Proximity Butterfly at Café Panam(e) last Saturday. Photo by Dan Sandoval.
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.
In the two years that elapsed since we had last talked, Proximity Butterfly had seen a lot of changes. The original lineup changed when drummer Chen Duxi left to study painting in Beijing. Several other members came and left, and in April 2008, Heather returned to Canada to give birth to Aetheria Love. Joshua split his time between Chengdu, Beijing, and Toronto, and in October, Proximity Butterfly made first-ever appearance in the Midi Festival with bassist Kavian Royaii standing in for Heather. The following month, Heather, Joshua, and Aetheria returned as the Love family to their house and practice space in the suburbs of Chengdu.
Following a string of gigs in December with departing drummer Timm Walker, Proximity Butterfly put out the call for a new drummer. The call was answered by Wang Yong(王咏), who had been playing with Here Comes the Wizard (巫师来了). After two months of rehearsals, the new lineup started playing concerts in Chengdu in April 2009. We talked with them after their Café Panam(e) show on April 25.
Wang Yong, can you briefly introduce yourself?
Wang Yong I'm Wang Yong, I come from the earthquake disaster area Pengzhou. I'm 24 this year. My horoscope sign is ox. I like music. I like heavier music, like Lamb of God, and ska, new school, old school, AND middle school! I started playing drums four years ago, studying on my own, with a teacher a little bit, and learning to play by playing with a lot of good musicians. I was playing with Wushi Laile before and started formally practicing with Proximity Butterfly February of this year.
So the last time we talked was about two years ago ... can you summarize major changes then?
Heather The last time we talked Chen Duxi had just left the band, so since then I guess it's been a time of readjustment and training, working with new people, creating new things with different people. We had a few major people that we worked with for long periods of time—Timm [Walker, drummer], [drummer] Huang Jing, Melissa [Carroll, saxophonist], Kavian [Royaii, bassist] ...
Joshua For me it was an interesting transition because with Chen Duxi, you have this thing that when you first start you feel like infinite soldiers, something you feel that's so pure and genuine ... there's no contest, there's no persuasion, it's just something that all of us wanted to do. Nobody complains about coming to practice, it's just like you're surprised when somebody shows up early and you can just go into a room and be creative on a Saturday morning at like 8 o'clock or 9 o'clock when everybody else is sleeping. And it's a really beautiful experience.
When Chen Duxi was leaving, we were walking a little bit away from that, and it was changing. And of course we've talked about this a lot, about being very clear about what Chen Duxi wanted from the band, and sometimes the people you love the most, you have to love them enough to let them do what they want to do. I think that's just the natural, beautiful phenomenon of the way things work.
It was kind of a gift that Wang Yong came into the picture. He had heard our music before, he knew a lot of our songs, he had this really expressive understanding of what it was. He understood the power of what we were trying to achieve. We've said it before, we're not really musicians, per se, we don't sit and study scales all day. We want to create really cinematic, powerful, colorful, emotional music.
Wang Yong We eat, practice, listen to music together. We're like a family—they're a little older than me. They make really good food, and I like going to their house and seeing Umbrella and Mazzy [the Proximity Butterfly pets]. If there's some music I like then I'll bring it for them to listen. When we had just started, I didn't know exactly what to do, but they're very patient, if I made a mistake or had to try something over several times, they were always patient. Little by little they worked with me and encouraged me. So now we've started performing together, and I think each time it gets better.
Joshua As Wang Yong was saying when he is around, he sees the baby as part of his life. He sees Heather as like a sister, he shares the way that we do things, and that's important. You can't just divide up your time and clock in and clock out and go. It can't happen that way—we're a bit traditional on that concept of a band. It's a thing that has to be everybody together doing different parts and moving and shifting and making sure that everything's whole... Heather and I, we're married, but we're very different people in many ways, and Wang Yong is a different person, and it's great how we can just use that opposite chemistry to establish what our friendship is.
Heather And he's really not proud in practice so it's interesting working with him because it's easy for him to accept a change and adapt really easy. And he's just willing to try something and put himself aside.
Along with much success, you guys have had a lot of setbacks over the years. Over the years, what has kept you guys from throwing in the towel?
Joshua Actually I never wanted to do music. I thought it was a really cheap way of living. It seemed like it wasn't real. You should be a doctor in Africa trying to fight some disease and trying to bring the cost of medicine down, you should be a lawyer fighting for people's rights—you should be some service to some community, and to see yourself as a service to a community by making like 30 people jump around in a room it's not the same as sitting in a line of refugees that just simply don't have any food.
And so the band is kind of an absolute accidental circumstance of it, and it's basically, how do you find soldiers that would wanna walk that line with you? And Wang Yong is just an absolute mistake—in an incredibly positive way. He just kind of fills up all the gaps that we need to achieve something. He's so awake and aware of what can make things better, and he wants to make things better, and he wants to make things more tight and accurate and alive. And when we're at practice, and I look over, and he's in it. That's important. That's the moqi or the mohe, the absolute intuition that you should share with people.
Heather It was actually that night we played at the 37 Degrees bar, and Joshua mentioned that we needed a drummer, and the guy who set up the show—he's from Wushi Laile—and the next day he called me up and said, 'I think my drummer would be good for your band because my band isn't really developing in a way that is leading to any kind of future for our drummer.'
Joshua And he said, 'I'll come over right now, I'll come over tonight—right now,' and we were like, 'Eh, we got stuff going on,' and he was like, 'I'm coming over,' and we were like, 'All right.' So we just did it that night. You know, that's the kind of push you need.
Heather Yeah, it was good, because sometimes you just think of your immediate circumstances, like, 'Oh, the baby's sleeping' or this and that, and he was just like, 'I'm coming over,' and that's good. ... I [didn't] know if [Wang Yong] was interested or not but I got the feeling that he wanted to do something, and to do something seriously. And it wasn't necessarily that it had to be Proximity Butterfly but just that he was serious about doing something ...
Joshua You need that kind of energy because when you see the world more and more, you don't get necessarily pessimistic but you get more cautious and you get aware. When a pit bull bites you 100 times, you're gonna back off at some point, sometimes you need to have new perspectives, and he's really feeding into that and creating a lot of new energy. [At] tonight['s show], he needs us, and we need him. Because he looks out in the crowd and he doesn't see 300 people, like normally we have.
Heather And in the shows we've done previously [with him], I think it's important to him as well, they're younger than him, they're students. He's graduated, he's at a certain point, and this kind of feeling contributes to the power you can have at a show. So for him to play here tonight is a completely different circumstance, and he's just getting used to being around foreigners as well, but I think he did well.
Wang Yong, were you a fan of Proximity Butterfly before you played with them?
Wang Yong When I was in university, someone had their CD and copied it for me. When I listened to the first song, I thought it was really good. Then I had the melody of the first song stuck in my head, I really liked it. And then the second, third, fourth, and fifth—they were all good. And then my computer broke. I couldn't find it on my hard drive.
One other major change we haven't really talked about yet is that you guys have become parents, a family, since we last talked. What is it like being a rock 'n' roll family? How do you deal with that set of circumstances?
Joshua We're doing all the basic stuff that parents do, and you wake up in the morning, and she's just swinging her arms around, and you think grab a guitar and put a bongo in front of those arms, and she hits it and comes to attention, and she hits it again and she just smiles, and you realize that the phenomenon of living has accidentally come across your own experience.
As long-time players in China's and Chengdu's rock scenes, what are your thoughts about where it's headed?
Wang Yong I think it's improving. A lot of bands are getting better.
Joshua We had a meeting with a guy from Beijing, and he was telling us that there's become a kind of opening up of underground rock music nationwide. It's been recognized nationwide as something that should be addressed. Mainly for very rich people, it's gonna make them a lot of money if they address it. It's a whole product line for lots of people—clothing lines, shoe lines, all of this, they're aware of it.
There's a term, "anti-long-hairism," and it's actually a term in Chinese, and it's basically an attack on people that are involved in this underground music scene. So you have a lot of disco rock that's trying to refute that idea and a lot of pop-rocky new-school stuff that's just trying to make really tight, skinny kids go out there and be exceptional in some way, shape, or form. The idea is to make people inspired.
Heather We just played last night at Dianzi Keda, at Chengdu Xueyuan. One of Joshua's students arranged for us to go, and he was talking about how great it is, all his friends are going to come, and we spent the afternoon setting up, we did a sound check, and he was all excited to take us out for dinner, and then he told us, 'Yeah, we're expecting at least 40 people!' And we were like, 'What?' It's just as easy as handing out a bunch of fliers to a bunch of kids at a university and getting them interested in coming out, but that just wasn't done. Maybe 100 people were there, but at a university where a lot of the kids aren't leaving on the weekend, it just seems like we're missing out on a whole bunch of people who would really enjoy something like a live show.
Joshua You have so many bands that are just trying to come up into the scene. That's what you want, and it's happening. That's where it's going, and the beauty of what we have going for this whole city is basically just the effort to do shows or to be a part of a community of people that maybe you don't know—like you see Douban or the Little Bar website, and maybe one group will have like 1,000 or 2,000 people in it. In a city of like 10 million people, that's such a small percentage.
Is there one band that's playing the Zebra Festival you're most looking forward to seeing?
Heather I'm looking forward to seeing Hightone.
Joshua I think the Subs.
Are you guys going to set up camp out there?
Joshua I hope so. I think we might try it the first night and see how it goes, like what's the vibe. Like if everybody's like, 'That's my beer, this is my land,' then I'm not gonna camp the second night.
Heather 'Cause it's ours, you know.
Various CD Demos
Antikythera Mechanism (late 2007)
Poltergeist (late 2007)
Arcana is available for free on the band's website, and selected newer tracks can be accessed on their Myspace. Finally, CDs can be purchased during shows and at the following venues:
VOX Bar in Wuhan
D22 in Beijing
2 Kolegas (Beijing)
or directly from the band (send an e-mail)
May 3 Zebra Music Festival
May 30 Hemp House
September TBA Wuhan