China Syndrome makes pop for grownups
You don’t get many infectious pop tunes written from the perspective of mature adults. There are plenty of teen-friendly “I Wanna Rock” anthems, but what about a song about being humiliated by a peer’s career success? You have to have been around a while to feel those feelings, and even longer to be able to comment on them.
That’s part of what makes “My Pal Dan”, off China Syndrome’s 2015 LP The Usual Angst, so brilliant. It takes on a subject fraught with ambivalence—feeling like a “big fool” who has “gone back to high school” in the company of a more successful friend—and makes it catchy and danceable, complete with a Stax-style horn section borrowed from the Beladeans.
Or take “October Mansion”, on the same album. It’s a relationship song where one partner tries to convince the other they should get married. “Sometimes I wonder just what you’re afraid of,” China Syndrome frontman Tim Chan sings. “What’s the point in us waiting for so long?”
These are songs of experience, not innocence: China Syndrome writes pop songs for grownups.
“Thanks, that’s exactly what we try to do,” Chan says. We’re tucked into a corner of Fascinating Rhythm, a Nanaimo record shop every bit the equal of anything Vancouver has to offer.
Chan is on a mini-tour of his old stomping grounds, having played a well-attended homecoming gig in Victoria the night before. He explains that he wrote “My Pal Dan” around the time of his last high-school reunion. “Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment. I never have a good time, but I’ve been to a few of them now.”
“October Mansion”, meantime, is named after “an apartment in Victoria me and my wife used to live in. When we lived there, we got married, so it was kind of evoking that.” Such touches reflect the everyday adult insecurity of the album title.
Chan’s band history dates back to the Ryvals, which he formed in Victoria around 1980 with long-time collaborator Eric Lowe. There have been maybe a dozen bands since, often with delightful names: the Electric Bananas, Hat Head, and, perhaps most improbably, the Howling Breakdancing Grapefruit Society (a fuck band known for “parodying hair metal and hardcore at the same time”).
In Vancouver, meanwhile, he’s had side projects with Full Leather Jacket and, presently, Pill Squad, along with Tracy Brooks, Ed Hurrell, and Full Leather Jacket alum Scott Beadle.
But of his past bands, 64 Funnycars—named for an event at a Seattle raceway—probably had the biggest rep. Their 1988 LP Happy Go Lucky was produced by Seattle’s Conrad Uno, best known for his association with the Young Fresh Fellows.
“Scott McCaughey from the Fellows was really supportive of us,” Chan remembers, noting that the Seattle-scene veteran then hooked them up with Uno.
Somehow, though—since forming China Syndrome in 2003 in Vancouver, where he is now based—Chan hasn’t quite found his audience. It might be down to his affable personality; he might be too nice, “not aggressive enough” to push as hard as it takes to get noticed.
It might also have to do with a difference in scenes. Victoria, to Chan, seems more appreciative of power pop than Vancouver, in part because it’s a smaller scene there.
“Victoria doesn’t see the good shows that Vancouver would get, so if a really good band came to town, people would get out to see it, regardless of genre,” he contends.
Chan argues, however, that there have been a lot of really good power pop bands in Vancouver that have often been overlooked. “They don’t really seem to get the play here compared to old-school punk,” he contends. A good example of this is the Sweaters, Chan says, featuring fellow Victoria-to-Vancouver transplant Pete Campbell.
If China Syndrome does tend to get overlooked locally, it isn’t because of quality. The Usual Angst is one of the most enjoyable albums to come out of Vancouver this century, and the current incarnation of the band—including Vern Beamish on guitars, Mike Chang on bass, and Kevin DuBois on drums—cooks live. Check out the cover of Squeeze’s “Another Nail in My Heart” on the China Syndrome website for another example of how much musical intelligence all four musicians bring to the plate.
If the name China Syndrome seems a bit on the nose for a band with two Chinese-Canadian dudes in it, it’s worth noting that it was “totally unrelated” to Chan’s identity. The singer offers that the name was actually inspired by the 1979 film The China Syndrome, a taut thriller about a fictional nuclear-power-plant meltdown outside of Los Angeles.
“When I first started jamming with the guys, we were doing a lot of new wave and punk, and looking back at the late ’70s. That movie was out around that time. We just thought it was a neat name.”
In fact, one of the other names Chan came up with was even more explicitly Chinese-Canadian, though you kind of need to speak Cantonese to get the joke: the Pender Guys.
“At that time I lived on Pender Street, and in Cantonese, Pender Street is Pender Gai, and there’s a popular Chinese radio show called Pender Gai, and I thought ‘Pender Guys’ was kind of a funny play on that. Which nobody would get!”
While being of Chinese-Canadian background hasn’t really affected Chan’s place in the music scene, growing up with a “quite traditional” Chinese family meant being discouraged from getting into music, he says.
“My parents never encouraged it—they wanted me to be a doctor. But luckily, I had an uncle that moved in with us when I was really young, and he brought all this pop music over from Hong Kong—the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, the Bee Gees.…He’d be constantly playing it around the house. I loved it and got into it and said, ‘Can you please teach me how to play guitar?’ So it’s all kind of his fault.”