Is Carsick Cars the biggest independent band in China? Possibly, and they’re probably the best-known Chinese band in the U.S. as well. With the gorgeous drone of the Velvet Underground, experimental edge of Sonic Youth, and a touch of Kraftwerk, the group has familiar (and impeachable) elements for Western ears. I saw them at Los Globos last week during their current North American tour promoting 3, the new LP engineered by Hamish Kilgour from The Clean and mixed by Sonic Boom from Spaceman 3. Afterward, I had a short conversation with the band’s founding member, guitar player, singer, and leader, Zhang Shouwang.
The new album sounds great and so did last week’s show. How has the new lineup’s sound developed since getting together?
We spent a long time to create the chemistry, learn, and record. I think because we spent so much time at it, we feel comfortable with each other. We’re very stable and the two new members bring a lot of fresh ideas.
You knew the guys before, right?
It’s a small music scene in Beijing, and everyone sees each other all the time. After the last Carsick Cars group broke up, I had already played for fun with He Fan from Birdstriking and it was very natural for him to play bass in the band. It took more than two drummers to find Houzi. The rhythm of Carsick Cars is simple, but it’s not like anyone can do it. The other drummers didn’t really know how and had their own style.
You always play with the coolest drummers.
Wang Xu in White+ is the best drummer in Beijing. Most drummers there just play rock but he pays everything, such as jazz.
White+ has a really noisy, really experimental style, which Carsick Cars is more rockin’. Is it a challenge to play two such different types of music at the same show? Do you prefer a break between bands or is it easier to go back-to-back after you’re already warmed up?
We played two shows in a row last year and it was a real challenge. This time we have Flavor Crystals and they always play second so I can take a break.
Do you need those breaks to get some rest? To clear your head?
Last year was so hard. With White+ I had to figure out what buttons to push and my brain didn’t work any more afterward. And if used too much brainpower I’d run out of energy for Carsick Cars, which is more physical. But the most important thing about humans is that we can adapt.
Everyone who describes Carsick Cars (including me) brings up the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth. That isn’t a bad thing but what are some newer bands that you like?
I haven’t heard a lot of new bands but I really Ponytail. Dustin Wong is a really interesting guitar player. We played together in Baltimore and he’s really great. Dan Deacon is really great, too.
You’re an East Coast guy…
Well, No Age is pretty good!
Has playing the U.S. become “normal” for you after a handful of tours?
It’s different from the first time we came. The first times were East Coast. This time we’re in Portland and Seattle. The culture is quite different, and it’s important for us to be here.
Do the U.S. shows you’re playing seem small compared to the ones you play in China?
In Beijing we played our record release show and 1,200 people showed up. That is the music center. And there are a lot of big stages in China–more than 100 cities have more than a million people–but the youth culture is pretty bankrupt. We go to small cities and it’s cool to see Chinese kids into this kind of music.
Actually, touring in China is not that different than touring the U.S. We don’t know our country that well. Beijing is the most international city but other cities are so different. They even speak different languages. It’s not just about touring it’s getting to know our country. We do that in America, too.
You’re wrapping up the West Coast but still have Canada and the East Coast before going home. What’s the first thing that are you going to do when you get back to China?
We tour for two more weeks in China and in the middle we play a stadium show. It’s a big deal but I don’t know how it will turn out. It’s weird for us and we still have to prepare.
Look for Carsick Cars dates (including Canada and the East Coast tour legs) at carsickcars.com.