gear.
Jonathan: He needs to learn the bass.
Pauline: He’s four months old – his hands are too small.
Jonathan: We were playing music for years before we had any romantic inklings, so our relationship as a couple is not a separate entity from being individuals or a band… they are all the same thing.
Pauline: I’m not sure if or how having a child will influence the music… having a child and being parents is definitely changing us as people.
Jonathan: It’s literally so much joy and love I think I’m going to lose my mind sometimes…
What are your hopes for and intentions behind the Australian shows?
Jonathan: Intentions-wise, tenzenmen has been working to get our records in stores and spread the word in Australia… and we sorta feel like if we want people to listen/sell/write about/talk about our music, we should go there and be a part of it and do our thang.
Pauline: You can never really guess how shows are gonna turn out–
Jonathan: What’s gonna be amazing and what’ll totally disappoint–
Pauline: But when we’re touring, especially in some place we’ve never been, we hope to get some sense of the music scene there and see how people take our music.
Jonathan: Yeah the experience of going to a different part of the world and finding people doing what we’re doing, loving the same things we love… traveling as a band has opened the door to…
Pauline: Didn’t Rhys ask you if it’s true that American bands don’t rock anymore? That Australia is the last place where bands still actually rock?
Jonathan: Hahaha – he did, but I’m not sure, was he serious? I thought that was just sorta Rhys’s uh– you know, just Rhys.
Pauline: We’re expecting to see some bands that still actually rock. [laughs]
Damn – I booked the wrong bands for your Sydney show then! They are all interesting though and I hope that some links can be established with the artists that you are playing with.
Pauline: What what what???
Jonathan: There’d better be some scissor kicks onstage, that’s all I’m sayin’.
What was it like working with Yang Haisong?
Pauline: So you walk down this long curved ramp down down underground–
Jonathan: –the air starts to get really thick with car exhaust and fumes–
Pauline: –and you gotta be super careful because cars just whip up the ramp like anything–
Jonathan: –the air, it’s like, not just gassy and acrid but also really moist, like a moldy scent is hanging in the air.
Pauline: The studio is behind this huge vault door–
Jonathan: I think they get it…
Pauline: The way our recording process works and what we want out of the person we’re working for — it’s sorta beyond a certain skill set or studio we’re looking for.
Jonathan: Yang Haisong is really perfect for us.
Pauline: We can spend a lot of time together underground and it’s OK.
Jonathan: There is no violence.
Pauline: No violence.
Can we look forward to more overseas appearances?
Jonathan: Yeah, yeah – it’s the life we’ve chosen!
Pauline: After Australia we’ll be spending two months on a tour-de-Chine, then the US, then hopefully Europe and beyond.
Jonathan: In there we should be recording another album and then, and then, and then…
It’s great to see a band release albums often. So many bands these days only seem to release something every 5 years or so!
Jonathan: Yeah, and we’ve been there.
Pauline: You’ve got to take a little bit more ownership over the process if you want to make records at your own pace.
Where can people buy your music?
Jonathan: Our first four albums (and soon our fifth album) are available in record stores worldwide and on the Internet wherever you buy/borrow things online. If you can’t find it or looking for the vinyl, looking to complain, criticize, seek truth, just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pauline: Our bot will answer promptly.
When will you be releasing your next album?
Pauline: Our fifth (and finest) album GO BIG SHADOW CITY is coming out officially February 3rd/4th (depending on what part of the planet you’re standing on).
Jonathan: Actually, after putting out a bunch of records really quickly the last few years, we couldn’t be more psyched to slow down and chew and let people really dig into GO BIG SHADOW CITY. It’s our deepest, most honest, human, and fully realized album yet. I think for people who are into our music, this one is going to jam diamonds in your eyes and send you out into the farthest wilds.
Just don’t wait 5 years for the next one!
OZ tour 2014
Jan 31st – The Square, Sydney w/ Golden Blonde, Psychlops Eyepatch, Lovelyhead
Feb 1st – The Grand Central Hotel, Brisbane w/ Tape Off, Maids
Feb 2nd 2pm – Tyms Guitars, Brisbane
Feb 6th – The Workers Club, Melbourne w/ Young Hysteria, Winterplan
Feb 7th – Public Bar, Melbourne w/ The Paul Kidney Experience, East Brunswick All Girls Choir
Feb 8th – Yah Yahs, Melbourne w/ Lowtide
Feb 9th – backyard arvo show, Melbourne (drone set)