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Escape Velocity

Applauding Deconstruction: An Interview With Hua Dong Of Re-TROS
Brendan Telford , November 16th, 2017 09:02

After eight years in the wilderness, Beijing trio Re-TROS have just released the sublime Before The Applause but all is not as it seems. Brendan Telford speaks with Hua Dong about their rebirth

Beijing’s Re-TROS (short hand for Rebuilding The Rights Of Statues) were at the forefront of the burgeoning China rock scene in the early 2000s as geographical boundaries became obliterated by the internet and bands such as Sonic Youth began touring the country in earnest. Frontman Hua Dong already had a taste of post-punk idolatry, having drummed for seminal act PK14. He formed Re-TROS with now-wife Lui Ming, and it wasn’t long before their sound was attracting fanboy status from the likes of Brian Eno (who also played on their Cut Off! EP under the inspired moniker Brain Eno).

And then…nothing.

Well, not nothing. For eight years the trio – Dong and Ming joined by drummer Jin Huang in 2015 – have been deconstructing and rebuilding their sound, a long, laborious project that has culminated in the precise kraut-psych-prog-dance amalgam Before The Applause. The band is reborn, fully unrecognisable from their former selves.

Hua Dong: There are so many reasons (why Before The Applause is so different), too many reasons. The first main reason though is that beforehand we used to play what could be said to be very traditional post punk, you know, even new wave music, and after our second album we were so tired. We have always wanted to bring in interesting things and sounds with everything new that we make, something eclectic or experimental to the music. Sometimes you can look to make changes and they just happen and you are happy with them, and sometimes you aren’t – this was one of those times where things just didin’t seem right for a long time, it sounded a little weird or weak. We needed more and more time to practice and try more things, to push ourselves.

So it was more like you had to retrain yourselves to be the Re-TROS band that you are now?

HD: Exactly, it felt like we were starting from the beginning, out with the old Re-TROS and in with the new Re-TROS. Another reason for this, and the second reason it’s taken so long to record a new album, is that we got a new drummer two years ago. And it has taken all this time for him to get into our music and for us to get into his space too. His drumming style felt very particular, and we didn’t want to change that, we wanted to be part of that, so that Re-TROS was all three of us together and apart, no add-ons, but very much all the same thing.

This time of re-evaluating and re-crafting is evident in Before The Applause because it’s an album that feels so planned and constructed, so inorganic. That sounds harsh but it isn’t meant to be – the angularity we expect in post punk is here but not unlike Kraftwerk there is a robotic meticulousness to most of the songs here, a preciseness, that can only come from living and breathing these particular sounds for such a period of time, almost in a vacuum. You sound confident as if the songs are a part of you, and they sound alien to the listener because it is so far removed.

HD: We are confident with each other, but the experimentation and change is continually occurring. This feels like only the first step in new musical directions for Re-TROS. We are trying to let the band do more, to try and move further into the direction that it wants to go. We aren’t in control anymore, not really; the three of us are a unit were everything is new and interesting.

You have so readily stepped away from the post punk of yore that garnered you so much praise in the turn of the decade. I was listening to your playlist that you have on YouTube the other night, and while you have some iconic stuff, like Public Image Limited, Bowie, Lou Reed, you also have the likes of PVT, early Battles, Drum’s Not Dead era Liars – what was it about these particular acts that inspired you when making the record and what have you gleaned from them to incorporate into the new Re-TROS sound?

HD: In my mind Before The Applause is still very much based in post punk, so how we express our emotions and minds is mixed up in post punk. But it isn’t the 70s or 80s. So I wanted to make something new, something fresh, that still connects with us from a post punk mindset. I first heard Battles ten years ago in 2008, and Mirrored really really shocked me. I had never heard music like it in my life, it was so good. And I couldn’t say what sound this band was. It is sort of prog rock but also experimental math rock, or even heavy metal – it was confusing and shocking and I loved it. Everything is mixed up and meshes so good. Hearing that record was a very important turning point for me. It showed we could incorporate just about anything into the band and we could still have that basis in post punk and new wave.

You can listen to a song of yours like ‘Hailing Drums’ where the precision of the drums pushes a constant motorik march within the music, and it links to Battles’ John Stanier for sure. But the link to prog rock is even more evident with Before The Applause as it is quite the conceptual record. You make constant references to destruction, while ‘Pigs In The River’ has its touchstone in the phenomenon of the 16,000 pig carcasses that washed up on the riverbanks of Shanghai. ‘Red Rum Aviv’ shows a proclivity for social experiments gone awry like the Stanford Prison Experiment. So you have this subject matter that errs on the darker side of the consciousness.

HD: I like to see myself as a storyteller when I am writing songs, so I see myself standing outside the music and tell the story with no emotion, just let the listener what happened. Or I’m like the director of a movie where the sound is the shot movie and it is what it is, the story delivered so that the interpretation is for the listener only.

Yet you have been drawn to these real-life events which can’t help but inform what you are creating. Does that mean that your influences are yours alone, and you wish the listener to make their own connections, despite the specific subject matter that informs it?

HD: ‘Pigs In The River’, it is more like news from a newspaper. In July 2013 there was this very hot rain that covered the cities of China, especially in Beijing. And there was a man that drowned right there in the city centre, just this one man, and it was very strange to me. Very dramatic too. Then in Shanghai there were all these pigs washed up on the Huangpu River. Both stories happen at the same time, and there is something that lurks beneath that links these things together. It doesn’t matter for you to know the stories really, but for you to know the feeling, the dramatic nature of things that these events gave me. Then with ‘Red Rum Aviv’ I read this very small book about Stanford and I came away thinking how can people just become evil, just like this? You put people in a particular place and they immediately show their animal side rather than their human side.

So it is things that shock you that inform you? Just like Battles ten years ago, their flamboyance and intricacy and innate strangeness pique the interest. That corresponds with the hardline electronica that has appeared in Before The Applause, not industrial per se but their harsher pounding rhythms underpinning much of the Re-TROS sound.

HD: Yes. Five or six years ago I became interested in electronic musicians, not so much the sound but the structure, the way they made the music. This is very different to rock & roll. Sometimes the structure is minimal; other times, top to bottom, it follows a kraut rock march, like people continually moving forward. So when I started Re-TROS I would have said we were very much a rock & roll band. Now I just say we are a band. We are making music, but the labels and structure no longer fit what we are doing. Perhaps in the future we will add classical music or folk music or country music, I don’t know, but nothing will be left untried. The range needs to be as wide as it can be.

Structurally you have also started looping elements. How was your experience with these compositions?

HD: We have tried to use loops since the beginning of the band actually and it didn’t work. But I remember when I bought my first loop station, pedals, in 2010. It frees my hands so I can play another instrument live; I can record a riff and build and layer things around it, so of course it is great for the band live. But I like the way it has changed the way I think about structure now. The loops I make are like a short phrase, repeated over and over, so I feel that I have to make it interesting, something that will stick in the mind not become boring or annoying. Looping is easy but then the wrong phrase and no one wants to hear it for ten minutes straight. Which is another reason we took so long to get the album out, because we work on building layer on layer so that it is always an interesting sound to play and to listen to; we don’t like easy things, boring things.

My favourite track on the album is ‘8+2+8’. Both parts – I just love the sprawling nature of it all, the hypnotic and mesmerising pall is casts. Now you mentioned in one article recently that there was a focus with this song to get rid of artificial methods, and you reference Steve Reich and his Clapping Music, yet there is that motorik march, there is that synthetic texture, there is an electronic undercurrent pulling everything forward.

HD: We wanted something that was minimal and natural, organic, when writing that song, just clapping and my voice and that’s it. Using two elements to create something, that was the foundation idea. That becomes Part 1. Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, everything is minimal and yet everything builds up from something that is quite simple. Like building from a whisper to a chatter. Then the second part (‘Part 2’) is more like a long, drawn out remix of the first part. Layering a very different idea over an existing one, that we were already happy with, was again something new for us, and that became ‘Part 2’.

You mentioned earlier about classical music potentially filtering into the Re-TROS sound. Well you have the Reich touchstone there, and you also recorded Before The Applause with Hector Castillo who has worked with Phillip Glass in the past.

HD: We have known (Castillo) for a long time. We met him in New York at a Converse project, Rubber Tracks, maybe six years ago, and worked with him for one week. At the time I thought he was a genius, his ideas and where he set things up in the studio, everything suddenly became so much easier, in ways I never would have thought of. That just left us to focus on playing our music and knowing it would likely come out different when Hector played it back for us. His microphone placement on everything, the drums, the amplifiers, my vocal, were all set up in ways that were so much better for us.

Old Re-TROS is still evident in songs like ‘Pigs In The River’, which is almost like a Gothic pop, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ ‘Red Right Hand’ feel to it, Tom Waits, Pere Ubu…

HD: Yes, exactly!

While the rest of the album is quite different, almost a deconstruction on what came before. All of these disparate elements has certainly crafted an excellent album in Before The Applause, but has that impacted on your connection with the China rock scene? Because fifteen years ago there was a glut of bands across the globe that were returning to the Joy Division and Bauhaus template, Interpol being one that stands out like a sore thumb. You became known for that too.

HD: Actually I think that the people in China haven’t heard the new album yet, two tracks online is all there is. But when we play live, we just finished our national tour in China, and the people were a little like weird about it. So maybe they are thinking what the fuck is this? What is Re-TROS doing now? They really like our old post punk sound, so aren’t sure what we are trying to do. Are we trying to do more dancing music, is that it? There is some real surprise there. But we noticed some young people at these shows, 20 to 25 year olds, who know nothing about us or what Re-TROS is. They really liked it. One of the reasons I really like Liars is because of the way they have changed over each album, and people are confused or like it, but they move on to the next thing. I hope for that with Re-TROS too.

Re-TROS are on tour in Europe with Depeche Mode in November and December and they have some solo dates during the same period.