Alpine Decline are a duo originally hailing from California, but most recently found in the hazy suburbs of Beijing. Melding noise, indie and rock around a hollow core of haunting echoes and warm tape, the pair are equally captivating live as a vox/guitar/drum combo and on their highly narrative, atmospheric records.
While Pauline Mu and Jonathan Zeitlin were members of LA outfit Mezzanine Owls, the duo broke away and forged their own path and sound over the course of three albums. Then, they upped and relocated to the People’s Republic of China, settling in the Northern capital. Warmly received by the Beijing scene, the duo have just finished their fourth records with acclaimed producer and PK 14 front man Yang Haisong (keen readers of AWEH will remember his name from our interviews with Wanderlust and Battle Cattle). With a fresh, rejuvenated direction the duo are about to embark across the water for their first tour of South Korea.
Ahead of their opening date at POWWOW in Seoul, AWEH sat down with Jonathan from the band to talk about what a long, strange trip it’s been and why they are sticking around Asia for at least a little while longer.
AWEH: First things first, how did you guys meet? When did you begin playing music together?
JRZ: I was straight out of Ohio, dragging a guitar and Marshall stack around LA looking for a band and Pauline was in a band fresh out of the recording studio up one album and down one guitar player. I got into their van and we went on tour for months zig-zagging back and forth across the states. We went on to play in a couple different indie bands together over the next five or six years before breaking off from that world and creating Alpine Decline.
AWEH: What led you each down the path of making and creating music?
JRZ: We’re both cradle to the afterlife… I played a Strummin’ Smurf plastic guitar that was taller than me and Pauline literally started out drumming with chopsticks until her parents finally relented and bought her a snare. Whatever it was that compelled us, I cannot understand.
When we ended our last band and began to think about Alpine Decline, we focused pretty hard on what it means to dedicate your life to creating music — not just to a band, not just in your twenties, but on a personal level choosing this as your life’s work. It’s actually amazing how long you can go playing music without thinking about what that means for the kind of music you make and the kind of life you create for yourself to best pursue this.
AWEH: Previously you guys were living and playing in California, what inspired the move to Beijing?
JRZ: Through our first three records, which we made in basically a long afterburner drive over the course of a year, we exhausted the limited creative reservoir you have after spending years just being people in bands living in Los Angeles. We’d been able to add some fumes to the tank at the end through some pretty long stretches going up into the backcountry, but we were ready for release and wanted to move to the most different, faraway place we could imagine. We thought of the outskirts of Beijing as a dystopian chaos we could disappear into and thought that would be just perfect for the kind of process we’ve embraced for making our music.
AWEH: What were your first impressions of the People’s Republic and the music scene in the North capital? How was the scene contrasted with what you are used to back home?
JRZ: Well that dystopian chaos does exist here, but when we actually landed and surfaced again instead of being darkly wrapped in hermetic isolation, we found all these close friendships with some insanely fun, passionate, people. Perhaps because we live away from the center of the city, or maybe just because of the natural way our music fit in with a specific community here, I’m not sure how accurate the observations I might make are to the many different scenes in Beijing.
We do miss home, and our friends in the U.S. are some of the most natural and creative musicians on the planet… they are the community we come from. But it’s different in that, in the US it makes sense to society at large if you want to be in a band. And if you are in a band, it makes sense to embrace the lifestyle of being in a band as characterized and refereed by tastemakers and gatekeepers. There are actually many different scenes in Beijing, but in general most people in the PRC writing about music, running venues, booking shows, and most obviously those making music are looking at a pretty different spectrum of possible outcomes, and the effect this has on your choices as an artist cannot be overstated.
AWEH: You’re about to embark on four city Korean tour with a fair amount of hiking in between. What are your expectations for the tour and the Land of the Morning Calm?
JRZ: Oh my god — the “Land of the Morning Calm”… that actually makes my eyes water. We really can’t wait. Meeting people who are working in the name of music scenes around the world is one of the best rewards we have as a band, and from what we understand Korea has a personality and culture in general that is totally unique from the other places we’ve been in Asia.
We spent a great deal of our lives in recent years going into the wilderness, and living in Beijing I often have moments of heartache imagining that lost feeling of boot on dirt. From our rudimentary preparation for hiking in Korea, we are chomping at the bit to get into those beautiful mountains!
AWEH: Once you’ve done your thing in Korea what’s up next for you guys?
JRZ: We remain, as always, locked into our cycle making records… however after Korea is the time for us to play every corner of China in support of Night of the Long Knives. Along the way we may end up playing a little bit in Europe to support the efforts of Laitdbac, who are releasing the album in those parts.
AWEH: Any final words of love, hate, thanks to share with the interwebz?
JRZ: All the love, hate, and thanks in our hearts are freely shared with the interwebz.
Sat Sept 29 - Powwow [Seoul]
Sun Sept 30 - Daejeon Cantina [Daejeon]
Fri Oct 5 - Horus Music Garage [Daegu]
Sat Oct 6 - Realize [Busan]
This interview is part of a new series on Chincha from AWEH, the Asia-based website exploring “casual creative culture”. The longer, bilingual (in both English and Korean) article is published on AWEH
Interview by Dann Gaymer
Images courtesy of Alpine Decline