Chen Xi, frontman of the influential post-punk trio Snapline, digs into his bonafide indie pop chops – evoking everything from Thom Yorke to Lightspeed Champion – as he confronts the ‘dislocation and alienation of a newly arrived Chinese immigrant in America’ and the language barriers that follow him every step of the way. Along with the help of Toronto producer Zuo Wei (aka WISEFAKE), Xi has crafted a bewitching and lyrically lush ode to the complexities of being in a foreign place, finding comfort (offbeat as it may be) in the strangest of times. I was lucky enough to ask Chen Xi, the man behind Late Troubles, about his relocation to the US (where he works for Microsoft in Washington) and the other influences found within his latest.
陈曦,新一代极具影响力的后朋克三人乐队Snapline的主唱, 在面对其来自中国的美国新移民身份时所产生的错位感和疏远感以及生活中的每一步所伴随着的语言障碍时，尝试不断发掘个人的独立流行音乐创作力，聆听他的作品唤醒了对从Thom Yorke到Lightspeed Champion的一切记忆。在多伦多制作人Zuo Wei（又名WISEFAKE)的帮助下，陈曦为身处异国他乡由来的错综复杂的生活感悟精心制作了一支令人着迷又充满诗意的颂歌，在最魔幻的日子里寻找慰藉（又或许是另类）。我有幸采访了Last Troubles的主脑Chen Xi，听他讲了
Q: While this is far from the first time you’ve used the English language in your music, this is the first time you’ve so earnestly struggled with how it was presented in your music. Why is that? What’s the core difference with how you approach this EP (as compared to Snapline) and utilized the language?
A: The core difference is – with this EP I was practicing writing songs that can still stand sing-able if stripped down all the production and arrangements. On Snapline songs the vocal is more about an element adding to the sound the band is trying to craft. But with Late Troubles I want to bring more “songwriter” aspect to the picture. To achieve this, it requires a different craftsmanship on the writing for this Late Troubles EP. The idea is to get to a certain (probably entry) level that the songs can be scrutinized by a native speaker or say by a regular US indie music standard. I guess that’s where the struggles come from – I don’t have the confidence at all if I can make it. I suspect I would never be as good as the songwriters (or the poets, essayists, novelists) I look up to. And I live with that anxiety every day.
Q: There’s an honesty to your lyrics that often reads like a diary – what was the catalyst for these songs, particularly on ‘A Fan Letter’?
你的歌词坦诚得就像日记。是什么促使你写了像A Fan Letter这样的歌？
A: Thanks for recognizing that. The lyrics are more or less about conversations with myself, or some fantasized image. This American musician is my hero. I’m so inspired by how she captures the sentiments with great accuracy in her songwriting, while still keeping a good balanced variety in the album productions. And she’s also a role model of working hard and self-discipline. I went to see her performance in Seattle last year (summer 2019). It was the first and only time I went to her set. The performance was mind blowing. I was shocked and couldn’t get over it the whole weekend. To cope with it I started writing a fan letter, or more like you said, a diary entry, reflecting my observations that sunny Friday afternoon, as well as my emotional reactions. Several weeks after it became a song. At some point I tried to search online to see if I can send my Snapline and LT records to her management or label but I finally got over it. I don’t expect she would ever know about this song or my music. This song itself is already a gift to me.
Q: Chinese musicians and bands have often said in the past they’re able to express themselves better in the English language. How much truth is there to that?
A: From the perspective that we got heavy influence from western music, and inspired by the songs that are written in English, it makes sense these bands may feel more “natural” to have English lyrics go with the music they play. However, personally, being blunt, 90% of this “better express in English” statement is bullshit. There’re lots of Chinese bands/musicians writing Chinese and they’re so good. My recent opinion on writing English lyrics as non-native English speaker is – there’re two kinds of the writing: 1) write with instincts, capturing the raw, the alienness; 2) study hard and fine-tune the writing to be good by native English literature standard. (Of course, there’re already great writers their works feel like #1 but actually accomplished via #2.) For Chinese musicians writing in English, a lot of us fall into the category #1, and the problem with this approach is the chance of being good is pretty low. Looking back at the songs I wrote for Snapline, they could have been better from the #2 perspective, but to be fair, I’m still happy I wrote them because I won’t be able to write like that again as I’m not that young anymore.
Q: It’s amazing how atmospheric and fluid the production is on these four tracks – how did you settle on the direction of the sound for this EP? When did WISEFAKE become a part of the picture? What’s your relationship with each other?
A: Thank you! A main purpose of this EP is to explore and experiment the production ideas for the next full-length Late Troubles album. I’m looking for a combination of drum-machine / synth / sampler based beats and acoustic instruments. And I also tried to get a sweet spot of the vocal processing, to be a little unique and consistent. So we applied this principal to all the tracks. I’ve known Zuo Wei (WISEFAKE) for very long time since he was still playing gigs in Beijing with Wanderlust. After I moved to US we chat online from time to time. Last year when I decided to work on the new EP, I needed someone who has richer producing experience and complementary skills and Zuo Wei is a perfect match. So I asked him and he’s onboard right away. Because we live in different cities with 3 hour time difference, the collaboration highly relies on Wechat and emails. I send my initial recording files to him and he adds more stuff on top of it and then send back. I would send feedbacks and more recordings and then he sends back new bounces. We did this back and forth for months. I think the key in this relationship is trust – I fully trust his producing skills and aesthetics and the capability of realizing the vision. Otherwise, remote collaboration won’t work without this trust.
Q: For the music geeks out there – what sort of equipment or synthesizers did you use for this EP?
A: So glad you asked! I used my OP1, Yamaha YC, Prophet-6, MS-20 Mini and a modular set for most of the synth sound. And for piano I got a Zarenbourg and a Kawai upright. I also used MachineDrum with Analog Heat for the drums. A Taylor GS mini and a Martin 15M were used to dub the acoustic guitar sound and the samples went through an Octatrack for time stretching. For sure I also used my favorite ukulele with a heavy reverb and delay. Zuo Wei added a bunch of software synth and drums as well.
你问得太好了！合成器有OP1, Yamaha YC, Prophet-6, MS-20 Mini 和一个modular set，钢琴是Zarenbourg和Kawai，鼓用了MachineDrum with Analog Heat，原声吉他用Taylor GS mini和Martin 15M，还用了Octatrack。我还用了加混响和延迟效果的尤克里里，WISEFAKE也加了一些软音源。
Q: Your work at Microsoft must be demanding but I never get it sense it spills over into your music – do you ever wonder about the correlation between the two?
A: Yes my day job at Microsoft keeps me very busy. It’s also part of my everyday struggle to get spare time for music. However, I managed to isolate this full-time job from my creative activities. I need the job to support the family. I need the health insurance and 401K. And I actually work very hard. But it’s a very different thing (or zone?) to live as a musician, even minimal part-time.
Q: Would you consider yourself assimilated at this point? Is it seamless or is it more like an on/off switch depending on the situation? Where does the issue of a ‘language barrier’ most commonly become an issue?
A: Once you get Costco membership you’re US suburb assimilated already, right? (Just kidding.) I don’t have a good answer to this because the definition of “assimilated” is still vague to me. Part of me would think a first generation immigrant could never fully assimilated. Maybe it’s like meritocracy – Costco membership, 5 points, going to church, 10 points, owning a gun, 10 points, wearing local football team jersey on game days, 50 points…
To me, the language barrier issue is mainly about – I started reading books by Chinese/Asian American writers and I’m fascinated by the immigrant history and sentiments. I wonder when my writing can be any close to this good. And at the same time, most of my Chinese immigrant friends don’t read these books at all. There’s a gap. The gap might be the most common form of the barrier.
Q: Are there any expressions and sayings in the English language, particularly ones you’ve picked up since relocating, that you find yourself drawn to?
A: Well this is not something you would use day to day but a phrase I learned last year and probably won’t never forget. In her book “Chinese in America”, Iris Chang took one step further on top of how Ronald Takaki used to call Chinese and Asian Americans – “strangers on both shores”. It captures the nuances so accurately – “a people regarded by two nations as too Chinese to be American, and too American to be Chinese”.
我去年发现了一个词，不太常用但是一直没忘。Iris Chang在她的小说“Chinese in America”里面用到这个词（比Ronald Takaki描述的中国人和亚裔美国人更进一步）：“strangers on both shores”两岸的异乡人。这个形容太贴切了，就是一个在美国人里太中式，在中国人里又太美式的异乡人
Q: What’s it been like watching the the BLM movement unfold across America (and the rest of the world)? Even as an American, it’s been difficult to articulate my feelings about it. Is it something you find yourself trying to process? And does the language barrier affect how you process it?
A:This is a tough question. I would say – Be more (good part of) human. Read more. Learn about the history. Have empathy. Have an opinion while open to debate. Take actions while prepare for the consequences. Last weekend a friend of mine went on street in LA with a sign “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power”. I cheer for him.
Q: It’s said that this EP will act as a processor to a full-leIt’s said that this EP will act as a processor to a full-length Late Troubles album where you’ll return to using Chinese. What do you hope to carry over from this EP to the themes you’re looking to explore in the future?
据说这张EP是Late Troubles接下来全长中文专辑的预告。你想通过这张EP传达什么信息？ngth Late Troubles album where you’ll return to using Chinese. What do you hope to carry over from this EP to the themes you’re looking to explore in the future? 据说这张EP是Late Troubles接下来全长中文专辑的预告。你想通过这张EP传达什么信息？
A:I do have some ambition for the next full-length and it makes me anxious already. I know I’m not ready yet and it will take quite some time to prepare. This EP is a good exploration on songwriting disciplines, production decisions, and attempts of capturing the sentiments. Hopefully the next album will carry these over.