Friday, July 01, 2016

Tim Chan guitar-centric mini-interview, re: China Syndrome on Canada Day (with Two Apple Tobacco and the Sylvia Platters!)

I've been asking people if they think power pop gets taken less seriously in Vancouver than harder, more political punk - if that's maybe one of the differences between the Vancouver and Victoria scenes (because power pop seems to flourish over there). I put the question to Pete Campbell (of Pink Steel, the Wardells, and the Sweaters) and to the Pointed Sticks' Nick Jones, who both kind of agreed (though Jones doesn't much like the designation "power pop," it turns out, and only singles out a subsection of the Vancouver scene, aka "idiots" with revolutionary aspirations, as dismissing the form). Ford Pier, meanwhile - to whom I put the question while shopping at Red Cat - disagreed with me quite decisively, pointing to a number of successful power pop bands from here and elsewhere, who drew big crowds in Vancouver, like the Smugglers and the Fastbacks; he even remembered well-attended Cruel Elephant shows by the Young Fresh Fellows, who in my experience never really had a huge fan base here (the only fans of theirs I've met are in fact FROM Victoria).

The interesting thing for me is that in the course of the conversation with Ford, I had a realization: *I* didn't, for years, listen to much that could be called power pop. So maybe the takes-self-too-seriously snob I had in mind as a typical Vancouver punk was, in fact, myself? Thinking about it, I had a little shudder of self-recognition: I mean, *I* never paid much attention to the Pointed Sticks until they reunited, for instance - never owned Perfect Youth in my teens or 20's, or at least not for very long: it's possible that I bought it at a thrift store, played it once, and sold it to Ty or RPM or such the next time I came into Vancouver. I think I remember something like that. But that's about it: I never saw the Fastbacks or the Smugglers, and still don't own any music by them - just wasn't interested, despite their reps. Though I did love the Young Fresh Fellows - mostly thanks to the Replacements' Paul Westerberg, advocating for them in interviews - most of my punk tended to political hardcore, Crass and stuff like that. Locally, I was a big fan of the Subhumans, DOA, and, in terms of what was happening in town when I was actually seeing some shows, the Spores and Death Sentence and Slow (not political, but not pop either - if a band wasn't necessarily that political, that was okay, as long as they were on the heavy, dark side, along with other favourites of my teen years, like Nomeansno, the Flesh Eaters, Black Flag, Husker Du...). Hell, I didn't even like the Ramones very much. (And I liked Get the Knack, but the Dead Kennedys made me feel like I shouldn't, so I stopped). Guess I had a bad conscience about enjoying pop music, was mistrustful of its pleasures as a young man, didn't want to make things too easy on myself? If it sounded too much like something that COULD get on the radio - even if it didn't - maybe I was afraid it was all a lie, a trick, a sell-out, a swindle, a seduction? That I might get fooled into liking the wrong stuff?


Anyhow, happy to report that indeed if it was, in fact, me I'd been thinking of all along, I've gotten over it. I just spun all of Get the Knack with my girl yesterday and shamelessly loved it. And I mean, one of my very favourite local bands to see live at the moment is China Syndrome - a band with (that I've noticed) zero political content whatsoever (incidentally, one of Tim Chan's first big rock concert experiences was The Knack, he tells me). They do have their heavier moments - check out the opening riffage on "Corner of Gore and Pender" on their (just terrific) album The Usual Angst, and you half-expect Robert Plant to leap in and start screamin', like it's "Communication Breakdown" or something - but they also have gotten dubbed "Dad rock" somewhere (which they made plenty of during their Car Free day performances in front of Neptoon, lately, in proximity to Father's Day). I'm not sure what "Dad rock" means, exactly, but it's sure not something that's likely to burn down a church, blow up a missile manufacturing plant, or fling its feces into the audience, is it?

And what could be wrong with that?

Anyhoo, here are some outtakes from a chat I had with China Syndrome frontman Tim Chan, apropos of his gig tomorrow night (Canada Day) at the Fairview. We take in his time in 64 Funnycars, in Vancouver in the 1980's, and we also manage to address at least one confusion, because when I reviewed The Usual Angst for the Straight, I'd mistakenly credited Tim, not Vern Beamish, as the lead guitarist on "My Pal Dan," so I asked him to clarify which songs he played lead on (I think I'd only seen them live once at that point, at the Alex Chilton tribute I mention, and had just seen Tim doing lead guitar for a Gun Club tribute act, Sex Beat, a short while before I wrote that review, so I hope I can be forgiven for my confusion). There are a few big holes in the interview, but that's because there are pieces of our talk that might be appearing in print at a later date... it still is a fun chat...

And by the way, the more I listen to The Usual Angst, the more I like it. You can probably still find the limited vinyl that Tim had pressed - I think it was something like 200 copies - at stores like Red Cat. China Syndrome goes on at the Fairview tonight at 11pm (they're second on the bill, after the Sylvia Platters).

Allan: Do you agree that the Vancouver scene is harder edged than the Victoria one? That there's a kind of snobbery about power pop in Vancouver?

Tim: Well, you know, I think there's an audience for the power poppy stuff everywhere, even in Vancouver. But yeah, a lot of people on the scene I'm involved in in Vancouver is more old school punk. But a lot of them like that kind of music... Victoria, I dunno. It's definitely a lot smaller city, and it's on an island, so it's more of a concentrated and closed community, so people tend to talk about the music more with each other. And as Pete said, the Fellows would sell out in Victoria every time they were in town. They'd play two nights, and both nights would be crazy busy.

People seem nicer and happier on the island, too, though. I mean, my girlfriend is from the island, her parents live there still, so I've gone back and forth quite a bit. People in Vancouver seem to have a little more angst going on.

(Laughing - a bit nervously?). I don't think so!

Not that there isn't a lot of angst in your music. 

...the usual angst?

Yeah! So what was the biggest show 64 Funnycars played? 

We opened for NRBQ, which was a big show. We opened for the Pandoras, who are a classic garage rock band.

A girl group?

That's right. And the Buzzcocks, we opened for the Buzzcocks at Harpo's. That was 1991, on their first reunion tour. It was the three original members, and they had Mike Joyce on drums, from the Smiths. That was one of our last gigs, as the original 64 Funnycars. We were together from 1987 to 1992, and then we all moved to Vancouver and we reunited and played a bunch of shows about four or five years ago. We're kind of on hiatus again.

You were named for some sort of radio ad for a Seattle, what was it, a smash-up derby?

No, it was drag racing! They'd always say "64 funny cars!" In Victoria, you'd get all these Seattle radio stations, and they were better than the Victoria radio stations. So you'd hear those ads constantly - "Seattle International Raceway! 64 funny cars!"

When did China Syndrome form?

2005. I moved to Vancouver in 2003, and before I moved to Vancouver, the last four or five years I lived in Victoria, I wasn't playing. I jammed on and off with some people, but I wasn't in a band. And then I came over here, took a few years to settle down, and finally Eric Lowe from the Funnycars days said, "Hey, I've been jamming with some people," and we got together, and that's how China Syndrome came together.

How important was that Alex Chilton tribute gig that you guys played at? 

That was 2010, a bit later, but that gig was a pretty eventful gig, because that time - the whole group of bands, the people that I know in the punk music scene, that was kind of a time of cohesion, and I met a lot of people at that show that I know now fairly well, like - I don't know if you know Bob Petterson, he plays in a bunch of bands, he plays with Orchard, he plays with the Mud Bay Blues Band, he plays with Eddy D. and the Sex Bombs... he was in Buddy Selfish, with Ian from the Pointed Sticks. And that gig was sort of my intro to people like that.

Kind of your peer group...

...but people I hadn't met before. And Facebook helped, too, bring a lot of people together at that time.

Did you identify as a punk, on the scene in Victoria, as a teenager?

Yeah, I did, definitely. That was my scene. I wasn't really a huge part of the punk scene in Victoria, but I enjoyed going to the shows. I was a pretty shy guy, so I didn't really socialize a lot, but seeking out knowledge, reading about music, understanding pop music and rock music... I read voraciously about all the bands at that time, and I continue to do so. It's just constant, and it started back then.

What were you reading, Creem?

Oh yeah. Rolling Stone - Rolling Stone was a lot better at that time, Trouser Press... all that stuff.

What were you listening to as a young man? 

Well, if I start right at the beginning, because of my uncle [more on whom in said future article], the Beatles. They were my biggest influence I would say, and I still love and admire them. And in high school, I got into what is considered "classic rock" now, like Led Zep and ELO. And one of the things that was a huge part of my upbringing as a kid was just listening to AM radio, just growing up with that. It'd be on all the time, and I knew all the songs. And it was such a mix, then - you'd hear Aerosmith, and then you'd hear the Spinners, then Joni Mitchell... it was all over the map! That really helped influence me to also want to know more about music, because it was all so interesting. Everything's so formatted now, but it was so diverse at that time...


And I got into the Clash, got into the Jam [Tim tells me later he was lucky enough to see the Jam live, with Paul Weller]. Gang of Four. I think Entertainment is one of my all time favourite albums, even though the style of music I play now has nothing to do with it. XTC, some of their stuff is at the top of my list.

How about guitarists?

I tend to like the more under-rated type guitarists. Andy Gill is just incredible, he's a huge influence on me.

Did you go see them at the Venue, with Gill and his new lineup?

No! I saw them about ten years ago at the Commodore.

Beating up the microwave?

Yeah, yeah! That was amazing to see that, and they were great.

Do you have other favourite guitarists? 

Aggh... I always have a list, but now that you ask me... One person I like a lot is Terry Kath of Chicago, early Chicago.

I don't know early Chicago well.

Their early stuff is good, their first two albums. George Harrison, nobody talks about him that much, but I think he was an amazing guitar player. I thought Johnny Thunders was really cool. Richard Thompson... Will Sergeant of Echo and the Bunnymen... Al Anderson of NRBQ, Mick Ronson, Lou Reed...

You covered Squeeze's "Another Nail in My Heart" and Modern English's "I Melt With You" recently. Any particular reasons for those choices?

Sometimes we play dances, or long shows - sometimes we play three sets in a night, at a dance oriented event, and we thought we would learn some songs people would know. It's fun to record some covers. Usually whenever we go into the studio we record our own songs, but we thought we'd just do that for fun as well.

They're brilliant choices, though, because they're also kind of underrated songs. They should still be on the radio all the time. Like, 80's radio and nostalgia and that, they're playing Bob Seger's "Against the Wind" all the time, or super dull stuff like that, but the Squeeze song is gone. You never hear it. 

It was never a hit. I think sometimes a station like Jack plays that song.

But once every twelve years... You know they're coming, right?

Squeeze? Yeah, I got my ticket already! I've never seen them, that's one band  a lot of people I know have never seen. I guess they haven't played around here that often.

How did you hook up with Vern?

It was through Eric, when we originally formed China Syndrome. I didn't know him beforehand.

He plays leads on all songs?

No, we split the leads, it's just song-by-song. If you want to know who played the lead, you have to ask me!

Okay, tell me! (Hands Tim his CD).

Okay. "Corner of Gore and Pender," that's Vern. "October Mansion," that's me. "It's Happening Over Again" is Vern. "My Pal Dan" is Vern. "It Seemed Like a Good Idea" is Vern. "Pay to Play" is me... "One too Many" is Vern... "Happy Song" is me. Everything else is Vern, except "Humble Pie" is both of us.

Why "Corner of Gore and Pender?" What was there, or is there?

It's the entrance of Chinatown, but it's also Downtown Eastside-ish, and there's a feeling of hopelessness... a lot people feel that, what's going on, why can't the system help me, I guess I'll keep waiting.

Being stuck. 


The press release says it's about poverty. 


See, I hadn't been hearing it this way, I was thinking maybe YOU were feeling stuck!

(Laughs). Right, sure! That's a good reading. Maybe that comes out a bit, sure.

Because for such a pop album, there's a lot of darkness on this album - insecurity, frustration, confusion... angst!

Yeah, my lyrics do tend toward the dark, I would say. It's easier for me to go that way, for sure.

Is there anything in particular that was informing this album?

It's just about the usual angst! [Tim writes in his press release for the album that he was "wracking my brain trying to think of a title," when his wife asked him what it was about. He answered with "the usual angst," and they both thought it was funny, so he kept it.]

 What is "It's Happening Over Again" about?

I think I wrote in the press release that it's kinda of about geopolitics, and in a way it is. If you go back through history - the Middle East situation, say - we do the same thing over and over again, and nothing's been resolved.

Maybe it's me, then. I keep applying all your lyrics to you, keep taking your songs as being more autobiographical than they are... I was wondering what might be happening over again TO YOU. Heh. Anyhow, are you happy with where the band is at these days? 

Yeah! We all have fun, we all enjoy writing songs and playing gigs, so it's good!

Do you tour very far afield?

No, the island is about it. We had some thoughts about trying to apply to some festivals, and we did - there's always summer festivals around the province, that sort of thing - and haven't been approved for any of them, but we tried, y'know?

One thing that I think would be fun to have happen would be for you guys to play China. 

Ha ha!

There's a whole bunch of Vancouver bands that have played China. Unleash the Archers, War Baby - DOA have been to China twice! There's a magazine called Painkiller that's booking gigs over there. I think it would be awesome.

Yeah, sure, that would be really cool actually. I don't know what the other guys would think. But it's a funny thing that you mention China, because my wife's Dad lived in China in the 1980's, and he formed a band. They were one of the first rock bands to play in China.

What were they called? 

Beijing Underground. He was a teacher in China. And he formed this band with other teachers, and they toured around - with members of the party there; it was usually very stiff, but I remember they got some press at that time.

Were they from Vancouver?

They were from all over the place! They were all in China teaching English to Chinese people, in their spare time, and they realized that they were all musicians and they formed a band.

Was he also Chinese-Canadian?


Oh, okay. That would confuse some people, a band called Beijing Underground and they're white guys or somethin'! But it's interesting, there's a fantastic Beijing band playing the Rickshaw in October, Carsick Cars, and you gotta see them. 

They're from Beijing?

Yeah! And the singer Zhang has told me, when they play shows in China, they have to give setlists to the government to get pre-approval. There are songs they're not allowed to play, if I recall - there's a brand of cigarettes that has a name very similar to that of the Chinese parliament. "Zhong Nan Hai," that's it. So you can smoke cigarettes, or you can smoke the parliament. The government doesn't care for it.

Yeah, I seem to remember Sarah's Dad had to do that, too. That had to have things pre-approved, they had to be really careful.

I don't know how DOA managed.

Yeah, right! I know.

To come back to the album, can I ask about  the song for Steve Marriott? "Humble Pie?" Where did that come from?

Well, I'm a huge Small Faces fan, and my wife and I became obsessed with a couple of videos that have come on Youtube, of the Small Faces playing in Germany in 1966. Actually, we have them on DVD. It was on this German music show called Beat Beat Beat, and they were just amazing. Steve Marriott is a little white guy, but he has the soul of a bluesman in him, and he's a great guitar player, speaking of great guitar players, and you don't really hear about him. And this one particular performance was just so cool, so there's a bunch of references in the first verse of the song to that particular performance. And then the second verse talks about another performance he did when he was in Humble Pie, on The Old Grey Whistle Test. It's a BBC TV show from the early 70's, and he was on that show doing a song called "Black Coffee," and he had this back up band called the Blackberries.

Not the old blues standard, I think by Ella Fitzgerald...?

No, I think it's an original. But - they're three African American women who are backing him up, and he's just so part of them, like, he's in the same community as them in this performance. They're looking at him, he's looking at them, and they're flashing each other secret glances, and the chemistry is so great, in this video. And at the end there's this mellow guy, the BBC host - Bob Harris is his name - and he's like, "oh, this is Steve Marriott" - he's so proper, he's so mellow. So that's sort of what the second verse describe.

I think I might have started watching one of them. 

There should be a whole video of the Beat Beat Beat video, and you have to see the bit where the host comes in. He's American. Basically, all these bands went to Germany to play to American forces kids, because they bring a girl onstage and interview her, and they're asking questions...

I've actually neglected my Humble Pie. I know "30 Days in the Hole" more from a Mike Watt cover version... [Note: I came out of Neptoon on Car Free Day with the Humble Pie album that that song is on, and proudly displayed it to Chan, who approved].

We watched those videos over and over again. He's so cool, talk about being under-rated, very few people talk about him now.

He died really young, didn't he?

Yeah, I think in his mid-40's. He could have given a lot more. I know he had a lot of problems, the usual stuff - drug problems, alcohol problems, what have you...

Anything else we should say? Mike, your bassist, he's a new member, right?

Yeah, he's on The Usual Angst, but him and Kevin, the drummer, they've been with us for five years now. It's actually the most stable lineup we've had for China Syndrome.

Any future plans?

We have a bunch of new songs, now, and hope to have a new album, maybe next year. We're going to do some of them tonight. We're playing with a young band who apparently like us a lot, the Sylvia Platters will be starting the night. They're quite the fans of us. They're in their early 20's, and they called us out of the blue last year to play a show with them, and we did. And we just found out, they've been following us the last couple of years.

And the other band, Two Apple Tobacco? 

They're kind of like - I've heard them described as Frank-Zappa-esque, and there's like, a fiddle player, a trombone player; there's something like eight people in the band. It sounds really interesting, actually.

Are there other Bowie songs in the set, or was that just for the Bowie tribute night? 

We have been playing "Ashes to Ashes," and we had been playing "Let's Dance" anyways. It was kind of one of those songs we would add if we played a dance situation.

I really like your version of "Let's Dance," but it's weird, because it's one of those songs that's underrated by virtue of being a hit. Which doesn't make a lot of sense, but people are snobbish about that album. 

Yeah, right!

It was too successful.


Why did you pick "Ashes to Ashes?"

It's one of his greatest songs, I would say.

It's also very self-referential.

It's really cool how that is.

Is there any personal connection between you and that song?

I just like the song, but I do love the referential aspect of it, looking back, it was ten or eleven years after Space Oddity, and he's looking back... I think that's really cool, how he kind of continued the character and made him a junkie. And I guess with the video for Blackstar, he took it to its logical conclusion.

Below: hey, look, it's an ad! For all you "Ad Mistrusters" out there, note that I actually received no monies for putting this on my blog. (I have never received any $$$ from gig posters or banners I have put up here, though occasionally I *have* cadged guestlistings. I mean, I'm no saint.

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