'Gentlemen, take the football talk out of the studio please. Now!' Ricky Maymi, guitarist with cult US band The Brian Jonestown Massacre, is laying down the law in Tweak Tone Lab, the Houhai recording studio in which Beijing- based five-piece Birdstriking
are recording their second album.
The crime? Guitarist Wang Xinjiu dared to strike up a discussion with Time Out about the fortunes of the Beijing Guoan football team, and was swiftly ejected from the control room by the trilby hat-sporting Maymi, who is producing the album.
Maymi, who has a close relationship with many Beijing bands having toured with the likes of Carsick Cars as well as Birdstriking, is understandably short-tempered. He has only a few weeks of studio time to get the album, Holey Brain, in the can. It’s March 2016 during Time Out’s visit – the album comes out later, in August 2017.
With the help of The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s patronage, Birdstriking’s self- titled first album earned the Beijing band wide acclaim after its release in 2012, with the group touring internationally with the US band. However, they were in the bizarre situation of their record not being released in their native China due to the lyrics of the song 'Monkey Snake'.
Ironically, lyrically the track was a fiery rallying cry against censorship – but also a one-off, their only political song. Still, it was enough to get the album the snip here, prompting the band – today’s line- up completed by singer-guitarist He Fan, guitarist Wen Yuzhen, bassist Zhou Nairen and drummer Sun Heting – to rethink their approach.
Their answer was to expand their sound, bulking from a three-piece to the current five-piece, but keep the lyrics uncontroversial. So we get the likes of the jam-led 'Play Guitar for the Bulls' and '25', a song Birdstriking say is about 'working hard and playing hard'.
They even turned to football for inspiration this time, with sports-mad Wang writing new lyrics about his beloved Swansea City football team for a cover of Beat Happening’s 'Indian Summer'. Sadly, it doesn’t make it onto the final album, but will be released in some form soon.
Taking a break from both recording and errant football chat, with the band and Maymi sat around a table in the studio car park, Wang says he has no gripes about the group writing more positive lyrics. 'It’s easy to get angry when you’re young,' he says with a shrug. 'The angriness will fade away when you grow up. We’ve calmed down a lot. Some people are born to be angry, some are born to be really quiet. Being angry about everything cannot solve the thing. That’s not defeatist, just a change of the way of thinking.'
He admits that when he heard that the first album was being banned his reaction was, '"What the f**k?!". Then I thought, "It’s alright". The people who really wanted to buy our records would buy them, no matter what. I still had the CD distributed secretly.'
Maymi, tugging on a roll-up cigarette, is keen to focus on the new material he’s charged with getting into shape. 'They’ve progressed in every way,' he says. 'As players, as songwriters, as a band, as people. They added another guitarist, then they added another: the original drummer is now playing guitar. It’s constantly upgrading and moving forward, not looking back. I like that.'
He says that the new album’s bigger sound is not just the result of the increased head count. 'It’s the vitality and the visceral nature of the music. It’s got a real, disarmingly engaging quality. You can’t help but drop what you’re doing and immerse yourself in it.'
The band will showcase the album at a special Beijing gig
alongside Carsick Cars and Hiperson to mark the Maybe Mars label’s tenth anniversary, part of a week of Maybe Mars-related gigs. Then they will tour the record around China in November.
Back in the car park, cigarettes finished, there’s just time to ask what the album’s title means. 'Holey Brain... I wanted to encourage people to open their minds to...' says He, before Maymi interrupts him.
'...Like, free your mind and your ass will follow? That kind of thing?'
'Yeah', replies He. 'That kind of thing.'
Album review: Holey Brain
Birdstriking’s first record in five years bristles with energy. Comprised of nine bright, bounce-along tracks, Holey Brain is well worth the wait for any fans who worried the band’s album ban had knocked the stuffing out of them – and deserves to see them pick up a whole new following too.
Under the guidance of producer Ricky Maymi, the album finds the expanded and reshuffled Birdstriking line-up presenting a beefed-up but cleaner sound. Some of the fuzzier noise elements from the band’s previous sonic palate are stripped away on Holey Brain without depriving it of the group’s trademark punchiness; the driving guitar work displayed on their eponymous 2012 record remains, as does their clear knack for a catchy melody, but the new album feels more focused, more mature. 'Yuntianming' encapsulates this, seamlessly blending chugging, stomp-along backing with a delicate psych-tinged guitar hook and rousing lyrics about 'flying my spaceship'.
Their psychedelic tendencies are even more pronounced on tracks such as 'Feed', which features lyrics about baby birds growing up and leaving the nest to head to the big forest. From anthemic opener '25' onwards, the album repeatedly returns to themes of advancing youth and stepping out into the world. It’s no coincidence: Birdstriking have come of age with Holey Brain and it’s brilliant to behold.
By Jake Newby