Today we’re bringing you something a little bit different to the usual shaman fodder in the form of two piece alt grunge rockers Fuck Your Birthday featuring Christopher Henry (guitar) and Roman Meisenberg (drums). Although brought up in the US, the duo currently live and work in Lucheng (Deer City) District of Wenzhou, China, so when the opportunity arose to not only premiere the video for The Plan but also interview them, I couldn’t say no.
Now click play and watch the Lynch inspired video for their track The Plan (filmed pre-lockdown), which can also be found on their split with Space Monkey, that’s out now via Nefarious Industries. Then read on to find out what life has been like for two American’s living in a country where the COVID-19 outbreak started and where the government (rightly or wrongly) went to great lengths stop the spread of the virus.
You’re both Americans living in Wenzhou, China, which outside Wuhan was the worst affected city in China with COVID-19, so how has life been treating you during this time and are restrictions now being lifted?
Chris Henry: At last! Wenzhou gained a bit of notoriety on the global stage! Haha. Fortunately for us, we weren’t living in one of the worst affected areas of Wenzhou. We’re in Lucheng (Deer City) District, which is probably the most developed district. You’d figure that would’ve made it a hotbed of sorts, however, as I understand it, there were more cases in the outer counties of Wenzhou because there were many workers from Wuhan (or thereabouts) returning to these places after Chinese New Year. Restrictions have been gradually lifted since March 1st.
Just this week, Roman and I returned to our teaching jobs. Cinemas are still closed though, and we definitely miss ‘em, but we have game-nights with our kiwi-buddy, Max, which helps fill the void. He’s introduced us to a bunch of fun boardgames (e.g. Welcome To, The Quest for El Dorado, Concordia). And we still have our health, so all and all, we can’t complain too much.
Roman Meisenberg: Life has been a pretty wild ride since the virus hit. It was tough to adjust to everyday life coming to a sudden halt, but, honestly, for me, it was kind of exciting to watch it all unfold here. Thankfully, Wenzhou is pretty much back to normal. Besides cinemas, some buses still have a limited schedule and we’re still required to show a green QR code (shows health status) to enter certain facilities or communities.
The Chinese government seemed to be more proactive (some might say draconian) in tackling the outbreak and social distancing compared to the western world, did it feel like you were living in a dystopian world at times?
RM: Walking around the city during the height of the lockdown was definitely dystopian. There were roadblocks everywhere, some were even built out of piles of share-bikes, the streets were eerily empty, and there was a general air of uncertainty. From the moment Wenzhou had a spike in cases, the city was very quick to act. Apartment complexes and urban neighborhoods were blocked off and only one person per household was allowed out every two days to get takeout or go to supermarkets. We had a small slip of paper that community volunteers would sign and date when you came and went. Luckily for me, my neighborhood had a sizable amount of space to wander and explore, with fruit shops and convenience stores still open.
Chris’ apartment complex only had a courtyard to wander around in. On the days we couldn’t go out, we weren’t entirely cut off from food, delivery workers were the unsung heroes of the lockdown. They worked all day and night, taking on risks, while making sure the city could eat. Buses were initially limited in operation in the beginning of February, however, within a week or so, were entirely shut down. Say what you will about digital privacy, but one of the more effective responses out here was leveraging mobile/surveillance data to trace potentially infected citizens and put them into quarantine. Some local hotels were quickly converted into quarantine facilities, allowing the city to handle the demand with ease.
CH: Sometimes living in China feels like living in a dystopian world anyway. Like, they’ve got reminders hanging above the urinals that say: “向前一小步，文明一大步,“ which means: “A small step forward, a giant leap toward civilization.” Plus all the censorship shit too. Just recently our distribution services have reached Chinese and Russian music streaming apps, and on the app here that I use, our name is: “**** Your Birthday.” But China is still a cool place to be. You don’t need to carry around a wallet cuz everywhere from IKEA to local shops to beggars on the street accept mobile payments. And the cities are conveniently connected via high-speed trains and public transit. About the quarantine though, it definitely happened fast, like, within a week from personally hearing about the virus, the city went on lockdown. The strictest period of it lasted a few weeks and the city has just been reopening slowly ever since then.
Although still unproven, opinion seems to be that the pandemic started in a wet market (if we ignore any alt-news or conspiracy theories for the sake of the question) so out of curiosity, have you ever visited one of these markets and are they as cruel as they seem to a non-meat eating outsider looking in?
CH: These kinds of wet markets are all over Wenzhou. I’d say there are 3 or 4 of them within a 3km radius of my apartment. The one I usually go to has great prices and really fresh veggies. For me, the smell in the meat section is too strong, so I just go over there quickly to buy eggs and bounce. Also, Roman and I both have a pretty vegetarian diet so we don’t spend much time in the meaty area of the wet markets.
RM: Personally, I love shopping at wet markets. There’s usually a larger variety of produce, tons of vendors to choose from, and once you get your routine down, it’s a smooth operation. Most of the wet markets are well maintained, clean, and I never see a reason not to go back. Like Chris said, some of the meat areas can be a bit unpleasant (and not just the sight of meat). Other than seafood, I haven’t seen live animals in the large wet markets here in Wenzhou. You can come across more live animals in smaller shops, rural areas, or older and more traditional parts of town.
What with internet restrictions (censorship?) in China, how easy have you found it to get your music out to, and communicate with, fans in the western world? Is it just a case of using a VPN/Proxy or is it not as restricted as we’re led to believe?
CH: VPNs are pretty much a necessity for us over here. I’ve got one I pay monthly for that usually works well. I mentioned before about how the Chinese music app censors our band name, and when we do shows here we’ve started billing ourselves as FYB. Last summer we had a funny, potentially scary, snafu with having Fuck Your Birthday on a flyer for a couple shows that were dated not long before the PRC’s 70th birthday. The flyer set a butthurt train a’chuggin’ and eventually got reported to the cultural bureau. Then in a group chat they alerted people not to hire us for performing and that message got screen-cap’d and shared on Weibo (China’s Twitter). Things started stirring up, and police called the other band on the flyer (Space Monkey) to figure out what was going on. The two shows were cancelled, but we managed to salvage one by turning it into a free show at a local band rehearsal studio. Shoutout to Sunny Heart in Guangzhou!
RM: I use a couple of free VPNs and generally don’t have any issues accessing the things I need that are blocked. There are restrictions, but they are mostly site based. Things like Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Wikipedia, and a handful of news agencies are the biggest sites blocked. It can get a bit annoying at times, but, the worst of it is just having to switch the VPN on and off.
While in the height of lockdown, were you able to practice and write new music, either together or independently? What difficulties did you experience?
CH: Unfortunately, the studio we usually practice in was closed for all of February and some of March. But since then, we’ve been practicing and writing new songs for a proper follow-up to our full-length Touchless Automatic. However, back in February, I challenged myself to cover 11 songs (one from each year 1995-2005). My intention was to cover them as closely as possible to the originals and study the song writing strategies and production techniques used. I released Quarantined Covers on February 29th under my (somewhat) solo project’s moniker, Humans Etcetera.
RM: Just before things escalated here, we were super pumped and ready to continue working on the next album. It was a bit of a bummer to have to take so much time away from that. I didn’t do much with music during the lockdown, I developed and taught a few online photography courses and binged tons of action movies. Snacking hard and beer were involved as well, not so proud of that, but it was awesome.
With gigs, tours, and festivals being cancelled around the world, how do you think the music community has responded to lockdown and how do you see the future?
RM: The music industry definitely took a major hit as a result of the virus and restrictions. It’s been hard to see so many friends have to sideline tours, lose work, and take financial hits. I really hope things can get back to normal sooner than later. On a more positive note, there have been some pretty awesome alternatives to performing in front of a live audience. There are streaming music festivals (Socially Distant Fest is a great example) and musicians boosting their social media content with play-throughs and sessions. Nothing beats the experience of a real live show, but, going forward, I think this really opens up a lot of opportunities for sharing music/live experiences for the music community and fans.
CH: I was in different stages of planning tours with all three of my active projects (Humans Etcetera, Polyphozia, and Fuck Your Birthday). The virus has forced us to cancel/postpone all of that. I hope the future can hurry the hell up so we can get back to traveling and playing music on stage again.
Today, it’s our pleasure to premiere the video for your track ‘The Plan’, and although funny, it’s also a little creepy (in an entertaining way), so can you tell us the thought process behind it, and does it tie in with the lyrics? [Spoiler Alert!]
RM: I’m glad you find the video to be creepy, mission accomplished. So, during our tour last summer, we visited our close friends, Montse and Josh, in Puebla, Mexico. They are both creatives and we knew it would be such a fun project for us to collaborate on, especially since we don’t get to see each other often. We woke up one morning (12:30pm) and challenged ourselves to develop and shoot the video in one day.
We brainstormed a few ideas, put together the resources we had, and this eerie story unfolded. Montse is a professional photographer (@montserratorresphoto), so it gave us an easy concept to work with. Her husband, Josh, who’s a ceramics artist (@joshsgreenplanet), was also featured in the video as the supportive (perhaps too supportive) partner to Montse’s character, and he helped with a lot of the filming. Once we started filming, we took it scene by scene and worked against the clock as the day drew closer to night. The song ends with a brutal double murder, but we didn’t want the video to end there. The classic “washing blood off in the sink or shower” felt like the right thing to close with.
While we filmed the shower scene, I noticed the electric blue lights glowing out of their bedroom. This inspired us to tap into our inner David Lynch and create a sinister resolution to the plot. But, in reality, that whole day was just a doobie induced blur of collaboration, and this music video is the end result.
CH: Like Roman said, we were a little high… but as I remember it, we actually did write up a story outline with time markers and all that good stuff. However, the story ended up mutating while we were filming it. We just kept joking around until eventually someone said, ‘What if Josh fucking kills us for being jackasses to his wife.’
We were coming up with new ideas while filming, which resulted in some funny mistakes and happy accidents. For example, the first trunk transition (Montse taking out her photo gear) was an unintentional foreshadowing. We did not know we’d be in that trunk a few hours later for the second trunk transition, with Josh closing it on us. Furthermore, we had to pretzel ourselves into the trunk twice because we forgot to film it the first time.
Regarding the lyrics, the song is about what it’s like to work a shitty job and have no future in it. Of course, the video doesn’t entirely parallel the lyrics, but it references some of the themes, such as the daily grind, commuting, shitty clients (i.e. us), and so on. Also some of the lyrics, on a literal level, influenced the scenes in which we were choked to death and ultimately died young.
And finally, what are the future plans for Fuck Your Birthday?
FYB: We will continue to make music, on and off, for a long long time…