The Wax Conspiracy

Go Big Shadow City: Interview with Jonathan Zeitlin & Pauline Mu of Alpine Decline

So, who or what is Alpine Decline? Can you briefly introduce yourselves?

Pauline: "What" is Alpine Decline is probably the better question.
Jonathan: I'm Jonathan and this is Pauline.
Pauline: — and we are Alpine Decline.

I think I saw you guys play on a Friday night or maybe it was Saturday, and the only reason I was at the gig was because being at home on the weekend seemed kinda lame. In any case, I checked out your stuff on Bandcamp, specifically the album Go Big Shadow City. I thought that record was amazing and on the strength of it I went to see you guys play, and I thought you guys were equally amazing.

Pauline & Jonathan (in unison): Thanks!

Alpine Decline gig poster from 31 January 2014
1/31 @ The Square

Jonathan, you seemed a bit flustered when your gear fucked up. Did I misread that or does stuff going wrong really bug you? I’d like to think I’d be cool as a cucumber but I’d probably just get a bit teary.

Jonathan: I'm-
Pauline: Aw, he's sensitive!
Jonathan: No, no it's not that but-
Pauline: Leave him alone [redacted], he's a sensitive boy...
Jonathan: Gear going rogue is the kind of thing I'm sure haunts everyone who've had the misfortune to go through it. When you've come a long way to play a show, maybe there are people there that have really supported your band or are really open to having their minds melted at a show, and you're up there totally naked and time is ticking and you're not sure you'll be able to get it together… you feel helpless and—
Pauline: —You could take better care of your gear.
Jonathan: It's a personal nightmare that I accept I will sporadically and unexpectedly be forced to relive as we continue to tour and play music.

Speaking of gear, Jonathan, you had quite a few pedals piggybacked there. Could you give me a quick rundown of what gear you’re slinging?

Jonathan: My true love is tape machines and we record and play live with a bunch of tape echoes ripping. I'm not actually all that interested in gear, but I remember vividly the first time I heard something run through an old broken tape echo and my system just gushed dopamine. There's also something so conceptually right about taking the very live and raucous sound of my guitar and vocals, printing it onto tape, whipping it around an old machine, and then pumping into the amp or P.A.

Pauline, even though I was up the front, I couldn’t quite make out what you were doing behind the little lights you strung up on your kit. You had a tiny keyboard if I saw correctly, what else did you have hidden back there?

Pauline: I've got a Realistic Concertmate, which is a really killer analog synth that was actually made by Moog in the early 80s, with the intention of actually selling them through Radio Shack or something. That tiny keyboard that caught your eye is a Casio SK-5. There's only two of us, and our records are pretty sonically fleshed out and 3D, so whenever I've got a free hand that isn't beating a drum, I try put it to good use.

I picked up Go Big Shadow City at the show. It was only available on vinyl – gorgeous grey, I’ll add – even though all your earlier stuff was available on CD. Was there a reason behind the decision to release this record on vinyl and not on CD?

Jonathan: All five of our albums have been released on vinyl, with some digital version also available. On certain releases in certain territories (France, China) the labels we've worked with have decided to press up CDs due to local market conditions, but we've gone through the creative process for each album with vinyl as the envisioned end product.
Pauline: The grey vinyl was for Australia - there is red for China (duh), blue for the US, delicious minty green for Europe, and black for everyone who shows up late to the party after the colored vinyl are all gone.

What drove the transition to Beijing? Has the move influenced the production? What is easier about being a band in Beijing as opposed to being a band in LA? What’s harder?

Pauline: We started Alpine Decline and made three records really quickly in East LA, and this band was a different way of approaching things for us. As we were writing and recording those albums, we were kind of spinning out a story and it wasn't clear if this was supposed to be fiction or our real lives—
Jonathan: But yeah, we decided it was supposed to be our real lives.
Pauline: So when it became clear that the trajectory of the albums was going towards a movement to some weird, chaotic, other world, it was sorta clear that we had to go.
Jonathan: We didn't talk about it or anything, and then we were traveling through China playing some shows and going to some mountains while one of those first records was being mastered, and we just started talking about moving here as if it was something we'd already gone over and agreed on, even though we'd never talked about it before.
Pauline: So yeah, we came back sold everything, said goodbye to everyone, and found our own private dystopia.
Jonathan: Well, not exactly private.

What’s the music scene there like? Are there many other transplants from around the world?

Pauline: It's really hard to talk about the music scene here in brief.
Jonathan: Meeting transplants from all around the world is one of the cool things about living in a place where expats can't really blend into mainstream society, and some of these expats are the most passionate people about building a music scene in China.
Pauline: But Beijing is a very Chinese scene - most expats who play music sort of orbit around outside the Chinese bands.
Jonathan: Like everything in China, the music scene here feels very loose and Wild West. China is a place that, when you're here, it seems like there's order, it looks like things should follow some logic or rules, and then of course they never do and it's a lot more random and volatile than you thought.

One of the reasons I went to China was to check out the Beijing 798 Art Zone. That was mostly visual arts but do you guys have anything to do with this place at all? Does art and music intersect differently in Beijing than in LA?

Pauline: Yes.
Jonathan: I don't think either of us have a great grasp on how these scenes mix in LA or Beijing…
Pauline: The art scene in China is very well-exposed to the west and is big business, but music—
Jonathan: Having a band, making records, playing shows, even just going to shows—
Pauline: It's all still really really new and really really underground in China.
Jonathan: There are some music events that've gone down at 798, but music for the most part lives in other places in Beijing.
Pauline: For most people 798 is pretty out of the way.
Jonathan: From where we live, everything is pretty out of the way.

When I was in China, I got to be pretty good at picking the Beijing accent and I even convinced myself that I could tell the difference between Mandarin and Shanghainese. Is there a Beijing or a Shanghai sound? Can you roughly pick what part of China a band is from by their sound?

Jonathan: There are some very small underground scenes happening in cities all over China, but I think in general Beijing is still the center of everything for music in China.
Jonathan: Shanghai's scene is really much more expat driven and less, uh, stable, than Beijing.
Pauline: So you are saying the "Shanghai Sound" is the sound of an unstable expat?
Jonathan: Hm… I never thought of it like that but—
Pauline: When scenes are so small, it seems like they bubble up and disappear very quickly.
Jonathan: We're not experts in any kind of ethnomusicology way about China. We're about to go on a 20 city romp across China for the release of Go Big Shadow City in the PRC and I think we've booked shows with great local bands in a lot of cities whose music scenes we know very little about.

Was Go Big Shadow City the first record you guys made in China?

Pauline: No, it's the second. Before that was Night of the Long Knives, also produced with Yang Haisong.

Beijing’s the titular Shadow City, right? I ask because some of the song titles seem to be an impressionistic take on Beijing, for example, “Walk with Mask.” Other song titles seem to be potentially interrogating the social/political landscape, like, “Mid-Level Functionary in a Criminal Syndicate,” “Don't Ask Questions” or “Pity the Pacified.” Or am I reading too much into it?

Pauline: I don't think you need to worry about reading too much into it.
Jonathan: I think maybe it's not our place to guide the listener too much-- it can be a far more deeper experience if your only guide to the meaning is the record itself, the artifact itself-
Pauline: Like how a paleontologist only has a fossil to reconstruct the whole life of a dinosaur—
Jonathan: —What? Are you a 10 year old boy?
Pauline: It makes sense… it's practically your metaphor.
Jonathan: That's a simile, not a metaphor.

Pauline, “Mu,” if my extensive study of genealogy (read: I quickly checked the internet) has served me well, is a Chinese surname. If I’m correct in assuming your heritage is Chinese, did that influence the decision to choose to be based in Beijing? Was there a support system already in place when you guys landed?

Pauline: I'm American born Chinese. Both my parents moved to America from China before I was born. But no, there was no support system, there was no one here for us when we came here, and I think that's what we wanted.
Jonathan: We wanted to move to a place where we could be completely isolated in our world.

What are you both currently listening that’s melting your heads?

Pauline: The answer to this practically changes daily…
Jonathan: We were getting a lot of wild Australia music we'd never heard before on that tour, but I think we're easily distracted.
Pauline: Can we pass on this one?
Jonathan: I don't think you need to ask permission. Pass!

I’m a big film buff. Favourite films?

Jonathan: Boogie Nights, Wild Strawberries
Pauline: Meatballs, Porky's
Jonathan: What?
Pauline: This is like the "what are you listening to" question - not really good for a short interview response.

What are you reading at the moment?

Jonathan: I think we're both usually mostly into novels, but actually right now I'm reading a non-fiction book called "Fanshen" by William Hinton, who was kind of attached to a work team sent into a Chinese village in 1948 to assess how the land reform was going.
Pauline: SNOOOOZE!
Jonathan: No it's super good. What are you reading?
Pauline: Inherent Vice
Jonathan: But you don't like Thomas Pynchon.
Pauline: No I like him. I don't like him like you like him but—
Jonathan: —You think he's a "boy's" writer…
Pauline: Welllll…

You’ve described your music as something that would be dug from a mountain or under a thousand feet of snow. What would have led to the records being found there? What happened to the world or society in that kind of scenario? Where are we headed as a species, I guess?

Jonathan: I haven't been thinking of it in terms of an actual scenario with the records being buried…
Pauline: There's a lot of possible scenarios to work with here…
Jonathan: I think I meant that as a way to understand how we see our own music, it helps us understand what is part of our thang and what is not.
Pauline: Is that "thang" with an "a"?
Jonathan: Yeah, "thang" with an "a".

What do you guys get up to when you’re not making music?

Pauline: Sitting at home in our apartment on the outskirts of Beijing. Drinking coffee
Jonathan: —playing with the baby, writing.
Pauline: Always writing…
Jonathan: It's better to think about it like, we're always just living our lives and music is the daily process by which we explore and understand that experience.

Judging by your music and the decision to relocate to China to pursue a life-narrative, you seem like pretty restless people, where/what next for the band/lives?

Pauline: Good question! What is next in the life-narrative, Jonathan?
Jonathan: Let me see… where were we, Chapter 6?
Pauline: We just wrapped up Chapter 6, we're onto Chapter 7, called—
Jonathan: —wait wait, let's not spoil everything for everyone.
Pauline: The next Chapter involves a 20 city album release tour of China for Go Big Shadow City, then a tour of the US—
Jonathan: —with a "sojourn" up to the high Sierra Nevada"—
Pauline: —and then a Europe/UK tour—
Jonathan: —with a break in between to record a new album—
Pauline: —and hopefully the release of the album we just finished mixing with no drums or guitars, just tape machines and old analog synthesizers—
Jonathan: The Cuttlefish and its Ink.

album cover to Go Big Shadow City
Go Big Shadow City

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Published on Wednesday, 5 March 2014

By Belvedere Jehosophat Belvedere Jehosophat

I hope that what I have written will be of some assistance.

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