China Syndrome: Hiding In Plain Sight?

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      China Syndrome’s Hide in Plain Sight—the fourth LP from the Vancouver unit, fronted by former 64 Funnycars co-founder Tim Chan—continues to showcase superb songwriting, the record following up 2015’s The Usual Angst with songs every bit as engaging, tuneful, angsty, and varied in their influences.

      There’s a mix of bouncy pop, power pop, classic rock, a weirdly mathy guitar doodle about chafer beetles, and even a bit of funk, mostly courtesy of Mike Chang’s bouncy basslines. Plus there are a few obvious oughta-be hits (like “Nowhere to Go,” my fast first favourite off the album, which you can hear on the band's website) that could and should be getting radio play, if only rock radio wasn’t such a ho-hum wasteland of generically frilly pop confections and horseshit.  

      One can’t help wonder if the title is a commentary on the band being a bit, say, under-appreciated in their hometown, because if there’s any band in Vancouver who is hiding in plain sight, it’s China Syndrome.  

      “Yeah, the title can be a bit of a commentary on our status in the ‘music scene,’” Chan acknowledges over the course of an email interview. “We're doing our thing here and we've been here for a while but we still seem to be relatively unknown overall. We are touched to have a small core group who have been coming to most of our local gigs over the past few years—a great bunch of people and we really appreciate them!”  

      However, Chan continues, that’s not the primary meaning of the title, which comes from a song on the album, “Outta My Head.” “The song is ostensibly about falling down the social media wormhole and spending too much time looking up people and things. But how much do you really know someone based on their Facebook or Instagram feed? So much of it is carefully selected events and things…”

      Chan is pretty skilled at incorporating modern technology (and it’s human uses and abuses) into his songwriting, actually—he’s kind of the William Gibson of power pop, that way. “Nowhere to Go,” for example, which is about facing the workday grind, begins with a line about his iPhone alarm waking him up. Cell phone alarms are a regular feature of contemporary life, but they’re something I’ve yet to hear mentioned in any other song lyric. The immediacy of the image as storytelling, and Chan’s skill at pouring his frustrations and uncertainties into the song’s lyrics, make it an easy song to identify with, especially if you’re hearing it while commuting to your dayjob, which I’ll bet is what he was doing when he wrote the lyrics.  

      “As a matter of fact I did think of the lyrics while on my way to and from work,” he responds. “Work seems to be a favourite lyrical topic of mine, there always seems to be a few work-related songs on each album, whether it's direct or indirect. I guess it's because I spend so much time at my day job!”

      Chan, who nods at No Fun’s “Work, Drink, Fuck, Die”, Rat Silo's "Getupgotoworkgohomegotobed", the Godfathers' "Birth, School, Work, Death", and Donna Summer's "She Works Hard for the Money” as favourite work-themed songs, explains that the singularly funky bassline for “Nowhere to Go” owes to the fact that bassist Mike Chang co-wrote the tune. “This is our first album on which Mike has contributed as a writer. He came up with the music for this song first and we jammed it out while I developed the melody and lyrics.”

      There’s a similarly “90’s pop-funk” bass groove to “State of Mind,” another standout track on the album, but surprise, Mike Chang (who also had tenure locally in Damsel Fly co-wrote the music for that one as well.

      So how exactly do parts for songs get written? Are Vern Beamish’s guitar solos, for example, written by Chan and then given to him, or written by Beamish?

      “We're a pretty democratic band and for the most part," Chan says. "None of us dictate what the others play, unless our heart is set on a specific idea. That's the thing about being in a great band, they can take a song in a totally different direction than what you originally intend in your head, usually for the better. That's happened so many times for songs I've written.”

      Each band member cops to a variety of influences, so it’s not easy to tell who comes up with what: “We tend to write whatever inspires us at the time, whether it’s a tougher rock song or something poppier. You never know what will come out of the blender at any given time. Mike brings the Red Hot Chili Peppers and '90s bass-oriented influences to the table, while Kevin [DuBois] is an excellent '70s ‘groove and feel’ style of drummer—he has such a great sense of song flow. Vern and I share a lot of common background musically, as we both come more from the classic rock/ punk/ power pop side of things, though he's more diversified in his guitar influences. I know he has been listening to a bit of prog recently, so maybe some of that Steve Howe/Steve Hackett influence is creeping in!”

      It’s still not easy for me to (always) tell Beamish and Chan’s guitar parts apart, on record, so who plays what on what?

       “’Empty’ is one of my songs,” Chan answers, “and I'm playing the rhythm guitar in it which pushes the song along. Vern's parts are sorta like the cherry on top, adding some atmosphere, texture and counterpoint to the driving rhythm. In any given song, Vern and I usually try to play something different from each other, which hopefully makes things more interesting for listeners.“

      On the other hand, “Don’t Stop”, which I describe, to Chan’s amusement, as sounding like the Monkees playing math rock, is “a song fully written by Vern,” complete with—what the hell, is that a sitar? So is that a real sitar, or a synthesized sitar sound effect?

      “The sitar effect is indeed what it is—it's a vintage electric sitar that was sitting in JC/DC Studio, so Vern picked it up and decided to use it in the song.” Beamish also wrote said math-doodle, “Attack of the Chafer Beetle (AÖTCB),” and the other instrumental on the album, “Shona, Shona.”

       Another long-time collaborator is Chan’s wife, visual artist Sarah Gee Miller, who contributed art for the last three China Syndrome album covers (the front covers, at least; drummer Kevin DuBois did the art on the back covers of the last two records, as well as the front cover of Spirit of the West’s 1988 LP Labour Day, Chan informs me. It’s DuBois doing the live painting in the background of Spirit of the West’s video for “Save This House,” too.) 

      So was the cover art for Hide in Plain Sight designed for the record, or chosen from work Miller had already done? The answer is the latter, it transpires.

      “We actually did not necessarily intend to feature her art on the cover of Hide in Plain Sight," Chan says, "but she recently made this piece that we felt was very graphic, colourful and eye catching and also a bit different from the previous covers.” (It kind of suggests the Japanese game of Go, simplified in the west as Othello, but with more colour.) “The guys liked it a lot so it became the cover, with some modifications… Sarah's starting to get really good notice for her work, with recent shows in Toronto, Winnipeg and Portland and a solo show next year in Washington DC.” Her website shows an interesting commingling of First Nations motifs and contemporary abstract imagery; there’s a pretty interesting video of her at work online, as well, making a piece that strongly recalls the cover for China Syndrome’s 2011 CD, Nothing’s Not Worth Knowing. 

      ‘When I heard live performances of “Curated” (the first song on the album, with a chorus emphasizing that “it’s over” and that it’s narrator hopes “we can still be friends)” I actually got worried for Chan and Miller. His song “October Mansions,” on Nothing’s Not Worth Knowing, which is about Chan’s cold feet in getting around to proposing, influenced my own decision to propose to my wife, Erika. Sitting with Erika at the Flamingo in Surrey, watching Chan sing the song, ostensibly a break up tune, I began to fear that maybe things weren’t going so well for he and his wife?

      Actually, wrong again: Chan and Miller are fine. It turns out the song is about Chan’s decision to move away from Vancouver (which explains the references to curated shops and craft beers).

      “Sarah and I lived in Vancouver's Strathcona neighbourhood for 12 years but we decided to move to North Vancouver in the fall of 2015. There were a variety of reasons for our move, including the fact that Sarah has limited mobility due to a childhood injury, so we moved into a place that is one level; our place in Strathcona was all stairs and vertical, which became very hard on her. North Van was not our first choice, but we found a place that fit our bill and still not that far away from the city. I'm certainly getting used to bridge traffic, though.”

      A lot of people Chan knows are in a similar position, priced out of Vancouver. “A lot of people I know are moving away from the city core or moving out of the region altogether. I'm hopeful new leadership will do the right things and hopefully prevent Vancouver from becoming a high-end shell of a city, which it is in danger of being. ‘Curated’ is a bit of a commentary on that, how things are carefully "curated"—that word has really been overused or incorrectly used!”

      While loving his new North Van digs, Chan does miss his old East Van haunts. “I was within stumbling distance to LanaLou's, Pat's Pub and the Rickshaw; now I have to be really careful what I drink when I go out!” 

      The album release for Hide in Plain Sight is at Pat’s Pub on Saturday, and one of the opening acts caught my eye (Tower of Dudes, who offer a sort of Slavic/ ragtime take on Camper van Beethoven (or to keep music references local, perhaps an Eastern European version of the Creaking Planks?). I caught Tower of Dudes, who have several thoroughly amusing rock videos, opening for China Syndrome at the Cambie in Nanaimo a few years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed them.

      Chan has a history with Tower of Dudes. 

       “I played in a band in Victoria with their vibes/mandolin player Su way back in the day it was called Su Egypt and the Big Eyed Beans from Venus. That's a Captain Beefheart reference, but we sounded nothing like him, we were more in the power pop/garage rock mode. Our first gig was at a reunion of one of Victoria's seminal punk bands, the Infamous Scientists, which was also the debut show of the Ramones-y Nomeansno side project the Hanson Brothers… I reconnected with Su after many years and it turned out she was in Tower of Dudes.  They helped book China Syndrome's first gig in Victoria and we've been exchanging bookings between the Island and Vancouver since then. Yeah, TOD are a lot of fun, kinda punky, gypsy folk—their lead singer, Noah, is a great frontman. We played with them in Victoria a few weeks ago and they said their next album will be a rock record. From what I heard of their new songs, they wear the rock well!”

      Chan is working up a few special treats for the album release, also including covers of Squeeze’s “Pulling Mussels (From a Shell)” and Grant Hart’s “2541.” “I don't want to give too much away, but we plan to play most, if not all the new album at our album release party—I think that's probably all we'll have time for. Our next gig is November 18 at the Heritage Grill in New West; we'll be doing two sets that night so lots of cover opportunities!”

      Hide in Plain Sight is available in vinyl and CD at Neptoon and both Red Cat locations, and will, no doubt, be available at the gig. Meantime we have a final question for Chan: “Nowhere to Go” includes a lyric, again, nicely concrete and rooted in daily life, about giving “every cat a treat.” With a cat of Chan’s also appearing in Pill Squad’s “Mr. Sad,” it seems relevant to ask just how many cats Chan and Miller have,  and if he really only gives them one treat a day?

      “Ha ha! Sarah and I have five cats: Cygnet, Milo, Amadeo, Remy and Flynn. It's a lifestyle, I tell you, they keep us very busy! And they get lots of treats throughout the day, not just one!”