Gong Gong Gong, Yu Su, and Howie Lee Talk “DIY Culture” in China

The collaborators roundtable on the idea of artistic borders, and share a new Phantom Rhythm remix.

Gong Gong Gong is the Beijing-based art rock duo of Tom Ng and Josh Frank; Yu Su is a Kafeing-born, Vancouver-based composer, DJ, and sound artist; and Howie Lee is a Beijing-based electronic musician and producer. Gong Gong Gong is releasing a remixed version of their album Phantom Rhythm next month on Wharf Cat Records — Su’s remix of one of their tracks premiered in March, and you can stream Lee’s remix of “Gong Gong Gong Blues 工工工布魯斯” right here. To celebrate the collaboration, the four hopped on Zoom to catch up.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Josh Frank: Yu Su, you’re working on a live set for stuff from your album now. [Howie,] are you also planning to perform your new album live?

Howie Lee: I have a bad finger injury. A few days ago, I was repairing this electronic bicycle — it’s fucked up, the chains just crashed my finger and the tendons were broken. I have this little surgery, and it’s supposed to recover before my shows, so I should be fine.

Josh: So are you doing a whole China tour? I guess you can only play in China right now, right?

Howie: Yeah, right now I’m doing six cities.

Josh: That sounds fun.

Yu Su: Jealous!

Josh: I wish that it was easier to get back in China. The people stuck in Canada are like, When can we come?

Yu Su: Howie, your album is so good.

Josh: Yeah, it’s cool. It reminded me — I don’t know if this was something you were thinking about while you were making it or not, but do you know the album Cochin Moon [by Haruomi Hosono]? It’s sort of like a Yellow Magic Orchestra side project.

Howie: I’m not sure.

Josh: It’s kind of like the imagined soundtrack to a Bollywood movie. 

Howie: Oh, great. 

Josh: Like, the movie doesn’t exist, but it’s also kind of exploring this sort of exotic imagination of a place. I think what you’re doing is is definitely its own thing, but some of the sounds reminded me a bit of that. So, yeah, anyway — I like your album

Yu Su: What’s the label that your album is on?

Howie: The label [Mais Um Discos] was releasing Brazilian folk music for a long time — it’s a UK label, they approached me two years ago. I don’t know why they were interested in me all of a sudden, but it’s interesting.

Yu Su: Yeah, I’ve heard something else from that label before and forgot about it. Then when I heard your album, I saw the name and I was like, That’s weird. Your sound’s a lot like — it’s very confusing, you don’t know what… 

Howie: Yeah, I’m confused all the time, too, [with] what I’m doing. [Laughs.] 

Josh: I think in a way, we’re all trying to make music that sounds like it could be from any place, but still has really specific influences from our own experiences.

Howie: I guess so. It’s difficult to really avoid what’s been always around you.

Josh: I was just trying to think of things that unexpectedly are maybe similar between the way that we’ve done music, especially over the past couple of years — I feel like we’re all sort of like, when we do stuff in China, it’s a little bit more DIY, or just doing things exactly how we want to do it, mostly ourselves. But then we’ve also released a lot of music on international labels. Do you guys feel like that was something intentional for you, or it just kind of worked out naturally? Because I feel like there aren’t that many musicians connected to China who actually do that kind of thing, like release on international labels or try to go between stuff within China and stuff internationally.

Howie: I think the DIY thing is very interesting for people like us. I think for me, it’s not [about] wanting to be DIY — there is this big force that’s already there, you can call it mainstream or whatever, that’s forcing us to do this DIY because it’s an alternative lifestyle that you can choose. I think that’s why I have to release on some sort of foreign label, because it’s a very limited source that you can find in this place. But it doesn’t mean that there’s no chance that you can create your own lifestyle — that you don’t have to go on the TV show, you don’t have to be judged by this capitalist drive in society. There is a solution. It’s small, but it can be alive.

I think that’s why I don’t think there are so-called international labels. It’s just very like-minded people. I’m already doing music and I’m not worried. I mean, I have songs, but I’m more a musician than a songwriter. That’s kind of the boundary. And that’s why I feel there is some freedom there to actually just go there and do it.

Josh: That’s kind of a cool way to think about it, that it’s not really even that being on an international label is really different in any way from being on a Chinese label or whatever. It’s just a question of trying to find people who are like-minded and are interested in doing similar stuff. For me, one of the fun things about making music and trying to tour or release in different places is also like, how do you make those connections? Like my friends in New York know and love the music made by my friends in China — that’s something that feels good. 

Tom Ng: Yu Su, [you] just released Yellow River Blue on a Chinese label, right? But you also have experience releasing music with other labels outside of China, right?

Yu Su: Yeah. 

Tom: So is there a difference? What was the experience?

Yu Su: I totally agree with what Howie said. It’s not fundamentally about which country the label is from, it’s about the sound and the style. Because of the internet, it doesn’t really matter, there’s no border in that sense. But from my experience, I feel like it’s almost like the opposite — I’m going the opposite direction, because I started doing music while living outside of China. So everything I’ve built so far is based in the Western market, but only because that’s where I’ve been physically living. 

Putting out this record and then doing the remix for you guys — especially doing Yellow River Blue, it’s me trying to DIY for the first time, because I’ve never gotten to work on a release of myself on my own. That level of involvement, I’ve never done it before. Because the structure of all these labels in the West, like big indie labels, they just all have such a structure already where everything is expected. You know exactly what’s going to happen, there’s no surprise, there’s no challenge. I just couldn’t find doing that challenging anymore. It also doesn’t really offer me a place to tell a story anymore — you can’t really be that unique if you really want to tell your own story, because it’s all set up. I think for every musician, it is important to have at least once where you are really, really involved and you’re really working hard at putting out your own music. You’re not just relying on an already ultra-capitalized, oversaturated market.

Josh: I feel like for a lot of musicians, they just don’t care about that kind of stuff, or they just don’t even think about it.

Yu Su: Because it’s so easy when there’s all these people doing all the things for you. You’re just like, I’m just gonna write something and whatever, and then it will just always seem like no matter what you do, everyone’s going to love it. It just creates this insane bubble, where, it’s so easy to turn someone to sociopath. Which is why so many musicians are sociopaths. [Laughs.]

Tom: That’s what I don’t really understand, because Gong Gong started in Beijing, just doing basically everything by ourselves — releasing tapes, doing everything. And then now, we released Phantom Rhythm with Wharf Cat Records, and now the remix album too. Both me and Josh enjoy working for our own stuff so much that we just really want to — not take full control of everything, but just like… That’s your product, right? That’s your music, that’s your design and everything. So why would you want to let people do it for you? 

Yu Su: Because you’re lazy like me. I don’t want to, it’s too much stress. Like Howie, you’ve done a lot of the release yourself — you made the art, right? 

Howie: I do, yeah.

Yu Su: You have the entire vision, but for someone like me, I’m just like, I can’t. This is too much.

Howie: I’m the kind of person who has too much, I know. [Laughs.]

Yu Su: You’re all the kind of people who you have a very strong vision of how the entire thing should look like, and you know exactly what you want with the thing.

Howie. Actually, I don’t know. I don’t think I know. 

Yu Su: Really?

Howie: The thing is, I think a lot of my art’s really coming from this randomness. It just comes to me. I believe DIY, to me, is the same — I don’t really chase the DIY, but it comes to me. If I do have a very handy person by my side, that’s great, but I’ll still have to do it because is something driving [me], you know? I wake up, I have to do something. 

The problem is, there’s no one judging. And if I go to a system, there’s people judging you and I’ll be like, “Oh, what should I do?” I can do this shitty thing that I really am proud with, because people judging me — I don’t care. And I think in a way, this is about individualism. Not the individualism that’s you actually looking at the mirror and at all the people doing the comments on the internet and being like, OK, that’s going to shape me. Before this individualism, there is this loneliness you have to face. I love to go sailing on the sea by myself, and there’s this dangerous ocean that I’m facing and all choices I face pursuant to my choices. If you go to a mainstream place, they tell you what to do, then you have to do it. You’re not truly having to do it, but you choose to do it because it’s easier. And for some people, a lot of people think [DIY] is hard. But it’s fun.

Josh: I think also, it’s definitely really hard to do all of that kind of stuff on your own. I think for Tom and I, everything is really collaborative, but on some level, we both kind of do different things. Tom does all the design — I’m involved in that, but I also don’t have to worry about that in the same way, Like if I had a solo project, the design would be a lot worse. [Laughs.] But when you’re totally on your own, there are almost more possibilities because only you decide, but then you’re also kind of limited by your ability. Or you learn and then you find your own style, which can be really cool. 

But you were talking about kind of the limitations of if you’re involved in a more mainstream kind of music system where everything’s in a box. Which obviously doesn’t interest me at all, but then at the same time, I think I really like working within kind of a box — like for us, Gong Gong is pretty much just Tom and I, mostly just guitar and bass. And we have to figure out, “OK, we have this, these are the problems that we have, these are the tools that we have to solve the problem of expressing what we want to do creatively,” and then we find all these weird solutions because we have limited tools. Whereas I feel like in the music that you make, Howie, you have so many tools that you can kind of explore in all different directions, and then you’re able to find through practice or randomness or chance what you like the most or what fits the most. How do you do that?

Howie: I find it’s the same way, it’s an art you’re trying to explore. For you guys, you may be doing simpler stuff, so you’re like, “Maybe we want more.” I have to be always doing very complicated stuff, so I’m thinking, Oh, is this too complicated? I think we’re both going to the same direction, but to me, I don’t think [it’s] a problem that you know too much or too little. It’s about your spiritual, mental status. I mean, if you’re feeling good laying on the ground and not doing any music, then that’s fine. You’re feeling OK and you’re very motivated, then you will you will start to do things, no matter if you only have a guitar. 

There is a lifestyle that we have to create for ourselves that doesn’t belong to the mainstream. And I think it’s very interesting, because this DIY culture [has] existed in the West for a long time, but it doesn’t exist in the modern way in China. So all these people start to find a new way no matter what they do, if it’s music or they’re doing art, they’re doing food or they’re doing coffee. The thing is more like solving this problem rather than looking at the culture. To me, culture is meaningless. It’s only the problems you have to solve.

Tom: Yu Su, I’ve never seen you playing music, but it seems like it just doesn’t really tak an effort for you to make your music. [Laughs.]

Yu Su: Yeah, when you have a computer, it is pretty easy, to be honest.

Josh: But it’s not easy to make it not sound like it was all made on the computer. And I feel like what you do feels really natural.

Yu Su: I think it’s just certain tricks you do. I’m sure Howie has the same thing, that you just have your workflow. The reason that the things I put up sound good is because all the bad shit is abandoned. [Laughs.] I’m the kind of person where if I start one project and I spend more than an hour and it doesn’t sound good to me, I’ll just absolutely [put it in] the junk box. Usually when things go well — I’m not saying I believe in fate, but I’m pretty sure this is some kind of Daoist situation where at this moment, whatever you’re working on, it is supposed to be a thing, and that’s when it goes well. I don’t know how long you all spend writing one song, but usually for me if something goes well, that applies to all the music I have put out. I would say 90 percent of the time, it’s a kind of project where I start and I can finish it in one sitting, because I don’t need to try. It’s like the computer is doing it for you — god is making this music for you. [Laughs.]

Tom: Yeah, if it happens, it happens, right? You can’t even force yourself to finish something that sounds good.

Yu Su: Yeah, if I have that doubt, it’s just not going to sound good. 

Tom: That’s why I was wondering — Howie, when I talked to you about doing a remix for Gong Gong Gong, you basically just finished it in a week or two.

Howie: It was one or two days just kicking it. 

Tom: Yeah. 

Josh: I remember when we asked you about the remix — because you guys were both the some of the first people we asked about doing remixes — and Howie was like, “Oh, yeah, I’m busy now but I can do it in a day so I’m not worried.” We were like, “OK, cool.” [Laughs.] Which totally makes sense.

It’s funny, because I feel like on the one hand, if we’re coming up with stuff, so much of it is just from improvising or jamming, and we can really quickly be like, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good song.” But then it’ll just sit in that form for a really long time. And we might adjust the structure and spend way too much time on it, or adjust little parts and listen to all the different versions that we do of it, and then Tom will write the lyrics. But basically, the first time that we play it, it’s already a song or it’s not. Like, you can just tell. Even some of the first stuff that we released on vinyl was was from — not even the first Gong Gong Gong practice or something, but basically the first time we ever jammed together, like before we even actually had the idea of having a band. The first single we released was that song. 

It’s no fun to have an idea that’s OK, and then just force it. Then you just end up with something that feels forced, I guess. 

Tom: Well, I’m sure there are people who are just more well-learned about music, and they have all this theory and all these writing skills and stuff. But I guess like for the four of us, we’re more on the side that we just happen to make something that sounds good, I guess.

Howie: Yeah, true.

Josh: Can you talk a bit about what you wanted to try and do with with the song that you remixed? What was your idea, or what was the thing that helped you actually move forward with it. 

Howie: I just have these drums I’ve been using, doing a score for a game. I was listening to your stems, and first I was like, OK, it doesn’t have a click, so I have to warp it. Then I warped it. I wanted to do a hard rock remix since you guys are already sort of hard rock-ish. I was like, They don’t like drums but I like drums, I have a drum! [Laughs.] So I was just playing it. But the thing is, most of the time I’m playing this really subtle stuff when I’m playing the drums, but this was just like, [Mimes beating the drums.] Just very simple. But it sounded pretty trash when I recorded it, so I was like, OK, this is trash. Then I was like, OK, I have this drum and this bleach-y kind of drum sound that maybe I can put on top of it and it’ll sound a little bit better. And I did it, and it does sound a little bit better. 

So that’s the main structure. In the beginning, I have this kind of art rock [sound], but it’s also very kind of like a bad film commercial — it’s very man[ly], stupid, a lot of muscles and stuff. I didn’t know what to do at the end. You guys were doing this long psychedelic kind of stuff, so I put kind of a psychedelic drum, polyrhythm kind of stuff. 

That was the start of the remix, but then another day, I was on tour and got bored on the train and was editing, and that’s how I finished the song. 

Tom: It was great. And one thing I realized when we listened to Howie’s remix — it sounds different, right, because there are drums. But then, because the way I play guitar is kind of just pretending to be a drummer, just doing the rhythm and stuff, I realized what Howie did for the drumming part actually sounds like what I would try to do if I had a drum set. So he basically just turned my guitar part into the drums, which works perfectly well. I just have to say, Howie really understood what the track is about, at least for my part.

Howie: I do play guitar! I was in a punk band for a long time. I mean, I’m a bad player… [Laughs.]

Josh: It was funny because we’ve listened to a lot of the different music that you’ve made, and there are a lot of different sonic elements and different styles that you’ve made music in. And so when I imagined what you might do for a remix, this was totally not what I expected, which is which is awesome. But then the more I listened to it, I just started to feel like… It’s great that you just made it even more rock.

Howie: [Laughs.] I think it’s too rock.

Josh: [Laughs.] But you have to go against the limit, too! I also wonder about that too, because I listen to a lot of electronic music. I’m definitely inspired by electronic music, even if I haven’t really shared much of the electronic music that I make. But I think maybe for some of Gong Gong Gong’s fans, if they like us as a rock band, they might just not know how to respond to some remixes that feel much more electronic. 

Howie: I think of you guys as an electronic band rather than a rock band. You can call it psychedelic or whatever, but in a way, the way you kind of organize your textures is a lot more electronic because it’s tone-based. You realize the subtle tone changing rather than, you know in rock there’s chord changing, there’s the drum. But to me, you are more electronic than rock, but it’s just you’re using the guitar and bass. 

Josh: That’s a great compliment, so thanks.

Howie: I guess in a way, you definitely have this electronic idea of how you organize the time. You have this psychedelic mind, how you play in live sets. It’s a very subtle thing, but you guys do it great.

Josh: It’s almost like, for me at least, the way that I would play with the pick on different parts of the string is almost just like turning the filter on a synth or something.

Tom: So you’re the synth on bass and I’m the drum machine on guitar. 

Josh: [Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. 

Tom: It’s interesting, because we started this remix project with Yu Su in March 2020. 

Josh: Maybe a bit earlier, even. 

Tom: I got the very first remix by Yu Su in March when I was in Hong Kong, during the pandemic. Now, one year passed already, and we have this great remix album by so many great [artists].

Josh: One of the things for me that was really fun about working on this project was just being able to collaborate with people like you guys, because it’s just a cool feeling to have your work interpreted by someone else, or just hear from someone else’s perspective what is interesting about it or what they want to use as a tool to make something else. But I also feel pretty happy about how we got this group together of different producers who are connected to China, which to me is totally logical because they’re all people whose music I love, or friends or people we played shows with or toured with or whatever. But I think in some ways, it’s kind of an unusual combination of producers as well. So I’m excited to see how listeners respond to it in China, and outside of China as well. I don’t know what the response is going to be, but it’s just such a great lineup of producers. 

It’s hard, Tom and I haven’t been able to work on music together in the same room for way too long now because of the pandemic, but hearing other musicians take our ideas and do something different really helps a lot to feel like [we’re] keeping ideas fresh, and showing us things that we knew were in the music, but haven’t really necessarily put into the focus before.

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.