Published on November 4th, 2015 | by The Beige Baron0
Top 10 from tenzenmen: An Intro to Underground Asia
Top Limited Express (has gone?) image courtesy Shaun tenzenmen
Sydney-based tenzenmen is a DIY production, distribution, and events organization specializing in underground music from South East Asia.
Established in 2004 by a music obsessive named Shaun, the label has helped expose bands such as Chui Wan, P.K.14, Carsick Cars, and Birdstriking (who are representative of the politically charged “New China” youth movement) to global audiences by assisting with record distribution, promotion, and in some cases, touring.
As well as Chinese artists, tenzenmen releases music by bands from all over Asia, parts of Europe, the USA, and Australia, but Shaun is probably best known as a driving force behind the current interest in underground Asian punk and indie.
Regular visits to Asia and a keen ear for originality has kept tenzenmen’s roster bursting with fresh new talent, but for casual listeners, the sheer number of bands both old and new (and other impediments to discovery, such as the language barrier) can make it difficult to know the best place to dive in and start exploring. That’s why we asked Shaun to pick out ten Asian bands that not only mean a lot to him personally, but also serve as a great jumping-off place to an Asian indie record collection.
So let’s hand over to Shaun and see what he’s picked out for us, and don’t forget to check out the tenzenmen website and bandcamp pages for more incredible music—they’re a brilliantly curated resource for the globally minded listener.
1. Limited Express (has gone?)
Limited Express (has gone?) contacted me to be part of one of the first album releases on the label tenzenmen and just by chance I was in Japan and they invited me to their show. Despite the relatively small turnout for the show, the band were mesmerising. Full of energy, bouncing around the stage with big smiles and some damn (typically Japanese) quirky tunes to boot. Soon they asked me to organize a tour of Australia for them which was an amazing success and now the stuff of legend. Much pleased I was with my first adventures into running a label, organising tours, and general DIY shenanigans.
ni-hao! features the bass player from Limited Express (has gone?) so it was a natural progression to work with this trio, compiling their limited CDEP releases with some bonus cuts for an album and Australian tour (with Sydney legends The Thaw). Again, quirky and bouncy, but this time with a dual bass and three-part female harmony attack. Both bands also worked closely with John Zorn’s Tzadik label at the time (2004-2006 or so) and both bands continue to this day, and they’re always keen to come back to Australia.
3. Muscle Snog
On a trip to China to discover venues that I had read about online, I accidentally stumbled on the formative years of the Beijing No Wave scene that revolved around the club D-22. Despite seeing such luminaries as Carsick Cars, Snapline, and P.K.14, this oddly named five-piece from Shanghai, Muscle Snog, blew my tiny little mind. Far more creative and experimental than their peers and even than other bands from around the world, they had no problem dropping in 20-minute noise-jam freak-outs among their trippy pop melodies and jangly indie rockers. My own personal favourite release from China. The band split soon after, but have been involved in a number of notable releases including Boojii, Lava Ox Sea, 33 Island and current electro math rockers Duck Fight Goose.
4. Infinite Delay
At the tail end of one trip to China I blew into Malaysia to check out some music there. The crazy car ride back from the airport was courtesy of Daighila drummer Epit. We nearly died, but laugh about it now. Daighila are one of the foremost screamo/powerviolence bands and not just in Malaysia these days either. Little did I know that Epit had a sideshow going on with Infinite Delay until they knocked my sox off with a mighty 20-minute performance on an island somewhere. Total freakout tech-metal jazzcore with one of the nicest, smiliest, suit-wearing guitarists you’ll ever meet. Their split CD with Blood On Wedding Dress is a world-class entry into this odd genre (which is strangely popular in Malaysia).
Whilst sleeping on a cat-piss-soaked mattress and stirring to the sounds of the mosques and monkeys in Kuala Lumpur, top bloke Kimi (who can sing along with every screamo song that has ever been recorded) handed me a CD demo and said, “You might like this”. I stole the CD from him cos it was so good, but then stupidly sold it for five dollars with the philanthropic intent of spreading good music as far and wide as I could. At that stage, Zoo could mostly be described as an Indonesian version of Japan’s Ruins — and nothing wrong with that as Ruins weren’t up to much at the time. However, their first major release, a hand-made wooden box containing 3 CDEP chronicling different periods in pre-history, integrated much more local language and legend and pushed them off onto their own tangent for which they would become firm favourites around much of South East Asia. All members of the band are involved in various other art and music projects based in Yogyakarta (a mecca of sorts for the Indonesian art scene).
6. The Gar
Beijing’s The Gar built up a minor live reputation among it’s musical peers, and which I was lucky enough to be able to confirm, before the release of their first album. When finally available, the band seemed to collapse in on itself. The album itself features great pop rock gems with some great vocals, and I laughed when a colleague said they reminded him of Boston! So here you have China’s Boston — not sure what the equivalent would be — Xi’an perhaps? When a newly configured trio appeared again some months later, the new tunes that aired were more sprawling and lengthy but still with the fantastic hooks. Those shows sold out quickly. Some of those tunes got tightened up and made it on to their much anticipated followup EP. Truly a musician’s favourite — what will they do next?
Carsick Cars did a quick tour of Australia a while back where I was lucky enough to see them play some well-appreciated shows, and also to meet their new bassist He Fan, who was ripe pickings for this sarcastic and easily amused Englishman. Somewhat the fool and the joker, He Fan writes his own tunes and plays guitar in his own band Birdstriking. An album banned from release in China quickly sold out of the Australian version and was soon picked up for vinyl release by a couple of fanboys in some group called The Brian Jonestown Massacre. They also did some touring together in either the States or Europe — I forget which because it wasn’t in Australia, dammit!
8. Xiao He
I don’t invest much into numerology or lucky numbers, but for release 50 on the tenzenmen label, I thought the Xiao He double-album The Performance of Identity might be the one to break the artist and the label too! The fact that the albums (one studio and one live) are made of twisted improvised vocal techniques along with acoustic guitar doodlings perhaps didn’t help, but Xiao He (and tenzenmen) were never destined for top 20 hits, but perhaps (hopefully) underground pioneering legends! Before my hyperbole shocks further, release 100 on the label was again Xiao He, this time in a more song-oriented mode with the beautiful Silly’s Ballard. Rather than making things easy for listeners, this collection of recordings came in the form of a coffee-table-sized art book with a built in MP3 player with high quality headphones (and priced accordingly!). If you ever meet Xiao He, he’s a beautiful human being and will probably offer you a cup of white tea. If you ever meet his friends they will undoubtedly tell you some unbelievable stories about the man.
9. After Argument
Whilst the Beijing No Wave scene spawned the likes of the above-mentioned Carsick Cars, Snapline, and P.K.14, they are all reasonably well known outside of their home country already having played at major festivals around Europe and the USA. P.K.14 and in particular their singer Yang Haisong (a well-respected poet, musician, and producer) are looked upon as the inspiration for many of the current crop of indie rockers. Starting as a side project when ZaZa (drummer for French band Eyes Behind) returned from overseas, After Argument soon took on a life of their own with Haisong taking on the guitar and vocal duties. The minimal instrumentation allows both to fill the spaces and their post-punk can still rock with an attitude.
10. Mekare Kare
I don’t remember how I got hooked up with these two quiet young men from Japan, but I’m glad I did, and so were any others who might’ve seen them on their brief visits to Australia. For some reason I decided it would be a good idea to organise a mini-festival in a warehouse as a show for these guys–perhaps not the best way to ensure they got well paid, but anyway, that’s me. The guys play drums and bass (through a bass and guitar amp) and proceeded to drop the jaws of anyone who watched them with their energy, smiles, and absolutely insane compositions. At one point they did a version of duelling banjoes (yep, on bass and drums) which slowly got faster and faster until they repeated the whole thing from the beginning again but this time in unison. Probably had to be there, so, if you ever get the chance, be there. I missed their last trip here, but had one report of their only Sydney show being one fan’s best 12 minutes of music he’d ever seen. All the way from Japan to play for just 12 minutes!