Christiaan Virant is a musician who's lived in China since the mid-'80s. In the late '90s he was a fixture in Beijing's fledgling club scene, DJing four to five gigs a week, playing in hardcore bands and doing solo techno and drum 'n' bass production work on the side. In 1999 he founded FM3 with Pet Conspiracy guitarist Huzi, soon after adding '90s Beijing rock scene lynchpin Zhang Jian to the lineup. Since 2000, FM3 has existed as the duo of Virant and Zhang, and in the early 2000's became one of the first underground Chinese bands to make an impact abroad, touring widely across Europe.
In 2004 they released their first Buddha Machine, a small plastic box playing a set number of pre-recorded loops composed by FM3. The rest is history. This history. In classic Culture Bureau style, the following interview is cobbled together from roughly five hours of freewheeling conversations conducted over the last two years about FM3, the Buddha Machine's international impact, music in the digital age, alternative formats, industrial DIY, and random observations of an ex-"professional China expert."
FM3 debuts Ting Shuo, their first non-Buddha Machine release in 10 years, at the BEME events on Friday, 10/24 at Dada and Saturday, 10/25 @ Yugong. Here's Christiaan on many things that came before that:
SmartBeijing: When did you first come to China?
Christiaan Virant: In the '80s… I was a student at Xiamen University. And then I went to Taiwan in '89, and was a student there, and then I came back to the Mainland every summer and winter vacation. I was a student of Chinese history and literature at National Taiwan University, heavy into Classical Chinese. So we'd study the poetry of a certain poet, and then I'd come to Mainland and spend three months going to all the places he wrote about.
In those days traveling in the Mainland was really cheap. US dollar to Reminbi back then was just ridiculous. In fact, foreigners couldn't even use Renminbi, we had waihuijuan, Foreign Exchange Currency. But the beauty was I could take 100 USD and turn it into 300 waihuijuan, then take 100 waihuijian and turn it into 800 renminbi. You had to buy a special card on the black market allowing foreigners to use renminbi, but basically I could take 100 US dollars from my stipend in Taiwan and I could live for a month.
SmBJ: Is that why you came to China in the first place? Because you were interested in the history and culture?
Christiaan: In music, mostly. [At first] I was studying Indian music, actually. As a young musician, I was really into ragas and Indian music, and I wanted to play sitar. Of course. Because that's what you do when you're a young stoner. There was a school north of San Francisco where you could study Indian music in a degree program. I really wanted to go there but I ended up getting a short scholarship program to China. And it just kind of stuck.
When you came to China in the '80s, there was just nothing. I had to re-grow up with Taiwanese pop music, because in the '80s in Fujian, that's all you had. Cassettes from Wang Jie, all these Taiwanese pop stars, that then became my new youthful disillusion of music. So my first romances and my first memories of ecstasy and breakup were all soundtracked by bad Taiwanese pop music. [laughs] Which I still have a soft spot in my heart for.
Here's a Taiwanese pop selection from Sacco at SmartShanghai
SmBJ: After graduating, you had a long career as a journalist before going back to music, right? How'd you get involved in that line?
Christiaan: That's what happens if you're a "China expert" and you have no other career path. There was a very small number of people who had fluent Mandarin, fluent reading ability, and were willing to live in the Mainland. So you ended up either in journalism or maybe NGOs, or going to work for whichever government.
So yeah, after I became a China dropout, in order to pay the bills, I had a long period where I was a straight, white-collar China expert. I ended up being the Chief of Bureau for UPI, and I was also working at Reuters, and in Hong Kong I was the China editor for a large newspaper there. I used to be a very well-paid China expert. And now I just make plastic music boxes. [laughs]
But as soon as I could get out of that world, I did. At that time I was pretty well known for writing. It was really easy for me to say, "Hey, let's get a band together." I was playing with some friends in Hong Kong who had the first kind of laptop electronic music band there, so I was inspired by them to bring that concept back to Beijing. And I had a lot of little blips here and there with music, but I didn't take the plunge to go back to music professionally — I didn't consign myself to lifelong poverty — until I had some money in the bank.
Now I've been just living the music life for at least 13 years, and most people who know me don't know about my professional past. I guess now the image I present to people is so far from that, that if I occasionally mention I used to be a professional journalist, I was a bureau chief, I had a driver, I had a staff — no one believes me. Even [FM3 co-founder] Zhang Jian thinks I'm just making it up. [laughs]
SmBJ: I know you were in a few bands in Beijing in the late '90s and early '00s, and a pretty ubiquitous DJ on the club scene back then, but let's focus on FM3. How did the band come together originally?
Christiaan: [Current Pet Conspiracy guitarist] Huzi and I founded FM3. He was a friend, and at that time performing in the bands No and the Fly. He was the best guitarist in the "underground." There were probably better technical players in the mainstream and metal scenes, but Huzi was the acknowledged best in terms of both technique and tone and ability to do weird shit. Zhang Jian at that time was in Zi Yue. I liked Zhang's style and use of sound and overall minimalist approach, so when Huzi and I were discussing how to develop FM3, he suggested we get Zhang in to flesh out the sound. So we had a practice in a bomb shelter and that was the first time I met Zhang.
SmBJ: Why did Huzi leave?
Christiaan: Originally, the band was pretty old-school. I was on laptop beats and ambience. Huzi was straight up guitar melody, riffs and tones. Zhang had an old Roland sound module and he was playing bass and the occasional pad. Song structure was pretty "traditional" with chorus, verse, bridge, and all that. We were all trad musicians, so it was easy to put together "normal" songs.
Early in 2000, I toured Japan with Chinese pop star Ai Jing. While there i picked up an old Korg MS20 monosynth. I was already using an old SH-101, but the combination of these two synths made everything we did very weird. I also picked up a Korg synth for Zhang. And as Zhang and I got deeper into experiments with analog gear, we moved quickly away from trad song structure and technique. Zhang was playing in about 20 different bands at the time, so he wasn't really interested in "just another band." He and I pushed each other to make things more abstract, more stripped down and more avant. For him it must have been liberating and for me it was a return to experiments I did when I was in my teens.
Our first gig was in May 2000 at Modern Sky's old club, Live House 17 in south Sanlitun. Huzi's last show with FM3 was 3 months later, in August at the Loft. In the interim we had written a full set of songs and performed them a few times. We even had an old-school drum 'n' bass track called "Zheng" released on a CD that came on the cover of the old Modern Sky magazine. At our last gig as a trio, Huzi sat in a chair in front of us, while Zhang and I had an array of gear and basically just did our thing.
It's worth noting that at that time I was a full-time DJ, playing all the clubs. I did about four gigs a week just as a DJ. I did a live set of techno with hardware, and when I needed to flesh out the longer sets, added in some Berlin minimal. It was basically pretty abstract minimal techno. So that informed FM3 at the time as well. Huzi wanted to keep the beats, but Zhang and I wanted to drop them... as the beats got dropped, Huzi moved on. Shortly after he left FM3, he started doing gigs as a solo artist, and since there weren't that many electronic acts back then, we always appeared on the same bill! For years and years, there were no other electronic acts in town. People claim that they were making electronic music back then, and there were certainly a load of bedroom producers. But out there playing live gigs? Just us…
Rolling it back to the year 2000… Just days after Huzi left FM3, the very first bar on Houhai opened. It was the legendary No Name bar, basically just the living room of this guy Bai Feng, who had a load of cool friends. It became the secret cool place to be, and this is where the real sound of FM3 developed. Just after Huzi left, Zhang and I took a weekly residency at No Name. We played there every week, sometimes twice a week, for 3 months. It was a small sound system, and we needed to be quiet since back then Houhai was strictly a sleepy residential community.
This is where I debuted the time-stretched Chinese classical samples that became the foundation of FM3's sound. Zhang was doing some work with classical musicians at the time, and would hand me raw recordings of different instruments. I would cut them up, stretch, effect, modulate, and then work them into songs. All of that evolved into the first releases and then the Buddha Machine.
SmBJ: What was your style by this time? How did your music and performance style change over time, especially after you started taking FM3 abroad for long Europe tours?
Christiaan: We were a heavy drone band at that time. We played at Dissonanze festival in Rome in 2002, which was where we met a lot of people who are still friends. Prefuse 73, Luke Slater, Villalobos was there, Biosphere from Norway… When we played in Rome, we were two laptops facing the audience, sitting. We sat across from each other on the floor with spotlights on us. And I guess it's the first show where FM3 started to develop stage craft. Before that we were just another band that would set up and play. At this show, we each had a control for our spotlights. We toured this system from this show all the way until the Buddha Machine came out, from 2003-2005. Really austere, black and white, sitting across from each other, very quiet. There was a deep minimalism, deep kind of Zen sound and imagery.
Then played the Louvre in May of 2004. We got paid 2,000 Euros each. And we were supposed to go back to Beijing, but we decided, "Fuck it, we're gonna stay." I think we stayed for six months. That's when we met everyone that we still know now, like the Staalplaat record label, that whole scene of German sound art and experimental music, because we lived in their houses, played like 40 shows in 50 days.
When we came back to Beijing was when [Yan Jun's weekly experimental music series] Waterland Kwanyin had started.
FM3 (left/middle) and Yan Jun (right) play a Beijing bookstore in 2003
SmBJ: By this time you were fairly established both in China and abroad. How did the scene around Waterland Kwanyin push you to develop in a new direction?
Christiaan: This is when I would say there was a lot of experimenting in Beijing experimental music. I really liked this time because the stage craft we were working with really became a thing. David Byrne talks about this in his book [How Music Works], about performance. Live music is a performance art. A lot of the early laptop musicians and minimalists wanted to break that idea that there needed to be a show. But I find it necessary. If you're just sitting there looking at your laptop, there needs to be something else, an extra element to make it three-dimensional. Even the Japanese harsh noise scene, they have a body language. So this point in the Beijing experimental scene was really fun for me because we spent a lot of time working with visuals.
SmBJ: How did your band identity and live performances change after the release and almost immediate international success of the first Buddha Machine in 2004/2005?
Christiaan: When the Buddha Machine came out, we discarded that live set and started doing the Buddha Boxing performances. The Buddha Boxing performance was very ritualized. It was essentially a rule-based, random performance system. And the rules were all about, kind of, etiquette. It always started with the seven machines of the first generation. We would sit down, open a bottle of wine, pick our weapons, and then play a game. The only rule was you could only do one movement at a time, like a card game. You could put down the machine, you could take away a machine, you could adjust the volume of a playing machine, you could change the track of a machine. The rules were deadly simple, and that's what allowed the audiences then to kind of take it.
[Zhang] and I, when we first started this, we played only on this map. We always had the performance surface, the stage. But it was the audience that then took it to the next level by getting architectural with the sound. For us it was about putting the machine on the map, and that would be the play. But it's really cool when you open your creative process or your music up to outsiders, because they often bring in things you would never think of. I think at our very first gig we played like this, in Berlin, the audience already started making structures with the machines. And that of course affects their sonic structure as well. So then we naturally took that into our performance and started getting architectural.
SmBJ: How did the Buddha Machine, this object, change the dynamics of the band?
Christiaan: I always thought of our performances as three-dimensional. We'd have visuals, music, and then also, let's say, a changpin, a physical product. The band's entire packaging. We'd perform with the things we were selling. Most times, you see a band, and then you buy their CD or t-shirt. But the band doesn't even wear their own t-shirt. One of our ideas was that our product was our instrument. Everything that we produced at that time, when we made a product, let's say a roll of tape with the band logo on it, we thought of it not just as something to sell, but something to use first in our performance. Instead of buying the CD, you could buy pieces of the creative elements of the performance. The idea was we would play a gig, we would teach the audience how to play a gig, and then they could buy the things to make it. And then we'd never have to play there again, because they would then take over. There would be no point. So for us it was like putting little spores in venues. We would play, then we would never need to play that venue again because people would play there using our instruments. It was kind of like leaving little bits of yourself in different venues.
Touring the Buddha Boxing was really nice, because your instrument is your album, is your identity, is your sound system. We didn't use any outside PA, and that's just amazing. You show up, pull out seven boxes and go. At that time we'd have a 30-minute or 40-minute performance, and then probably a one-hour so-called "jam" where the audience would come in. The audience would then take over our show, and [Zhang] and I would just go off and hang out. So it became full audience participation.
Then the Buddha Machines became part of the bar's soundscape. The performance became the bar's background music. That's when bars in Europe would start buying whole sets of Buddha Machines from us. In addition to a backgammon set, or a poker set, they'd also have a Buddha Machine set so you could play these games.
And I really liked that. In our early performances we'd always have a merch table that [Zhang] or I would then run after the gig. I saw Black Flag play when I was a young kid, and I always thought it was really cool when bands like that came to town and you'd see them at the merch table. Henry [Rollins] was still very accessible before the show, sitting there, writing letters, and after the show. All these early punk bands were very accessible. And that made a huge impact on me. I really like that leveling of the performance space. And it was ironic at that time, we were playing in high art spaces, in this rarefied field of sound art and academic music. But we were really trying to level it, it was kind of a punk rock attitude in a sound art world. And then maybe we took it a little bit too far when we started playing guitars and whatnot, and that kind of world rejected us. But that was fine, because then it forced us to move on.
SmBJ: Where did you see Black Flag?
Christiaan: I saw Black Flag in Omaha, Nebraska. Three times. I saw them on the Damaged tour, '84 I think. I saw them on the Loose Nut tour, with Kira. My War and Loose Nut. So I saw those three tours.
SmBJ: That would have been a weird transition to watch, Black Flag moving from Damaged to Loose Nut…
Christiaan: Totally. The first time I saw them they were straight up youthful energy hardcore. And then the last time I saw them, they were like a drone band, heroin slow motion… In [FM3's later guitar sets], I was really inspired by Greg Ginn, because the last time I saw him he was just standing there, moving in a circle. I'll never forget that, as a young kid it was just so hypnotic. And he was probably really stoned on whatever, really deeply stoned, in this kind of hypnotic rotation, and it was just this heavy guitar thing that never began and never ended. It's odd to be an adult and then get on stage and do that, and realize maybe where you got that influence from. That was like the molecular structure of what then could become SunnO))).
SmBJ: What was FM3's guitar set like? I can't even visualize it.
Christiaan: We toured Buddha boxing for two years, then we discarded that and did the Marshall Plan, where we used real instruments and played heavy drone, sludge metal drone stuff. We played with Marshall stacks, really loud, really heavy. And our audience that we had [by then] really hated it, because when they first encountered us we were this stark, minimalist band with a very strong visual image. And then we moved from that to this really quirky thing with these colorful boxes that also had a very minimalist but also very artistic kind of presentation to it. Then we picked up guitars and played really loud, and they hated that because that was harkening back to an old rock'n'roll motif that some people wanted to move beyond. So in a way we shot ourselves in the foot by doing the Marshall tour, but at the same time it cut that evolution of FM3 as an ambient or an experimental band. We stopped that cycle.
SmBJ: Was there an explicit overlap or collaboration between your Marshall Plan sets and SunnO)))? I know you've worked closely with SunnO)))'s Stephen O'Malley…
Christiaan: We were really influenced by Stephen O'Malley, but we met him before [Marshall Plan], during the Buddha Boxing gigs, because he did a remix for us on Jukebox Buddha in '05. He called us drone nomads because we were always on the road playing droney shit. And I though it was really cool, what he was doing [with SunnO)))].
After the Buddha Boxing tour, we came back to Beijing and we thought, "What can we do next, that's still drone-based but a little bit heavier?" We wanted something everybody could hear, because we were doing bigger and bigger venues. So then we came up with the Marshall Plan because we were playing big stacks of Marshalls, and that year was probably the peak of FM3's touring, where we would open for ourselves. We would first do a 40-minute Buddha boxing set, then we would have a break, then we'd come back and do a one-hour Marshall set. So there would be a hyper-minimal, quiet opener, and a very loud, noisy headliner. Marshall was a lot about smoke machines. We'd fill the entire venue with smoke. I played the exact same riff for 45 minutes. In the first gigs, in order to stay in time, I had a little metronome in my ear clicking it off. You go a bit mental if you do that, as a human, so I'd go into this crazy zone.
SmBJ: Let's go back to the Buddha Machine, which cemented your network in Europe and the US. Moving aside from its wide commercial success, what have been some of the crazier "interpretations" or "remixes" you've seen done with the Buddha Machine? I remember seeing that one photo of 1,000 Buddhas in a gallery in Rome…
Christiaan: That was in 2010. [Eventually] people in Europe got annoyed with our Buddha Boxing performances. Once these guys did a harsh noise performance where they destroyed Buddha Machines called "Torturing the Buddha", they had nine different methods of torture. They boiled one, they drilled one, they set one on fire… It was awesome. By this time, in Europe, FM3 had gotten to a point where we played on festivals as FM3, as a band, then we started playing a whole night, and then there would be entire nights devoted to Buddha Machine and FM3 performances. Like in Berlin at Club Transmediale there was a whole night with other people using our machines and our music, and then we would be the headlining act. I think some of our friends got so annoyed with that, because it just got ridiculous. A whole night of fucking FM3, you know, where we sometimes wouldn't even play. [laughs]
Then, on one of these Buddha Machine-themed nights, [these guys] did this performance where they killed the Buddha. And it was really good, because it was easily the best interpretation of this. One they killed with a nail, like Jesus on the cross. Boiling was cool. They drowned one… It was fucking brilliant. It was funny, it was poignant, and it was really interesting. Up to that point, everybody who was doing Buddha Machine remixes was always doing something nice and sweet and ambient. They later got invited to do this [in Rome], and they were like, "No, we're not going to fucking play FM3's music in other places." [With the curator in Rome] we devised doing a room full of Buddhas. We drilled a hole in the back of each of the Buddhas and then he would inject acid, or he had the staffers of the museum inject acid in the circuit boards at certain intervals so that the sound would change.
SmBJ: So you picked up guitars for a while, and now you're back to a mostly laptop and synthesizer-based performance model. Why the return to form?
Christiaan: Stage craft is not much of an issue for us anymore… With [2012's] Buddha Machine 4, the client brief we give ourselves was "music first." We really focused on the music, and then when we put the one or two months of our minds to the packaging, because we had so much practice, it went really smoothly. But now, with our live set, you can't call that "experimental music." There's melody, there's harmony, there's structure, there's development, there's a beat. It's essentially traditional music. [Zhang] and I both come from a very strong classical music background, so we wanted to go back to, let's say, "music." That's really liberating for us, because at a place like XP, we can just rock up and plug in. A few years ago we wouldn't have considered it, because we really wanted to control the space. We'd want to hang our FM3 flags, we'd want to have all the lighting right, the angles of the video just right. It's really fun to do and experiment with, but it's also really limiting. When you get so into your visuals, it limits where you can play.
I miss those days, because I feel rock clubs — clubs in general — are incubators for creativity. When we moved into art spaces, especially like a white cube or a black cube, small theater, we focused really on controlling the environment. We started that with the Louvre, because our music at that time, 2004, got so minimal and so quiet that we needed the audience to be quiet. In fact, that's how loop 2 on Buddha 1 was devised, to create a sense of quietness in the crowd.
Oddly enough, when Throbbing Gristle toured in the USA, they used Buddha Machines as their opening act. Because their music is so confrontational, and they as a band are so confrontational, that they wanted the crowd to be kind of calm before the gig. So their sound man was playing Buddha Machines live. And then I read about that and got in touch with Christine Cosey, and then the Gristleism came about.
That became kind of an artistic focus, "controlling the environment," controlling the audience. And now I think it's really liberating to not have to worry about that. Because when you're in rock venues and clubs, and you don't have to worry about the black box or white cube situation, you can just focus on the music.
Throbbing Gristle - The Gristleism
SmBJ: One of the interesting things about FM3 is your ability to basically release your music by yourselves, but on a customized, almost industrial scale. I think someone in Wire magazine once referred to it as "industrial DIY". In Beijing you have your own print factory. How do you use the production possibilities in China as a creative instrument in their own right, and what projects has it lead to?
Christiaan: The first thing about our factory is it's a packaging factory. There's a die cutting machine for paper, there's an emboss, deboss, and foiling machine, and a silk screen machine. So that's all we can do. It kind of fits the FM3 model: within a limited frame, what can we do? We've been doing production in China now for 10 years. When you have your own factory, you can rock up there at midnight, fire up the machines, cut it, test it, and it's good to go. It's still lo-fi, it's still low-cost, it's within the parameters of what we can do.
It's like the "Maker" culture in the USA. Essentially we've been doing that for ten years, but we just appropriated large production lines to do small-run making. And now we actually own some of the machines to do that, and we do them ourselves. So we're still essentially DIY manufacturers, but we have what you could call industrial-level production capabilities. Which is really bizarre to think about. Every time I go there I'm just stunned that we have this capability now.
SmBJ: This "lo-fi" idea is another interesting aspect of FM3. Obviously the sound quality is limited on the machines themselves, but you now have iPhone and iPad apps that play all the same loops in hi-fi audio. Why make an app?
Christiaan: Oh dude, the app store is really easy. We made the Buddha Machine, and then some magazine called it the Anti-iPod, and that stuck. Have you seen that New York Times article with this machine that does everything, and there's a Buddha Machine that's like On/Off?
In the West, especially in the USA, everyone was calling it the Anti-iPod. So we were like, "Yeah!" Some friends of mine in New York made our app for free for us. It was a perfect fit, because they're already calling it the anti-iPod. So then we'll put it on the iPhone, and it's perfect!
SmBJ: It seems to me that FM3 as a band, as a duo, has been eclipsed both by the success of the Buddha Machine, and your geographical point of origin in Beijing. How do you play with people's misconceptions about FM3 as a band and the music you make?
Christiaan: I like to keep it nebulous. It's better to let everyone have their own idea. In the old days of pop music, pop idols could be discovered, remolded, and repackaged, and that allows the listener to put their own projection onto that person. When people buy the Buddha Machine, they like the mystery of this "Chinese sound art outfit." In China, people buy the Buddha Machine, and they know there's a foreigner involved with it, and they think that's cool, too. Like, "Oh, look at this foreigner stealing Chinese culture and making money!"
One of the funny things that we've always encountered — that any Chinese band encounters when they start working on an international level — is if we were just a normal band in a normal city, let's say London, or Dusseldorf, people just ask you about your music. It's about the tunes. If you're a band from China, the focus is less on your music and what you're doing, and more on where you're doing it. I feel that can be an impediment to young bands, because the message you're getting from the world is, "Your music doesn't really matter. It matters that you have a mohawk and you're in Beijing." Wang Yue and Hang on the Box were on the cover of Newsweek, and they'll constantly remind you about that, but I would prefer to be on the cover of a Classical music magazine for an amazing release we did, rather than on the cover of Newsweek because we're punks in China.
SmBJ: That said, FM3, or at least the Buddha Machine, is arguably the most successful international "breakout" coming from the Beijing music scene. What are some of the most satisfying collaborations you've done, within China or abroad? Personal or professional milestones…
Christiaan: Have you seen the vinyl that Monolake did? It's beautiful. He did this box set of five 7"s, and each side has a different Buddha Machine remix on it. It's like grey vinyl in this cool 7" box set.
And that SunnO))) album, a vinyl that's got like a 12-minute Buddha Machine piece on one side. It's fucking cool. I think it's called Oracle. It's a whole side of this droney Buddha Machine thing, and it's got a vocal on it, Attila's on it. I think it's the first loop from Buddha 1. Stephen [O'Malley] told me they just plugged the Buddha Machine, instead of guitars, into their full pedal boards and full amps in the studio, at full SunnO))) volume with it.
Zhang Jian and I are constantly approached by people who want to make their own Buddha Machines. There's also a lot of pressure to open up. We've always thought of the Buddha Machine as how we release music. As a band we compose for it, and then we release it, and it's kind of a full circle. Because the speaker in the box influences what we make, and limits what can be played on it.
Now you're seeing a lot more innovative or new formats. Like Nicolas Jaar released a little cube. There's all these different formats now people can release on, and I think the idea of bespoke formats, or more creative formats for musicians, is a really sexy thought for the future. That's where experimental musicians will really flower, because if you spend a lot of time working on your conceptual ideas, but you still at the very end have to release it on a compact disk made by Sony Phillips, you're stopping the creativity of your music at that point. But now we're in the age where people can say, "Ok, I'm going to make this weird kind of music that is only for wearing on badges, and you can only here it within a one-meter radius of this badge." I think that will lead to some really interesting things. There's still a lot of opportunity to do non-vinyl, non-CD, non-traditional music releases.
Nicolas Jaar - "don't break my love" music cube
SmBJ: And yet, you're returning to the CD as a format with the album you're about to release, Ting Shuo. Why is that?
Christiaan: This new album is primarily directed at the Chinese market. One thing that's utterly unbelievable is that the Chinese market for CDs is very strong. While in the West, piracy, MP3s and changing music taste destroyed the economy, in China, which started off with only piracy and MP3s, now kids really do buy CDs. For some reason, kids in China would rather buy CDs than Buddha Machines. So there's this weird thing. It goes back to the localization and the national identity and the mythology of the Buddha Machine. It's post-CD, post-MP3 even though it came out about the same time that MP3s got big. It's very avant and very "post." But China didn't have a "pre."
One of the reasons I made my solo album [2012's Fistful of Buddha] was to get back into long-form songwriting, a warmup for Ting Shuo. But I'm also really curious about the digital market. When we started, there was no MP3 market. Since the Buddha Machine, the whole digital market has really grown, and now it's the main way of consuming music worldwide. I was talking to Daniel Miller at Mute in London about this, and I said, "The weird thing about our band is we have a physical product that we sell on this end, and on the other end we have an app." We have this weird lo-fi device, and we have these apps, but [nothing] in the middle, the record store or the iTunes store, where the rest of the world exists. As a band, taking a flat product like a CD, and then offering it in digital format, and having the Buddha Machine there, I think that's an expansion of the music market.
SmBJ: So you're making Ting Shuo to re-introduce FM3 to the Chinese market, and to that end you're about to launch a long China tour. Do you plan to take it abroad as well?
Christiaan: Oh yeah. Definitely. I still feel that some of the most satisfying live experiences are playing abroad, because you have a highly educated, highly interested, highly eager audience. You get a different kind of critical feedback. We do this lecture circuit in China, also called Ting Shuo, where we put forward the belief that art is communication. The way a musician communicates is by making music, putting out music, and facing the audience, playing live. So for me, live performance is vital. I value the critical feedback. And you get much different feedback in China… Of course, every country is different.
[But] if I only played in Europe I would eventually get frustrated, because I like sometimes taking ideas out to the Chinese public and seeing, not what works and what doesn't, but how people react to different concepts and ideas, and even different beats. You know, there are whole genres of breakbeat, hip hop, drum'n'bass, dub, dubstep that for a while did not work in certain cities in China. Because people hadn't learned to dance to them yet. And it's the same evolution that you see in the West. It's fun to take something that's already well evolved in the West, and then try it here and see how people react. I saw Goldie play a drum'n'bass set in the '90s and it blew me away. Because being in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong in the '90s, I was isolated from global music development. So I never heard drum 'n' bass. And I went to this club and I saw this guy play, and it was amazing! Because I heard these crazy sounds, the bass, the beats… they changed me. And in China there's still the chance to do that.
SmBJ: Yeah, I saw Goldie last year at Dada in Beijing. It was funny because he was DJ'ing shitty quality MP3s a lot of the time and it kind of sucked but whatever, he's Goldie. But then Shackup went on after him, this 20-something Chinese kid, and just killed it. Out-Goldie'd Goldie.
Christiaan: Yeah, that's cool. But of course you have to remember that it's easy to come on after Goldie and kill Goldie, because he did the music you're playing almost 20 years ago. [laughs] Granted, you get older… You know, it's easy to play krautrock after Neu! did it for you. That shit is so easy, and it's cookie-cutter, and it's as simple as punk rock. It's really three chords. But to make that, and to have the balls to do that when no one else is doing it, that's what I don't see in China.
SmBJ: What are your plans after this Ting Shuo release tour? Do you want to go back to the US or Europe? Buddha 5 is also about to come out… do you have future Buddha models mapped out at this point?
Christiaan: Now that [Zhang] can drive, it would be really cool to buy a car and then just do universities all across the US, and do a Buddha boxing tour among university kids. I saw The Residents play in Lawrence Kansas, I think it was 1983 or '84, and as someone from a kind of isolated part of the world — much like Beijing was in the '90s — you really appreciate those little injections of anything. So I would really love to tour Buddha boxing in places that wouldn't normally get it.
I've got so many prototypes of different Buddha derivations. After I worked with Throbbing Gristle I met their manager, Paul Smith. He ran Blast First, he was the first person to bring Sonic Youth to Europe, he was the manager for Cabaret Voltaire, all these early art rock bands in the UK. We developed an idea working with the New York band Suicide, and I wanted to do a Buddha Machine with them. Suicide's really cool, you've got the enigmatic front man and the guy in the back doing all the music. And I thought we could make two boxes: one with just vocals, one with all the music. And then you could switch between the two. So I wanted to make a Suicide Cube, with two speakers, but different brains, different sound sets. And then you as the user could remix the band in a really simple way. So I have prototypes of that.
There's a lot of weird shit in the pipeline that will eventually get done. It's not hard to put a new Buddha box out. From "Let's do it" to it being on the shelf is only about a six month timeframe. But it does take a good year to get to the point of, "Let's do it." So maybe every two years. Right now we're on a two-year cycle.
Buddha 5 contains loops taken from Ting Shuo, which was built on loops from Buddha 4. Buddha 4 loops beacme the album, then the album becomes feeder for loops for 5, then 5 will become the feeder for another album, which will become loops for Buddha 6. And that way our live sets will also have a connective tissue. You'll be able to take box 4, 5, and 6, and they'll all work in a live context. It's like a puzzle, like a 3D musical architecture.
SmBJ: This gets back to the idea of Buddha Machine as a modular piece of your oeuvre, which functions as an autonomous instrument…
Christiaan: There are a lot of people playing gigs with our boxes. There's some weirdo who tours China calling himself FM3. He was playing in Thailand and Vietnam, he even played in Hong Kong as FM3. [laughs] There's this guy in the Netherlands who calls himself Buddha Machine and does live sets with the Buddha Machine. And in Japan too there's some DJ who calls himself Buddha Machine.
SmBJ: That's interesting… Obviously one of the compelling aspects of the Buddha Machine is that it divorces itself from the context of its creation by you, FM3, a phenomenon that's encouraged by you and the format of the box. But someone calling themselves FM3 and playing your album as their own…
Christiaan: Well, in the old days, Kraftwerk wanted to do that. They wanted to have a bunch of Kraftwerks out there touring. And I'm sure The Residents have done that. I come very much from that tradition. I thought that was cool when I read they wanted to do it, and I think it's cool when people do it to me. If Kanye West drops a Buddha sample into some big hit, sure I'd expect to get paid. There's this artist, Imogen Heap, in her first album she had a lot of sample clearance issues. And then in her second album she sampled Buddha Machine. And they were fastidious about getting clearance from us, to the point where if I wasn't responding to emails really quickly they were worried that it wasn't gonna get cleared.
When you put something out like the Buddha Machine, you have to expect that people are going to want to use it. It's the best thing you could want for your music, to have it grow itself. I think they call it "going viral" now. [laughs]
SmBJ: Yeah I was just about to use that word. It's funny because viral spread is such an internet phenomenon, but Buddha Machine is as analog, almost anti-tech as it gets…
Christiaan: The Buddha Machine hit big just as Facebook was launching. I would be really curious to know what it would be like if we had the current viral culture we have now and the Buddha Machine hit, what kind of wave that would have hit. Because sure, there was internet culture when the Buddha Machine came out, but there wasn't the social network culture that is so firmly established now. The Buddha Machine, the biggest way it spread was through old-school methods. Like a dude wrote an article in a (now-defunct) magazine. People wrote it about it on paper. [laughs]
SmBJ: Well now you've got like 5,000 words on SmartBeijing. I guess you're never tempted go come back to your life as a white-collar "China hand" journo…
Christiaan: I don't think I could ever get back into that world. There have been a lot of funny stories, as you can imagine, being a band, that then made a product, that then kind of became the identity of our band. The amount of people that know the band is maybe 1% of the people that know the Buddha Machine. If you say Buddha Machine, people will know it. But if you say FM3, no one's ever heard of you. So there are a lot of really interesting stories about the development, the rise, all the different aspects of the production of the Buddha Machine that could be made into some nice little short stories. So maybe one day I'll get to that as a written product. But I'm still happy working with sound.
See FM3 live at the BEME III festival on Friday, 10/24 at Dada and Saturday, 10/25 @ Yugong Yishan. Find more info on the band here and listen to their music here.