This time around my subject is Ricky Maymi, founding member of American psychedelic juggernaut The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Ricky started the band on drums, moved to bass, then took a 10 year sabbatical to travel the world and jump into odd collaborations in Europe and Australia, finally rejoining BJM in 2003 on 12-string guitar.
A lifelong record collector and music geek, Maymi's most recent obsession hits close to (our) home. While staying at a friend's house in Melbourne a few years back, he was switched on to the whole Chinese indie rock scene, especially vibing with the raw-power debut LP of Beijing's Birdstriking. After a few email intros, Ricky established himself as a certified fanatic, and has since become one of the biggest and most influential proselytizers of The Beijing Sound abroad via his Far Out Distant Sounds distro.
Ricky landed in Beijing over the weekend, his first time visiting this new noise mecca. He's in town for a few weeks to get the lay of the land and put in some prep work for Birdstriking and Chui Wan's upcoming North America tours, which he's managing. I pulled him away from that for a quick trip to Indie Music, where we went digging for some of his favorite Chinese releases:
SmartBeijing: Has becoming involved with Chinese bands and the scene here given you a new perspective on your own band, or the scene you're involved in at home?
Ricky: It's given me a new perspective on the whole way people go about this in the Western world, full stop. And when I say "Western world," that includes Japan, Taiwan, everywhere but China, because they're so in bed with the Western entertainment industry that they're following suit. The information isn't filtered like it is here. So the influence translates in a different way. But yeah, it's really highlighted how, sort of… how can I say this without sounding mean… it's highlighted the fact that so many people making music in the West, what they're doing is so meaningless. It has no strength of any conviction whatsoever. They just want to wake up famous because their song's in a tampon ad, you know? Then they get their check for 20 grand, and then they have the illusion of success. And they don't really see beyond that. Nobody's really rocking the boat or breaking new ground. People just want to do what's safe, and that suggests fairly conservative values.
Ricky: Rock'n'roll's supposed to be dangerous. It's supposed to scare the shit out of people. It's supposed make people not want to let their daughters go out at night. But all these guys motivated toward having their song in a tampon ad, they're not trying to make music like that. And I see very few people in the White world doing that. They're just afraid to be subversive. They're afraid to be daring, or shocking. Versus an environment like this [in Beijing], where they find really creative ways of expressing that thought process, that idea, that nature. You can't help but notice the difference. The so-called free world is becoming more like [China] has been, and China is becoming more like the way we think the free world is. And that's an illusion in itself. It's interesting.
SmBJ: So what was your moment of epiphany with Chinese rock? What was the band that you heard that made you feel this sense of danger or subversiveness you felt lacking in the West?
SmBJ: What was it in their music that hit you?
Ricky: Just the sheer, balls-to-the-wall sound, and power, and energy, and vitality that it had. The screaming, the strength of it all. And then I started asking, "What are they saying?" When I started getting a sense of how thought-provoking the lyrics were, it really piqued my interest. And from there I discovered other bands in very much the same vein. But they were the first one to hit me. I'd already heard a few records by a few other [Chinese] bands. I was liking what I was hearing, but that was the one that really... it was like a smack in the face. It became my favorite [Chinese] band, and it still is. It's hard to pick a favorite, because everybody's so different in their approach. It's not like there's a "sound"... It's more like a headspace, or a nature and intent, rather than a style. Which appeals to me, the diversity of it all. They're all like puzzle pieces in this mosaic of freakiness. [laughs]
SmBJ: Brian Jonestown Massacre brought Birdstriking along as opener on your UK tour last year. How was making the jump from hearing Birdstriking on record to seeing them live? How were they received by the audience?
Ricky: They were received very well, I saw it with my own two eyes every night. I even talked with the fans afterwards, just to get the verbal confirmation. They were very impressive in every aspect. Their approach, the way they were so unified on stage, they were working as a three-headed monster. It was really impressive to see, to watch, to hear, everything about it. They impressed the hell out of everyone.
Ricky greets Birdstriking in the UK... check the tour mini-doc on Letv or YouTube
SmBJ: Back home you run a distro, Far Out Distant Sounds, and you're also organizing DJ events playing these Chinese bands. What feedback have you gotten?
Ricky: I normally do a lot of DJ nights anyway, just because I'm able to do it off the back of playing in a band. It's not too uncommon to get after-party shows to DJ, or even just random nights. But when I found out about this music, I made more of an effort to book DJ gigs so I could showcase the music and have this thing where I'm a DJ who plays Chinese rock. As silly as that sounds. And sure enough, it has made quite an impression on some well-known people. I was DJ'ing the My Bloody Valentine afterparties in Australia, in Sydney and Melbourne, right after that show they did in Taipei with Skip Skip Ben Ben. When I was DJ'ing those afterparties I would play nothing but Chinese rock. And those guys loved it! They were hanging around the DJ desk, asking, "Who's this? Who's that? Are they from Shanghai? Beijing?" Just asking questions, genuinely interested and really paying attention. That's just one example of how well that's gone, getting an unbiased reaction from people.
SmBJ: Ok, let's dig out some more records here...
Ricky: This is a Genjing split single, oxblood vinyl. It's Carsick Cars and the Flavor Crystals from Minneapolis. This single was put together because these guys toured together in North America last year, 2014. As far as I know, because of the tour, it was one of the quicker-selling Genjing releases. There are very few of these floating around these days. Which is great, because it's only a year old.
Ricky: It came out really good. It's got an outtake from Carsick Cars's last album, 3, and a new Flavor Crystals track exclusive to this. I'm not a member of the Flavor Crystals, but I do play on this track, drums and guitar, and so does Stephen Lawrie from The Telescopes. He plays some synth on it. And yeah, it's a pretty interesting release.
Ricky: The cover art is fantastic, by Tony Cheung/Sensitive Word. He does some really eye-popping, beautiful, racy artwork that I find to be consistently impressive. Every time I see any new piece, I always feel, "Wow…"
Ricky: This is the latest release by Snapline, Paper General. This is just a really killer release. It's got the clear vinyl, and the sound is such an odd throwback, in the best possible way. It really sounds like it could have been done in New York in the early '80s or something. This release in particular has that kind of [feeling], like it's just from another time. There are so many bands in the West who are trying to do something that meets the same aesthetic criteria, that sort of No Wave, Joy Division, DNA vibe. But, you know, I think these are the only guys that actually got it right, and I think it's because they're not from North America or England, oddly enough.
Ricky: It's just amazing how they pulled that off better than anybody. I think all the other bands in the West that are trying to do that kind of thing, it's too slick, too modern, there are too many things that are disingenuous about it. And it shows, it comes across. Whereas this is just a really intense, affective, magical, kind of mystical release. I think in five years, ten years, there will be a lot of people looking for this little record.
Ricky: Duck Fight Goose, this one, this is pretty great. It's clear vinyl, so this is the second pressing. This band is so special. I've said it before... they're kind of like the Berlin era of Bowie or Iggy, but updated to the 21st century, and, of course, from China. [laughs] So if you like late '70s Bowie or Iggy, this is a band well worth checking out. I actually got the album by these guys [Sports] for David J from Bauhaus and Marty Willson-Piper from The Church, and they both fell in love with it just as much as I did. They were really just blown away, totally compelled off the back of hearing that record, never having seen them or anything.
Ricky: A lot of people I know, this is their favorite, just because it's got that Bowie/Iggy thing. It's so hard to utilize that influence in a way that's not sort of wrong, cheesy, insincere. It's hard to own that, you know? But somehow these guys have done it. People spend years trying to make a record like that, and sometimes they never do. [Sports is] one of the best records I've heard in a very, very long time. It's incredible. And every time I hear it, there's always some new element that I didn't notice before. I love records like that. You hear them 40, 50 times, and then suddenly there's this little thing going on in the mix that you get stuck on. It's like these onion layers, peeling the layers off and finding something new in there. Really special.
Ricky: New Pants! Dragon Tiger Panacea. When I first heard them, I was like, "Is this some kind of a joke?" [laughs] I just thought, "Surely they know how ridiculous this is." And then I realized, "Well that's actually quite brilliant, isn't it? That they can make something so ridiculous and do it so masterfully well." Again, like the Duck Fight Goose thing, it's the way they put the influences together and really find a way of doing their own thing with it. And they even draw from influences or styles that I'm not particularly interested in or fond of. In fact, I would've told you before hearing New Pants that they were genres that I just downright hated. But they really changed my mind about a lot of things, and it changed the way I hear music, that band.
Ricky: As silly and lighthearted as they may seem at times, they made a really strong impact on me. Their whole gay disco thing, versus heavy metal, the way they switched through that, and then finding these other places in between, sometimes sort of dream-pop stuff and shoegazey kind of stuff, and then very New Order-sounding stuff, the way they switch gears through all that is refreshing and symbolizes an element of creative freedom that a lot of Western bands just would be too self-conscious to allow themselves. Not just their music, but their whole deal, the whole way they've gone about their career. The way they tie in all different media, with visual art, and their filmmaking, how it all ties in with the records. The music is just one aspect of their whole creative vision. That kind of thing really inspires the hell out of me, really appeals to me. It makes me wonder why more people aren't looking at things in a more all-encompassing way.
SmBJ: You've killed a few dance floors with New Pants tunes in the States, right?
Ricky: Yeah, I have! I've taken great pleasure in playing "Mysterious Shampoo" and watching how a packed dance floor of people who don't know the music at all are just responding to it in a very primal, fun way. Suddenly everyone just gets a whole lot sexier, the moment the song comes on. [laughs] So yeah, that's really nice to observe, in a situation like that.
Ricky: Hedgehog. They're a similar kind of thing. Not to the same extent as New Pants, but Hedgehog is kind of lighthearted, and kind of silly, and then it takes these twists and turns and it gets really moody and dark and atmospheric, and then it'll turn around with some bubblegummy pop. It's nice how they can switch gears between being lighthearted and cheerful and then being moody and kind of mysterious. It's also amazing to see how prolific they've been. All their albums, every one is better than the last. Although I think Sun Fun Gun is still my favorite. [Ed.'s note: check out our Hedgehog retrospective here.]
Ricky: I saw Hedgehog in Australia, and I can't remember the last time I was so impressed by — and I know this sounds a bit sexist, I'm sorry for that — but so impressed by a girl drummer. Let alone one who's so tiny.
SmBJ: Yeah, that's the default observation about [Hedgehog drummer] Shi Lu… She's quite small but she hits harder than pretty much anyone else on the scene, man or woman…
Ricky: Yeah, really notable. Definitely one of the best, most interesting drummers I've witnessed in a long time. I had the pleasure of recording a track with her other band, Nova Heart, in Berlin. They came into the studio with my bandmate Anton [Newcombe] and I. They added some overdubs to a track we were working on, which is still unreleased. She played fantastic, she added percussion and did some vocals. Just a really talented individual. I think Hedgehog is a band that really deserves a lot more exposure outside of China. I think everyone would just fall in love with them if they knew about them.
Ricky: The Damned. The Damned are important because... I mean sure, they have their historical pertinence, like they were the first punk band to release a record, to tour the States, all that stuff. But they were also the first band I got into as a record collector at the age of 14, in 1987. They were the first band where I had to have everything. I had to have every different color vinyl that a 7" was released on, different pressings of albums. Like this is the red vinyl one, this is the one with the scratch'n'sniff lyric sheet, this is the one with the gatefold sleeve that came out in Bulgaria or whatever. Had to have it all. So I got it all, and was obsessed with that band all through my late teens.
The Damned, 1977
Ricky: I got to meet them a few times, and was really pleased to find how down to earth and unassuming and appreciative they were to have such a knowledgable young fan. I was such a geek, you know. The first time I met them, I had all my records to get them signed, and I sat with Dave Vanian, the singer, for like three hours. He slowly took his time signing everything, just had a great big chat. Really nice guy. I got to see them play a few times. Also as their alter-ego, Naz Nomad and the Nightmares, playing all '60s psych covers. Saw them open for Hawkwind doing that in London in 1989. And then they developed another alter-ego called the Phantom Chords where they did all the kind of spooky rockabilly songs, like "Johnny Remember Me", "Town Without Pity", "After the LIghts Go Out" by the Walker Brothers, stuff like that. Really cool, semi-obscure oldies that kinda had a spooky, haunted vibe to them. Really well done.
Ed.'s note: traveling down the ole internet rabbit hole, found a live recording of Naz Nomad and the Nightmares at that very Hawkwind gig. Maybe! One like it anyway. Killer poster! Download the recording here.
Ricky: Yeah, they're one of those bands, through the ages, that just remained a favorite. They're a really important band. And I think it's only recently that people are starting to acknowledge their significance. There's a new documentary about them that just premiered at South by Southwest last month. They're also, in a funny way, one of the things Anton, my bandmate and I, bonded on when we first met. We both had that love for The Damned, and that sort of secured our connection, I think, as much as anything else. They'll continue to be a very influential, important, interesting band.
Happy Record Store Day! Maybe drop some cash on Saturday at Indie Music (#17 Gulou Xidajie) or one of Beijing's other fine brick and mortar vinyl shops. If you're in Shanghai, you can celebrate at that city's Dada Bar, where Ricky will be playing his favorite Chinese bands, plus some assuredly deep cuts from the psychedelic stratosphere, alongside a live set from Alpine Decline and a whole bunch of other cool vinyl DJs and vendors. More info on that one here.
Back in Beijing, Ricky will hold court at Soi Baochao on Friday, April 24, pressing play on all sorts of tunes to keep you Gulou hepcats moving well into Saturday morning.