Gong Gong Gong
August 3, 2023

My girlfriend Xiaoxi is a DJ. I’ve talked about this at least twice before on this website. Before I met her I didn’t go to clubs at all. I’d heard electronic music before — one might even say in great quantities — but like all music, I thought of it as something one listens to alone in the dark. As I write this she is trying to put together a set for tomorrow. She keeps describing her present as an unbreakable bottleneck. Whatever music she tries playing, it doesn’t feel right. Before every performance she sits on the sofa looking like she’s contemplating a murder. No one seems to like the songs she likes — at least not the way she likes them. Half the time when the dance crowd gets excited during her sets, it’s for filler songs that just happen to have a loud thumping bass. When she takes me to listen to other people’s sets, she keeps asking how the music they play sounds so good — so meticulously crafted. There’s a local Shanghai DJ that she often opens for, Ikke, who is the frequent object of her feelings of inadequacy, which I don't really get. Sensations from cartoons and video games leak into his music. Maybe I just find game music boring.

The other night there were two Japanese DJs, one with long hair and stubbly facial hair, and the other with shorter hair and glasses, both wearing Godzilla shirts. Ikke built up the crowd for them, then these two Japanese DJs shaped that crowd into a projection of their own personal dance fantasies, filtered through fraternal love. They played the role of two bros, just having the time of their lives in front of a turntable. The glasses guy had an Akai sampler that he’d play drumbeats on while the long hair guy did all the usual knob turnings and neck bobbings a DJ must do. A constant barrage of little sisters fought their way to the front to fight for the chance to whisper words into their ears. Xiaoxi and I observed the whole time, both pondering what made these guys such good DJs. I concluded it was simply the power of brotherhood. Xiaoxi concluded something else.

Ultimately Xiaoxi and I face the same problem. Our art forms are different, but everyday I’m asking myself the same questions. The kind of writing I want to make might differ from Xiaoxi’s music in the same way the kind of music I like differs from her music, but I too am stuck in my own bottleneck, fetishistically fantasizing about breaking that bottle against my head, imagining the relief I’ll feel as it shatters, its shards piercing my skin, my blood gushing out. It wouldn’t be the boring old blood I keep trying to turn into meaning, but a new kind of blood, something I can really work with.

It’s noon on a Thursday. I’m in one of my periods of trying to get up earlier. I’m still not quite used to the morning, so there’s a feeling of novelty about having been up so long, looking at the clock and seeing that it’s only 12:30. There’s so much time in the day left. Tonight I’m seeing Torturing Nurse — 9pm — so I have a little less than 9 hours to convince myself I did something meaningful with my day, before I will be forced to come to terms with my existence via a series of loud and frightening noises, echoed in the darkness.

For Xiaoxi, I think electronic music means the kind with pulsing drumbeats, or failing that, endless layers of Amen Break samples, covering every orifice of the sound. I guess one might call this dance music, though much of it feels too dark and weird to dance to. Not that I really dance to anything. For me, however, the word “electronic music” calls to mind stuff like Hiroshi Yoshimura’s Music for Nine Postcards, which I suppose we’d call ambient. This is music with melodies and no real drums, music you could imagine being played on piano, but through the introduction of synthesizers, exploits a control of sound and texture that traditional acoustic instrumentation doesn’t allow for. A young American hearing this for the first time in the winter of 2016, alone at 2am in an empty classroom of his college, drawing pixelly girls for a game he’s working on with his classmates, would immediately associate this music with other, older games. One hears a sort of electronic ambience playing in dark spaces of JRPGs, far away from the world of adventure the rest of the game takes place in, and imagines a whole universe of liminal spaces out of this music. Indie games and Roblox games have been made exploring those spaces, iterating on the handful of examples that come from the games of yore, imagining what it would be like if there were more of those. At some point the Japanese records that inspired this kind of music (records themselves inspired by the likes of Brian Eno), started getting thousands of likes on Youtube, showing up in everyone’s recommendations sidebar. Even if you’re not the kind of person who takes plane rides to Japan to visit every used book store and record store you can find, or even the kind of person who spends every afternoon looking through people’s libraries on Soulseek, you too can find this music, and realize that all along there was a fully developed world of sonic spaces for you to spend as much time in as you’re willing.

Noise is something else I think of as old Japanese stuff. I suppose this is somewhat justifiable, since many of the pioneers of the genre, such as The Gerogerigegege or Merzbow, are Japanese guys who started making music in the 80s and 90s, contemperaneous with City Pop. Noise is a world I’ve always wanted to enter, but have never been able to. I remember hearing Merzbow described as a vegetarian who creates music that feels the way animals feel as they’re being slaughtered. I remember a sentence I heard once, probably on one of the crazy conspiracy theorist’s website I sometimes got linked to from before I stopped eating meat, saying something along the lines of “The body of every animal you’ve ever eaten stays inside of you forever, screaming.” There are a lot of things inside of me, screaming — not just the animals I ate as a kid — so I’ve always assumed that noise is where I’ll end up before I die. I’ve listened to a lot of it, always wondering if this is the time I give up all other music, and devote my life to a thousand different timbres of scream.

Noise feels inseparable from electronic music to me. I went to noise and experimental music shows before ever really hearing Jungle, Acid, House, or any of the other genres of electronic dance music. I saw big machines with wires being used for loud noises, and figured this was the sole end of electricity. It was a revelation to hear electronics used for ambience for the first time. So I wonder about liminality, light sounds fluttering through the arctic air, like a rare breed of frozen butterfly, or sentient snow, and what their relationship is with the eternal screams that will never leave me?

I want to contrast all of that with Gong Gong Gong, Xiaoxi’s friends Tom Ng and Josh Frank’s band. I saw them last week at System, a venue Xiaoxi often plays at, and which will be hosting Torturing Nurse et al. tonight.

I’d listened to Gong Gong Gong’s album Phantom Rhythm many times before that night. It was one of those cases where Xiaoxi told me her friend had a band, I listened to them once, thought they were ok, and then suddenly started seeing their name everywhere. I’d see them in “If you like this, you might also like…” lists, people mentioning them on blogs, or even brought up casually in conversation. Each time they were brought up I’d listen again, and feel something new. Then last Friday I went in expecting the worse. We’d eaten dinner with Josh, the bassist, and he was complaining about how bad the PA was, how the people at the venue had no idea what they were doing, how bad this was going to sound. In the end I felt it went ok.

Every song Gong Gong Gong played prompted dancing. This drummer-less music somehow produced a reaction not unlike the dance music you’d hear any other night at System. Maybe dancing is just the way people react to music they like. Unfortunately I don’t really ever feel compelled to dance, so I just stood there passively. I felt I was standing on the bridge to hell. I was struck by how many misfit twenty-somethings plucked out of weirdo underground fashion magazines too cool for me to ever read there actually were on this bridge with me — their bodies destroyed and their souls damned to hell, with whatever remained of my own soul lost in their midst — their rocking corpses pushing me forward to our eternal fate. Tom sang in his melting Cantonese that I couldn’t understand. Josh’s bass felt like a keyboard lead, and the guitar felt like some other instrument entirely.

When I think of the immense discomfort I have to endure each time in turning my incoherent thoughts into something remotely resembling art, I can’t help but ask: What kind of clawed nightmare creature had to stick its hands in Tom and Josh’s collective birth canal to tear out the fetus that became this music? Did it hurt?

There isn’t exactly any screaming in Gong Gong Gong, at least not the sort of screams dead animals trapped deep in your bone marrow make. Others have compared their music to galloping horses. To me, their music feels something more like a cheese grater. If you rub a cheese grater against your skin long enough it starts to hurt, but the key phrase is “long enough”. Just a few seconds of light cheese grating can be pleasant. The first girlfriend I ever had when I was 18 had some special cheese grater for her feet that she referred to by a more marketable name than “cheese grater for your feet.” Sometimes in the middle of a conversation or while listening to the bubbling indie post-Shibuya-kei Japanese pop she liked, she’d grab the cheese grater and start rubbing it against her soles. Gong Gong Gong makes me imagine a future version of my ex-girlfriend, one who is on the streets after losing all her friends and family to her cheese grater addiction. She can’t stop grating. Her butt is on the cement sidewalk, her feet resting on a little plastic stool she’s set up in front of her, and she’s bent over, grating and grating. She persists after the warm tingle is gone and that looping motion produces only sharp pain. I could appreciate that pain, I think. Maybe slowly watching my body be grated away is exactly the punishment I deserve. In my imagination, this ex-girlfriend of mine handling the cheese grater has been grating for decades now, and she’s settled upon a certain rhythm, the same rhythm that gets chopped out by Tom’s pick against the muted strings of his guitar.

A reviewer of Gong Gong Gong’s album Phantom Rhythm stated that every time he recommends the band to friends, they assume this music must have come from Xinjiang or Inner Mongolia, for only places like that could have produced this sound. I don’t quite understand this. I mean, I understand where the logic is coming from: it’s an extension of the horse metaphor. The music sounds like horses, and Mongolia is a place one imagines horses riding free. I don’t really get what lies in the comparison beyond that though. Why does this music, raw, yet stripped down to its barest essentials, have to have the sense of distance to it that is insinuated by bringing up autonomous regions at the edges of China?

Maybe it’s not much different from when I showed a friend of mine pictures I took back when I lived in Wisconsin. She said it looked like Inner Mongolia. She joked about a wild and free life I must be engaging in, herding goats and cows on the steppes. It had never really occured to me that someone might say something like that. I associate rural life with crappy run-down strip-malls at the edge of civilization, not wide open fields and horses. If Gong Gong Gong is Mongolia, and if Mongolia is Wisconsin, then I’d have to compare sound of Gong Gong Gong with something like the plants breaking through the cracks in the faded-white asphalt parking lot outside of a vacant grocery store next to Half-Price Books. Does that metaphor work? I imagine the average Chinese listener has quite a different chain of associations running through their brain.

The next day after Gong Gong Gong’s show, when we were talking about Beijing, Hong Kong and America, Tom said he didn’t like America very much. I instinctually agreed with him. I don't like America either! Then the conversation went somewhere else, and after there was no room for return, I started to wonder what America he was talking about. Is it the same America that we both hate? Or are we hating on different places? I wondered if the America he knew was the same America that fills my own nightmares, that I find a portion of my soul returning to every time I find myself writing in English. I’ve more or less given up entirely on speaking English aloud ever again, but it remains as a kind of literary language for me, not unlike Latin in the middle ages. This is perhaps a punishment for my Chinese not being good enough to express myself to my satisfaction.

When I listen to Gong Gong Gong, on the other side of having seen this music played live, as it actually is, I wonder if there’s anywhere Tom returns to, singing in his own native language, after having lived so long in a city called Beijing. Beijing is nothing but a two week fever dream to me. If you ask me to summarize a few of my memories, all I can think of is pushing through the curtains hanging from bathroom doorways on subway platforms and squatting behind barriers that only hide the lower half of my body as I poop. I’ve heard what Beijing means to Tom, Xiaoxi, strangers on the internet, or even what it means to Lin Haiyin, who wrote a famous book about her childhood in Beijing — but all of that is just words. Whatever dreamlike images there are still persisting in my own brain, images that don’t quite feel like my own experience, but like the experience of another injected into my brain -- they do nothing to help me understand the feelings of others.

Most things I encounter, most art I engage with, comes from a context I can’t even begin to imagine. That’s fine. I don’t worry, for instance, that I’ll never see whatever village(s) inspired the imaginations that led to the lyrics for Happy End’s song Natsu Nandesu. However, every time I spend some time with a body of work and then actually meet the real people responsible for it, my lack of understanding becomes much more palpable. The music as an abstraction turns into an extension of a very real person, someone I could reach out and touch if I were willing to sacrifice all social norms of talking with strangers. I feel embarrassed for not even knowing what questions to ask. Sometimes you don’t need to ask questions — you can just listen to others’ conversations. This is what I often find myself doing. Though every word I hear increases the tension I feel — I know I’ll never hear enough for my own satisfaction. Time is limited, and I always fail to ask what I’m most curious about. Listening to music ends up being an exercise in speculation and projection.