The Chuck Dukowski Sextet and California have serious roots in L.A. punk rock. They come from Black Flag and Jawbreaker, respectively, and represent critical and cool moments in the DIY music scene in Chinatown and L.A. in general. But don’t show up late to Sunday’s Save Music in Chinatown 3 matinee and miss Bitter Party. This quartet is also uniquely appropriate for the benefit concert, taking inspiration and energy from Taiwanese and Vietnamese immigrant culture as well as the contemporary art scene. Here’s what the members have to say:
Wendy Hsu (electronics, keys, guitar, vox)
Nathan Lam Vuong (violin, viola, vox)
Linda Wei (bass, vox)
Carey Sargent (drums, guitar, vox)
How did Bitter Party get together? Can you talk about the band’s academic and conceptual roots?
Wendy: We met through events at Concord (an arts space in Cypress Park) and bike repair at Flying Pigeon. Over time, we realized our mutual love for bitter melons and bitter drinks like IPAs and Chinese herbal tea. Our name Bitter Party actually came from the parties that we had with friends where we ate lots of bitter things to rejoice summer abundance and companionship. Beyond that, bitterness refers to the melancholy war-era and postwar music that fuels our musical energy. As a band, we come together, or “party,” to remember our past and to provoke a communion over of tribulations.
“Ghost Pop” is a driving principle behind Bitter Party. To us, ghosts are sounds of a distant past or place that are rendered invisible in the canon. Each one of us in the band has identified a set of ghosts, often related to our sense of heritage and community, and located them in old songbooks, field recordings, YouTube archives, and our memories of family. Our drummer Carey is interested in individuals left out of American military history. Linda, our bassist, is drawn to proto-Mando-pop sound of early Teresa Teng. Our violin/viola player Lam is interested in songs from postwar Vietnam that he heard his mother sing. I draw materials from 1930s-1970s Taiwan, working with a repertoire of popular and folk songs that evoke Taiwan’s history of the Japanese occupation and personally, memories of my grandparents. We let these ghosts haunt us and inspire us.
How has the band’s sound changed as it has evolved? Has that affected its purpose or mission?
Wendy: Our arrangements are getting tighter as we’re preparing to record next month. Our sound has drifted away from the source materials that we use. Instead faithfulness to the original, I have worked to abstract materials out of aspects of the songs that we like–an interval, a rhythmic pattern, a riff, or a picking style–and to find a way to create a new stylistic framework bringing in genres that are close to home like shoegaze, new wave, post-punk, chip music. What I love is to produce a rich texture of sound where one can hear the cosmopolitan roots of our music within the tension between digital, analog, and acoustic sound sources in the band.
We are also singing more in English. This is kind of hard for me because on one hand, I love the melodious tones and expressive timbres of Mandarin, Taiwanese, and Hakka. On the other, I want our audience in L.A. to feel more connected to the content of the songs. Our sound begins and ends with multiethnicity. In many ways, we are intensely L.A.
I think the Save Music in Chinatown show is a pretty cool fit for the group. Do you have a take on this particular gig?
Wendy: We love that you’re fundraising for public arts education. We all work or have worked in education in one way or another. Defunding arts can deprive individuals at a community level. Every kid deserves to be empowered by music. Some of my fondest memories in school were from my middle school and high school orchestra.
Carey: As a band, we’ve had experiences playing for youth audiences. Last summer, we did a mini tour of local recreation centers: one in Highland Park, the other in Boyle Heights. It was amazing to see how the kids and their parents were engaged by the stories told through our songs. It felt like a co-exploration of narratives about migration, loss of home, and making new communities. We see this event as an unusual opportunity to bridge the contemporary arts scene in Chinatown and those who currently live and have lived here. We are excited to be a part of this cultural process.
It seems to me that your band is really into communicating with audiences rather than simply performing songs or developing your craft. What can we expect in your set? Any surprises?
Wendy: Our friend (and former bandmate from Dzian!) Jonathan Zorn will be making a guest appearance!
I’ve read a lot about your scholarly pursuits but there isn’t much about your musical tastes or fandom. Are you into Black Flag, Jawbreaker, and so on?
Carey: These are great bands and we love seeing how they develop over time. I like Dengue Fever, Bambino…
Linda: Teresa Teng…
Wendy: Spoeke Mathambo, Cibo Matto, songs from the Saharan Cellphone compilations…
Lam: My mom.
Wendy: My mom, too!
This is going to be rad and thanks again for playing our show! Got anything at all that you’d like to add?
Wendy: We are honored to contribute toward the great cause. Chinatown is not a cultural relic. It is a hotbed for L.A. arts and music. Let’s keep music alive Chinatown!