Best of 2021: Gong Gong Gong Got Inspired By Yu Su This Year

The intercontinental art rock duo talks Yellow River Blue.

Josh Frank: I think our top pick for the year would be the Yu Su album Yellow River Blue. We both really love how it sounds. Our music sounds pretty different from Yu Su’s, but at the same time there are a lot of similar considerations, or aesthetic choices, that she makes — the way that she uses repetition, the way that she uses instruments or melodies that are very intentionally not Western, but are also kind of tapping into an ultimately more established Western musical tradition. The fact that she’s between places, as well, is really appealing to me. And that’s sort of part of the story of the music — she’s based in Vancouver and basically wrote the album while she was on tour in China right before the pandemic.

We’d known of each other for a while, but we only really met in December 2019, which was the last time I was able to be in China, unfortunately. I was really happy to be able to contribute some bass-playing to one of the songs, “Xiu,” which was kind of a new experience for me. I was at home in Montreal in lockdown trying to figure out how to add stuff to her music. Also what’s special about what she does is, it’s made on a computer and kind of follows a grid, but she does all of these weird things to make it sound more naturalistic and unpredictable, which is something I think she’s really talented at. So it was actually impossible for me to play along with her music; I had to divide it into microsections on my computer and play, like, five seconds at a time. 

Tom Ng: There are eight tracks, but the diversity of the songs is great. You don’t have a song on the album that repeats itself, and any of them could be a single. I contributed the design on the back of the album as well.

Josh: There are some touches of Gong Gong Gong around the album. 

Tom: She also worked on our remixed album, so we’ve been working together a lot in the past year. 

Josh: I think we directly and indirectly have bounced ideas off of each other. She’s now doing a live set of her album, which might not have been something she tried before — although, she’s never really seen Gong Gong Gong play live, I think. Not that we’re the only band to play live… But it’s really rewarding to be inspired by each other, and try to find ways to collaborate. 

Tom: Even though the music sounds more Western, I really like the way that this album actually connects Eastern and Western culture together in some way. 

Josh: I feel like talking about the idea of  merging East and West, on a surface level, is kind of bullshit. But it’s also really important to make those connections, and that’s what we’re trying very hard to do as well. So with Yu Su, what I really appreciate is that she’s a pretty active participant in both the music scene where she lives in Vancouver and in China, and is totally at home in both contexts. It’s not like some surface level, “Oh, I’ll take some Chinese sounding synths, or I’ll make some West Coast lo-fi house kind of thing.” She’s really engaged in both, and I love to see that. That’s something that Tom and I really want to participate in as well, and kind of the driving force for why we try so hard to play around the world and get our music to different places. I think there will hopefully be more and more people making music like that in the future. 

I think the album feels very much of its time — it’s dance music, but it’s also kind of ambient, soothing. You could listen to it in a calming context alone, or in a club context. I think that’s Yu Su’s talent, and what makes her sound pretty unique as well. So it’s easy to situate it in 2021. I don’t think we’ll look back on this album and think, Oh, this is so 2021, but I think it’s a great piece of music for now. 

Honorable Mentions

Tom: My other pick is the band TOW from Beijing. It’s a duo from our good friends Yang Fan and Liu Ge. They actually recorded this album, If I’m in Love With You, a while ago, but they didn’t release it until now. It’s produced by Ricky Maymi from Brian Jonestown Massacre. It sounds really good, and I’d say that it’s the best album from China in 2021.

Josh: The style of TOW — I don’t know how I’d really describe it. It feels like it’s tapping kind of into New York ‘80s — not exactly No Wave, but where things get kind of psychedelic. It’s like guitar with some samples, it’s very cinematic… It’s sort of mysterious sounding, sometimes feels like Patrick Cowley-kind of weird synth, slowed-down disco kind of thing. But then also sometimes kind of like the Cramps, with twangy guitars. It’s really unique, and the two musicians both have such control and musical swagger that you don’t hear in China often. They just have a feel for this strange groove. They’re amazing.

The other album is a tape that my brother, Simon Frank, put out on a Hong Kong label called Absurd Trax. Simon and I used to play in a band together, Hot & Cold — I guess the band is still active, but the two of us had a duo, and that’s how we met Tom, because he recorded all of our stuff. Gong Gong Gong is kind of like a weird synthesis and reduction of Hot & Cold and the Offset: Spectacles, Tom’s previous band — who just reissued their album, so I would also pick that. 

Simon is operating in a more experimental, techno world, but comes from a live sort of post-punk, minimal synth kind of approach. His album is great. We both grew up in Beijing, and it’s on a Hong Kong label, but he started making electronic music when he was in Taiwan in the electronic scene there. It’s just reinforcing the idea that you can be a bridge between different scenes and do something distinct that finds a common thread.

As told to Annie Fell. 

(Photo Credit: left, Hailu Ren)

Beijing duo Gong Gong Gong 工工工’s raucous debut LP, Phantom Rhythm 幽靈節奏, was recorded live in a room, on open-reel tape, with little more than vocalist and guitarist Tom Ng’s 60-year-old Italian pawn shop guitar and bassist Joshua Frank’s 1970s imitation P-bass. The minimalist group created a drummer-less sound that was more than the sum of its parts, inspired by back-porch blues, Sahelian guitar music, New York no-wave, Cantonese lion dance percussion, and, seemingly most incongruously, techno.

On Phantom Rhythm Remixed, Gong Gong Gong bring to life a concept they’ve planned since the release of their acclaimed debut, curating their favorite China-connected electronic music producers to remix Phantom Rhythm in its entirety. The globe-spanning collaboration features Yu Su (Vancouver/Kaifeng), Zaliva-D, Simon Frank, Howie Lee (Beijing), Mong Tong, Scattered Purgatory (Taipei), Knopha (Xiamen), Wu Zhuoling (Chengdu), Angel Wei (Copenhagen), and P.E. (Brooklyn). The LP will be released by Wharf Cat Records in collaboration with Beijing’s bié Records.