Alpine Decline interview. Alpine Decline is an alternative/noise rock guitar+drums duo (Pauline Mu, Jonathan Zeitlin) based in Beijing since 2010.
The band relocated from Los Angeles to China attracted by the city’s brimming underground music scene. During their time in China, they formed a close working relationship with a legend of the Beijing indie scene, musician and producer Yang Haisong, an unofficial third member of the band helping guide their path from Beijing back to LA in 2016. Their new album is For the Betterment of Well People.
What’s the origin of the name band?
JONATHAN: Thank you for chatting with us and sharing our new music!
After the last band Pauline and I were playing in broke up in a pretty fiery way in the studio, we took a 6-month break from playing music and from the LA music scene and literally spent most of that time hiding out in the high Sierra Nevada mountains. Up there I guess you could say we had what used to be called ‘ecstatic visionary experiences’ that we thought would be the core of our new music – kind of the reverberations of primal reality expressed through nature.
But then when we came back to start writing and recording we found the concrete jungle and tangled social currents of the city infected our sense of celestial enlightenment. Less glowing heart and more iron lung.
Then we realized – almost like an epiphany – that this collision of the grime and the sublime was exactly the space we wanted our music to come from. Our identity as Alpine Decline suddenly became very real and tangible to us. The name itself came as almost an afterthought at that point: a super accurate and simple name that captured this gutter-meets-the-galaxy vibe and had a nice phonetic jangle.
Yang Haisong’s steadfast hand behind the dials have added a constantly expanding layer of depth and substance to the band’s work, which is grounded in intensely personal digestion of the swirling cultural malaise of the day, dueling themes of lies, love, and trust, but always uplifted by a romantic, desperate mission to shape beauty from the chaotic noise around them.
When did you start to get into music? How did you meet?
We are both cradle-to-the-grave musicians. Pauline and I both started playing at 4 or 5 and focused on music at the expense of pretty much everything else ever since then.
When I was 20 I took out an ad in the classified section of a free LA newspaper advertising myself as a guitarist with some big Marshall amps looking for a band. Pauline was playing drums in a band that had fired their guitarist while recording their debut album and needed someone to fill in for the release tour.
We played in several bands after that – for many many years just as bandmates – and then we started to feel like we wanted something different out of music than the people we were playing with. So we started hanging out together just the two of us for the first time and making weird records on the side. And then somehow we fell in love and then a few years later started Alpine Decline.
What are the main influences on your sound?
We come from a rock background: songwriting and good lyrics, live instruments, a bit of chaos and recklessness. Over the years our personal fascinations tripped through genres and artists – Paisley Underground, Dylan and Iggy, shoegaze and dungeon drone, Saint Julian Cope, fried jazz and ambient abstractions, girl groups and soul, Fela Kuti and the Boredoms… whatever seemed to have somehow tapped into the infinite for some quick-burning flash of inspiration.
But I think we’re particularly proud of creating writing and recording processes that kind of shield us from direct musical influences on our sound. When we’re working on an album we’re manipulating our experiences and environment to create the songs and sound, so it doesn’t make any sense to say something like, “Let’s give this a [NAME OF ARTIST] vibe!” That would be kind of absurd. It’s more like scoring a movie we’ve written together in our minds and conversations with each other.
How did your sound change by moving to China?
I mentioned our writing process is centered on manipulating our experiences and environment – kind of like blasting this personal stuff through a prism and then using the separated colors to paint some stories or emotional situations that are more less specific to our particular situation and maybe a bit more exaggerated and cartoonish or cinematic.
So when we moved to China – and the East 5th Ring Road of Beijing specifically – this source material changed dramatically. The physical and social environments of LA and Beijing are totally different. Our social relationships and interpersonal interactions in general had a different set of parameters. So the emotional landscape and the kinds of fears and passions and pressures and releases were all likewise different. Of course, this manifested itself in the sound itself when we planned each recording.
I hope people catch the message that it is through adopting a process of ritually altering your life – through any door – that you can better yourself and break beyond a reality that, frankly, is crushing all of us right now.” — Alpine Decline
What are the main differences between the Beijing and LA music scenes?
Both cities are similar in that they attract some very intelligent and visionary and creative people – and you will meet some similar types of personalities in both scenes. But otherwise, these two scenes are dramatically different in so many ways.
LA’s music scene mirrors its geographic sprawl. It’s like an absurdly massive library with no catalogue system. Hundreds and hundreds of scenes – stacked, overlapping, separated by universes.
The other very important difference is the temperament of these two places is completely different. Beijing is a cold Northern city, full of long shadows and gusts of cold wind through overly massive city blocks, political by industry, with a certain sense of consequence to everything – including the music scenes.
LA has a warm and blissful climate – a surreal combination of mountains and beaches and deserts and technicolor sunsets – which of course seeps into the music. It’s the dream factory, home of Hollywood, so for better or worse there are no effective checks on your vision, no overarching cultural standard to hold oneself to. It offers people the environment to enact a complete fantasy.
Where was For the Betterment of Well People recorded?
Part of the concept of For the Betterment of Well People was to build up a big band with California musician friends and take them into a big classic LA recording studio. The idea was then Pauline and I – together with Yang Haisong flying in from Beijing – would smash into this warm sunny scene with our own Stranded Star Travelers from Another Time vibe.
We scouted out a bunch of amazing LA studios with strange cryptic histories and roots back to deep musical lore – Beach Boys, Pink Floyd kinda thing. We ended up choosing InfiniteSpin – a “drummer’s studio” previously owned by Sheila E. In typical LA studio fashion, it was a warm wooden ark in a nondescript building. An absolutely beautiful studio where it was easy to catch sparks.
Did the COVID-19 pandemic have any influence on the sound of your album?
Actually, this album was written and recorded entirely before COVID! So on the one hand it’s actually the embodiment of what we miss and craves the most during the pandemic: it’s a big group of fun and talented people – musicians, producers, engineers – getting together in a beautiful studio and trying to create some powerful magic in the room.
On the other hand, the subject matter of the songs is particularly relevant and applicable to this moment. Not in a prescient way about the pandemic, but on this album, we’re focusing specifically on how you might break out of and redefine your reality – and the potential risks. The pandemic has made us feel like we have no agency to control our future or the society around us, but we had some big ideas about this before COVID that surface between the lines on this record.
Can you share with us a story from backstage?
Oh lord! Well in 17 years of playing shows and touring together Pauline and I have been through quite a lot. But the big secret is that backstage is rarely the place where any interesting stories happen. Before the show usually people are either trying to get a little bit of sleep or get loaded to break the boredom of touring and get up emotionally for the performance. Afterwards it’s usually rare to want to hang out backstage when you have precious few hours to blast out into the city for some fun or release before the wheels start turning the next morning.
HOWEVER: I’ll admit sometimes the efforts to get up for the show lead to good dirt for a rock tell-all memoir — some crazy story like taking too much acid, stealing 4 gallons of milk from the venue kitchen, pouring them out on the dressing room floor and laying down and making “milk angels” (like snow angeles, but with milk, get it?), and then playing a set that was either 1 song for 10 hours or 10 songs in 1 minute.
But usually, nothing interesting happens backstage. Trust me.
What’s your next project?
While quarantining during the pandemic we bought a polyphonic synth called the Waldorf Blofeld, and at some point, we started making up this imaginary new female-fronted band called Today’s Kids. We then started recording an imaginary album for them, made entirely with the Waldorf Blofeld, called “Where’s Waldorf?”. It was just some cabin-fever dream, but now these files exist on our hard drive, so maybe it will come out in some form in the real world.
But otherwise, we have begun writing our next Alpine Decline record, which we envision as another big beautiful collaborative magical effort. We’ll be ready when the curtain lifts on this pandemic and we can do what we do best again.
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CHINA-UNDERGROUND. Matteo Damiani is an Italian sinologist, photographer, author and motion designer. Matteo lived and worked for ten years in China. Founder of CinaOggi.it and China-underground.com.