Proximity Butterfly has become something of an institution in Chengdu's budding rock scene.
They've managed to distinguish themselves from the rest of the Chengdu band scene with sheer perseverance. Founded in 2003, the band has endured seemingly countless lineup changes (frontman Joshua Love and bassist Heather Judson-Love have remained the only constant throughout the band's history), the birth of Joshua and Heather's daughter in 2008, and still managed to release six albums of original music, put on numerous live shows across the country, and sign a record deal with Maybe Mars. The fact that they're neither a purely Chinese band nor a purely foreign band serves to further set them apart.
Each of the band's four members (Joshua Love, vocals and guitar; Heather Judson-Love, bass; Robert Tanner, guitar; Wang Yong, drums) puts in 12 to 15 hours per week practicing (though more recently it's been 20 to 25 as they gear up for Zebra Music Festival and a string of shows immediately after) on top of their part-time jobs (up to 24 hours a week, in the case of Joshua).
In addition to recording a one-day short promotional video ("The idea came from a joke," said Robert. "I sarcastically said, 'Let's land on the moon,' and Joshua said, 'Let's do it!'" ... "I was wearing a barbecue lid on my head!" Joshua chimed in), the band is about to release its sixth album, The Reprieve.
The album, which took eight months to record, is "the first one to be exclusively written, produced, mixed, and mastered by the band itself," said Robert.
But the band, who's known for its collaborative spirit (at times living and dining together, and often welcoming other artists and crafters to work with them), didn't totally keep this album all in the family. The cover art, like much of the band's previous album art, was done by their original drummer, Chen Duxi, a Chengdunese oil painter and tattoo artist currently residing in Beijing.
For the album, the Butterflies also worked on a collaborative project with a local poet-turned-corporate-worker named Li Xun—a 30-page novella written in Chinese that accompanies the album.
Li met with the band on a weekly and sometimes daily basis for several months while they painstakingly translated and explained the lyrics of the entire album, which are all in English. The book is a literary interpretation of sorts of the album—which tells the story of Dr. Chen, a man trapped under the rubble of an earthquake not knowing whether he's dead or alive.
"In many ways there's a cinematic theme to the work we've been doing the last couple of years," said Joshua. "[Album] Poltergeist is a 25-minute song basically. We try to create literary imagery so instead of one long song we have 12 tracks. It's the first album we've done with the intent of making an album a story. Before our albums were just part of the time period we were in."
The album was clearly inspired by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which heavily impacted drummer Wang Yong's family. "The initial idea came during that time—then we had a baby—and much of it was [drummer] Wang Yong's family being really affected, that made it very personal. At the time we were doing a lot of collections—we just wanted to give a story to enjoy, experience, and to feel," said Joshua.
For a band that operates in China but whose lyrics are all in English, making the foray into Chinese language was a no-brainer.
"Our other albums don't have Chinese translations," said Heather. "This is the first time. It's cool to have a product more Chinese people can understand. I think it'll be cool for them to get another dimension on this album—since most people in this country are Chinese, and that's where we play. You can find some of our lyrics translated [by fans] on Web sites, but I think it's sometimes still hard to understand."
But next on Proximity Butterfly's plate is Zebra. After two years of being relegated to the second stage, the Butterflies finally were given their well-earned chance to strut their stuff on the big stage, where, let's face it, most of the festival action is: the big lights, the big screens, the big sound system, and most of the audience.
The band is, needless to say, excited.
"Last year, we were the vibe they wanted to create on the Little Bar [second] stage. Being able to put us on the main stage this year is showing a choice, and they've said some positive things about us," said Joshua. We're working really hard, and that's part of building ourselves as a group."
"They're giving us a really good spot," added Heather. "All the media will be there at the opening, so media-wise it's a good position to be in. We're kind of a unique band in that we're foreigners who have been here a long time, but we're a Chengdu-based band with Chinese members, and they want to promote us that way."
The band will head out of town the day after Zebra to take part in the Nanjing International Music Festival before heading back to Chengdu to play the Little Bar on June 3 and then heading out to play in Xi'an, Wuhan, Shanghai, and Beijing.
As for the show itself, the band is keeping mostly mum. "It's hard to stay what's gonna happen—we can tell you for certain that it's gonna be on the theatric side—and there'll be other people on the stage doing stuff that will be cool," said Robert.
If that's not cryptic enough, Joshua added by way of explanation, "We're coming in from a distant land. I don't want it to sound like Star Wars. It's gonna sound too cheesy. I want it to sound like a Saharan cave."
Proximity Butterfly opens this year's Zebra Music Festival on the main stage, tomorrow, April 30. Their new album, The Reprieve, will be available for purchase at the festival for RMB80 (includes novella). It will be available nationwide through Maybe Mars in May, or available as a digital download at Maybe Mars online.