Djang San meets up with Loreli very early (like 1:00p.m.) on a Saturday in the extremely noisy Fang Jia hutong for an unusually philosophical chat about electrifying traditional Chinese instruments, the disconnect between what we see and reality, and "The Final Countdown" for crickets. Djang San will be playing a record release show at Yugong Yishan on Thursday, May 26th for his new double album Eye.爱.Ai.I (1) and Eye.爱.Ai.I (2) which can be found on his bandcamp page.
Posted May 24, 2016
About Djang San:
Jean-Sébastien Héry was one of the first foreigners to write songs in Chinese and to sing those songs to a Chinese audience in Beijing. Re-inventor of Chinese classical instrument zhongruan, philosopher, poet, composer, guitar hero, DJ, one man orchestra, music pioneer and explorer of new sounds, Djang San has been doing music in China since the year 2000. An artist with many faces, Djang San has also won the battle of the bands in Mainland China and Hong Kong against 100 bands in the year 2011. Djang San has so far released 35 albums, the music styles of the albums range from Jazz to electro, rock, classical music, experimental music and more. Creator of a theory of intelligence, the personality of Djang San takes many different shapes in his many different projects. As a one man band, Djang San plays seven different instruments on stage including guitar, flutes, electronic devices and synthesizers. Djang San + Band is an extension of Djang San, a trio based on an electric version of Chinese instrument zhongruan he has created himself in 2014. Djang San also composes and records music for films. He has been interviewed countless times and had documentaries done about him on Chinese TV. His new album, Eye.爱.Ai.I, was released on May 16th, 2016.
Transcript of interview:
Amy Daml: Do you want to introduce yourself to us?
Djang San: People know me as Djang San. I’ve been in Beijing forever, more or less. I’ve done 35 albums. Next week, I’m releasing the 36th album, which is called Eye.爱.Ai.I. It’s a play on word about the idea about the connection between what we see and what we understand. The music I think is a bit different than what I usually do. I’ve tried to do something that was more about feelings and less about technicality, which is what I usually do. For me, it’s one of my best, probably. It’s a double album. It’s 50 minutes of music, so it’s pretty long too. I’ve invited some people on the album. I’ve got Stéphane (Balagna) on trumpet. I’ve got Elenore, who is an Italian singer; she’s improvising on one of the tracks. I’ve got Nicolas Mège on drums. I’ve got Clancy (Lethbridge) on the bass, and also Chris O’Young on cello. I’ve done all kinds of stuff, like ranging from rock music to African Afro-beat, like this kind of feeling, and then it goes into a lot of different styles, but it’s more natural than the other albums before, I think.
AD: Why do you think it’s more natural when you have so many different styles?
DS: Because I asked myself less questions when I was composing the songs. Usually, I think a lot before I record something and sometimes I feel like I’ve lost a bit of the feelings in the song by overthinking the songs. I think by just focusing on the expression of the idea in the song or in the music, it makes it more direct and easier for people to listen to it as well.
AD: I noticed that you do have a lot of different styles. I listened to probably three quarters of the album and I thought every single song sounds completely different. It’s a completely different style, maybe not even the same artist.
DS: Yeah, I mean I have this problem. People sometimes tell me I should release less albums and focus on one thing or something, but I feel like if I do that I’m kind of missing the point because I just compose a lot of different things everyday. It’s a part of me so if I just get rid of a part of me, then it’s not really me on the album. It’s kind of strange. So I just decide to do as much as I can because that’s just the way I do it.
AD: I mean, 35 albums is a lot, right? You have a lot of albums. Do you ever think that maybe if I stopped and worked on one that I would have a better response?
DS: Yeah, because what people say is that I release too much. But it’s stupid actually. I think a lot of people say I release too much because they can’t release anything. People can record an album for a year and it’s not even that good. I mean, I have the ideas and I want to do it so I have no reason not to do it. And that’s very simple. On this one actually I took more time because if you think about it, the last one came out five months ago, so it’s actually quite a long time. Even though maybe the time is not that long but I put a lot of effort into every album that I do. If I took a year, it probably would not be different.
AD: Is music your fulltime gig?
DS: It is three quarters of my life, yeah.
AD: What’s the other quarter?
DS: It’s a secret.
AD: You totally make jingles for commercials, don’t you?
DS: I’ve done this type of thing, yeah. I’ve also done music for documentaries. I’ve done music for a documentary about surfing in China, and I’m doing one about cricket fighting. Someone asked me for music in California for film lately. So it’s a little bit of everything.
AD: What does music for cricket fighting sound like? I just imagine The Final Countdown.
DS: Yeah, something like that. No. Actually, I met that guy.
AD: Did you?
DS: Yeah, I met that guy, yeah. When we won the Battle of the Bands with The Imaging Insurance Salesmen in 2010 and 2011, we went to play in Malaysia, and one of the judges was the guy that wrote The Final Countdown.
AD: What? No. Did you know that before you played?
DS: I didn’t know but then we went there with Rustic because they won the year before. Rustic, the Chinese punk band. Ricky, the bass player of the band, was a complete fan of that guy. So I didn’t know the guy at all. I mean, I don’t really like the song. He came on stage and he played The Final Countdown with a band of Filipinos.
AD: No, he did not.
DS: Yes, he did. And he was the only original member. He played guitar like very, very well, but it was kind of strange cuz he was the only [original] guy and the other guys were all Filipino in Malaysia. It was kind of a weird scenery, a weird thing to see. And then I remember he was complaining at the hotel. We were in a five star hotel with a swimming pool and stuff that was really good, and then the guy was complaining because they were playing the same song every day, you know. But the guy had been playing the same song for 30 years and making money on the same song, and he was still complaining. That was kind of funny.
AD: And of all the songs to have to play for 30 years...
DS: It’s The Final Countdown. Yeah. It’s probably his main way of making money in the world.
AD: That’s kind of sad, huh?
DS: It is. Yeah.
AD: Do you every worry that could become your life?
DS: Well, I don’t really have a song that works as much as The Final Countdown, so I’m not really worried about that. I don’t think that’s going to become my life. I think my life is about composing music; it’s not really about the one-hit stuff. I don’t really think about doing a hit. I’m not focusing on this.
AD: Have you had any songs that have become kind of like hits?
DS: Yeah, I’ve got Xinfu Zai Nali?, you know, Where is Happiness? I’ve got like three or four versions of that song. It’s one of the songs that’s really liked by the Chinese audience and the foreign audience alike. Everybody likes this song. I don’t know why. But everybody likes this song and the different versions that it has. I’d say this is one of the songs that really got the audience. There’s another one, an instrumental one called Bridges that works pretty well with the people as well. Also, because I check what people listen to online, what songs people listen to the most, and I’ve found out over the years that there are 5 or 6 songs that people really like that always come back.
AD: Are those your favorite songs too?
DS: Yeah. I mean, not necessarily, but I like the music that I’ve done that is really strange, and I don’t really like the things that people would call ‘normal’ music or whatever. As I tend to think less about this stuff, I think the music is becoming more enjoyable for people now than it used to, because I think less about the artistic part of it and I think more about, like, just feeling it and feeling good about doing it as well. I mean, it can sound kind of strange but I’ve been through a lot of different things with music and I don’t know, maybe my life is becoming a bit easier these days. So I feel less the need to explain myself so much anymore. So that’s why in the new album I still use Chinese instruments, but I’ve tried to instead of just exploring the idea of being the foreign white guy who plays Chinese instruments, I’ve tried to just really use the instrument in a way that I don’t really think about anything; I just think about the music and how I play it. That’s all. Just, are the songs good or not?
AD: Everybody knows you as the guy with the weird guitar, right? Did you start to feel a bit like a monkey? Sometimes as foreigners here, we get that feeling of ‘oh, look at the laowai doing the Chinese thing.’
DS: Yeah. When I started to play Chinese instruments around 2000 and for a few years, the Chinese audience, some of them would be very angry with me because I was playing Chinese instrument and I didn’t have the right to play Chinese instruments. That was a part of them, and there was a part of the audience that was really interested in me doing that because they knew about these instruments. But mostly people just didn’t know about the instruments. They didn’t even know that the instruments were Chinese. They were asking me, like ‘is this a French instrument or a Chinese instrument or where is it from?’ They were not sure about it so they would come to me and ask questions. So my answer to the people who say because I’m a foreigner I can’t play Chinese instruments, is like ‘Chinese people shouldn’t play guitar.’ This is completely stupid. And to me, it’s kind of racist as well. I think we shouldn’t be stuck in the idea of coming from somewhere or anything. We do whatever we want because we are all human beings and we just have the ability to do anything we want. If a Chinese person or white or whoever can play guitar or any instrument, or even French traditional instruments, then I say go ahead. There’s no reason why people shouldn’t do that. So it’s the same for me. I don’t see why I shouldn’t do it. And I think actually doing it is helping people to understand that as well. There is no boundary to what we can do. The only boundary is really a mental boundary, and actually we can do whatever we want.
AD: Tell me a little bit more about the concept behind your new album, the disconnect between what we see and what we understand.
DS: We are often misguided by what we see. I mean, images and manipulated all the time nowadays. It’s very easy to create fake reports and to create fake information everywhere. And so we are always thinking that we know what we see but we actually we don’t. That’s one of the things. We are always limited by our own perception of things. You know like two years ago I did an album, called The Theory of Intelligence, which is a theory I created. So I created this theory of intelligence, which is based on the idea that we are limited by our senses and we can only understand the world through our senses. Because of that we can never really understand what’s around us. That was the basis of how I developed the theory afterwards. So this album, Eye.爱.Ai.I…is like eye, like for eye, the thing we have on our face; I like myself I, like a person; ‘ai’ like ‘love’ in Chinese; and ai like A.I. artificial intelligence, something like that. So the idea is really that you can manipulate what’s around you and we can all do whatever we want to try to do. So this is like going beyond the vision and just, as I told you, and speaking more from the heart with the music in that album and less thinking about the vision of what people can have of me being this guy who plays Chinese instruments. I know it’s hard to understand, and also because a lot of my image is based on that, but I’m trying to overcome this because I have to say I’m a bit tired as well to be that guy. So I have to move on. I always have to do new things because otherwise I also really get very bored. So I’m always trying to create new things and little by little I create new concepts and new ideas to try not to be too much according to an image.
AD: Is there anything else you want people to know about you, your music, or your new album?
DS: Well, what there is to know about me is that I’ve been doing music in China for the last 15 years. I’ve done 36 albums now. I’ve played about everywhere in China, almost all the festivals. Djang San and Band, which is the trio, so me, Clancy on the bass and Carlo on the drums (sometimes Nico on the drums as well) we played in Korea, in Seoul in October last year. And this summer we’re going to play in one music festival in Hokkaido, in Japan. It’s the first time for me to go to Japan. It’s cool because it’s apparently it’s a beautiful place. It’s the northern island of Japan. I’ve never been there but people tell me it’s great.
AD: Is that the Fuji Rock festival?
DS: No, no, no. Fuji is like way bigger than that. But it’s one of the biggest world music festivals in Tokyo. Sorry, in Japan, not Tokyo because it’s in Hokkaido. Fuji’s in Tokyo. Clancy’s going to Fuji to go see The Red Hot Chili Peppers. I’m not a big fan of that band, but, I mean I like the early stuff.
AD: Are you ok with him going to see them?
DS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m ok. I’m ok with him going to see them. Playing in a world music festival in Japan actually means a lot to me. It means recognition in Japan, which I never expected would happen, so it’s a very good thing. I played Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Korea and other places before, but Japan is like, because I’ve never been there, it’s going to be very interesting, I think. And it’s going to be a way to expose something new because I’ll probably be the first musician who plays this instrument, an electrified version, to play in Japan. So I’m not Chinese, and I’ve played this instrument and I’ve electrified this ancient Chinese instrument and I’m probably going to be the first to play it in that form in Japan. So it’s very interesting.
AD: Also, not many people electrify that instrument that you play. What’s it called again?
DS: It’s called a zhongruan. I think what happened is that, people probably thought about it before but they never pushed it to the point where it becomes the center of the music. In the way that I’m doing it, I think it’s never been done like this before. I also do it with the pipa now, so I’ve electrified the pipa as well. Actually on the new albums there’s a little bit of electrified pipa as well. So it’s not only the zhongruan anymore, it’s also the pipa. I’m the first one to do that, like to really push this idea of using these two instruments into modern rock and jazz in this way. It hasn’t been done before. That’s why it’s hard to push this idea as well because people don’t understand, because it’s new both for Chinese and for Westerners. No one has done that so people are like ‘why do you do that?’ It can sound kind of stupid because I could just play guitar, which I also do. I play guitar very well, but I’m bored. Everybody plays guitar. What’s the point? Aren’t we supposed to try to create something new and try to exchange ideas with people and create a new idea of music and make things progress or are we just supposed to reproduce what people have been doing for the last 50 years again and again? I don’t understand. I think it’s boring. So yeah, I want to do something new. That’s why I started to do that 15 years ago, the first time I came. I wanted to see what I could do with Chinese instruments and I found a way because I think that is the way that people are going to understand each other more as well. If we just reproduce what’s been done again and again, for me there is no interest in music. I mean, I like pop music and I like rock music and everything. I like it as it is, but that’s not the way for me to explore it. The way for me to explore it is to really make it progress. I think art is always progress and music has to be as well. When you think about rock and roll in the ‘50s or in the ‘60s, I’m sure a lot of people were like ‘what is this thing? I don’t like this. I want to listen to...’
AD: Yeah, we all saw Footloose.
DS: Yeah. Exactly. Or like the people who hated Elvis because they thought this is the devil’s music or whatever. I mean, I’m not pretending to be any of these guys because I’m just a French white guy stuck in Beijing. I think the kind of ideas that I’m supporting and developing, I think that’s the origin of these kinds of things. You can’t have something new if you don’t try to take the risks to have people calling you the white guy who is playing the Chinese instruments or just a ‘fake Chinese guy’ or something, which is not what I am. I don’t pretend to be Chinese or anything. I am completely French. And it’s impossible. You can’t become Chinese because they won’t let you anyway. I think people maybe have a misguided vision of me when it comes to that, but in fact, my idea is more like going on creating the cultural bridge and also trying to open people’s minds, both in China and in the West, about the possibilities of communication in the modern world. A lot of people speak different languages now and we don’t have to be stuck in one idea of what things have to be. There’s lots of options and there’s lot of things to dig into, and we don’t have to just put up walls and stuff because that’s the end of the conversation. And we all know what happens when the conversation ends. Bad things.
AD: Can I ask a technical question? How do you electrify a traditional instrument?
DS: Well you take the instrument and you electrify it.
AD: But how do you do it?
DS: When I had the idea, I looked up how people did it with guitars. I looked up YouTube and I didn’t find any videos about electrifying traditional instruments, so I had to use the idea that people do for electrifying a folk guitar. I used the idea and I applied it to the Chinese instruments and then I had to modify that idea again to avoid a few more technical problems. I’m not going to go too much into it, but it was a two or three step idea to make it happen in a way that it would sound good. Because you can do it but it might sound bad if you don’t do it well. I wrote on the paper the different ideas and how I could do it and then I imagined the result. I always do it like that. I just write the steps on a piece of paper or on the computer. Little by little I find I have the concept completely in my mind, like I can see it. This is how it’s going to work and then step-by-step I start to do it, and then what I wanted is there. It’s always like that, I know in my mind it’s going to be like that. And I see how it’s going to go wrong if I don’t do the right thing and how it’s going to go well if I do the right thing. It’s like I’m on a road and I can see different tracks I can take, and I can see which one is the good one and lead me to the right result.
AD: Did you ruin any instruments in the process?
DS: No, because I didn’t have much money at the time to make this kind of mistake and I didn’t want to destroy an instrument. That’s why I thought very seriously about it before doing it. I really thought very carefully about what I was going to do and that’s why it worked because I had to be careful. It worked the first time, and then the pipa sounds even better.
AD: Thank you very much. Good luck on the show. Tell us the details again.
DS: The show is on the 26th of May at Yugong Yishan in Beijing, the famous venue that opened maybe ten years ago actually. The show’s about having a party for releasing this new album, called Eye.爱.Ai.I. There’s going to be a few guests on stage. There’s going to be videos and it’s be very interesting because it’s going also two parts, one part with Carlo on the drums and one part with Nico on the drums. So two different parts for two different shows, but in the same night. We’re going to have december3am opening the show. They’re based on two members of the band that was called Horse Radio before. I think it’s going to be a great show. I’m really happy I’m doing this. I’m also doing this because the fact that we got invited to Japan really motivated me to push the things a bit further. I’m also helping to organize the Fête de la musique this year, the French day. We’re going to have a few gigs as well on the 19th and 21st of June.
AD: Great. Well, thank you so much.
DS: No problem.