Inside Carsick Cars newest album

Beijing's biggest indie band talks about their latest album, 3

Four years after their last album, Carsick Cars are back with their long-awaited follow-up, 3. Liz Tung infiltrates their underground lair to find out what’s next for Beijing’s biggest indie band.

The place where Carsick Cars practise feels more like a bunker than a rehearsal space. Located in the basement of a parking garage near Deshengmen, the space is hidden in a maze of underground tunnels that are lit with a sickly yellow light and smell of piss. Walking down the ramp, we descend into the passageways and promptly get lost. After asking directions from a pair of confused-looking women and a guard who suggests that we ‘just go, uh, look around…’, we decide to wait for frontman Zhang Shouwang, who soon pulls up in a cab and hobbles out on a pair of crutches. It’s a war injury he sustained several months back while jumping off the stage at Midi Festival in Shanghai – the latest in a series of setbacks to delay the release of their upcoming album, 3.

‘It can be a little confusing,’ he says, leading us around a series of corners until we’re finally met in front of a metal door by bassist He Fan and their drummer, Monkey.
’Do you have the key?’ Zhang asks them.
‘No,’ says He.
‘No,’ says Monkey.
‘Is it in the hiding place?’ Zhang makes his way down the hall and stands on his tip-toes, feeling along the top of a doorframe. He shakes his head. ‘It isn’t there.’ He calls Wang Xu, the drummer for his side project, White+, who’s currently at XP getting ready for their New Year’s Eve show. ‘Do you have the key?’ Zhang asks. He’s silent for a moment. ‘Well why’d you take it?! We only have one left!’

Next door, Zhang’s former bandmates, Li Qing and Li Weisi, who play in Snapline as well as their own noise project, Soviet Pop, lounge on a couch looking sleepy. They rent the room just to the right of Carsick Cars; to the left are Hedgehog. After a few minutes of unsuccessful wrangling with Wang Xu, the two Lis offer up their own space for the interview. They’ve finished practising for the day, they say, so they’re just hanging out. It seems like the ideal solution – until we get to the first question.‘

This is your first album with a new lineup – why did you originally want to work with He Fan and Monkey?’

Zhang clears his throat. ‘Well first of all, when Li Qing and Li Weisi left… left…the uh… the band…’ We all look over at the Lis, who are sitting in the doorway, smoking cigarettes. They give a little wave. Awkward laughter. ‘Anyway, He Fan and Ben Ben and I had already been playing together for fun, and it was very natural for us to just keep on going as Carsick Cars. Then of course Ben Ben left the band, so we struggled for a while before finding Monkey…’

Struggle has been the key word for Carsick Cars ever since the Lis decided to leave the band near the end of 2010. Though their replacements were already well-respected in the scene – bassist He Fan for his band Birdstriking, and drummer Ben Ben for Boyz & Girl – the move was widely bemoaned as the end of Carsick Cars. It was, after all, the Lis who first started the band with Zhang in 2005, and helped write the two records that put them on the map as one of China’s most important young indie acts. The new lineup seemed promising, however, and within a year, the new trio had locked into place and begun writing together – and then Ben Ben left.

‘By the time Ben Ben joined, we were planning to record a new album, because it had already been two years since the last one [2009’s You Can Listen, You Can Talk], but then of course there were all these member changes,’ Zhang says a little ruefully. ‘So this album is kind of special because it took so long. All the songs have different emotions because they were written at different periods over the last five years.’

Despite their lack of output, it’s been a fairly active five years for the trio – as a band, they played massive Texas indie fest South by Southwest multiple times, toured the US and Australia, released a couple of EPs and, most recently, started performing experimental improv jams under the name Sick Car Sick. Individually over that time, the members also moved ahead with their own projects, with both Zhang’s White+ and He’s Birdstriking releasing their first full-length records. Yet according to Zhang, it’s more Carsick Cars’ last record, than anything that happened over the last few years, that’s helped determine the sound and direction of 3.‘

You Can Listen, You Can Talk wasn’t exactly the sound we wanted – or that I wanted,’ he says. ‘For me, the guitar sounded very weak, so it’s not my favourite album.’ It was this, in part, that led Zhang to seek out one of his musical heroes to produce 3 – Hamish Kilgour, drummer of influential New Zealand indie band The Clean.

‘The Clean are my favourite band, except for maybe The Velvet Underground,’ Zhang says. ‘They have this very bright guitar sound and kind of a pop mentality. It’s exactly what I wanted, so I thought Hamish would know how to bring us that sound.’

As it turned out, Kilgour didn’t have much experience recording bands, but he signed on anyway, enlisting his friend Peter Kember, a professional producer formerly of Spacemen 3, to help out. In March, the band flew to New York for a week to record the tracks under Kember’s direction, a process, they say, that was both enlightening and, well, a little stressful. ‘Pete is very professional, but kind of hard to work with,’ Zhang says as his bandmates snigger. ‘He’s a bit of a control freak.’ For example? ‘When we finished the basic track, He Fan and Monkey had nothing to do, so they were hanging out in this studio playing a video game and he said, “Tell them not to come to the studio – NO CHILDREN’S SOUNDS.” Also they were eating this fried chicken like two days in a row, and he said, “TELL THEM NO CHICKEN.” And also we had some friends visit us to shoot some footage and he kicked them out without telling us…’ – here, the three bandmates intone together – ‘“NO FRIENDS.”’ Still, they say, the experience was worth the ban on video games, chicken and friends, because although they ended up mixing the album themselves for reasons of creative control, Zhang says Kember did ‘a perfect job’ recording.

The choice to work with Kember and Kilgour was fitting considering that this album marks a stylistic departure from the noisy, experimental tendencies that earned Carsick Cars a reputation as ‘China’s Sonic Youth’. ‘I think this album is much more melodic and probably the most pop album we’ve ever done – but I think in a good way,’ Zhang says. Like their previous two records, 3 contains a mix of Chinese- and English-language tracks defined by big, bright, riffs, galloping beats and long, feedback-laced guitar solos – only this time, it’s jangly, major-key hooks, rather than noisy interludes, that define the tenor of the songs.

It’s a direction that seems inevitable when you consider the band’s shift in creative energy from the coldly intellectual Lis to the fiery, video-game playing, fried-chicken guzzling He and Monkey. But it also feels like a natural extension of Zhang’s personal creative evolution, which over the years has seen him move from the po-faced, rock-oriented sound of Carsick Cars’ first record to the electronic compositions of White+, the influence of which can be felt in the glimmering, kaleidoscopic patterns that break to the surface in several of 3’s tracks.

It’s a progression that questions the impulses that are ultimately driving Carsick Cars as a creative entity, and asks how far it will continue to go, particularly as each of its members is continuing to pursue other projects. And so we ask: do they ever envision a time when one or all of the members will have outgrown Carsick Cars, and decide to end it?

‘That’s hard to say,’ he answers. ‘I guess it’ll be over whenever I get to the point when I have nothing to say.’ Zhang’s silent for a moment. ‘Or when I want to start playing post-rock,’ he laughs.

Carsick Cars will play an album release show at Yugong Yishan on Friday 28. See event listing for more information.
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