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“Stay Ugly”: An Interview With Beijing Post-Punks Lonely Leary

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Chinese on Wooozy.cn, a blog dedicated to chronicling the history and lifestyle of new music from across China. It has been translated and re-posted here with permission, and edited for brevity and clarity.

This past weekend, post-punk band Lonely Leary played to a packed house at Beijing music venue DDC, the last stop on a 14-city release tour for their debut album. The band originally formed as college classmates in rural Shandong province, and moved to Beijing in 2014, attracted by the buzz surrounding underground rock venues such as XP and School Bar. They caught the attention of indie label Maybe Mars, and in April released their first album, Through the Park, Almost There, which has been described as “flashy as a buzzsaw under a naked bulb.”

Below is a long conversation that Wooozy had with the band before their tour began, touching on the band’s unique and explosive on-stage chemistry, the liquor-fueled recording sessions behind their debut, and the importance of “staying ugly”…

Lonely Leary (left to right: Qiu Chi, Song Ang, Li Baoning)

What are some bands that you all like? Was it because you have a similar taste in music that you started a band together?

Li Baoning, drums: It was because we play different musical instruments, we had some free time, and there was a show.

Qiu Chi, bass/vocals: I was about to graduate from college at that point. To me, it would be a regret if I never started a band after years of practicing guitar. To make my wish come true, in March [of 2012] I started Lonely Leary and planned a show before my graduation. Li was a junior, and [guitarist] Song [Ang] a sophomore. I didn’t know them very well.

So the band only existed for that one show originally?

Qiu: It kind of felt like it.

Song Ang, guitar: I thought we could keep it going.

Qiu: There was another thing that made me think that way — we played at another show after that one, and we fucked it up. I thought, “we practiced for months and played other people’s songs, and it turned out to be not great. No, we can’t do this.”

What was the first song you practiced together?

Qiu: “Stay Ugly” is the first one that we wrote ourselves. But the first one we played might be [a cover of early Beijing punk band] Underbaby. Maybe “Awaken” or “Seed”?

The first song on this album you wrote was “Stay Ugly” — what’s the most recent one?

Qiu: “Along the Youth Palace Road”It was written in summer 2016. Half of the lyrics were done during the recording.

What’s the difference between your work in 2012 and 2016 in terms of techniques, methods, and state of mind?

Li: From a student to a working adult.

Song: Where we live has some influence on us. The music that we are into is also different.

Qiu: It’s also about luck.

After so many years, have you started to agree with each other more in terms of music production?

Qiu: Not really, which is a good thing. If we know each other too well and try to fit our music into the others’, the music would be smooth but too similar, lacking creativity. Usually the “accidents” that we make are the best part.

So are you still enjoying creating such accidents?

Qiu: There’s no other choice.

​Qiu Chi (photo by Jiang Mengyang)

What have you been listening to recently?

Song: I listen to some Cantonese pop songs, or soundtracks from TV shows. I also put a certain Pavement album on repeat.

Qiu: John Lennon and Alpine Decline.

Li: I shuffle. Just listen to songs randomly for an hour each day. If someone has a new album I’ll listen to it.

I’m more interested in what Li and Qiu listen to, because the answers are surprising.

Li: I listen to music to avoid boredom, not to learn. Me, as a drummer, I make no effort to seek progress, I don’t strive to go further ahead.

Qiu: I’m more of the lead singer. Playing bass is just on the side.

But bass also has its special characteristics. It feels like you’re lighting a powder keg.

Li: Yes, he likes spicy food.

Song: Half a glass of spicy oil is the minimum.

Qiu: I play the strings very hard. There aren’t many complicated riffs or musical scales. I can’t sing properly if I put too much attention on the bass.

Do you write all your own lyrics?

Qiu: Yes, it’s all my work.

They’re very abstract. Most of the time you just use simple and short sentences to describe an obscure scene or space. There’s not a lot of continuity, but it also feels like a film. Where does your inspiration come from?

Qiu: From walking on the street.

What about your abrupt singing technique and the terse form of your language? 

Qiu: Singing is more about instinct, compared to playing an instrument. We usually put the guitar and bass parts together, and add vocals later. As a result, there’s not much space left for singing. After all, our songs are fast, and they sound like rap.

​Lonely Leary (photo by Songben Nanguo)

Did the album recording go smoothly? 

Li: Not at all. It was our first time recording. We thought our producer [PK14’s Yang Haisong] would give his advice once we were done with one song, but he didn’t. For the first few days we were confused, but also too shy to speak out. Yang said typically others are in a really good mood after recording, but we became more and more upset. Eventually Yang gave us some suggestions; after we were done, and we felt suddenly enlightened.

Qiu: Of course, he would bring it up when there were problems that needed immediate fixing. But other than that, there were no big issues. I thought I made some mistakes during the recording, but the finished work sounds normal. Because I didn’t have any experience in recording, I was so nervous and uncomfortable standing there. So I went to the supermarket to get some beer and liquor to make myself feel better.

Haha, the most rock ‘n’ roll drinks.

Qiu: When I couldn’t feel myself, but wasn’t quite passed out, I sang the songs several times and I started feeling better and better about myself. And then I sat in the control room until I got sober. It’s not a good way to do it, and I will change.

Song: It went well. The most impressive thing to me is that we listened to Dear Eloise sing Luo Dayou’s songs with Yang Haisong.

 

How did title of the record come about? And what’s the story with the cover picture?

Qiu: By accident. We started thinking about the title last year. Many possible ideas seemed too pretentious. One day I went to [Beijing suburb] Gaobeidian to take care of some of my business, which is close to Yang’s recording studio Psychic Kong, just across from Xinglong Park. [Fellow Maybe Mars band] Backspace were recording their CD so I stopped by to have a look.

I arrived there and talked to Yang about the title for a bit in the control room, before Backspace finished recording. When they saw me, they asked me where I came from. I said, I was in Gaobeidian. It’s very close, through a park, almost there. And there was the title.

What about the cover picture?

Qiu: A friend of mine who was studying in Britain posted some pictures of film rolls on Douban. Her friend bought them at a vintage market.

So nobody knows the real story behind the pictures?

Qiu: All we know is that they are family pictures taken by a guy named Augustin in the 1960s. They’re really well done, so I asked the friend to scan some and send them to me to use on our album’s cover and liner notes.

Lonely Leary fan brigade after a show in Wuhan

The feeling I get is similar to your lyrics: a scene, explicit scenarios but an unclear story.

Qiu: Yes, I think even if the stories are clear to you, you can depict them in an unclear way. The ambiguity is very thought-provoking. Nobody has the authority to explain the lyrics, neither the writer of the lyrics nor the audience.

Is there any coherent message in the album that you want to get across to your audience?

Qiu: I think the copywriting is accurate: “it’s an album that sings about winter stuff in the summer. It begins with the ash of a cigarette, white electronic lights, and a deserted season. It’s about an extended street surrounded by iron walls, about public spaces with long benches, and holly bushes, about cities and lands that no one has ever walked upon, and about every afternoon spent wandering idly.” I wrote that.

Who is Leary? Do you think everyone can have their own explanation of why he’s lonely?

Qiu: There’s a story about that. When our first show was approaching, the band didn’t even have a name. It was very urgent, so we went on Douban.com to watch some old animations to see if we could find anything. We found a video [with that Chinese name] and kept using it to this day.

Did you watch the animation?

Qiu: We did. It’s a short one, not bad. The tone is quite cold, not for kids. The Chinese name is too feminine, so we used the English last name Leary to change its gender. And it also refers to the LSD pioneer Timothy Leary.

Does anything change when you go on tour after a new album?

Qiu: We gotta play new songs.

Song: I got a new guitar that has better sound. I feel I have better control over the live effect I want.

Qiu: Song really likes his new guitar. And Li switched to the best-quality cymbal. Me? Stay ugly.

Listen to Lonely Leary’s debut album, Through the Park, Almost There, at the Maybe Mars Bandcamp page.

Cover image by Songben Nanguo

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Wooozy
    Wooozy (wooozy.cn) is a Chinese-language music blog. With in-depth writing, interviews and reviews, street-smart live events and a fiercely loyal community, Wooozy is dedicated to chronicling the history and lifestyle of new music from across China -- from the fringes of the big cities to the depths of the underground.

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