Interview conducted by Michael Cupoli
Jonathan Zeitlin is one half of the band Alpine Decline. The band began in Los Angeles and then moved to Beijing roughly five years ago. Over the years, the music and instrumentation has had an interesting evolution. Originally the band was primarily a guitar and drum rock duo with some electronics and then for a period, was completely electronic. Now, Alpine Decline has found a balance between the two by doing completely modular sets and performing as a rock band with the addition of Yang Haisong on bass. This June, Alpine Decline is setting off on a month long tour of China to support their new album title Life\’s A Gasp. Catch them on one of their many stops and along the way and in Beijing on July 2nd at School.
What is your background in music?
I came into this world snapping my fingers and whistling a tune. Pauline came into this world dancing a two-step. As a child, I sang in a boys choir called the Ohio River Ramblers that sang Union songs in American Legion Halls around the river towns. Pauline spent summers growing up doing percussive sound effects for a regional one-tent clown show that worked along Highway 58 and the farming communities around Bakersfield and Fresno. I played Pink Floyd covers in a band with three Mexican sisters. Pauline played in a hard rock band in Taiwan. When I was 17, I moved to LA and placed an ad in the classifieds of the free weekly. Pauline’s band called me up and I got in the van.
What is the history of Alpine Decline?
Alpine Decline is Pauline and I on our journey together. We don’t think about the future and we try not to spend to much time in the past.
There seems to be two different projects with Alpine Decline. One is the rock band and the other an experimental electronic project. How do you decide when to do which version? Why not just perform under two different names?
Well we’re just Alpine Decline – it’s just Pauline and me, no matter what instruments or musical approaches we take, so we didn’t feel like creating a different name or identity was necessary. And I think it’s cool for a band to make albums that give listeners something different to zap their minds. Changing things up helps us grow, expands the range of possibilities we can explore, gives us new skills as musicians that bleed back and forth between the modular music and the rock music.
Alpine Decline was very DIY for several years and now you\’ve been signed to Maybe Mars for several years as well. Why did you decide to work with a label? How does it compare to going the DIY route?
Well I think on closer inspection it appears that we’ve been working with a few different labels for most of our releases — the last four have come out with the support of different labels in different territories and formats.
But look, does DIY mean not working with other people or not relying on other people? Because we do more interesting work and can go much farther when we work with other people and their incredible ideas and talent. We just make sure that we are not relying on other people to make things happen for us. And here we’re not talking about vulture mega-labels from the past eras of the music industry. All the labels we’ve put out records with are just people — sometimes just, like, TWO people — who love music and are spending their time and energy shooting flares, spreading the gospel, hoping to save just a few souls, just out of passion.
Last year saw the addition of Yang Haisong playing bass for Alpine Decline. How did he become a part of the group? What is it like to work with him as a band member?
Since we moved to China, Yang Haisong has been an important part of the all the albums we’ve made. He’s always a very inspiring person to work with. It feels like for Life’s a Gasp he moved from his chair in mission control to hands-on-deck with us in the rocket ship. Recording with the three of us playing together, live in a big old house, was an exciting idea for all of us. And it’s refreshing to do something different and special live for this tour.
You and Pauline have been living in Beijing for about five years now. What do you guys think of Beijing after so much time? What changes have you seen? How do you think the city has changed/influenced Alpine Decline?
Well we love Beijing, but it’s really hard to say how it has changed or how we’ve changed. This city is full of experts who can speak intelligently and endlessly about how this place has changed, and probably our friends and family and someone who’s listened to our last few records could tell you better than us how we’ve changed.
There is a new video for \”Pre-Columbian Artifact\” off of the upcoming album Life\’s A Gasp. What is the concept behind the video? What pre-Columbian artifacts do you have?
Our concept was that if we just tell Maya and Benny to take some 16mm film out and do whatever they want, they’d do something really wild and awesome. I think the results bear this out. Maya and Benny’s concept seems to have something to do with an alien witch coven.
We don’t collect any pre-Columbian artifacts. But this time we printed lyrics in English and Chinese with the vinyl and CD releases, so you are empowered to explore further the meaning of this song.
Life\’s A Gasp just came out, at least on xiami. When is the release party going to be?
We plan on treating every show on the upcoming tour as a release party, so that means we get to party for about 30 straight nights. Woo-wee. The Beijing release party is July 2nd at School.
There is going to be a tour to support the album. What cities are you going to be playing in? Have you played these places before?
We’re playing 28 or 29 shows in a big clockwise loop. There are actually quite a few places we haven’t played before and that’s pretty exciting. In October we’ll tour in North America to support the album there.
Why did the Pauline and you decide to switch up your gear so much by really getting into the eurorack/modular synth set up?
We’d been playing with conventional synthesizers like the Realistic Concertmate, MS-2000 and the JD-300 for awhile, and wanted to get into learning and writing with something new. The modular synth setup let us record the atmospheric layers on Life’s a Gasp in a one-shot live performance on an instrument, instead of methodically, monotonously, adding overdubs. Using modular live, there is some randomness and variation every time you patch up the synth, so we can play the songs again and again and each time there are always subtle differences in the vibe and textures that can have a big impact on the way we play the songs.
Some people refer to eurorack as eurocrack. Would you say this term is accurate? Does it apply to you?
Well I don’t know if this is the place to open up about my compulsion towards addictions. But in my experience this is an early effect of getting into Eurorack that subsides over time. At first I was crazy with desire to add certain modules to our setup, but once I found my personal approach to the instrument, I began to feel like I had all the tools I needed to make our music.