Oishi - once upon a time there was a mountain

Navel-Gazers #42 is an interview with Oishi (Zheng Hao and Ren Shang) who are going to talk to us about once upon a time there was a mountain. The first really formidable release from this London-based Chinese duo, its arrival strikes me as a momentous one in the context of the current experimental scene from which they’ve emerged. I’ve been observing Oishi’s live sets over the past six months and part of what makes them so special is how on the one hand, they’re clearly absorbing everything going on around them, sonically and otherwise... but the way it all gets regurgitated back is always through a distinctive sensibility I’ve come to recognise as… Oishi-esque. It’s a sort of farcical electronic theatre from which all sense of ceremony has deliberately been eradicated, where experimentation gives way to impulsive, improvisational gestures which seem genuinely unhinged. In a way it’s gratifying that ‘once upon a time…’ manages to harness that energy, as there’s never any real guarantee that what they’re doing will translate to tape and yet this work - with its bold cover image, the sides funnily titled “a side” / “a side”, and eclectic inventory of sounds - draws me in instantly. So what’s it all about? Let’s trek to the summit with Oishi…

AC: Thanks for joining me on Navel-Gazers! I’ve introduced you as a “London-based Chinese duo”, why don’t we start with some more background… China’s a big place, where are you guys from exactly? And how do you know each other?

Zheng Hao: Thanks for the invitation! I‘m from Wuhan, the middle part of China. We met at a noise event in 2021 when Shang was doing vocal improvisation in a quintet and I talked to her after. We are both doing the same course and she’s a year above me. We started playing together from early 2022 when we had a nice spring outing session and it was our first release called At Home With Screamin'Jay Hawkins - Raw Mix.

Ren Shang: I’m from a small town of southeasten China. My hometown is called Rui An, it is warm and wet.

AC: I like the sound of a "nice spring outing session", tell us more about what that was like.

Ren Shang: We booked a studio, Hao brought her mixer and I took an iPad. Hao said she had some materials and that was Screamin'Jay. I never heard of that. My set up was using the input of the audio to control the voltage of different modules in VCVRack. I remembered that she played her mixer like a piano in a very passionate way. Later we took some ‘THE SHiNiNG’ photos, had a pizza, had a beer. On the next day, we just made the cover, named our duo, took some duo photos, and released the recording.

Zheng Hao: I was really enjoying the film ‘Stranger Than Paradise’ at that time when I bought the CD which has the famous track ‘I Put A Spell On You’ on it. The whole album is worth listening, too. I was playing open-input feedback on a mixing board and thought this could be a fun sample to play with so I brought it into the session. Screamin’ Jay’s voice is thick, powerful but also very romantic, I remembered it was a nice day too - that’s probably why I remembered it as a spring outing. And everything turned out to be working well very naturally…the energy is always there since the very beginning and it makes every session full of fun.

AC: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins may strike some as an unlikely influence for an act like Oishi but I don’t see it that way at all. In the ‘once upon a time…’ liner notes you describe the release as an “Oishi-blues” and you talk about expression of feelings, which is unusual in experimental music.

Sounds like you’re quite into blues! What’s the bluesy feeling you’re after?

Ren Shang: We can invite physical and physiological feelings here too. I prefer feelings that come out straight away with precise timing as planned, from inside each part of a different individual, in terms of continuity. Apart from that, there’s no feeling involved because every moment is separated. You can always have the choice to link it, or not. It is fragmented in itself.

Zheng Hao: Yes, saying it’s Oishi style blues is a metaphorical way of describing our mindset, it’s because in the past we spent a lot of time thinking of which samples to use and the meaning behind it, and now we had moved on. So this album is more like us trying to present the idea of being direct and original as in avoiding conceptual compositions and focusing more on how it sounds. That’s why it’s Oishi style blues but not Oishi plays blues. We don’t have a pre-concept of love, romance, sorrow or pain as real blues music does. We don’t have lyrics or a prepared mood, just like Shang said, ‘the feeling is fragmented in itself’, and the most interesting part is always to listen and be reactive to it, it could be shared or clashing.

Ren Shang: Yeah, we don’t need common feelings to build on top.

AC: What can you tell us about the sound sources on ‘once upon a time…’? The one really obvious sample is the country music on track 2… but what else are we hearing? How do you derive material? Where do you find tapes, etc?

Ren Shang: I don’t have a lot of tapes. When I left home, I grabbed the closest one to me. It was the master tape of ‘I should not open that beer’, by me and Tau, who is a musician in China. On the day of the recording of ‘once upon a time…’, I didn’t know what we were going to make and we both like to keep surprises for each other, so the material we use doesn’t have to fit into anything.

Zheng Hao: There was a tape based performance we did for Matt Atkins and I came up with this composition: two people sitting on two sides of the stage where they each have two cassette players, and they could use fast forward, fast backward, play or stop button on the player. All the sound should be amplified through two microphones as well as the sound when a button is pressed. In the middle there is another desk full of cassettes and they could do anything they preferred with those cassettes: arrange, open them, throw them around, etc. We were using Sony TCM939, and one of the players that I bought on eBay came with 25 vintage cassettes.

And the country music on B side was two of the cassettes that I selected randomly without looking at the cover. One of those was Irish folk songs and I don’t really remember the other one, it’s possibly some blues compilation.

AC: A blurb on the Bandcamp page compares Oishi to Beatriz Ferreyra, Aaron Dilloway and Henri Chopin, yet our discussion here keeps veering back to blues, folk, and country. What kind of music are you guys into? Do you think there is any music similar to Oishi out there? Or other art forms?

Zheng Hao: Yes there definitely is lots of music similar to Oishi, it could be chased back to tape music such as It’s Gonna Rain in the 60s, turntablism later on, sound collages, etc. And in terms of music, I enjoy various genres and it’s a bit hard to use a few adjectives to summarise it. Recently I’m exploring some 80s disco music for our next show, which will be disco related. I think for me as Oishi, it’s now more about learning and chopping, mixing, making different music genres that we are interested in at different periods.

Ren Shang: l do like listening to music, but most of the time I hear sounds. Music is an important part of sound to me, and I sometimes see resampling it as a way of turning it back to something. I am sure there are a lot of sounds similar to Oishi, but for music, I am not even sure what we are making. Recently I’m listening to Aethiopes by Billy Woods, that’s a great album, I couldn’t pick a favorite track from it. But I’m not a hip hop person, I’m not even into beats. If I listened to beats all day, I would rather die. I’m performing a lot of beats with my Digitakt recently though, and I seem to quite enjoy it. But when I was preparing for that, I found myself silly like a little duck sitting alone head bobbing for hours and hours.

AC: Ren Shang your last comment made me uncontrollably laugh out loud, for the first time in Navel-Gazers history!

Ren Shang: My pleasure!

AC: ‘once upon a time…’ is a recent release on the Bezirk Tapes label. What was the process working with Daryl from Bezirk on the release, the artwork, liner notes etc? Did you always have a vision for how it would be presented?

Ren Shang: After we finished recording, we were chilling at the library. Suddenly, Hao came up with the title of the album and couldn’t stop laughing. It came from a Chinese proverbial story, which goes like this:

Once upon a time there was a mountain, on the mountain there was a temple, in the temple there were an old monk and a young one, the old one told the young one a story, which goes: Once upon a time there was a mountain, on the mountain there was a temple, in the temple there were an old monk and a young one, the old one told the young one a story, which goes: Once upon a time there was a mountain…

It was genius! So we stuck to it and told Daryl about it. The cover is one of my old paintings, yeah once upon a time I was very romantic.

Zheng Hao: Daryl reached out to us for this release and it was a really relaxing and smooth process to work with him, it was a great experience. We recorded and mastered the tracks, and sent them over. After that Shang did the cover and back cover design and I wrote some notes and made a wrap-up for the detail specifications.

In terms of the vision for presentation, because we preferred to do the design and the paintings ourselves, the vision gradually came out and became more refined during the process.

AC: For as long as I can remember, the one place known for experimental music in Asia was Japan. In recent years however, I’m seeing a lot more from… everywhere really, but especially China. There are also loads of Chinese expats like yourselves doing experimental music here in London.

Do you guys have many collaborators back in China for this kind of stuff or are most of your connections over here?

Sound Studio 80s
Ren Shang: We both had collaboration experiences back in China for sure, but in different ways. I was more connected to the post punk scene in Shanghai because the first drummer I played with was from a post punk band. We founded an improvisation group called Kaiselu together, and people would come and go. We played in the experimental/punk/metal scenes, just grabbing any chance to have fun. Later I lived with a few roommates who were active in the experimental music scene. However, I won’t mention their names here because I’m very careful with the relationships that I have with musicians. I want to keep it under the radar so I can have pure musical relationships with them.

Zheng Hao: I had some collaboration projects in China in the past but most of my connections are over here. However I think connections can be really fluid, sometimes the collision happens between people who were living in parallel lives before, like me and Shang… sometimes the boomerang goes back to you. After all it’s good fun, there should somehow always be the expectation for any kind of possibility.

AC: What’s next for you two? Oishi disco? Any upcoming projects or events you would like to mention, or final thoughts for our readers?

Zheng Hao: Yes we have the Discoishi - oishi plays left field disco coming on 21st of May at Spanners Club, it will be groovy, clubby and probably humorous in a weird way.

Ren Shang: Readers? Sounds like a wishing pool. I’ll make a wish.

Oishi can be found at Bandcamp.

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