The Shanghai-based punk rock collective aim for the political protest jugular on Culture Shock Treatment
The no-holds-barred, skronk-bathed DIY punk rock that Shanghai-based crew Round Eye dish out is unfettered fists-in-the-air protest anthemry and mosh pit-rousing fun.
Taking its noise-splattered freak-out cues from the Stooges Funhouse and late-period Coltrane, the spazzed-out angularity of Captain Beefheart and the one-minute-plus barnburning hardcore of early Black Flag plus inspiration culled from beloved obscure gems from the deep SST Records catalog, this band of mostly U.S. expats deliver on a nasty noise that is sure to rattle the dictatorial authorities in their home base of China. For the members of Round Eye, and particularly on their newest furious slab called Culture Shock Treatment, that’s exactly the point. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more politically-charged firecracker and rollicking good ol’ time of an album than Round Eye’s latest.
Produced by econo-jamming punk rock godfather Mike Watt, mixed by Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson and engineered by Secondmen organist/singer Pete “Peetzo” Mazich and Li Wei Yu, Round Eye have piled on major punk cred in a brief period of time. Prior records has seen singer and guitarist Chachy, bassist Livio Ercoli and company join forces with Greg Ginn, R. Stevie Moore and the late great saxophone legend Steve Mackay. The influence of all of those pioneers loom large on Culture Shock Treatment, a gloriously weirdo mess of hardcore, out-jazz, surf music and mangled doo-wop.
The Globe had the pleasure of Skyping with Chachy and Ercoli from Shanghai to talk all things Round Eye, the new record, living in China, Watt, Mackay and more.
How’s everything going where you are right now in Shanghai?
Chachy: Everything is okay, in a weird way. Livelihood and health, those are fine and definitely playing live music, everything’s much better than it is in a lot of other places.
Really? You’ve been playing gigs regularly over there?
Chachy: We haven’t been on lockdown in a year. We’ve been touring nationally over the past year within China.
I’m really interested to hear what the punk scene is like in China, a scene Round Eye is smack dab in the middle of.
Chachy: Did you read that Rolling Stone article that came out on the Chinese scene just recently?
I missed that one.
Chachy: If you had read that I would burst that bubble right away. I had a major issue with that. Rolling Stone, man.
So their portrayal wasn’t accurate?
Chachy: No. It’s accurate in some respects in terms of how the bands are and how they see themselves but it’s not accurate in terms of how everybody outside of Beijing functions. That article seems to be focused primarily on Beijing, which is not good.
What’s the scene like in Shanghai where you’re based?
Chachy: To be frank, when it comes to electronic music and metal, I think Shanghai is head and shoulders above Beijing. But when it comes to rock and roll and subgenre music like punk rock and stuff like that, Beijing is definitely head and shoulders above us. But there’s other cities (in China) that are, in a lot of ways, better than all of us (laughing).
Are there bands also in Shanghai that are of your ilk?
Chachy: There are but few and far between. The scenes in China, they get stretched out to an entire country, right, whereas scenes in the U.S., I mean, you can live in Chicago and still not meet everybody that you could within a three-year period. In three months you can meet everybody who you could possibly be involved with in live music in Shanghai.
In other words, it’s a pretty small scene?
Chachy: It’s small, however, the audience is massive. I mean, it’s not uncommon for us to play for a thousand-plus people on a regular night but it’s not like it was in say early 80s California where all of those people were specifically there to see…it wasn’t like a scene like that. It was more like a lot of those people are just university kids looking for something to do on the weekend.
Are there other Americans living in China in bands like yourself?
Chachy: In Shanghai and Beijing there’s a larger foreign community of musicians but as soon as you step out of the city, it’s China, everything: China locals, China fans, China promoters, China venues and you’re in the thick of it. The whole element to it is pretty much focused on Beijing and Shanghai.
And within that exists an underground DIY punk scene where Round Eye plays?
Chachy: There are but it’s not like there (in the States), man.
Before I came to China, I was in a band called Libyan Hit Squad based out of Central Florida and we were heavily involved in the DIY scene for ten years. We got to a point where we were touring with bands like Subhumans, Valiant Thorr, Jay Reatard and Greg Ginn so we were involved with our community in Orlando and within that community there were people making screen printed flyers and t-shirts and buttons and ‘zines, radio shows and all that shit. You won’t really find that here. It’s not individualized like that. There is the occasional tiny ‘zine here and they use a social platform called WeChat here. That’s like their WhatsApp or Facebook and they have web articles like that but you won’t really see it where it’s one guy doing it all. That’s very Western.
How did you wind up moving to Shanghai?
I was in that band (Libyan Hit Squad) for a while and one of the original, previous drummers that we had back in the day, he lived in China from 2006 to 2008. That time was a very high-water mark/point for China’s indie scene. That’s when Sonic Youth first came to China and Carsick Cars were at their peak and all of the Chinese indie bands that are famous here in China right now but from twenty years ago so P.K. 14, Carsick Cars, Brain Failure and a bunch of others. At that time he was over there living in these (Chinese) cities then he came back and told me all about it. He said I should go and visit and check it out. I just filed it in the back of my mind, like, “Yeah, maybe someday but of course, probably not.” Then he passed away and in 2008, the recession happened in America and I couldn’t find any work and so no matter what degree I had, I just could not find anything. It was impossible so I just had to jump ship. I remember what he said and it broke up the band, I broke up my life, I gave away my dog and I uprooted and left and I wasn’t really considering going back in the music scene at all. I just was focused on finishing my master’s degree at the time but then I just fell in love with the country—not the government but the country. I fuckin’ hate the politics here.
Well, the politics here aren’t too great either.
Chachy: But trust me, you guys have a lot more freedoms than we do here.
How difficult is it as Americans in a punk rock band in China?
Chachy: First off, we’re not American band. Livio is Italian. (Laughing)
Livio Ercoli: (Laughing) In a way, it is getting more difficult. It was easier years ago. I would say up to three years ago, it was fairly simple, which is just go ask to play and play pretty much wherever. You still have to do some paperwork, but yeah, it was a lot easier. I don’t know exactly about the paperwork that we have to do now but there’s way more paperwork and we actually have to pay to be able to play as a foreign band. That’s something that a Chinese band does not have to do. However, we always wonder what is a Chinese band and what is not a Chinese band, because we know bands that have some foreign members in the band and they’re considered Chinese bands and we are not. It’s stricter now.
Let’s talk about your killer new record, Culture Shock Treatment. Mike Watt produced the record and his Secondmen organ man and singer Pete Mazich also worked on it in San Pedro, California. How did you hook up with those guys?
Chachy: We were about to go on tour with MDC and Verbal Abuse and then on our own. It was about three or four weeks into it but we made sure to have a week before the tour started to record with Watt. It was him and Peetzo at his new studio that they built at his house. We were testing it out.
Ercoli: It was three days before the tour was starting so we recorded everything in three days and then we had to hit the road.
How was it working with Watt and Mazich? What did they bring to the table on Culture Shock Treatment that may not have been present on previous Round Eye records?
Ercoli: I think Pete actually was part of the whole thing towards the end so probably just the last day he helped a little bit with the recording so it was mostly Mike, actually. I would say the thing that we always talk about when we go back to that experience is that Mike really managed to, as he said, “bring the danger” to the live recording. Basically (he said), is “you cannot be comfortable while you’re recording a live album. You have to feel that kind of danger,” as he said. He did a very good comparison: he said “You guys have to play as you were like a pro skateboarder like just on top of the ramp in the contest and you’re about to go and do it. And you’ve got to do it that way.” That stuck to our minds and that was a huge help for us because this was a different recording than the others that we had done before. Whenever we recorded here in China, it was very comfortable and the sound guy helped us but he was never really that involved with the band. Mike did not really change a lot of what we were doing; he was actually very supportive. He liked most of the songs and on a few things, here and there, he said, “Maybe you guys can do this and that” but that’s what he brought. For us, having Mike Watt, telling you these things and that he is there for you. And, you know, he’s a very transparent person.
What he feels and what he means you could see it and for us that was a huge honor and we were very ready to record because that was Mike Watt asking us if we wanted to record with him. So, we were very, very prepared and he was also pretty impressed about that. He kept saying it, like, “so guys, you came in super prepared” and that gave us confidence.
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Culture Shock Treatment has a fuller sound than previous records.
Chachy: To be honest with you, that fuller sound probably comes more from Bill Stevenson than Watt. He has his Blasting Room Studios. Bill got involved because Mike was involved and we toured with both bands in China—the Descendents and Watt. It was a very family affair, almost. It was really cool because we didn’t ask them. As soon as we talked about it, they said they wanted to be involved. They would like to help out. I love that the enthusiasm came from them first. That was flattering!
I assume you’re all huge fans of SST Records and big fans of the Minutemen, Descendents…
Chachy: Even the later days (of SST) like Leaving Trains, fuckin’ Zoogz Rift and Slovenly. The great thing about Watt is he’d be real quick to tell you what you were playing was bullshit and he would just be really direct about it. If you had any sort of an ego, you’d be shattered but we knew it was coming from love, right? We trusted this guy, he really helped us out and he had us cut out all the bullshit.
Livio Ercoli: We wanted to record a cover from DEVO, “Freedom of Choice” that we usually play live and we wanted to put it on the album. As soon as we started our version, Watt immediately said, ‘Well, wait a minute. What is this?…
“Ehhh, maybe not guys.” So we we like, “Ya know what? Somethin’ else. We’re not gonna use it.
Chachy: He didn’t want a DEVO cover. We had one other cover, “Circumstances,” which is a Beefheart cover. It’s drastically different (from that original). Watt dug that.
You guys also recorded and played with the late great legend Steve Mackay of the Stooges. That must have been a total trip, too. The Funhouse influence on Round Eye’s music is deep.
Chachy: Steve was kind of like the genesis of the band, really. I met Steve before there was Round Eye. I met Steve when he was playing here (in China) and we got dinner and they said that they needed a bass player to play with them. I had not played live music at that point so I said, “Yeah.” That turned out to be my first live performance in China. After that, I formed the group (Round Eye) and I wanted to know if Steve wanted to be a part of it and collaborate. And he did. He came out to China and anytime we played in San Francisco he would sit in with us and we became really good friends. That was the connec’ to Mike Watt. I don’t think Round Eye would exist without Steve.