Image: Jim Hall
Lining up an international tour is no small feat for a Shanghai band. But some fans failed to congratulate Round Eye when the local troop embarked on a North American trek this past summer that consisted on 56 gigs in 53 days. Those onlookers didn’t take umbrage with the expat band’s exhaustively jam packed schedule–instead, they were concerned about one of the destinations on that itinerary.
“Phrases like ‘murder capital of the world’ and ‘you’ll die out there’ were thrown around,” tenor saxophonist Pete Jackson said of the band’s planned stop in Juarez.
Chachy Englund, the band’s guitarist and vocalist, concurred before adding: “We initially thought (Juarez) was going to be a frightening catastrophe. But we had the time of our lives.”
Below Round Eye (which also features drummer Jimmy Jack, alto saxophonist Lewis Maplethorpe and bassist Spacker Dave Vestaloyne) tell us how Juarez and the rest of the North American tour defied their expectations, ahead of their triumphant return to the local scene with not one but two gigs slated for this evening at both Mao Live and YYT.
How did the Juarez show surprise you?
Jimmy Jack: The crowd was amazing and really appreciative that an American band based in China came there. Mainly because it’s such a dangerous place. But it was very hospitable, the people and the bands were very friendly. Most people that came down from (our previous tour stop) El Paso were originally born in Juarez and escorted us there. And those in Juarez also came to Texas to watch us play again. We made a lot of friends there.
Was that the most memorable part of the tour, or were there other highlights?
Chachy Englund: Having Steve Mackay, the sax player for the Stooges and the Violent Femmes, come up and play some Round Eye songs in San Francisco was a total trip too.
Pete Jackson: Also, staying in Lee Harvey Oswald’s former residence in New Orleans and swimming in his pool was rather memorable. Overall, people were amazingly hospitable to us throughout the tour, and didn’t mind having eight smelly dudes sleeping on their couches and floors and drinking all their beer.
You should really be asking about the lowlights though, that’s far more interesting. Like the drummer of our fellow touring band Daikaiju setting fire to his hand, and having to use a subway napkin as a bandage to cover up serious burns, which proceeded to weep pus all over the van. Or not having any a/c in the van whilst driving across the desert for 14 hours, during which time Daikaiju’s masks melted. The biggest lowlight of all was the smell in the aforementioned van after that drive.
Aside from those famous locales, most of your tour consisted of gigs in obscure towns like Murray Kentucky and Decatur Georgia. What prompted that choice?
CE: I grew up in a small town. I know what it’s like to have nothing in terms of a nightlife or things to see and do. In some ways Shanghai is a small town, at least musically. Like in small towns, people’s ears are hungry here… (and they) are less likely to be bothered with the taste making bullshit opinions of others in a over-saturated scenes, and more likely to form their own thoughts if prompted to do so.
New York and LA think they’ve seen everything short of the second coming of Christ… they’re so inundated with entertainment that anything remotely interesting becomes just another blade of grass. All of my favorite bands were ignored by the big cities at first. So our biggest money shows and highest energy shows were in towns you’ve probably never heard of. People appreciate the effort and go ape shit, and the feeling is mutual on our end. I mean, would you want to play for 100 ravenous, loose, and curious people, or 100 apathetic wall blooming rock critics?…
Before the tour, you shot a video for your song “Suntan”. It features a cameo from Shanghai starlet Wang Lin. What did she contribute to the shoot?
PJ: The song was originally going to be a one minute filler thing on the album with a surf-y vibe. Lyrics just developed from there and it turned into this bizarre commentary on an arbitrary beauty standard– fair skin– that is totally opposite to the arbitrary beauty standards we’re used to in the West. So, the natural thing to do was to don 20’s style bathing suits and make the campiest beach party video we could. Jimmy managed to score the Wang Lin connection just as the lyrics were coming together, and asked her to play a bitchy mom character, which she’s famous for portraying on TV. From then on, Jimmy worked his balls off to make the whole thing happen.
CE: God she was powerful on the set. She was so pro, totally in character the whole time. I’d never worked with a professional actor in my life, so to see her calling the shots and scowling and strutting with those curlers on was a thrill, and a big turn on for me, because she’s so gorgeous.
JJ: I have been friends with Wang Lin for nearly two years. A truly awesome person! But this was a different setting for our friendship. This was her turf. She was the accomplished actress, I was just a dude trying to be a producer. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous.
There were a lot of people working that day to make everything go well. They all did a great job, but everyone was cautious around Wang Lin. I mean, this is a real actress, a famous celebrity. I was even a little off that day because I didn’t want to disturb her. That was until she says to me, “Okay, I am finished.”
Everyone started to clap and congratulate all involved. But there was one more shot I wanted– the last scene with the fire extinguisher. It wasn’t important for the story, but I thought it would be a funny addition. I waited a fraction of a second, before I yelled over the applause: “WAIT!!!!!” Everyone turned to me and I explained what I wanted done with the fire extinguisher. Wang Lin looked at me and said, “Yes sir” with a big smile on her face. And like a true professional, she does a few takes and nails it!
You’ve obviously had some unique experiences as an expat band in Shanghai. But are there any disadvantages to being based here?
PJ: A disadvantage is that we’re foreigners. As a band of outsiders playing inside, it’s always an uphill battle to be taken seriously rather than as a novelty. And in the U.S., we are a band of outsiders playing on the outside, it’s hard to be taken seriously… You wouldn’t believe how many times people came asking: “So where’s the Chinese band?” or “Are you really from Shanghai?” and “Round Eye? Ah! I get it.” And I totally understand… All I can say is this: our gnarly band, for better or for worse, was made in China. There’s no way we would have formed or ended up sounding like this anywhere else. British brass, Canadian bacon and US steel all put together in a Chinese Factory. A world product.
What’s next for Round Eye?
JJ: We’re hitting the road with Gou Shen for shows in Hefei on Oct. 4 and Shanghai at YYT Oct. 5 as they promote their newest release
We are also prepping to release our first LP, which will be self titled, on Ripping Records. It’s pressing now, and will be available in about a month and a half. We’re shipping Green vinyl in from the States to press it on, and it will be available on CD and digital download. The album features the tenor sax playing of Steve Mackay, who has played with Iggy Pop and the Stooges and Violent Femmes. It also features the enigmatic lo-fi legend R. Stevie Moore. It feels great to collaborate with them- I don’t know how the hell all of this good luck keeps happening (laughs).
Round Eye have a typically jam packed schedule on September 30, performing at Mao Live House (重庆南路308号，近建国中路。308 Chongqing nan lu) at 8pm before rushing to YYT (851 Kaixuan rd) for a 10pm performance. Visit their Facebook page for more information.
By Kyle Mullin