IN MY EARS #7：Snapline’s Two She’s
Snapline Douban Site | She (Martin Atkins) | She (Snapline)
In My Ears is a weekly music column by Josh Feola 赵识, Beijing-based writer and musician and founder of pangbianr.com
Last weekend I was very excited to do a DJ set for the London-based internet radio station NTS Live. It was their first time to do a show in Beijing, and I shared the DJ booth with a few veterans of this city’s nightlife scene, including Pei from Bye Bye Disco, Demone from Tangsuan Radio, and Guzz from Do Hits (check out my recent interview with Guzz for Douban Music here). Since I was the only person on the bill who’s not an electronic music DJ or producer, I decided to put together an all-rock set, and I wanted to open it with Snapline, because they’re my favorite Beijing band.
Snapline is really one of my favorite rock bands, period, for a few reasons. For one, they’re consistently excellent live. They always seem to have new ideas, new sounds, new instruments, or new arrangements that introduce a sense of experimentation to songs I’ve heard dozens of times. For another, they have an intellectual angle that I find lacking in many Beijing bands, thanks in large part to the offbeat lyricism of vocalist Chen Xi, who has a degree in nuclear energy and works on shaping the future as a Microsoft engineer.
When it comes to their recordings, I think both their debut album — 2007’s Party Is Over, Pornostar — and their 2012 followup, Phenomena, are nearly perfect. They’re weird, they’re raw, and they’re artistic, but they’re also expertly crafted with an almost-pop sensibility: not just aimless noise, as so much “experimental rock” tends to be, but refined and contagious earworms that for some reason specifically evoke the smoggy mists of dystopian Beijing for me.
But I didn’t open my NTS set with a song from Snapline’s first album, nor their second. I kicked it off with a track from what I guess you could call their 1.5th studio album, the quietly released and still relatively obscure Future Eyes.
The story goes like this: Martin Atkins, a producer most famous for his role as the drummer of the post-punk band Public Image Ltd, made a brief trip to Beijing in 2006, and was treated to a two-day showcase of some of D-22’s house bands at the time. He contacted a few of them in the hope of working together, including Snapline. The band got together with Atkins for a one-day studio session, and the result was Party Is Over, Pornostar.
Atkins actually signed a two-album deal to work with Snapline, and returned to Beijing in 2008 to record 11 more songs, including the one I played on NTS, “She”. This is what ultimately became Future Eyes.
In an article I recently wrote for the music streaming site Bandcamp, I described Snapline as “a minimalist three-piece post-punk band, known for their manic dedication to stripping down their songs to the bare components without ever failing to land on a propulsive groove.” This sound does not come through on Future Eyes. Atkins added several effects and instrument tracks without the full participation of the band, and in the end the album didn’t accurately capture their vision. I can see why Snapline decided to return to the studio in 2011 and get a much simpler — and I must say, more elegant — version of these songs recorded and repackaged under the new name, Phenomena.
I really do love Martin Atkins’ version of “She”, though. I like the weird chorus effect on Chen Xi’s vocals towards the end, as well as the minimal, motorik drum machine pattern that drops in at the end as a sort of anti-climactic climax. Future Eyes and Phenomena were technically co-released in China in 2012 — Atkins released Future Eyes in the US via his own label, Invisible Records, a few years prior — but the former is not listed on Snapline’s Douban page, nor on Maybe Mars’s official Bandcamp. Nevertheless, I think it gives us a solid document of Snapline at an interesting point in their development, and also raises questions about authorship and the critical role of producers in bringing finished musical ideas into the world. Listen to the two She’s back to back to get an idea of what I’m talking about.
Associated Douban pages
Party Is Over, Pornostar:
About the author
Josh Feola is a writer and musician based in Beijing. He’s organized music, art, and film events in the city since 2010, via his label pangbianr and as booking manager of live music venues D-22 and XP. His ongoing event series include the Sally Can’t Dance experimental music festival and the Beijing Electronic Music Encounter (BEME). He has written about music and art for publications including The Wire, LEAP, Sixth Tone, and Tiny Mix Tapes. He also co-authors the Gulou View opinion column for the New York Observer. As a musician, he formerly played drums in Beijing band Chui Wan, recording on and touring behind their debut album, White Night. He currently plays drums in SUBS and Vagus Nerve, and also records and performs under the name Charm.