After my December 2012 interview with THE INSTIGATION and February 2013 lengthy chat with PAIRS I’m back with another view on the Shanghainese music scene. The time has come for DEATH TO GIANTS, a math rock / progressive / experimental / jazz band that just released their first album called “Blood Pours Out“. There are just 2 of them and they like to call their music “death-pop”.
So far there has been no boring stories from Shen City. This interview makes no exception. See for yourself.
Hey! So good to have the opportunity to talk to another band from Shanghai, China [smiles].
Ivan, I guess your name is just another perfect example of what Shanghai is, right? [smiles] Tell me your story, mate.
You mean “DEATH TO GIANTS”? For me, our name is one of protest, of the little guy shouting out into the world, “I’m here, listen to me!” A lot of what sells here in Shanghai is what I wish wouldn’t. It’s the same back home, though.
My own story isn’t all that complicated. I grew up in a nice house in a nice suburb and went to some nice schools. I moved here after college, mostly because it was something to do. Music isn’t something that you can just put away, so it was just a matter of time before I started playing around.
My first band here was called MOON TYRANT, and I was the singer. But I’d been playing drums since I was 8, and I’ll always be a drummer, deep inside. I met Nichols though music, and since our very first jam, we’ve always synched effortlessly. A year or so later, and here’s our album.
[laughs] Great! I meant YOUR name, mate, but it’s alright. It gave us a better start. I meant the funny fact about Shanghai, that most of you living there are not Chinese! And obviously your name doesn’t sound Chinese. [laughs] Is there a story to go with it?
My name is my grandfather’s name – he’s Croatian. My father was born there too, and came over when he was 7. My grandfather fought on the side of Tito’s partisans and made it out on his second try. The first time, his own brother-in-law reported him to the communists, and he was intercepted at the border and spent some time in prison. He got out on his second try and worked whatever jobs he could, eventually settling into carpentry and woodworking. At this point, he’s a master of his craft – beautiful furniture, interior fixtures, whatever, he can carve it. When he was established to a good-enough degree, he sent for my grandmother and my dad, and there you have it. That’s my name.
What a great heritage you have there. Fast forward to 2013 and here you are.
Tell me, what’s “death pop”? [smiles]
I’m not totally sure. Our music is definitely aggressive and abrasive, but we also play around a lot with melody, but not in the way a melodic death metal band might. A large portion of the compliments I receive begin with “I’m not usually into this type of music, but…” So there must be something about it that breaks down people’s anti-metal, anti-screaming walls and grabs at their ears and hearts. I’m still trying to figure out what that is.
Isn’t it hard to do that as a 2-piece?
I don’t think so. Our original intent was to bring a guitarist on board, but after concluding our first jam, we realized that we’d be able to handle it by ourselves. If anything, having only each other to rely on forces us to be more inventive with our songwriting and our playing — without anyone else to fill up the space, we have to cover all ground on our own. It’s a great challenge.
What about live shows? Aren’t you tempted to invite someone else on stage, to make the sound thicker?
Oh, we do that all the time, but it’s usually as some other entity, not DEATH TO GIANTS specifically. A big part of our band is improvisation – most of what you’re hearing on the album came out of jams in the practice studio – so we like to bring a lot of that to the stage. One ongoing collaboration we do is with the ACID PONY CLUB, two house producers based in Shanghai. They break out the keyboards and whatnot, and together we’re DEATH TO PONIES. Live jams, improved every time, so it’s always different. We’ve actually got a recording coming out soon with them, which is just going to be the choicest bits of six or so hours live in the studio.
We also frequently collaborate with Michael Corayer, a trumpet player and stand-up comic here in Shanghai. And then there’s DEATH TO CINEMA, where we improv soundtracks to silent film clips chosen by DJ B.O, a local DJ and promoter.
Other “Deaths” that we’ve done include DEATH TO HAAVIK, where jazz-fusion saxophonist and composer Alec Haavik joined us for an extended version of “Sick and Elastic,” and “Mongol Death Squad,” where we jammed out a few tunes with two incredibly talented Mongolian musicians who happened to be in town. You can hear Death to Ponies, Haavik and the Mongols all on the extended version of our album, available on bandcamp.
Amazing! Sounds like you’re bloody busy. How often do you perform live?
Usually a show or two a month. This month in particular we’ve been pretty busy. We had our album release show on Saturday the 3rd, and then opened for Canada’s LIVING WITH LIONS on Thursday the 14th. DEATH TO PONIES has a show on the 30th, then we’ve got a few other things in April before our big “Death to Beijing” 4/20 weekend, with both DEATH TO PONIES and DEATH TO CINEMA.
After that I think it’ll be time to hit the studio and come up with some new stuff, maybe take a break from doing shows for a month or so.
How was the release party? Did you enjoy it?
By the way, can you please sum up your discography so far?
It was great! All the bands that played with us put on excellent shows, turnout wasn’t bad – definitely a successful night. And this album is our first release, save for the occasional live recording here and there.
When I hear “Shanghai 2-piece” I immediately think of you and PAIRS. Are there more duos like you in the city? Is it a popular way to share your musical experience with just one person?
I don’t know if I’d say that it’s more or less popular here than anywhere else. Perhaps it’s something to do with the smaller pool of likeminded musicians here, since the scene is still so nascent. Before PAIRS there was X IS Y, a mathy Lou Barlow-esque guitar-drums duo that flirts occasionally with a bassist. And now we’ve got SVRO and √2. JMF Lee of √2 has been kicking around here for awhile, playing in both THE MUSHROOMS and TRIPLE SMASH, and to my knowledge, Himdong of SVRO is a pretty recent arrival.
There’s been a tangible push amongst underground musicians here toward a more DIY, low-maintenance aesthetic for a while – I suppose having a band with just two members is a good way to tap into that feeling. But at least for us, it wasn’t a conscious choice so much as one that just made sense at the time.
Let’s get right into it, your motives. Can you give me a brief background to how you formed DEATH TO GIANTS?
It really just came out of a jam between Nichols and me. I was singing in a one-off project, and the drummer was late to practice. I hopped behind the kit, and there we went. It felt good, so we decided to continue.
I was singing in a band at the time, and I really missed playing drums, so DTG served as my drum fix. And Nichols’ other band is a lot more indie-oriented, so here, he gets to embrace his metal side.
In how many bands have you been?
My first band to write original music was in college — I played drums, and it was a fun blend of ska, skate punk and MINUS THE BEAR-type indie stuff. When I came to Shanghai, I wanted to try switching things up a bit. I knew a couple guys who were putting together a metal band, and so I joined in on vocals. They were exceedingly patient while I figured out to hold a tune, and so we became MOON TYRANT. We put out one album, but then our bassist went back to the US for law school. So that was that.
DEATH TO GIANTS is my second full-time band here in Shanghai. I’ve got a solo project I’m working on as well, but it’s very much under wraps until the recording is ready. A girl’s gotta have her secrets!
What instruments do you play? Did you teach yourself or have lessons?
Well, I started on piano at 5, but loathed the shit out of it. I’m glad my mother put me through that, though, because it’s an excellent way to teach someone the foundations of music. You’re able to learn visually as well as sonically how notes relate to each other, how chords are built and how their notes slide into others when the chords change, that sort of thing. But it just wasn’t for me. She wouldn’t let me quit, though, unless I picked something else to learn. So eight-year-old me suggested drums. To their credit, my parents bit the bullet and bought me a kit, with the promise from me that I’d practice every day.
I took drum lessons until I went away to college at 18, and also played trumpet for a couple years in middle school. While in college, I’d amassed a fair amount of poems in my little books. I always intended for them to become songs, but it never happened. Some of the guys in my band took me to buy a guitar, and I learned chord after chord, until I was able to put the songs together myself. That’s what the solo project is all about.
Playing an instrument is surely a great way to learn about problem solving, abstract reasoning, and visualization. How else do you challenge yourself musically?
We like to throw ourselves into situations where we’re forced to improvise and think on our toes. There’s the DEATH TO CINEMA project I mentioned before, where we’re shown film clips we’ve never seen before and have to come up with soundtracks on the spot. And DEATH TO PONIES just spent all day improvising in the studio — we’ll then need to cull about 40 minutes or so of album-worthy material from all that.
I tried to learn mandolin once, but that didn’t last very long.
[laughs] Awesome. You should definitely add it to your instrumentarium. What’s the jam vs. composition ratio in DEATH TO GIANTS?
Um, at least 9 parts jam to 1 part composition. We hit the studio, roll tape, and see what comes out. Some of the songs on the record — like “Bigong Bijing,” for example, are almost straight from the recordings, with minimal edits or adjustments. Others are more pastiche-like in their construction. On the other hand, we definitely wrote the “Stego” breakdown deliberately. But that’s a rarity for us. We like to just play and accept the aftermath.
Have you ever forgotten a riff that was really amazing when first played? [smiles]
Oh dude, all the time. All the time.
Don’t you regret it? [smiles] Aren’t you tempted to change the ratio?
No, we just got more diligent with our recording of our practice sessions. The band came out of a jam, it’s only fitting that we keep improvisation as the fundamental principle underlying what we do. Of course, we arrange our songs and codify their structures, but it’s important that the progressions and riffs are born of spontaneity.
You can come up with a whole range of riffs in your bedroom, but nothing can match the synergy of two (or more) people who just understand each other, from a musical point of view.
Sounds like challenging some generic bands out there, huh? [smiles]
Ah, not necessarily. I’m just saying what works best for us. There are plenty of bands out there, bands who carefully and deliberately notate every sound in their songs, that we’ll never be able to touch.
Wondering how far from jazz do you place yourself…
Traditionalists might disagree, but I don’t think we’re too far off that path. Improvising within forms; it’s the same principle, even if the resulting sound palette is unrelated. I grew up playing jazz drums, my teacher was a jazz drummer himself, so it’s a big part of my roots as a drummer. There’s a freedom to it that many other genres can’t match.
Have you listened to some while recording you new album? By the way, how the whole process? How do you remember it?
We didn’t really have much time to listen to anything, as we recorded the whole thing in a day. It was an excellent day. Ryan Baird engineered the session, and he’s an absolute pleasure to work with. Extremely professional and meticulous, but he’s also our friend, so it was very comfortable to do our thing with him in the room. We recorded the drums and bass together, then laid vocals on top. Our aim was to have the record sound as close to our live shows as possible, so there’s not too much extra stuff going on. A couple effects were added here and there to the vocals in post-production, but as a whole, we tried to keep things real simple.
I say “what the heck?!” when I read your songs titles like „Children Play Amongst the Graves While Cities Burn and Humans Are Enslaved”! [laughs]
Tell me about the stores behind your compositions.
[laughs] It rolls nicely off the tongue, doesn’t it? Some of the song ideas just come from things we’d sing on the spot during a jam; others are based off our interests, and some relate to our lives here in Shanghai. “Tyr and the Wolf,” for example, tells a story from Norse mythology. “Bigong Bijing” and “Stegosaurus Rex” are tributes to two other Shanghai-based bands. And “30 Extra Lives” is a cover of a song by another Shanghai band, BOYS CLIMBING ROPES, with new lyrics. Their song was about knitting, but we don’t know much about that, so ours is about video games. “Uggghhh” is a tribute, at least lyrically, to TOOL‘s “Die Eier Von Satan”.
Are you looking forward for their new album? Do you think they still got it?
In the age of free music, that’s one physical CD I will undoubtedly buy. As for whether or not they “still got it,” they most certainly do. They can’t ever lose it, such is the perfection of these four musicians working together. A band like TOOL…they’ll just stop when they are ready, not when they have to because they’ve run out of steam.
“Lateralus” remains my favorite of their albums, because for me, it’s the only one that really envelops you and serves as a holistic journey from start to finish. It’s a godly work. The songs on “10,000 Days” are strong as well, but to me, that album felt less a total package and more a collection of songs, more in line with the presentation of their earlier albums. I wasn’t able to get into it to the same extent that I did “Lateralus,” which for me is just a perfect album, through and through. And it marked the start of their ongoing collaboration with Alex Grey, as well.
Every year in Shanghai, at the same bar, we hold a Halloween Tribute concert, where local bands put on tribute sets of their favorite bands. That practice where Nichols and I first jammed, that was for a JOY DIVISION tribute band. This year, he and I are teaming up with guitarist Murray Owen and vocalist Adam Crossley for a TOOL set. We couldn’t be more excited…I mean, it’s March, and we’ve already got our setlist planned out.
Great! Make sure to film the gig.
What’s the best concert you’ve ever given? Do you have one?
Oh man, that’s a tricky question, isn’t it? The experience that really stands out in my mind is one concert I played with Moon Tyrant in Mongolia. It was in the main city square of Ulaanbaatar, with around 2,000 people attending, and we were the last band on the bill. A thunderstorm had been approaching, and we were worried that the show might get shut down. The wind was blowing like crazy, and the stage crew was running around trying to secure everything that wasn’t fastened down. Midway through our set, the storm broke with a massive crack of thunder, and down came some of the heaviest rain I’d ever seen. We finished the show in the downpour, to the 200 or so people who stayed, and it was amazing — definitely an experience I’ll never forget.
Here’s a video of the first song, when the wind is starting to kick up.
And here’s the end of our final song, when everyone is thoroughly drenched.
Amazing! How did you end up in Mongolia? [smiles]
Long story short, DJ B.O spent some time there in the Peace Corps a few years ago and has been working ever since to blow the scene up there to the rest of the world. We were fortunate enough to be one of the first China-based bands to tour Mongolia. Best band in the country, hands down, is MOHANIK. Killer tunes, wonderful people.
What’s the farthest you have ever traveled in your life?
I guess that’d be my move to China. Can’t get much farther away from home than China.
Why? [smiles] Even for vacation?
It’s halfway around the world! How much further can you go?
Alright, before I let you go, there’s a few more.
Who drew the inspiring graphics on your website? [smiles]
That would be me!
Is there a story behind it? I must say it’s very inspirational [smiles]
Yeah, the pink guys, the spiders, etc.
That was just a flyer for a show we played up in Beijing. The other bands were RELOADZ, and something about spiders, so that’s why you’ve got the spiders and the gun in there. I’m not sure what it’s inspiring you to do though…
Naah, I’m just playin’, man. It look funny, that’s it.
Alright, let’s wrap it up, shall we? What are your plans for the rest of the year?
Outside of music, I’m trying to make it as a freelance illustrator. I’m doing mostly music-related stuff right now – posters, album covers, tees, that sort of thing – but I’m very much open to anything interesting and challenging. I’ve also got my own streetwear label, Twin Horizon, so I’m focusing on getting that off the ground as well. Dealing with some sourcing roadblocks at the moment, but that’s all part of the struggle.
I’d like to take either DEATH TO GIANTS or DEATH TO PONIES outside of Shanghai, and hopefully even outside of China as well. Just gotta keep pushing and see what doors open up!
I really hope you will take it to the next level. Book a flight and hit the road! [smiles]
Thanks so much for your time, buddy. Any last words?
Sure. To anyone thinking about taking a risk and doing their own thing – do it! Luck aside, it’s my belief that nothing separates doers from dreamers other than a willingness to push through the frustration, and the perseverance to do it again tomorrow.
I sincerely appreciate your interest in me and my music, and I hope you continue to turn your readers onto great tunes from all over the world.
My pleasure! Thanks so much for your time.
Band photo by Tina Sprinkles of Redscale Studios Shanghai.