Wellington band Orchestra of Spheres recently returned from a two week whirlwind tour of China. It’s difficult to imagine what kind of a music scene exists in China for anyone that hasn’t been there, so we asked Nell Thomas, who provides keyboards, theremin and vocals for the band, if she would be keen on an email interview.
Nell is a busy muso so we were very pleased to receive her response……..
Did you or any of the band experience culture shock?
Hmm, I don’t think culture shock so much as culture-pleasure! I think we all really like traveling, and enjoyed the differences between home and China a lot. The pollution in some of the bigger cities was a bit hard to take at times, but everything else just seemed interesting and cool, even the squat toilets.
How many gigs did Orchestra of Spheres play in China? In clubs? At festivals? Private parties? How does it work there?
I think we played ten gigs over the 14 days we were on tour. Two festivals: the NuArt festival in Cheng Du, and the Shenzhen Oct-Loft Jazz Festival, which was a big ten-day
long festival with some great musicians in the line-up; one sort of gallery-venue place in Dali; and the rest of the shows were at ‘Live Houses’ (bar/music venues). And one last-minute party gig at a BBQ café in Beijing, organised by our friend Erica Sklenars who’s currently doing the Red Gate artist residency over there – lots of skewers and beer at that one, it was great! Our good friend Kristen Ng (who is behind the Kiwese blog about people in Aotearoa and China doing cool shit! http://kiwese.co.nz) booked many of the gigs for us, came on tour with us, and was generally an awesome force. Thanks Kristen!!
What was the standard of the sound equipment provided like?
Really high, much better than the equipment you would generally encounter in music venues here. Most venues seemed to have the same type of gear, and a lot of it was really new. Maybe there’s some sort of network and the word got around that this gear was good! I’m not sure. In a few places it seemed like the people driving the sound were pretty new too. However, most of the venues themselves had been around for a while.
How was the distinctive Orchestra of Spheres’ sound received? Did people dance?
I think we were received really well, we had really good numbers attending our shows (partly thanks to excellent publicity by Kristen), we had great feedback after the gigs, and yes, people danced a lot! And bought plenty of records. One honest guy in Beijing did tell us we weren’t the tea for his cup, though.
Did any differences in playing to a Chinese audience stand out for you?
The audiences we played to seemed super keen to have a good time and engage with the band – at most gigs, people didn’t hang back to wait to hear what we sounded like, but came right up to the front as soon as we got on stage. People didn’t seem shy, or afraid to appear keen, whereas in New Zealand I think sometimes people equate eagerness with being uncool. So in that sense it was refreshing. (I’m not sure whether any of that is ‘typical’ of Chinese audiences though). People did find us a bit weird, but in a positive way. They were really into our costumes and wanted lots of photos with us. Everything seems more colourful, bright and expressive over there, and so I felt like our ramshackle multi-coloured-patterned styles and wonky homemade bits & pieces of costume kind of fit in. Our guitarist Baba Rossa had some phrases in slang Chinese he could say on the mic (a bit rude so I won’t translate here), and people totally loved that.
Any personal standout moments from the tour?
EATING pretty much everything, especially the Yunnanese cuisine, and Szechuan hotpot. Hanging out in Chongqing, very Bladerunner-esque. The long (22 hour) train ride from Beijing to Cheng Du (pretty sure the novelty wears off after a few of those). Catching up with some old friends. Staying in the beautiful Hu Tong alleyways in Beijing. Doing an American Apparel photoshoot at a Temple, weird but fun!
Did you make contact with local experimental musicians? Are there any?
We did meet some local musicians, generally those who opened for our shows, including South Acid Mimi Dance Team in Kunming (you can check them out here: http://site.douban.com/southacidmimi/), and we also met some lovely musicians from Algeria at the Shenzhen jazz festival, the Amazigh Kateb Trio. We didn’t have a huge amount of time to go in search of local music while we were on tour, but our guitarist stayed on for a couple of weeks after the rest of us had to go home and he met & played with some really great sounding musicians in Beijing. By the sound of it, there’s a lot of interesting music happening there.
Would you have stayed longer? Will you do it again?
Would definitely have stayed longer if we didn’t have to get back to work. Hoping to tour in China again for sure, and highly recommend it to other New Zealand bands as a place to tour.
Thanks to Nell and the band.
Orchestra of Spheres have a new album in the pipeline and that is definitely something to look forward to!
All photos used with permission.