Tom Ng and Joshua Frank are the cross-continental avant-rock duo Gong Gong Gong. Ng grew up in Hong Kong before moving to Beijing with the Offset: Spectacles, the heavily underrated, VU-indebted band he played in until 2011. As the child of diplomats from the Canadian foreign service in China, Frank spent his formative years between Beijing and Montreal, previously playing with his brother Simon as the grooving minimal wave two-piece Hot & Cold.
Ng and Frank first teamed up as the co-founders of Rose Mansion Analog, a DIY label/collective bridging the gaps between international artists, before coming together as Gong Gong Gong. On their debut album, Phantom Rhythm from Wharf Cat Records, the guitar and bass duo draw on the buzzy rock ‘n’ roll bedrock of Bo Diddley and mesmerizing solos of West African desert blues. As Ng sings in Cantonese, they twist up
Following their tours with Parquet Courts, Bodega, and Flasher, Gong Gong Gong are currently performing around China before returning to North America. On the eve of Frank’s departure, Aquarium Drunkard contributor Jesse Locke caught up with both members for a spirited Skype conversation about transcending musical cultures, playing live in an underpass, and tapping into the elemental groove.
Aquarium Drunkard: I understand your upbringing was pretty unique. Can you start by telling me a bit about that?
Joshua Frank: I moved around Asia mostly as a kid because of the work my parents did. Over the years we ended up circling around Beijing again and again. When I was in high school, I started playing music with my brother Simon and then moved to Montreal for university, while my family returned to China.
Around 2006, I became interested in the music scene that was starting to develop there. Basically, from that point on I would be in Beijing for at least a month or so doing music stuff. At that time, my brother and I had a band called Hot & Cold. In 2009, Tom moved to Beijing with the Offset: Spectacles, so we played a lot of shows together. We started a small label called Rose Mansion Analog and Tom recorded all of the releases that Hot & Cold did. We worked together a lot, became good friends, and kindred spirits in the music scene.
In 2013, I moved from New York back to Beijing. I was kind of testing the waters with jobs and stuff but Tom and I had been talking about starting something new. It was always going to be just the two of us. The Offset: Spectacles didn’t have a drummer either, so there was never a strong sense that we needed one.
AD: Tom, the Offset: Spectacles have been described “defiant” since you sang in Cantonese in a primarily Mandarin city, while also making music that was very different from popular artists in China. What were your intentions with that band when you were getting started?
Tom Ng: I guess we just started the band like any other trying to play music. We formed in Hong Kong around 2006. It was me, Vince who also kind of grew up in Canada, and Sing, who’s my old friend from primary school. We used to have a drummer but he played too loud. After we turned our amps up super high we realized we didn’t need him. He didn’t want to play with us anyway.
Vince was really into Django Reinhart and the Monks, so we started doing stuff like that. We went to Beijing to play a few shows in 2008 because there wasn’t really a venue in Hong Kong. Our friends in My Little Airport told us to go and that’s how we got started. We were in Beijing for a week, played three shows, and decided we really loved the city.
AD: Rose Mansion Analog was a great resource because you were releasing tapes by popular artist like Dirty Beaches and projects like Beijing’s Soviet Pop, who I probably wouldn’t have heard of otherwise.
Joshua Frank: We all had our own ideas of what we wanted to do with the label. What was important for me was releasing music that felt like it drew links between what was happening in Beijing, North America, and Europe. That was something that didn’t exist at the time, and to some extent, still doesn’t. There is good electronic music crossing over now, but we wanted to make connections between different places with music that felt new and relevant. Instead of just finding bands in China that sounded like Sonic Youth, we wanted to share things that people could get down with and have a more immediate music fan to music fan connection.
Tom Ng: We were the first cassette label at that time in Beijing. The Offsets released an LP and we may have been the first band from that generation putting out music on vinyl. We always wanted to have physical formats, but at that time people in China were just into digital music. We made it happen and other people followed.
Joshua Frank: There are a lot of things happening in China now that Rose Mansion was doing five years before. I don’t think we’re underappreciated because we were just doing it as something that’d be fun for our friends and their bands. There were only around 30 copies of each release, and we were pretty DIY.
AD: I’ve heard some of Gong Gong Gong’s earliest shows were in an underpass tunnel. Did that come from the same intention to do things differently than other bands?
Joshua Frank: Our very first show was the closing party for the only consistent space for rock or experimental shows in Beijing at that time. We played in a friend’s record store and then he started a small basement venue with no stage called Fruityspace that also sold records. Back when we started there was nowhere to play that we would want to go. We never liked playing in black box rock venues anyway.
One day a friend of ours was walking near his house and found this pedestrian tunnel underneath the road to the airport expressway. There were cool acoustics so he started having friends do impromptu performances there. In my mind, that was the show where I decided we were doing something, saying something, and seemed to have found a voice. We had enough material and it just felt really right. It was an important show for us.
I can’t remember if it was the first or second time we played in the tunnel, but one time I arrived a bit early. It was occupied by a bunch of grandpas and grandmas doing a square dance routine with a speaker that was louder than the amp Tom and I were sharing. It’s a pretty small group of people who play or go to those shows, so it’s pretty community-oriented. People walk by and must wonder what the hell is going on, but in general they’re pretty curious about something weird happening in their neighborhood. I’ve seen old guys in their undershirts walking their dogs stopping to watch someone play a saxophone made out of scrap pipe. They’ll check it out, see what they think, and then be on their way. It’s cool to play in a removed public space because it gets foot traffic but also feels like a secret.
AD: Some of the influences you’ve mentioned include Bo Diddley and West African desert blues, both of which I can hear in your music in a deconstructed sense. What do you take away from them?
Tom Ng: You grow up listening to this kind of music or that kind of music, so it will happen naturally, but we really try to avoid imitation. We’re trying to sound unlike anything we’ve heard before.
Joshua Frank: I think we both have unique and overlapping perspectives. Tom grew up in Hong Kong, went to university in Australia, and then moved to Beijing. I grew up in Asia, spent time in Canada, but also in India. We’ve been exposed to different kinds of musical cultures, so maybe that allows us to think about incorporating these influences in a way that feels natural. It’s not even as direct as “I like this band, let’s try to sound like them,” though it feels very natural to make music that reflects the things we like. I don’t have any hang-ups about that. We love Bo Diddley, weird blues, and various psychedelic West African guitar sounds, but I don’t see us as a band that’s trying to directly cite other musical cultures. I guess there’s a fusion going on but that’s not really the purpose of what we’re trying to do, melodically at least. I try to strip down these musical styles and find the thing uniting all of them. That could be a captivating rhythm or something unplaceable that doesn’t connect to any traditions. It’s about finding the same thing that makes a Bo Diddley song or a noisy techno song good. There’s a drive and certain simplicity to it. That’s what transcends or connects cultures. We’re trying to tap into the elemental groove. words/j locke
Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which allows readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine as it expands its scope while receiving access to our secret stash, including bonus audio, exclusive podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records. Your support will help keep an independent cultural resource alive and healthy in 2019 and beyond.