Gong Gong Gong Talk Writing Songs in Cantonese with Austin Brown (Parquet Courts)

The Beijing art punks chop it up with their former tourmate.

Tom Ng and Joshua Frank are Gong Gong Gong, an art punk band based in Beijing; Austin Brown is a vocalist and guitarist in Parquet Courts. After the release of Gong Gong Gong’s debut LP Phantom Rhythm 幽靈節奏 in October, the former tourmates sat down to talk writing in Cantonese and the DIY scenes of Beijing and Hong Kong.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor 

Austin Brown: So Tom, you sing in Cantonese.

Tom Ng: Yup.

Austin: But that’s not the main language of where you’re from?

Tom: It’s the main language of Hong Kong and part of Southern China, but it’s not the main language of the whole country.

Austin: Most of China is Mandarin right?

Tom: Everyone speaks Mandarin. 

Austin: And in Hong Kong people mostly speak Cantonese, or they also speak Mandarin?

Tom: Basically only Cantonese. I mean, some people speak Mandarin, but most people just use Cantonese.

Joshua Frank: Was it sort of rebellious in nature to be singing in Cantonese in other parts of China? Is there something about it that makes it different?

Tom: Well, it’s not really about being rebellious, but… Well, firstly, it’s my language. And a lot of people have this really nostalgic perspective of Cantonese, because pop songs from Hong Kong back in the ‘70s to the ‘90s were really huge among the Chinese. So even though Cantonese is not the main language, it’s still a main language for all the pop songs during that era.

People have all these fantasies about Hong Kong, because they grew up listening to the Hong Kong music, and all the movies. So for most people, especially for people maybe over 25 years old, Cantonese is still kind of like a main language for them, in terms of all this pop culture stuff. But they just don’t really speak it, so they can’t really understand what I’m singing, but they can read what the lyrics are.

Joshua: Yeah. Like, I guess in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and even to some extent up till now, there was all of this pop music being made in Hong Kong that wasn’t being made in China. It wasn’t able to be made because China had been more closed off until the later ‘80s. I don’t know what the comparison would be. It would almost be like if Hollywood was a different country, or if people in Hollywood only spoke a different language, like they only spoke Cantonese. Maybe that’s just more confusing. But people would consume mainstream culture, and everything was in Cantonese, even if in mainland China, that wasn’t the main language.

Austin: So they couldn’t even really understand what pop music lyrics were. Is that right?

Joshua: Well, I guess there would be subtitles in music videos, so that kind of thing. But, yeah. So in a way, even though the music that we make isn’t commercial pop, maybe for a certain generation it also reminds them of Cantonese stars, or something in a different era, a little bit. But like there aren’t really any other … I’ve never seen another band with someone singing in Cantonese, in real life. Were there other bands in Hong Kong?

Tom: Yeah, there are. But most of them sing in English, I think.

Austin: Ah, yeah. I see that a lot in a lot of European bands — they’ll sing in English because historically rock music is by Americans, or English people. So I guess it’s kind of a similar thing? And I guess it’s in the same way that sometimes American bands sing in British accents, because they’re influenced by the UK.

Joshua: Yeah. I mean, to think about it in a nice way, I think it’s cool no matter what sort of cultural background you come from, if you want to participate in English language rock music, rock lyrics can be pretty simple. So it’s interesting that it can be accessible to anyone regardless of what their mother tongue is. 

Tom can explain it better than me, but I think it’s just more true to who Tom is and how he expresses himself to sing in Cantonese. There’s so much more space for experimentation instead of just trying to repeat some standard rock lyric in English, unless that’s the concept.

Austin: In Cantonese, certain sounds at different pitches are different words, right?

Tom: Yeah.

Austin: Did you have like a spreadsheet or something you had to use depending on what key the song was in to dictate lyrics or something like that? Is it kind of a math problem at a certain point?

Tom: Kind of. Sometimes when it’s really hard to start some lyrics, I just try to list out all the possible sounds even just from one character. Then I would just see what I can sub with, with one character, then and see how it follows.

Austin: Yeah. So it kind of forms your melody a little bit as well.

Tom: Well, it depends. Some songs are written with the lyrics first and that dictates the melody right away, unless I change the lyrics. But for our songs, most of them we have melody first, then I have to try to fill words into that.

For songs like “Inner Reaches II,” it’s got part two only because after we recorded it, I went back to China and started writing lyrics. So I came up with a set of lyrics, which I was really happy with and then show it to Josh. Josh was like, “Hey, the melody just changed,” because of how I wrote it. So I had to go back and write another set of lyrics and work with the original melody that we’d been using. So that became part two. So we accidentally have a part one, which sounds pretty similar, but the singing melody is a little bit different.

Austin: That’s cool.

Tom: Yeah. When we were recording, when we listened back Joshua would be the person who’d kind of listen to the performance of how I sing, but I mainly focus on if I pronounce everything correctly.

Austin: I do the same thing too. I hardly ever listened to my own music after it gets recorded, but I was listening to one of our earlier records and the way I was singing just sounded so intentional and enunciated. Because I was, I guess, really focused on getting the words right or something. It had this sort of static sounding thing where I feel like over time… now that the lyrics are just muscle memory and I feel like live, I’m not worried about remembering the words. Maybe back then I was like, OK, make sure to get the words right on this and don’t worry about performance at all. I wonder whenever you’re singing, I guess it’s maybe something similar, but you also have to be worried about pitch as well. And like if your pitch is kind of off, does that affect the way that you understand the words?

Tom: Yeah, it affects me completely.

Austin: Yeah? Wow.

Tom: Yeah. Let’s say if I want to say, “dog,” in Cantonese — “gau (狗)” — there’s no way that you can try to change the pitch, otherwise it [means] “dick.” So yeah, you just kind of have to keep everything exactly the same sound.

Austin: So there’s, like, high and low pitches, but are they actual notes? Like, the key of a song could change, or is it just mainly melody you’re focusing on?

Tom: Mainly just the melody. But after a while, I realized most of the Cantonese sounding words work with A pretty well. After doing music for 10 years, you realize if you write all the songs in A, then you should be fine writing lyrics.

Austin: Yeah. You could just make your own instrument that was just the key of A. You won’t have to worry about missing the notes on the guitar or anything. Everything would be right. I guess that’s what Sonic Youth does.

Joshua: Yeah. Well, we don’t really change keys. So in that sense it avoids some additional complications.

Austin: Josh, where are you right now?

Joshua: I’m in New York. But I’ve been shooting a lot of stuff for work now, so I’m actually going to Mount Shasta tomorrow, which is kind of funny because the last time I was there was when we were on tour together.

Austin: Yeah, I was going to say we stayed in Shasta. It’s what, between Portland and San Francisco?

Joshua: Yeah. Well, Tom and I stayed somewhere else. I forget what the name of the town was. So you have a break from touring now, right?

Austin: Yeah, we’re playing in San Diego in a couple weeks at this music festival called Wonderfront and then we’re playing at Berkeley that same week and I think that’s it for the year, but I’ll probably be wrong about that. And then I guess just starting our new record.

Joshua: I guess it’s about time.

Austin: Yeah, I guess so. It’s been awhile. So yeah, we’re just kind of taking the first steps on that. Kind of figuring out what that’s going to be like.

Joshua: Yeah, it’s funny cause we’re planning a bunch touring in the second half of next year, so we put out a feeler on Instagram and Facebook asking basically for anyone to make suggestions about what cities in the world we could play. And there was someone who got in touch who I think saw us for the first time at the show that we played with you guys at the Fillmore in San Francisco.

Austin: Yeah, I remember that show really well. That was a really, really good one, especially for y’all. I remember being on the balcony and there was a ton of people in there. I’ve never seen such a big crowd so locked in with the opening band. Front to back, everyone was just like, “Whoa, this is really cool.” And that’s really tough I think, especially because there’s no drums so it’s not necessarily a super loud performance. It’s just guitar and bass. 

We’ve had Mary Lattimore open for us before, and different solo artists that tend to be quiet, and people can tend to just talk over it, or just be getting beers and being chatty and stuff. But I remember at the Fillmore people are walking in like, “What is this?” and just being totally enthralled, which is so amazing to see in such a huge room. So yeah, y’all should definitely go back there.

Joshua: Yeah, that was one of the really fun things about playing with you guys on tour. I feel like as soon as we would step on stage, it was probably immediately clear to anyone looking in our direction that it was going to be not what they expected. Two guys, a guy from Hong Kong, no drums, wearing the same t-shirt, no pedals. We’d start and people would be like, “What is this?” We would finish the first song and start the second one and you could feel people were kind of starting to be like, “Hmm, this is kind of interesting.” And then by the third or fourth song, you could really feel that people were more tuned in, or were more receptive to it. And it’s such a cool feeling, especially in a big room of people who have no clue who you are.

Austin: Yeah. It’s cool and I feel like your music is so rhythmic without having drums. I mean, you could see people kind of moving and dancing to it almost. It’s almost like trance music or something. I don’t know what the actual genre of trance sounds like, but I always equate house or techno music that like puts you in a trance as trance music, but I don’t think that’s what it is.

Joshua: No, I know what you mean. For sure.

Austin: It’s like a krautrock, like a rhythmic feel, but it has a groove to it. We always like to bring out groups with us on tour that aren’t doing the same things as us. I think it makes for some pretty interesting experiences for the audience. So it’s not just like, Parquet Courts and then Parquet Courts Lite, and, new Parquet Courts openers. It’s just a really well-rounded evening. I’ve got to think about it from [the perspective of] a person buying a ticket.

Joshua: Yeah. You playing with Mamman Sani was pretty cool, and of course Sun Ra Arkestra was awesome.

Austin: Yeah. Real legends there. I think on the tour leading up to the Sun Ra show, we had Combo Chimbita.

Joshua: Yeah, they’re cool too.

Austin: Y’all should tour with them. Do like a world music festival or something.

Joshua: I wonder if playing that kind of music is more or less financially sustainable than regular rock bands. Maybe it’s worth investigating.

Austin: Financial stability is a very weird thing. For anybody, not just musicians.

Joshua: That’s true. I mean, we have the benefit of only being… we’re an economical amount of people. [Laughs.]

Austin: Yeah. What’s the scene like in Hong Kong? Like, you’ll have shows and shit out there?

Tom: Yeah, I think there is. But honestly, I don’t know about the scene of Hong Kong that much because I’ve been living in Beijing for the past 10 years. But before 10 years ago, I had another band called The Offset: Spectacles and we tried to book ourselves on shows. That was, like, 2006. So we tried to book ourselves some shows, and we ended up playing, like, three shows in three years. Something like that.

Austin: Wow. Is it really hard to get venues for rock music like that?

Tom: Well, there were bars that you could play, but the chance is really hard to come by. Basically, they just don’t really need bands like us to play. They basically just need those more… How do you say that? Bands playing more, like, cover songs, and stuff like that.

Austin: Right. Like bar bands.

Tom: Yeah. People would try to rent a venue in Hong Kong and put on the shows by themselves, but you always end up losing money because the rent is so expensive. Back in 2016, there was this venue in Hong Kong in a factory building, which cost maybe, like, $1,300 for one night. But then they basically have no guarantee that people would come to see any bands play. So I was just joking like, “OK, well if that’s the case, then maybe I have to sell the ticket for $120 for 10 people, then I can make back the rent for you.” But the [owner of the venue] basically said yes.

Austin: [Laughs.] What?

Tom: Yeah. His attitude was really bad. But that’s how Hong Kong is. It’s really hard for bands to put on shows. There are venues, but you always have to pay for the rent upfront.

Austin: Right. So there’s no one there that’s trying to book interesting stuff or there’s not like, any DIY shit going on?

Joshua: I mean, I think there is to some extent, but just number one, there’s really no space. So it’s really hard to find the right location. And then there aren’t that many bands, because there’s a kind of a pressure to get a job and make money and pay rent. There is a scene of some stuff in Hong Kong though. I mean, Tom and I aren’t the most familiar with it because we haven’t actually spend that much time there. But there’s a band called David Boring who we played with at South by Southwest this past year, and they’re maybe like one of the more known or more active Hong Kong rock, more noisy bands of the moment. 

And then there was this Hong Kong weird internet rap scene, which I think is still going on to some extent. And it’s not totally our crowd of people, but I think they’re at least trying to do some pretty weird stuff. There’s electronic music going on there to some small extent. There’s a Hong Kong community radio, which my brother has… Wait, did he do stuff for them? I think he did.

Tom: Yeah, he DJed for them.

Joshua: Yeah. It’s just very, very small, whereas in Beijing where we sort of came up as a band, the scene has kind of been around for more than 10 years now. And that was kind of what attracted Tom to move from Hong Kong to Beijing was that there are more bands and more spaces to perform and more opportunity to experiment. But what’s happened now is that all of the bands, kind of weird noise or experimental or post-punk or whatever rock bands that formed 10 years ago, there aren’t as many new bands or the music doesn’t necessarily feel totally as fresh. 

But a big part of it is it’s gotten harder and harder to have a venue to play in. So there are a few kind of more DIY or temporary kind of places in Beijing that we play at. But it’s either super corporate venues or really, really DIY. So, if we can avoid playing in a black box kind of rock club run by unfriendly people, then we’ll definitely avoid it. One of the nice things about having spent so much time making music in the Beijing music scene is we can kind of do things more on our own terms. If we don’t like any place to play, then we can kind of say, “Fine, we just won’t play any shows until we find somewhere that we actually want to play in,” or we’ll rent a PA and move stuff into some other space. It’s not easy at all, and it’s kind of a pain, but you have much more of a sense of accomplishment when you’re doing something that meets the standards that you set for yourself, I think.

Austin: When are y’all coming back and playing shows over here? 

Joshua: I guess probably we’ll be in the US fall of 2020, most likely. Like late summer or fall.

Tom: The summer of a year from now.

Joshua: Yeah. We’ll be a year older the next time you see us.

Austin: Maybe. I’ve been trying to go backwards.

(Photo Credit: right, Ben Rayner)

Austin Brown is an artist living in Brooklyn, New York. He is a writer and known member of Parquet Courts.