Leading up to the Zebra Music Festival, we'll be featuring some of the players in Chengdu's music scene. In this post we talk with Proximity Butterfly, who will be the final band playing on the Lotto stage on the last evening of the festival.
The first part of this interview was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife, issue 2/June 2007 ("Travel"). We caught up with them again last Saturday at their Café Panam(e) show for an update.
Part I (June 2007)
Having formed in Chengdu in early 2003, Proximity Butterfly (变色蝴蝶) is one of Chengdu's most established rock bands. Amidst lineup changes, they're still managing to write new music, prepare two full-length albums for release, and have just come back from a tour. CHENGDOO citylife visited their living/working space to talk with founding members Heather Judson (bass) and Joshua Love (guitar/vocals).
So you just came back from a nationwide tour. Can you tell us about that?
Heather Well, the tour started off with a music festival in Nanjing. [Guitarist] Robert, who was playing with us for the first show, had to leave and come back to Chengdu and actually left the band and so Liu Wei helped to play with us. It was China Mobile doing the festival; it was sort of a commercial festival.
And then you went to Beijing ...
Joshua [The night we arrived] we went out to the Jiang Jin Jiu, and we talked to the owner. Somebody talked to them about us doing an acoustic show there and they confirmed it right there. The following night we were to play at the Mao Live. I certainly think it's the best place to put on a show in all of China ... [although] there are certainly places that are more fun with regards to how warm the people are because those places have been open a while. They [Mao Live] even have voting—you vote for the band that you like the best, and then they take the votes and divide the money that way.
The Jiang Jin Jiu show was really fun because we stayed up all night; we just slept on the floor in the bar. The following night we went to the 2 Kolegas, and we played there with this English band called the Crimea [who] had just been playing at the Midi Festival. The following night we played at D22. There is apparently a D22 in New York, and they opened up another one in Beijing. We played with Arrows Made of Desire, a band that just recently signed with Tag Team Records.
Heather D22 was the last show that we did, and it was a bit of a different reaction than our other shows probably because of the amount of people that could understand the lyrics as well as the music. There was really good feedback, and there was one of the organizers for the Midi Festival who hooks up the international bands, and he was pretty excited about our band and wondered why we didn't get into the Midi.
One of the trademarks of your shows has become the short speeches Joshua delivers to your audience in between songs. Can you talk about how you relate to your fans or people watching your shows? How does this affect your outlook as a band as well as your music?
Joshua I think that relationship grows as you have a band because you meet people that you wouldn't normally meet, so this influences what you can do. If you meet somebody that's into animation or somebody that's into making films or something then this guides you into a different direction. I guess the idea is it feeding back upon itself, like a star when it's beginning to whip up its energy by pulling in whatever's near to it and giving back to that energy so that the energy becomes larger.
Heather I think it can't have that pulling quality unless you have that internal core. It starts from that, and you have to make that really solid and a part of your life and then it can have the external ....
Joshua People tell us what they feel and what they think and how it gave them this feeling, and that's a really wonderful way to share that experience with people, because it does mean something to us, and when other people can vibe off what that means, then it's a very powerful connection. That's the kind of communication we want to achieve.
Part of the band's image or identity comes from, in addition to the music, your sometimes elaborate stage shows and contemplative blog postings. There's obviously more to Proximity Butterfly than simply writing and playing songs ....
Heather It's about creating a place which is sort of a community and being able to make what we're doing a lifestyle. Drawing lots of pictures or making movies and everything is a big part of what we do, and I guess it's just about trying to keep finding ways to create something and keep changing it. With a band you can get a lot of people involved. I guess a band because you need people in order to function.
Joshua When we come and we play together, it's like a singular consciousness that comes through the three or four or five of us playing. I think a band becomes an entity that can begin to reflect upon itself [to] continue doing what it is doing—like, oh, if I had more time to practice this, then I would do this. As a band you can see that, and you can see how to overcome that.
Can you talk about your experience as a band comprised largely of foreigners attempting to establish yourselves in Chengdu and in China as a local band? What have been advantages and drawbacks?
Joshua I would say an advantage is being able to get the different kinds of jobs that we can. This gives us a lot of advantage of being able to use our time well. And then as the band is developing you gain advantages of being able to do shows just because you have some kind of foreign influence.
It took us a while but on our last tour, in every city we were introduced as a Chengdu band, and that is something I think is an advancement over what's been done in the past [when we were referred to as a foreign band]. We've established ourselves as a Chengdu band, and I think that's a healthy maneuver.
You started three years ago with your first concert at Dianzi Ke Da. Are you satisfied with where you are now? What have been important milestones along the way?
Joshua We had a basic four- or five-year outlook, and everything's pretty much run the schedule we thought it would.
Heather I guess putting together our first album was an important step, which happened after we got back from the Inner Mongolia Music Festival, and that was also a pretty big breakthrough too because that was the first China-wide music festival that we participated in, and we met a lot of other Chinese bands, not just from Chengdu. And those people came through after that with a lot of different shows and connections, and [now] when we go to other parts of the country we always have different places to stay with friends. And then our CD coming out and then starting to tour were pretty big breakthroughs. And then building this studio a year ago was also a pretty big thing.
Joshua Playing with Robert and Chen Duxi together was a climax I think in itself. I think this was a really big breakthrough for me, being able to play music so naturally and so intensely and so powerfully.
With Chen Duxi's depature, did it ever come to a point where you thought of simply stopping the band?
Joshua We've never ever thought of whether the band would not continue existing. The band has a line of energy itself that keeps itself motivated, keeps itself moving. There's still so much in it that's ready to keep moving itself.
Heather There are certain times when you feel unsure of things like how to organize your time or how to become better at what you're doing, but I don't think it ever came to the point for us that we thought we wouldn't be doing the band. It wasn't really an issue. With Chen Duxi, we've known for a while he was having a hard time balancing his time ... but it didn't mean we were gonna stop the band. And that's what's happened before with all the other members who've come and gone. What we do takes a lot of commitment of energy and time and ideas.
Can you support yourself solely with the band, or do you have other means of income?
Heather Our band can support itself, and then we might get a couple commercial shows a year and in this kind of show we can make a little bit of money and hopefully invest it in something that's going to be useful for a long time so that in the future we can record at a cheaper cost and maybe other people can record too and use our equipment.
We both teach. Not a lot—we do part-time teaching, but it's enough to pay our rent, and then usually the band can afford to pay a portion of the rent as well. We have enough.
It seemed like we broke even this [tour]. We often either break even or lose money on tours.
Can you discuss your musical background prior to the band?
Heather My mother taught me [piano] for a while, and then I took lessons until I was 14 or 15, but I never thought about how to create my own music, and I wasn't so serious about it. I played French horn in concert band—
Joshua That's where she gets her hip-hop licks!
Heather What I liked about that was being part of a really big sound. It's really nice to have this sort of overwhelming sound from all of the instruments at the same time. When I was 17 I started playing acoustic guitar, but I also wasn't really serious about it. I started playing bass when we started the band.
Joshua I guess music has always been a part of growing up and singing in different choirs and groups and experiencing English—er, music—
Heather [laughing] Yingyu, yinyue
Joshua —through my mother's influence and a lot of musicals and stuff like that. I didn't really listen to bands even until I was in college. I guess listening to the U2 Joshua Tree album really influenced me first, or Prince's Purple Rain, that kind of stuff really influenced me a lot as far as the epic or ballad-like style. [When] I started listening to Jane's Addiction for the first time, everybody had [already] heard it, and it was dead and gone, but for me I had never heard anything like that before. This got me into Porno for Pyros and stuff like that and using effects for my voice. I've always sang in choirs, so it always feels really natural to have many voices around your voice so it's encouraging us to have Heather singing more and creating more of that collective thing.
Speaking of Jane's Addiction, how do you react when you are compared to them?
Joshua There's always gonna be people because they don't really take the time to understand what you're doing can make a quick assumption, but nobody's ever really doing something completely new. When you're a writer, you're a writer through the composition of the writers that you've read and the people that you've been around that influence the way you say things. I guess if somebody does say that this is a Jane's Addiction thing then we take it as a compliment in the way that it's a form of art that we enjoy or enjoyed.
How does local media generally respond to you guys? Have they given you much support?
Heather [Rock music]'s a really small market. It's really small, if you compare it to other things, like fashion magazines, everyone in the city's gonna read, but some little rock 'n' roll magazine, nobody cares. They think it's loud, noisy, annoying ... except for the people who like it.
Joshua It's gotta expand in its own time. As people like it and remember new things or old things, and then it just develops.
Stay tuned for Part 2