Back to the topic of new upstart music labels in Beijing: erstwhile internet-only label Seippelabel will infect the offline world with their first live event this Saturday, September 19 at fRUITYSHOP. Seippel label is a family affair, run by Beijing-based musician Brad Seippel — perhaps better known by his pipa-wielding performance alias, thruoutin — and his sister, Michele. It's only the most recent platform for Brad to share his engagement with the Beijing music scene: in addition to his solo work and numerous bands, Brad was also an early member and now the sole remaining editor of Jingweir, the gloriously black and white music fanzine that's circulated around some of Beijing's most discerning dive bars and clubs since 2012.
Ahead of Saturday's event, I sat down for a thorough cataloging of the electronic pipa maestro's Beijing life. A thruoutinterview, if you will...
SmartBeijing: Where are you from originally? How'd you start making music?
Brad Seippel: I'm originally from New Orleans, that's what I say to people don't know the immediate area. But I grew up on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, about an hour from the city. So like Tongzhou to Beijing. I lived there until I was 18. When I lived there my dad was always in a band, playing drums, and he really encouraged my sister and I to pick up instruments. So I started playing bass in punk bands and rock bands in high school. After high school I wanted to get away, get out of the state and move to Alabama, since it was just far enough away. I studied metereology for about two years. My first year there I brought all my music stuff with me but I didn't really find anyone that wanted to play the same kind of music as me. So I just started plugging stuff into my karaoke stereo machine thing, and ran that into my computer, and started making my own beats that way. I got a synth and started making stuff under the name thruoutin while in college.
SmBJ: What brought you to China?
Brad: I really didn't know anything about it. I took a directed study my senior year in Mandarin, and I used to have dreams about being dropped off in an airport and picked up by people I didn't know. And eventually that did happen. But what brought me here was I just wanted to experience something different, to learn Mandarin. I guess what brought me to Beijing was I saw that there was a lot of music being done here, so I wanted to experience that.
SmBJ: What bands or artists had you heard of?
Brad: People like Nara, Pacalolo, and obviously stuff like PK14, Carsick Cars, a lot of Maybe Mars stuff… Hang on the Box as well. Those were my introductory bands in Beijing.
SmBJ: What were you doing in Beijing when you first arrived?
Brad: I got here in February 2010, I was teaching at a cookie-cutter English school. Crazy weekends and nights, not much time for music. So I spent a year fitting in time for music, meeting people in the music scene, and then after my first year I switched jobs to something more like freelance, and I've been doing that since.
SmBJ: How did you initially become involved yourself as a musician in the scene here?
Brad: I always knew I wanted to do stuff other than see shows. I had this book called the Insider's Guide to Beijing, and there was a little section on What Bar. I wanted to know more so I looked on the Beijinger and there was an even smaller section about this place What Bar. The only thing it said was, "Where local bands go to cut their teeth." I looked up the address and realized it was really close to my house, so I went on a Tuesday night with no show. It was just the woman who ran What Bar [at the time] in there with a couple of people. I hung out and had a beer and talked with them, and went back the next weekend for a show. I really started liking what I was seeing there, and eventually asked them if I could play. So my first show in Beijing was at What Bar with Pacalolo, and that's what got me starting to want to play out live, and eventually playing at places like D-22.
SmBJ: Early on after you started playing out in Beijing, you caught attention for your non-traditional use of pipa, a traditional Chinese instrument. How did you decide to pick up the pipa?
Brad: When I was living in Ningbo I went to a music shop and tested out a bunch of Chinese instruments, like guzheng and erhu, but pipa made more sense with a bass background, since it's four strings. It's played differently, but it made sense to pick it up and I could start to make things out. So I let that sit in my room for about six months and played with it, and little by little started adding it to pre-recorded sessions in Ableton. Then when I was in Beijing at some point I thought I could incorporate it all together as a live set. I went through a lot of experiments with it to see how it could work. The way it is now is in its final phases of how I can get it to work in an acoustic and electric setup.
SmBJ: How did your interactions with the Beijing music scene, and even the ambient sound of Beijing, influence the development of you music?
Brad: When I came here I was focusing more on software, making beats and sampling. Then I started bringing in a live instrument and focusing more on stuff that I found on my travels, field recordings, people talking, city noises and stuff like that, it all came into the music. But [the influence] that really came from Beijing was going to experimental music shows, noise shows, and seeing how nothing has to be 4/4, 120bpm. You can add things into music to where it flows how you like it. Going to these Zoomin' Night shows, at first you look at it like, "These people are just messing around, they don't really know what they're doing." But when you sink into it kind of meditatively, that opened me up a lot to not being stuck to tempo and bars and just having the free flow of how I wanted the music to sound.
SmBJ: You've played together or collaborated with quite a few local bands over the years. How did you get involved in the community aspect of the music scene? What other bands besides thruoutin have you been involved in?
Brad: I found out that as long as you tried to speak to people, you hung out after the shows, even if your Chinese isn't that good or you're kinda nervous, you can just talk to someone. That was the biggest thing. And most people were up to ideas of working together in some way, like setting up a show, jamming in a practice room. A lot of my first interactions with people before we did projects were just stuff like that. There was a band called Miss Freak, which later became Dirty Little Secret, it's now Secret Club — those guys started a band called Perpetual Motion Machine when they split up. I played synth with them for a little while. After that I met Michael Winkler and Shen Lijia and started playing in Yantiao. Through that, actually playing live in a band, I got to meet a lot of live venue owners and a lot of different bands and contacts were made that way. So when I went into my last project, Mammals, I had a bit more know-how on the band aspect of things, rather than just booking something as a solo artist. One great thing about Beijing is you can things like that, you can have two or three different projects, it's very easy to do.
SmBJ: In parallel with all this you are also involved with Jingweir, a loose collective that has put out a few music-related fanzines and DIY releaess for local artists. How did Jingweir start? What's your role in it now?
Brad: It started out as our editor Luke Hansford and our intellectual curator Michael Winkler, they wanted to start a zine about the Beijing music scene in light of another zine that they'd seen a while back. I can't remember the name, 8 Inches of Arsehole or something. They approached me to do an interview as thruoutin and I thought the idea was really cool. I liked what they were doing, because there were no physical zines around. So I just started hanging out with them more and asking if I could do an article, or help with stapling and stamping the zines. Eventually Luke went back to Australia, and a bunch of the other people that were working with us went and did other things, so it became Winkler and I more intensely.
Brad: It started out as a zine representing the music scene, but then we started doing music releases. We'd have an idea with an artist, take them to the studio and record with them… Muted Rainbow was done that way, Cloud Choir was done that way. Just putting out physical releases, that was the focus for a little while. And also, sharing our friends' content online, through Tumblr and Facebook. But the real focus is on the zine. I'm doing it solely now. That will still be coming out when I have time. That was always kind of the motivational point of JIngweir: we're all musicians, this is gonna come out as a side project of that, when we have time to do it.
SmBJ: You've also collaborated with visual artists, most consistently with the illustrator Chaimi. How did you two get together?
Brad: I met her through a friend at What Bar one night, I was playing a collaborative set with this guy from Denmark named Madison Dayton. I'd invited some friends who are in the art scene, and they had a friend that was doing this color pencil stop-motion stuff, and wanted to get some music scored for it. So she saw my show and I met her afterwards, and she said, "I have this little two-minute clip of video that I want to put music to." So we met up and talked one-on-one, and we thought we'd try to make it into a live thing. She was getting into VJ'ing but she wanted to do something different than VJ'ing under a DJ, where it's just like images of a skull or some crazy lightning bolts or something. She actually wanted to put her real artwork into it. So we practiced a couple of times, and then we played about ten shows in Beijing, Xi'an, Hangzhou.
SmBJ: What was the reception like for these shows? I know a few of them were in more of an art than a live music context.
Brad: Yeah, those were the best. We played at places like XP and Jianghu, those are more bar settings, so people are expecting to see a live show. There was some improv in our performance, but it was set and we knew where our transitions were gonna be. Every time was a little different. So in an art space, you have a lot more room. The audience that's coming out is more conducive to that kind of show. The people that came out would have questions at the end, they would want to have workshops. These kinds of things are really cool because it's not just about you pushing your art or music on someone, you're actually showing them what you did, and how you did it. Whereas at a bar it's like, "Well that was a cool 30 minutes," then everyone is waiting on the next band.
SmBJ: Back to thruoutin... You were one of the first from what I guess you could call the current generation of Beijing-based foreign musicians to really begin to work out a DIY tour trail through Mainland China. How did you go about setting up your first tours?
Brad: My first show in China was actually in Shanghai at The Shelter, through an Antidote party by Michael Ohlsson. So I always kept in contact with friends in Shanghai, and when I started doing more stuff in Beijing I'd go back and forth once or twice a year to Shanghai. Those were my first shows outside Beijing.
In 2013 I decided I would go to Shanghai for a show, but I was talking to a friend of mine, Deng Chenglong, and he said I should play in Wuhan. So I booked a show in Wuhan and then Jiahuizhen was also touring, so they put us on the same show. Then Jiahuizhen said they were playing a show in Xinxiang in Henan, about an hour from Zhengzhou. So that was my first China tour, maybe five shows. And I did it all by myself, figured out that it's not that difficult to do after you know a couple of people. Of course you're not going to be making these awesome fees at the end, but it was just fun to do it, go on trains with your gear. So that was my introduction to touring in China, and I've since gone solo to other cities, and toured with Mammals.
thruoutin outside Wuhan's storied Vox venue
SmBJ: How would you compare touring China versus the US?
Brad: Having your own car in the US is a big thing. You can make your own plan. But it also means that you're paying for gas and you're sometimes not sure how to get to places. In China it's awesome. You get a taxi to the train station or airport. Most places that you'll want to play in will have a high-speed train station. China's really convenient because you have the venues, you have the backline. The only thing that's different is maybe you're not going to get the same kind of promotion for being a band that people might not know about. In the States people might come out to that show just because they're into seeing someone on tour. It's relative, every place is different.
SmBJ: Where else have you toured outside of China?
Brad: I've gone on two international tours. One was in Taiwan with Guiguisuisui, we did Taipei, Gaoxiong, and Tainan. That was really fun, a four-day, three-show tour during the May holiday in 2014. And then at the beginning of this year my girlfriend and I did a tour in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.
Before I had the impression that most places outside of China are more open and have had more exposure in the past. That was my idea going in to Malaysia. And I realized that it's more Western, and it's more open, but the development and support hasn't been there. Especially in Malaysia, there's only a handful of venues, and now the venue way played at, Rumah Api, is taking a break for a while, because the government went in there three weeks ago, on a special government day, and said the show was anti-government. There's been some stink about that. And in Singapore, it's very difficult to book a show there. You have to get it approved by the government. You have to get a form filled out, and they have these spies that come to the show dressed as concert-goers. The organizer there at the venue Pink Noise — which is now also gone — was saying that when he wants to do shows, it's very difficult. Sometimes they'll put a couple of touring acts together on the same bill just to have a show that night.
Brad: And when I got to Indonesia, it was the lowest amount of promotion. Their shows were mostly in cafes and practice studios. Indonesia felt like the scene was put together and held together by people who just love music. And there was no real pretension, they were just so happy to have someone that wanted to come there to play.
SmBJ: When you tour outside of China you're often billed as an artist from Beijing, which is fair because thruoutin as a project largely developed in Beijing and incorporates Chinese lyrics and instrumentation. How do you feel as an American that represents Beijing as an artist when on tour?
Brad: Well, the first thing is, I'm not Chinese, I don't try to be. But I'm very influenced by my time in China. So when I go to play in the States I like to bring that with me. Even when I'm here I like to add these things that have meant something to me in my life. I always say I'm from the States, but I'm based in Beijing, and I've been in Beijing just as long as I've been anywhere else. So for me, I'm a Beijing-based artist. That's as simple as it is. I'm not trying to be Ghost Bath or something. My online persona is very much a white dude. I have songs where I sing in Chinese because I speak Chinese when I'm on the street. Sometimes in the lyric-writing process maybe something in Chinese comes to me before something in English. But that doesn't mean that I'm using a nationality or a language in my music. It's just something that I like and it's part of my life here.
SmBJ: I always thought it was interesting that you sing in Chinese. So many Chinese bands sing in English, because it's kind of the lingua franca of a certain type of indie rock. What's different about the expression of your ideas when singing in Chinese versus your native language?
Brad: Singing in English is a lot easier. When I go to write something in English I pay more attention to how to make something that's maybe not as evident as "I love you baby"-type songs. I want to make the lyrics represent a story or a narrative or something. That's my English approach to writing lyrics. When I write in Chinese, it's very delicate. You have to be careful about what you sing about, and how to not make it so, you know, "these are the 100 Chinese words that I know" type of foreigner writing a Chinese song. So when I write in Chinese, I try to think about another situation, another narrative, and what I might have been thinking or might have said at that time. If I'm comfortable with those words, I know that there won't be any type of backlash later when I've said a lyric that sounds [awkward], like how Chinglish sound to English-speakers. I want to make something that's pure and what I would actually say, and that's understood by people. So when I write in Chinese, there's fewer words, but there's more time taken to make sure it's right.
SmBJ: Your latest big project has been your label, Seippelabel. What is your concept for it?
Brad: When I first started doing it a lot of people were like, "Why isn't this a Jingweir mixtape? Why is this different?" With Jingweir, since I was working with other people, things would happen at a pace that you expect with many people working together. If you work alone you can get stuff out quicker. So when I came up with the idea, I was like, "Maybe I'll do something that's not my material, but other people that I know and that I like and I want to let other people know about." So that's the basis of Seippelabel. I've started out doing compilations, not really genre-specific, but it's become more noise and ambient and electronic-based. But there's all kinds of stuff on there, there's folk, there's post-rock, there's all kinds of different things.
Brad: I have a lot more lined up that I'm doing. After the first one I contacted my sister in the States, she was hanging out in California. She has an art background, and I asked her if she wanted to do design for it. So we got a site going, and she did the art for the last one, and is helping out with curating. So on the next one, Volume 3, we're going to include a British producer and an American sound artist, along with three different Beijing artists. That will be our first international — as opposed to expats living in Beijing — release. There's a lot of plans for Seippelabel, in the end it's just a way for us to promote people that we know and like.
SmBJ: What are some of your favorite tracks from the first two comps?
Brad: The first one that really stuck out was a band called SNSOS, She Never Sings Our Songs. They're a post-rock band that Mammals ran into next to our practice room. They are really influenced by Explosions in the Sky, Toe, and you can tell they were at early Glow Curve shows, and Wang Wen, stuff like that. There's really noisy stuff towards the end, like Hong Qile, and Meng Qi, who makes lots of really cool instruments. Noise Arcade is one of the expats on there. And on the first one, Blake Stone-Banks has this project called Lobecraft, he did a track for that. So it's not just Chinese, not just foreigners.
SmBJ: This weekend you're having your first offline event. What are your bigger plans for Seippelabel offline?
Brad: Seippelabel is going to be something that I do when I have time to put stuff together. I want to have a really good Bandcamp documentation of, maybe a few years from now, what I encountered here. So people can go through and have that to hear. Hopefully it'll be a nice fossil record of bands I've met here. And that's all I really want. Everything's up for free download, I don't want to make any money off it. For events, this is the first one that we're doing, and it's mainly because my sister's here. In the future if something comes up where I feel it'd be nice to have it as a Seippelabel event I'll do it, like maybe after we've done a bunch of compilations we can make a USB of all of them and do an event for that, and invite some of the artists to play. That would be something simple we could do. But for now it's not any type of promotion platform, it's just a digital label.
SmBJ: How have you seen the landscape of the Beijing music scene change over the last five years? Where do you see it heading now?
Brad: That's a big question. It's also a question I've asked myself a lot throughout the time I've been here. When I came here I got the attitude that, "Oh, you just missed this bubble pop of the early Beijing punk, post-punk scene." And I was like, "Oh, well that kind of sucks. I'll just check it out and see how it goes." But I didn't see any real stop to the music scene. Venues were being closed, bands were breaking up, but it wasn't stopping or slowing anything down. If you look at the music scene now and what it was five years ago, there's so much more diversity. There's a bass scene, there's Dada, that just didn't exist before. There's all kinds of different bands and producers here. A lot of people get worried when stuff starts closing and the government starts cracking down, but I've seen it so many times go in and out, and it always just seems to keep moving forward. I don't think that Beijing's gonna be the new New York or Tokyo or something, but Beijing will always be a place that's where artists will come to live, to make music for themselves.
Catch Seippelabel offline on Saturday at fRUITYSHOP, and see Brad perform with Chaimi, Seippelabel co-runner Michele Rose Seippel, and sound artist Anita Pan on TUE Sep 29 at Muye Space.