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abela in china

gail priest: interview, lucas abela

Lucas Abela, Yang Yang (in panda suit) Lucas Abela, Yang Yang (in panda suit)
courtesy the artists
Lucas Abela, famed for his aural onslaughts on a miked and effected pane of glass, toured China at the end of 2008 teaming up with local musicians Yang Yang and Li Zenghui to form Rice屎Corpse. He also produced Mrs Rice a CD documenting this intriguing collaboration (see earbash review). Following is an edited interview with Abela about his experiences in China, how he developed his unique show, and life on the noise touring circuit.

Why China?

China. I guess was advantageous. I knew about Asialink, I didn’t think I’d get [a grant], but I figured I’d have a go. It was a toss-up between China and Japan.

I thought Japan would be good for you.

I’ve been to Japan 12 times as opposed to China three times, and have lots of good connections in Japan. Japan is not as expensive as it was…but when you’ve got 12 grand to spend and you want to get a lot out of that money China is a better go. And I was more interested in China as a place. Japan is sort of weird, but China is weirder—politically, socio-economically, ethnically. All sorts of strange things are going on there. So I picked China, and got Yan Jun from SubJam to host me.

The thing that I like about self-initiated residencies is that it shows I have initiative and drive, but also if I initiate one I’m the only person in competition…So I thought what’s a good reason to be in China? I have to work with the locals in some way, so I devised the idea of a band. It’s a band I’ve wanted to do for a while, but I’ve never got around to doing it. I’m trying to re-form it at the moment and we haven’t even got to rehearsals yet because when I’m here I’m just so cluttered and all over the place. But when I was in China I was doing nothing but the band.

And that’s the real beauty of residencies, you have to get away even to do something you could do in your own lounge room, so that no one bothers you.

It was easier to go Beijing, find these complete strangers and start a band. There was a beauty to that I thought, finding these complete and utter strangers. They were even strangers to each other. They knew each other from the scene but Li Zenghui is a saxophonist in the kind of Chinese NOW now world, while Yang Yang, the drummer, was more of a punk-ish drummer in the Boredoms tradition. The scenes cross like they do here, but they weren’t solid friends hanging out every day.

Jun [from Sub Jam] recommended Yang Yang to start with, but he said, "There’s no pianists. I can’t think of a single pianist in town that can do this job. Why do you want a pianist?" I had this thing in my head—pianist and drummer. When I first got there I went to this gig [at DosKolegas] which is a series of events Jun runs in Beijing. Li was playing saxophone there. I got to talking to another Yang, who runs Sugar Jar, the record store in the arts district, and he asked me if I was interested in doing an in-store gig. I found that there was piano in this shop. I said. "It would be great if someone played piano with me. Do you know any pianists?" And he told me that Li, before he took up the saxophone, used to play keyboards in bands as a teenager. And so I said I’ll take him.

Did you have a try with him playing the saxophone?

No, I hate the saxophone!

The timbre of your instrument and saxophone are kind of similar.

A sax would compete with me somewhat, and I also wanted rhythmic instruments. I wanted a piano played rhythmically which is how I instructed them. We sat down and they looked at me and I said you [stabbing gestures], you [drumming flailing gestures]. That’s how our communication was, besides a little calculator thing where I’d write in words like "staccato" or something like that and try to get some ideas across as to how I wanted the rhythms to flow. And then off they went.

I wanted to play glass lead and let them structure rhythm into my music that’s never been there before. Always when I play, I have this imaginary rhythm section in my head. I think I aurally hallucinate because I’m hearing all sorts of things. In this instance I got this band, and they’re outwardly influencing me as well and I’m hearing them and I’m following a rhythm or following a change of theirs. It added new elements to my playing. And I think it really shows on the album because it’s completely different to anything I’ve done before.

It’s amazingly cohesive. So in terms of making that material, are the pieces set now?

No, all the tracks are completely improvised. I had a three-month residency. I spent the first month touring towards China, then I had one month in Beijing and one month touring with the band. The first couple of weeks I was trying to get the band together and when we finally got together we only really did four rehearsals and, out of those, two were recorded and edited down to the album. Each rehearsal was about 70 minutes. The album became about 50 minutes. There are a couple of other tracks that I wanted to put on the album. I mixed and finished them but Yan Jun from SubJam, the co-label for the project, said "The album’s too long, you should make it tighter, it’ll have more impact." I don’t usually think that way, but he was completely right and taking those tracks out made a much more cohesive record. Then we did a 10-city tour.

And the tour was all improvised?

The tour was all improvised.

Do you think that maybe the language barrier sutured the music more? Because the other avenues of communication were cut off, the playing was more intense?

I think we communicated better playing together than any conversation we had. Their English was very small, my Mandarin is dismal, so most conversation was "food, eat." I’d just follow them around and we’d go to bizarre restaurants, and they’d just chat amongst themselves. I was more the isolated one.

So there’s a regular touring circuit in China?

The circuit is growing. There are lots of live houses but less for the kind of stuff we're doing. There are so many cities there that you probably wouldn't even look at on a map and are bigger than Sydney. If you splintered off even 1% of the population, there’s still a decent touring circuit for the bands in China. Especially for the punk bands.

So is Beijing the new Berlin, because of the underground scene.

There’s talk about that. There’s a whole scene wrapped around a place called D22, in the arts district in Beijing, which has been opened up by New Yorkers, in the university district. This is the venue famed for unlocking bands like Car Sick Cars and P.K.1.4. Sean Tenzenmen is licensing their work in Australia, and they’re doing good business. I guess they’d be considered the new Chinese underground. It was getting more focussed leading up to the Olympics with people looking for side stories and picking up on the underground Chinese rock scenes.

They were talking about it as the new Berlin or a hub, but I wouldn’t describe it that way. I think they do it a lot harder in Beijing than in Europe. There are Europeans who are famously well paid and make a living out of their music. [As for] my band members, Yang Yang has left the country once and gone to Nepal. Li has never left the country. Li got evicted during our tour and had nowhere to go at the end of the tour. They’ve got no money and music is definitely not their prospect. It could become a Berlin type scenario for foreigners. Foreigners could easily move in and live off nothing, but they probably won’t make money as musicians. Though there’s still probably more happening on a nightly basis than in Sydney, which is saying something.

So how did it open up your practice?

Doing the band really opened my ears to a different way of playing that I wasn’t getting in my solo shows. I definitely want to move forward with the idea of playing with bands, so I want to recreate that here. I found out about this thing called SoundClash which is an Australia Council initiative to put experimental musicians and popular musicians together. So I’ve got Stu Olsen [Rand & Holland, Garbage & The Flowers] and Peter Kostic [Regurgitator] on board. Peter is a fantastic drummer. I did a short tour with Regurgitator in 2005. I was doing the glass solo shows at the time. They were doing the Band in the Bubble where they were recording an album in Federation Square. And I was their weird segue.

So how long have you been playing the glass?

Since 2003. But in essence it’s an extension of what I was doing before—playing metal objects in my mouth. This stemmed from when I toured Japan in 1997. I had two motorised turntables and I couldn’t take the motors with me, so I bought motors over there. But because they were a lot weaker they stopped working. To make sound, and out of nervousness, I started putting things in my mouth. I’ve been working these mouth techniques ever since. I see it as a new instrument. I press it against my lips and hum and vibrate the sheet. I can’t think of another musical instrument that works in that way. It’s not wind, I’m not blowing through it; it’s not percussion, I’m not hitting it; it’s not strummed. I’m like vvvvhhhhh—just vibrating the sheet. I think it’s got lots of potential as a musical instrument in its own right. One of the reasons I wanted to move into a band context was to show off its musicality, which no one really sees when I play it because I’ve got very discordant tastes.

I’ve got this problem of no one taking me seriously because I smash the glass on my head and I bleed and I add showmanship. I think if you’re going to do a show you should do a show. You should make it fun, make it interesting. I’m interested in the element of danger. It brings to the audience this anxiety that no other musician I know of can induce. To harness that kind of emotional ride for the audience is very interesting to me. My entire history of music has [incorporated danger into] my instruments. Spinning motors that cut through my wrists to bouncing on trampolines, to having amplified sword fights. I think it’s appealing to my audience as well. The way they react to my shows—I’ve had a people in hysterics, crying. I’ve had six-foot men faint in Scotland. It’s a big note, but I’ve had so many people tell me it’s the best thing they’ve seen in their lives.

You always play quite short sets.

Yeah, I don’t like to bore. I don’t ever want the audience to think like I do when I see a show, "Ah yeah, I get it." I want to finish before that starts.

So playing with a group spreads out the intensity of the ride for the audience?

It gave me room to breath.


Yeah, literally. All of a sudden I didn’t have to fill up the whole aural spectrum myself, I could sit back and interject with the instrument… there would be ebbs and tides in what I was bringing in and taking out instead of trying to just fill up the whole room with noise and running out of breath.

Did you smash the glass when you played with the band in China?

I wasn’t going to, but I did. Force of habit. Part of me wanted to say this is a band, this is me doing something different musically and I don’t have to smash sheets of glass over my head to get a round of applause. But I still want to smash it. There’s something I really enjoy about it. It’s the rush at the end of the show. It’s not just for the shock of it; it just seems the right way to finish a show. It’s the heightened point when I’m feeling good and I get a rush and bang… and there’s the trickle of blood across the face [he giggles] I love that.

It’s interesting how this crosses you over into the live art arena.

I did a performance art festival in Korea. I was going through Korea anyway and I was already booked at a noise fest and someone said that there was a performance art festival that was interested. It was at the same venue. So they booked me for two shows over two weekends, and I spent a week in Korea. I did the noise festival then the performance art festival

And how were they different?

I guess the audience was smaller for the performance art festival which I was surprised by. I don’t know how developed that scene is in South Korea. I think there’s a lot of performance art throughout Asia. I’m getting booked in Jogjakarta at a performance club run by [Australian artist Timothy O’Donoghue]. He’s running a performance art venue there, so there’ll be that context.

Most of my engagements are within the noise music ghetto, as I like to call it. I think of what I do as noise music, but I like to think of it as more than just a guy with a bunch of pedals on tables doing noise music. My basic circuit is that and above that I get festivals which are crossed with all sorts of acts. I’m getting known outside of the noise music world now. Once you get into that loop it’s really great. The good thing about Europe is that cultural centres are funded to the teeth, and within them are people programming music. There was a festival in Valencia, Spain. There were two different stages. John Cale was on one stage and I was on another in another part of the city. John Cale’s stage is obviously packed, I’m playing in a cockfighting ring with six people in the audience, but I get paid 600 Euro, and those people didn’t pay 100 Euro each to get in.

Do you think that once you become better known genre becomes less important? When you think about major music festivals they are about people playing different genres, but the artists are all of a particular standing.

Well I’ve gone on before Patrick Wolf—a teenage pop star—at the Donau festival [in Germany]. That festival really mixes things up. It had the Boredoms, Throbbing Gristle. The night I played was The Vivian Girls, Deerhoof, Patrick Wolf and myself. To be on a line-up like that, with a bunch of teenage girls and an independent pretty boy, was quite strange. There are a lot of things like that.

And how does the audience respond to that kind of diversity—a European audience?

I think they love diversity. It’s quite easy to bring people into my show even if they are not au fait perhaps with noise music. The performance element can hook them in and more often than not I can make any crowd clap. Whether it’s polite applause or not is hard to tell but it usually seems enthusiastic to me. It depends on the crowd. Some people would just clap anything!

Rice屎Corpse, tour November 2008; Mrs Rice CD, Dual Plover/Kwanyin-Subjam 029, 2009

See also That was shit! on the making of Mrs Rice including responses from Yang Yang and Li Zenghui

RealTime issue #92 Aug-Sept 2009 pg. web

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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