Interview: Irish Musicians in China

I am an Irish man so forgive me for having the hubris to write a piece solely based on other Irish men living in China.

Ireland is a country with long running musical institutions like U2, My Bloody Valentine, The Cranberries, Damien Rice, Hot Press Magazine, Whelan’s The Marquee, Electric Picnic – the list goes on and on.

At first glance, it seems like the Irish and the Chinese share little in common, but there are few nationalities better known for their diasporatic tendencies than us pair. Just consider for a moment the ubiquity of Chinese food, Irish alcohol, Chinatowns and the St Patrick’s Day Festival.

Recently I had the good fortune to come across a couple of very talented Irish musicians who operate in The Middle Kingdom – Richard Doran of Low Bow and Dave Carey of Nocturnes曳取.

Both have worked and found a niche for themselves in Beijing, while Richard has actually returned home to Dublin, although he still returns to China for work numerous four or five times each year.

Dave has set up shop for the foreseeable future, however, as his band continues to rise in the wake of their fantastic release at the end of 2017, Lines Written in Code.

Both began their musical journeys in the considerably colder climes of the Emerald Isle (Ireland.) Dave caught a fast break five years ago as guitarist in The Empire Lights, when the band received attention for their single Momentum – You can still find the video on Youtube, where it has racked up 49,000 views.

Relations were not particularly tranquil within the band, however, and Dave left after just three months.

“It was really good for me in that it taught me exactly how not to run a band. The drummer in the band was also the manager and boyfriend of the lead singer, just a disastrous recipe really. He was also super incompetent at all of those things! We did one really bad tour of Cork, Galway and Dublin and then I decided to quit.”

After his departure, he began looking around for a land of new opportunity, while the idea of moving to China gnawed in the back of his mind.

“I studied music at university in Cork, but I got into the music game a bit late. I started playing guitar when I was 16, and so I was never particularly great at theory. As such, performance was always what I concentrated on, particularly in creating my own style of music. I knew that having a career as a musician in Ireland was almost impossible so I began to look at some other options like the UK and America. But in my lectures I kept hearing things about China over and over again, which got me quite intrigued.”

Richard landed in China in similarly random fashion.

“I first went to China in February of 1998, I had just graduated from university in Dublin. I went to Australia on a working holiday and had a chance to go to China as an English teacher, having had no experience in that kind of work and I thought “sure, why not?” That whole transition period was very short. As far as I can recall it took about a week after hearing about this opportunity to ending up in a classroom in China.”

In Ireland Richard studied General Media Studies in central Dublin, working on radio and TV projects around the area. He would later bring those skills to bear as an employee at Chinese media company CCTV.

“I was a television host for a variety of programmes on CCTV while I was based full-time in Beijing. I started out working as a host for a children’s show on CCTV 13 called, ‘Under the Same Blue Sky’ and that was a lot of fun though it really tested my language skills as I did the show in both Chinese and English. I later went on to cohost a travel / food show called, ‘Outlook English’ which required a lot of travel (about 9 months of the year) all around China. Looking back it was a great opportunity to see more of China (for free!) and sample such delicious treats as goat’s balls and chicken cock, but there comes a time when one must say, ‘I’m not putting that in my mouth’ and that came for me about 2012 when I finished working with the show. The opportunity came rather randomly (as most things in China do) from a chance encounter with a Chinese Xiang Sheng cross talk (two man comic performance) performer Mr. Ding Guangquan and through his introduction, I got to work on T.V. and later radio as a bilingual host.” 

Richard was introduced to the Chinese music scene a few years after first stepping foot in the country. Soon he was sharing equipment via a wechat group and making his own music, and then subsequently approaching musicians from Maybe Mars and asking for support slots at their gigs. 

What is striking for this pair is how in a short time they grew to adore the Chinese music scene. Richard said that part of his practice process came through playing live shows around the country.

“The ease of access to venues was incredible, I was emailing venues through Douban and asking if I can do a show in March or whatever, and the venue will say “Yep, how many shows do you want to do?” It was really great, being able to play live no matter where the venue was. If I was to go to a rehearsal studio it would cost me 25 rmb per hour whereas here I’m getting to play for an audience and there’s a good chance I’ll actually get paid for it, so let’s go for it.” 

“If you were a decent person in that you were easy to get along with, you were interested in music and trying to do something different you would be accepted. I had a very positive experience, and touring around China was great.” 

Whereas every country has its own unique landscape and culture, the contrast between Irish indie and Chinese indie is sometimes vast.

Location certainly plays a part in that. Ireland is fortunate enough to be located right on the doorstep of the UK. Outlets for promotion and marketing via music media and social media aren’t lacking, whilst the pressure and pleasure of esteem can sometimes become almost too amorous for breakthrough artists.

That aspect of the industry was sometimes difficult for Dave stomach.

“We (The Empire Lights) became friends with Stuart Clarke (Deputy Editor of Irish music magazine Hot Press.) I really didn’t like that aspect actually, how chummy everyone seemed to be in the industry and how we would sometimes be promoted over people with much more talent because we went to the right networking events and stuff. I understand that’s always how these things work, but in Ireland it just seemed to be another level of selling yourself out and feeling uncomfortable about it.”

“I love how in China the concept of selling out doesn’t exist  we’ve played quite a few corporate events so far and people are happy to hear that we’ve made money with our music. Back home it’s like this big shameful secret.” 

What makes China such an attractive place for musicians? It is all a matter of perspective and everyone certainly has their own idea about Chinese Indie in that sense. The underdog factor is certainly something that entices idealists to work within such an underappreciated scene.

As musicians from South Korea, Indonesia and Japan, such as Yaeji, Rich Brian and Keith Ape continue to take off into the stratosphere, it seems that China’s young alternative music scene is building towards that crossover moment, with more and more acts like Wang Wen, Re-Tros, Chinese Football and more touring globally and seeking out festival opportunities at fertile musical incubators like SXSW.

Richard has stepped out of his comfort musically, in that he is in a new environment, where his circle of musical acquantances and connections is significantly less. So what does he think about that.

“Since coming back to Ireland I have tried on a number of occasions to find some people to get a band going with but it’s been tough as I’m still travelling back and forth between China and Dublin about 4,5 times a year. Getting a band together takes a lot of time and energy before I would feel confident enough to do some shows never mind put out some material but I would still like to do something. I’ve been doing some rehearsals with an old mate whom I had a band with when I was about 17, 18 and that’s been a lot of fun. At the moment no plans for a show but the few jams we had sounded pretty good. Kind of a ‘big black’ vibe with just two guitars and a drum machine so we’ll see how that works out.”

Richard is currently putting the finishing touches on his upcoming EP release, Heavy Days. He worked with thruoutin and Wangxin Jiu, of Birdstriking fame, throughout the recording process and was recently featured on Radii China’s New Year Playlist alongside the likes of Alpine Decline, Snapline, 工工工 and more.  

“I hope we can have the record ready for a May release. The working title of this is Heavy Days and it was recorded over a period of a few months since I was working in Chengdu and continued on when I got back to Dublin. I started out with about 15 demos and I went through the usual process of playing them on the ipod until I got sick of them all and started redoing them or dropping them completely. From that list, I was left with about 8 which I rerecorded with a drum machine in Dublin and took them to Beijing in Jan of this year when I went into a rehearsal studio with Wangxin Jiu and bashed them out.”

Dave and the other half of band Nocturnes曳取 released their debut album Lines Written in Code through record label CaoTai in November of last year. They are currently gearing up for a tour of the country and also playing around with ideas for future releases. 

“Towards the end of 2018 or beginning of 2019 we’ll start to think about releasing our second EP or LP. We have the songs ready to go so we’re quite lucky to now have a long time to tweak them and make them perfect. It’s important that we continue to evolve and produce something sonically different each time, we dont want to be a post-American Idiot Green Day and just make the same thing again and again.”

You can catch Richard’s music with Low Bow

And Dave’s music with Nocturnes


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