Tuesday, April 3, 2018

When You Want to Go Far, Go with People: A Chat with French Trip Hop Trio, Chinese Man


"The Chinese Man created power to celebrate the four energies with music: physical, intellectual, emotional, and sexual. Take your time, breathe, close your eyes, and listen." These words, spoken by Chilean-French filmmaker, Alejandro Jodoworsky, introduce Maläd, the 3rd song off of Shikantaza, the latest album by French trip hop trio, Chinese Man. 

Those words were also played to a crowd in Vancouver's Venue on March 31st, managing to silence a large room, and then proceeding to get fans howling and jumping in seconds. This is something that comes naturally to DJ Zé Mateo, High Ku, and beatmaker SLY. 

Formed in 2004, Chinese Man have been insanely popular players in the trip hop scene in Europe, known for their elaborate and active live performances with frequent MC collaborations, their own independent record label, and through various commercials that have utilized their songs. Noticing the concert line-up later on made me realize that their notoriety has traveled overseas to North America - with good reason. 

We had the chance to sit with the lads and discuss their eclectic process of searching for obscure vinyl to mix, political messages in their music, and recording with the legendary Jodoworsky himself. 


PP: Your album is inspired by a Zen Buddhism philosophy.  We heard that's how you like to live your life, so we're wondering, do you practice meditation actively?

High Ku: Not directly, a bit.

SLY: He's a zen monk!

High Ku: Now it's almost been...30 years.

PP: So, do you have any advice for someone who's looking to get into meditation?

High Ku: Not so much into that, but I've always talked a lot about zen philosophy with my father. It's kind of funny because I started this philosophy because people who practice that sort of thing won't try to explain it to you at all, it's really more so open minded and it's cool. My father gave us the name Shikantaza. We were searching for a name in Japanese and he gave us like 2 or 3 names and this one was really...it really stuck.

PP: Nowadays it seems like life is a constant competition of who is more busy and who is more stressed. It almost feels like you feel more successful when you're more stressed. How do you guys find that you slow down, and live in the moment?

Zé Mateo: We don't really have any other choice (laughs). Since the beginning we really take time to produce and when we are a trio, there's a difference, you have to focus, every time you decide to do something together it takes a lot of time. So there is a sentence, "if you want to go fast, go alone, and when you want to go far, go with people." 

High Ku: Scream it!


PP: We know you collaborated with Alejando Jodoworsky on your new album and that came about knowing his wife. We're also fans of his and would love to know what you've learned from working with him, did he teach you any of his philosophies? 

SLY: (points to Mateo) This guy was with him! 

Zé Mateo: I did the record with Alejandro at his place. His wife helped connect with him and I'm a big fan of this guy so yeah. We already used a sentence from one of his movies before, from El Topo, so it just made sense. It was really cool...in the beginning he tried to test me. (Laughs) "What do you want?" I was freaked out. My dream is failing! But after ten minutes of talking, he decided he's going to do it because he's a good person. And at the end of the interview he gave me a lot of gifts and we are big friends now! 

PP: You guys formed in 2004, which is around the time that Facebook was created. You're obviously a highly successful group now, and social media has boomed like never before. Do you like the concept of social media as a way to help your career? Do you even like social media?
SLY: We wouldn't be what we are now without internet. Maybe not necessarily this social media that we have now but Myspace really helped us! And yeah, so we started and we got connections with MCs in the US and other countries and we are, you know, a small and independent label, so for us it changed the whole music game. If you use the tool well, it's positive. 
PP: We know you listen to weird vinyls as prepwork for creating new  albums. How do you even pick these albums when you find them. Do you judge them by the cover or..? You can't really bring a record player to test these things.
High Ku: (grinning) You can bring your turntable, it can be really useful. No, but when they're really cheap most of the time we just choose by the cover.
Zé Mateo: "What"s that! What's that!"
PP: we're really happy you gave us that answer because...we have a gift for you. 
Chinese Man: (gasp), Oh wow! 
PP: It's old Pakistani disco.
Chinese Man: OOOOH SHIT. Nice! Thank you! 
High Ku: Thank you! I love this label! It's a good label.
PP: We were actually nervous, we thought you'd have this. 
Zé Mateo: Good choice! We have never gotten a gift. This is the first time since we've been a group that we've gotten a gift from an interview... After Jodoworsky's gifts! 
SLY: Thank you so much.
PP: Do you have any interesting stories about some weird records you've found. Like what's the most bizarre album you've listened to. So weird it wasn't even useable.
SLY: And that we use in our music? 
PP: It doesn't have to be! Something that maybe you couldn't use! 
High Ku: (Laughs) There is one. It wasn't a soundtrack. It was the sound of a movie. It was a porn movie, an old one from the 60s or 70s, in French. 
PP: Did you know what it was when you got it? 
SLY: No, no we found it by chance.
High Ku: It was just the dialogue. At this time, it was real movies, and there is a lot of dialogue and these were great movies and the dialogue is so funny! You can listen to it without watching so we spent hours listening to this trying to find something to use, something thats Shikantaza but no, nothing, not for this record.
PP: How has the tour been going so far? Do you have any crazy tour stories?
Zé Mateo: I mean it's just been a few days. San Francisco was great, yesterday was great! It was Seattle.  
SLY: It was a really small club, so it was packed, people were really close, it was really nice! But San Francisco was special. The city is legendary and we met this guy from Hieroglyphics, A-Plus that we used to listen to. He did a song with us so...
Zé Mateo: And that is only because at the beginning of everything we went to San Francisco just for holidays, coming back to the place where this kind of music that we were starting to do came from and we went to the venue where we played, it was so weird to come back now and be on the stage, it felt like we did it, we've made it. 
PP:  Is there a major difference touring in Europe as it is in North America? Do you think that North Americans respect and vibe with your multicultural inspiration as much as Europeans do?

SLY: Hmmm. It's hard to say, we've only done three shows. 

High Ku: The people who went to the show, they were really happy about what we're about! I think maybe it may be harder for us to become really big, as we are in France, and do the same festivals that we do in France to do here because the industry is quite different, I think. We have all this in Europe, all the venues, most of them have money from the city and government, so they can have this experience when you go to the venue and sometimes here you feel like its more underground and alternative stuff and people have to struggle to open venues. Like yesterday it was a small club and when we started it was crazy and the team was great.

SLY: And the thing is, we never released anything in the USA, no records at all, so it's like..

Zé Mateo: Like we start from the beginning again. Yeah, like he's talking about, we have more money and fans in France and we know it doesn't work like that here. You have so many artists so, it's more competitive. (points to all the posters in the green room


PP: We noticed some of your songs have political undertones, Warriors for example samples Malala Yousafzai's Nobel Peace Prize speech, you also speak with Jodoworsky who also has such bold messages in his movies. Are you trying to relay any sort of political message or activist message or is it subtle?

SLY: No, it's like you said...its, yeah, we don't want to be pushing anything directly. We have some messages and some stuff and the audience can take it or not. We don't want to be in your face political but subtle, and just the way we do music on an independent label and doing everything by yourself, it's enough and we hope that it's enough for people to understand the message behind our music. 

Zé Mateo: The fact that we are three, it's also a way to find an equilibrium in the message between us because we all have different opinions, it makes it a bit less direct.

SLY: A kind of balance between saying stuff and not too much.

High Ku: Usually we take some voices in the songs, the first thing is because we think it's a beautiful voice, not just for what they're saying.

SLY: Actually Malala and Jodoworsky, they are the only two with a message.

PP: So you've sampled a verse from Pulp Fiction, is there any newer film that's come out in recent years that you'd want to sample? Why?

High Ku: Most of the time we don't do recent movies, we did it with Pulp Fiction, we did it with Fight Club, because it's not so much often that you can find a movie where you like it a lot and it has soul and especially Fight Club as a movie where it was subversive, and yeah, it was a homage. A tribute.

SLY: But a recent movie we could use...it's difficult. 

High Ku: Fight Club was special. It's the scene where she's at the window with the kid and shes trying to make him go to sleep and they say good night, and this was so musical because she was saying a sentence and the child was saying the same sentence..but a recent film...?

SLY: I don't even remember what I've watched recently! 

High Ku: Actually there's one movie, one sentence from Darkest Hour, the movie about Churchill, he says, "stop interrupting me while I'm interrupting you!" Thats something you can put in a track easily.


PP: If there's any movie you could re-do the soundtrack to, which movie would it be?

SLY: Dracula!

Zé Mateo: Which one? The real one?

SLY: Yes!

PP: Finally, a piece of advice you have, any piece of life advice to give about anything at all.

SLY: Just take a deep breath!

Zé Mateo: Are you talking about the "meaning of life" type advice?

PP: Just anything, it could be like, roll your tooth paste bottle up.

SLY: Yeah! Brush your teeth every day! (starts singing "brush your teeth"

Zé Mateo: Usually when you're doing something creative, it's important to be focused on what you want to do, not what people want you to do. 

SLY: So brushing your teeth doesn't work...?

Zé Mateo: no no lets keep both!


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