Hot & Cold hasn't broken up. They're playing this weekend, actually. The brothers Josh and Simon Frank have been kicking around the Beijing music scene since the early days of former Wudaokou noise incubator D-22. They jumped feet-first into the much vaunted — or overhyped, however you wanna spin it — vortex of creativity that has by now spawned such internationally lauded C-Indie stalwarts as P.K.14, Carsick Cars, and Hedgehog. Hot & Cold was around for the beginning of the Maybe Mars record label, actually one of its early releases. Then they got over it before it was even cool to backlash against Maybe Mars and started a tape label before it was cool to start a tape label in Beijing. Pretty forward-looking fellas.
Though born in Canada, Josh and Simon spent the majority of their formative years bouncing between embassies and international schools in China and India, and "Hot & Cold: The College Years" occurred across Montreal, Toronto, and New York. But Hot & Cold is a Beijing band. In my classic fashion, I sat down for a long talk with the brothers Frank, mostly about music nerd stuff, but also about feelings of rootlessness, compiling a sense of "home" without having access to its actual physical referents, bridging Chinese underground music culture with the rest of the world, VICE, what's going on in Delhi these days, the curse of being compared to Suicide, and some other topics. Here's Hot & Cold on the Culture Bureau:
SmartBeijing: So let's cover the bases. Can you introduce yourselves? How did you start Hot & Cold?
Simon Frank: I'm Simon, I play keyboard, sing, and sometimes do some other stuff in Hot & Cold. How did we start the band? I mean, we're brothers, so the story of the band is kind of wrapped into us getting into music together. When Josh was 15 he got a bass and we just started, like… I would bang metal, and he would play bass, in a basement. I think we actually came up with the name Hot & Cold pretty early on, even though we would never play shows or anything.
Josh Frank: The keyboard that we used for years we actually got in the '90s when we were living in Beijing the first time, when Visa credit card rewards started to be a thing. So we got that keyboard for free, and it was dormant for a while. And then I got a bass, and Simon got this Chinese megaphone in Burma [laughs], and that was I think how we actually started doing stuff.
Simon: This was when we were living in Delhi. Our last year in Delhi we started a band with some friends of ours called Fear the Talon. I guess you could say it was a punk band, but still not really a straightforward punk sound. So that was the beginning of…
Josh: Actually recording, or playing live.
Simon: Yeah, music as something that we could present to other people at shows. And then after we left India we wanted to continue playing something.
Josh: So the first show that we played live as Hot & Cold, for an audience, was at D-22 with White. We were extremely nervous.
Simon: This was in like 2006.
SmBJ: Can you clarify the timeline here a bit? You guys are from Canada but you've been bouncing between Delhi and Beijing since you were kids, right?
Josh: We moved to Delhi in 2002, and then I got my bass I guess end of 2003 or 2004. Then we started to play in this band Fear the Talon. And then in 2006, in the summer, our family moved to Beijing, and I was starting university in Montreal.
Simon: I started going to an international school here and started going to D-22 almost every weekend.
SmBJ: How did you get into the D-22 scene? Had you met any musicians you're tight with now when you were here in the '90s? I guess you would have been too young…
Josh: They weren't born yet. [laughs]
Simon: Yeah, we were aware of the music in China, because our dad really liked Cui Jian. So we have memories of driving around Beijing in the '90s listening to Cui Jian songs…
Josh: On cassette.
Simon: It was pretty cool. Our dad went back [to Beijing] half a year before we moved for some work stuff, and to see if he could imagine us living here. And through CDs and magazines he brought back, we found out about Hang on the Box and P.K.14. So then right when we came here I remember seeing P.K.14 at Dos Kolegas...
Simon: But the story of how we got into the D-22 scene is kind of funny. I think my dad read about it in a That's Beijing-type magazine, because it had opened pretty recently, May of 2006 or something. And then one weekend they were having two shows with this guy John Myers, who was Glenn Branca's conductor for a while. On the Friday night I was invited to a party with my new classmates, but my dad went to D-22. [laughs] So the next morning, we see each other, and he was like, "Oh my god, I went to this amazing show last night!" And I guess he talked to [D-22/Maybe Mars founder] Michael Pettis and Shenggy from White. So then on the Saturday I went.
Josh: With our band in India, we'd jam in our friend's basement and then record it to a shitty MP3 player or something, and then put it online the next day. So we actually did put a lot of stuff on Myspace and tried to find bands on Myspace. I think we'd found Snapline...
Hot & Cold at D-22 (photo by houzi)
SmBJ: So after you started going to shows here, and playing shows, how did Hot & Cold change in response to the specific context of D-22?
Simon: At first, at our first show, we were still banging gongs. [laughs] That was in December 2006 or something.
Josh: We played through one amp. I had this shitty Indian amp with built-in spring reverb, so you could just shake it and it would make crazy spring reverb sounds. So our idea was that we would have everything through the same amp so that we could control it more easily. Like turn it off quickly or make it loud quickly or whatever. So when we sound checked, whoever was doing sound at the time was just like, "What are you guys doing?"
Simon: But it was also pretty low pressure because nobody was there. In terms of D-22 shaping our sound… I was already into some of the bands that I guess defined the early "D-22 sound," if you want to call it that. Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, bands like that. But there was definitely a lot of stuff that I was introduced to through hearing on the D-22 stereo. Stuff like Cabaret Voltaire. I already knew some of the No New York bands but I'd never heard Mars before I went to D-22, and the Brian Eno pop stuff. So hearing that and exchanging music with people like Zhang Shouwang [Carsick Cars / White+]… A big thing to actually push us forward was we saw that Shouwang had a loop pedal, so after a while we both got loop pedals. I mean, I'm still a pretty unmusical person [laughs], so having the structure through the loops, even though we don't use it that much now, it definitely pushed things forward.
SmBJ: There really is a specific category of gear used by these early D-22 bands, and even moreso within the Zoomin' Night scene, which started in 2009. How did the D-22 scene influence the gear you used, and how did that in turn shape the music you were making at the time?
Josh: The funniest anecdote that comes to mind when you say that… Mostly we'd practice in our apartment, when our family lived here, but sometimes we'd practice at Liu Hao, this practice space that's now closed. And because of Shouwang we'd carry our gear in wheeled suitcases we had kicking around. And then the girl who was running the space was like, "Do you play music that sounds like Carsick Cars?" She could tell because we carried our gear in that kind of suitcase. [laughs]
Simon: If we're gonna talk about gear… I would sort of agree with that, because there was a sense of everybody slowly accumulating the same gear at that point. Like one person has a loop pedal, so everybody else is trying out loop pedals. Shenggy had an MS-20, so Shouwang eventually got an MS-20, and then Li Qing [Snapline / Soviet Pop] got an MS-20...
Josh: But we definitely stripped down our gear a lot, very deliberately. If I think about it now, I guess from when we started playing shows at D-22 until 2009, it was just pretty formless. There was always a strong rhythm, but more thrashing about, No Wave-style thing, with some kind of pulse in the background. And then a friend of mine played me Les Rallizes Dénudés. After we both started listening to that super, super stripped down stuff, we felt we could play something that's, if not more refined, then so brutally stripped down that the feeling was actually kind of different from, you know, getting on stage and just smashing a bunch of things as fast as we could.
Simon: Yeah, I feel like we weren't totally playing songs until 2008, when we recorded the album that's the CD on Maybe Mars.
SmBJ: How did that record come about? Obviously you were in the D-22 scene when Maybe Mars was just starting, you were already one of the bands around. But how did it come together? Wasn't it produced by Junky from Torturing Nurse?
Simon: Han Han from Miniless [and Duck Fight Goose] had asked us to do it, or I had asked him and he said yes. I can't remember how we got connected, but before that we had gone to Shanghai and Nanjing one winter to play shows with LAVA|OX|SEA and 8 Eye Spy, that scene. And then Maybe Mars was starting Maybe Noise via the White album. I guess it was something that didn't totally continue, but Shouwang was supposed to be selecting bands, and we'd already recorded the album, so he asked if they could also put it out on Maybe Noise. Junky's involvement, we just didn't really know anybody else who could master that sort of music, or would be interested in it.
Josh: When he did the first version, the masters he gave us had full-on, super rapid stereo pan throughout.
Simon: We'd put it on our family stereo, and you'd just sit in front and your eyes would go back and forth between the speakers constantly.
Josh: Yeah… but, Junky's awesome. [laughs] He was obliging when we wanted a somewhat more static master.
SmBJ: Didn't you tell me once that Junky compared you to Suicide before you'd even heard Suicide?
Simon: Yeah. We played a show for like, no one, in Shanghai.
Josh: [laughs] There was actually no one.
Simon: When was that? This must have been in the winter of 2007. I forget if Torturing Nurse played but Mai Mai, the guitarist of Muscle Snog at the time, played, and we all jammed together. We were all hanging out, [selling tickets] at the door through which nobody passed, and Junky said we reminded him of Suicide. I think I'd heard a Suicide song before, but it had been one of the more romantic songs on a compilation, and a live recording, so I didn't really get what was going on there. But we went back to it after that.
Josh: We still didn't sound like Suicide, but we did like Suicide.
Simon: People telling you you sound like Suicide, and then subconsciously trying to sound like Suicide is a bit of a curse, because nobody will be as good at being Suicide as Suicide, but…
Josh: I feel like when people say, "You sound like Suicide," I take it as a compliment but it mostly just means they know Suicide.
SmBJ: Yeah, I feel that's become a thing largely because of the success of Dirty Beaches. It's become a more overt, go-to comparison for a certain aesthetic…
Simon: Yeah, it's like you have a drum machine, or a synth, but you play music that is weirder or more aggressive than straight-up synth pop. I don't want to be too negative… I feel like in some ways, learning about music along with people at D-22, and the fact that we found out about Suicide through a guy who was in Shanghai I think is pretty amazing and absurd, and says a lot about how stuff came together.
SmBJ: What about your label, Rose Mansion Analog? How did that begin? Was it after Zoomin' Night started?
Josh: It was winter of 2009, it was almost simultaneously actually.
Simon: The first Zoomin' Nights were in the summer of 2009, and then I left to go to university in Toronto, but I'd be constantly talking to Josh and Vince [Li, Offset: Spectacles] on Gchat, talking about stuff we could do. And our parents were still in Beijing…
Josh: And I was also in Beijing for a couple of months in the winter of 2009, because I'd just finished my undergrad. It was a collective idea, but Vince and I just had time on our hands, and we'd meet up and talk about starting some sort of tape label.
Simon: In December 2009 or early January 2010, we recorded the Sacred Vacation tape. We recorded that on reel-to-reel. So we didn't really know what we were doing...
Josh: Tom [Ng, Offset: Spectacles] and Vince were afraid that using a space heater would affect the magnetic tape, so we played without heat. [laughs] We spent like 2 days recording in our coats. It was a strip, a single-storey building with rehearsal rooms, but there was just like a piano store and nothing else.
Simon: So we recorded that, and then at some point Soviet Pop recorded their 对话 tape. When we came back [to Beijing], Vince was accumulating tape machines that could do dubbing through some combination of Waiting for Godot [Ed. note: now called Beetle in a Box] and eBay. That summer we dubbed and printed and cut the inlay cards for the first batch of tapes, which was Soviet Pop, us, and this Offsets cassette that had been recorded in Hong Kong.
SmBJ: Yeah, I was at the release show for the first batch. Didn't you also have that Dirty Beaches re-release that night?
Simon: Oh yeah, we also did a compilation of Dirty Beaches B-sides and demos.
Josh: I think Alex had heard the Maybe Mars album of ours, and we had been in touch before I left Montreal. And then I guess we had talked about Dirty Beaches with Vince, and Vince was super into it.
Simon: I think Alex arranged the compilation. This was in the beginning of 2009, I had written a message to Alex on Myspace. He was coming to China to visit his dad in Shanghai, and I sort of helped him — though it was really just a matter of getting him in touch with D-22 — to do some shows, do a show at D-22, and he played at Yuyintang in Shanghai. And from my perspective, the idea of doing that tape on Rose Mansion was that he had a lot in common with the music that people were making here. Even though people now will say cassettes are back, it felt like cassettes were just coming back then, and there was this whole network of labels that Alex was releasing on.
Josh: Like Night-People…
Simon: So, having him draw Beijing into the conversation of these different tape labels.
Josh: Which was actually a big part of what we wanted to do. Because we felt like all of the other labels that were existing in any shape or form in Beijing, regardless of the scale, were going through the wrong channels to try to get people elsewhere to think that music in China was interesting. You know, there's a New York Times article about Carsick Cars, but the people who are the actual peers of Carsick Cars in the US don't read the New York Times for music recommendations, you know what I mean? So we were really excited about doing something with bands outside of Beijing too. I guess Hot & Cold was kind of that bridge to some extent, being not exactly "from" Beijing, but finding people who actually had similar mindsets and musical aesthetics.
Simon: Yeah, the idea that, not trying to have bands from Beijing or elsewhere in China "make it" outside of China in terms of being the biggest indie rock band, because that's probably never going to happen. But just in terms of, somebody who makes and is into similar music in the West who could theoretically get along with these people and see eye to eye, fostering an awareness that people make this music in China.
SmBJ: Rose Mansion has been defunct for a while now, and y'all have split time between New York and Canada for the last few years. Now there are actually more of these kinds of bridges being made within the Beijing music scene. What are you impressions of the direction in which it's gone?
Josh: Obviously it's cool to see that there are more and more little labels trying to do stuff. Even if we don't necessarily follow it that closely or aren't specific fans of whatever small niche. I don't know that much about 87fei87, for example, but I was excited to see something like that. It seems that Genjing is doing more than just capital-P Punk stuff, so I personally think that's really awesome. And I guess Mike [Cupoli, Noise Arcade] is releasing a lot of stuff too. There's a lot of stuff happening. I guess it's still mostly foreigners. It's cool that there are more and more foreigners who speak decent Chinese and aren't assholes. [laughs]
Simon: I feel like I sort of fell out of touch with stuff because I hadn't been back to China from the summer of 2011 until last December. And it seems like stuff has changed, though at some level it's stayed the same. A lot of the bands that were smaller before have stuck around and become more professional, stuff like Chui Wan touring Europe. And that's cool, but like Josh was saying, a lot more going on in the "underbrush," that's really interesting and cool that these little niches can be supported.
SmBJ: How have you kept the band going when you've been out of Beijing and living in different cities? I guess it must have been a major shift when your parents left Beijing to move back to Delhi…
Josh: Yeah, that was huge, definitely not just for music. It was very clearly delineated, I would say. At the point that they moved away, I had already lived in New York for a year, and Simon was in school in Toronto. Actually that summer was when we recorded half of the songs that ended up going on the Moniker LP.
Josh: When that came out, we played shows in Toronto and Montreal, for the record [release]. By and large we've played still more in Beijing than anywhere else. Even not having our family here any more. The way that we write stuff, there's not a lot of virtual collaboration. We need to be in the same room, and then we can write five songs in a week. And that's how we like it, too. We overlapped in New York for a few months, before I moved back to Beijing, and were able to practice a lot. So part of the fun of being here in the summer is that we want to try to do something different.
SmBJ: Now that you're both back in Beijing, you have a string of shows coming up. Where are your heads at going into that? Do you have new songs you're planning to work on?
Simon: We have a lot of new songs that we wrote in New York, we actually recorded most of them when I was here in December and January. Two of those songs are gonna be on a split 7" we're doing with Skip Skip Ben Ben. So we're gonna be playing a lot of those songs, and those are still bass and keyboard. But I think it's a different sound from what we were doing before. While a lot of it is really driving and energetic, it's a different feeling from the really stripped-down, drum-machine-garage from the LP. But we also want to do some different, more synth-based stuff, without Josh playing bass and playing a synthesizer instead.
Hot & Cold / Skip Skip Ben Ben split 7" (cover art by Thomas Sauvin)
Josh: I feel like it remains to be seen how radical of a shift it will be, but we're interested in doing a little bit more electronic-oriented stuff, in the best way that we can. We'll have to see how it goes.
SmBJ: Going back to this comment you made about being a bridge, and being a Beijing band but not being "from" Beijing… Not only on a music level, but on a life level — I've talked to a few international school kids about this — where do you feel is "home" for you? Beijing is clearly the home of Hot & Cold, but what keeps you coming back on a personal level even after your parents and "home" are gone?
Simon: It is weird because, to some degree, I can sort of feel at home in Toronto or New York, but those are very international, big cities that aren't necessarily representative of America or Canada. I didn't go to Beijing for almost two years, and when I came back it was weird because I'd be going around town by myself, on a public bus in Beijing in the middle of the winter, feeling pretty weird and isolated, but the sense of isolation was familiar. Being an international school kid is weird because in some senses, I feel like even if Beijing isn't home, it has an element of what home is for most people. But then again, my Chinese is atrocious, which is why I'm here this summer to study again. I think on some level you need to recognize that you have a special experience here that is in some ways deeper than, say, an expat who moved here two months ago. And you should recognize and own that you have that experience. But at the same time, you can't say, "I'm a Beijinger."
Josh: Our family has a lot of history in China. Before we were born, our parents lived in Beijing and spent a lot of time here. So going back to China when we were really young, in the mid-'90s, it was a pretty formative time for us and also a pretty meaningful thing to our parents, having come before their two children were born and then moving back. And then moving back again, in 2006, it was a pretty big transition from living in New Delhi. All of the factors that I just described were coming into play even more strongly, and the fact that we had grown up, and then being so excited about music here, and basic things like enjoying Chinese food more than Indian food... I felt a very, very strong affinity to a lot of stuff that was happening.
Hot & Cold in the Beijing carpark studio with Yang Fan (photo by Tom Ng)
Josh: But it's also very easy to say that Beijing was home at that point. That was actually where we would return to from wherever we were for school, because our parents were here. Our family moving away in 2011 was a really decisive shift. It's too strong a word to say "trauma," but it was a very, very sudden shift. I've thought about that a lot recently, because I did choose to come back to Beijing under the impression that I was returning home. I have returned to that mindset to a large degree, but the circumstances in which I returned are completely different from any circumstances that I had experienced in Beijing previously. So it definitely made me realize the extent to which any kind of firmly held conviction that a certain place is home for me is not as stable as either of us would like to believe.
Simon: It's sort of hard for me to unravel, because being in Beijing coincides with me being a teenager, so you're going to have certain associations with that place. When our parents moved away, I had already moved away from home technically, but at the age that most people in North America would be going to college anyway, so maybe it's just sort of that leaving home as you grow up experience. But there's a different dimension to it.
Josh: Even if you travel the world, I think most people think of a childhood home, and even if your family doesn't live there any more you can see the apartment or whatever. But the apartment that our family lived in for five years in Beijing… the second that we stepped out of the place, it was just this empty white box. And we will never go back inside. That space was actually crucial to the formation of Hot & Cold as well, because we used to practice in my bedroom. Just totally gone. And I guess the physical structure is still there, but there's definitely no childhood home at all that is possible to return to. It's strange to realize that that period of time is totally unretrievable. I feel like I'm trying to grasp a lot of different things to collect into a notion of "home" in Beijing, and it happens to be a stimulating place to do that, so it's rewarding.
SmBJ: It's interesting because many of the individual elements of your previous experience are gone, but the same centrifugal forces are still at work. D-22 is now XP…
Josh: D-22 is now a pizza place.
SmBJ: Yeah, D-22 is now a pizza place and now there's XP in the Gulou zone… And, for example, Josh, you're now working at VICE China, and in some ways I feel like the entire VICE phenomenon here is one calcification of this music underground that you were in. The same networks are still there, and it seems like you can come back to that.
Josh: Yeah, I guess in a certain sense it could be seen as a positive thing that people from that broad scene ended up where I'm working now. Because I feel like that's kind of the origins of VICE, in Montreal. I feel like the documentary stuff that I do, at its best it's equally creative compared to music. But they actually don't overlap that clearly in my head. Which is why we haven't made a music video, for example. But yeah, it's true, you've got people from Modern Sky [at VICE], you've got people who used to book shows, run bars. It's a clique, basically. A lot of my colleagues I didn't know previously, so it's not that small of a clique, but yeah, it's a clique like Maybe Mars or anything else…
SmBJ: Now that your parents are back in Delhi, I'm wondering how you're re-experiencing that part of your past. I guess when you were first there you weren't really involved in any kind of established music scene like you were in Beijing. But Simon, you've gone back and played some shows in Delhi over the last few years. How have you seen the Delhi music scene develop, and how would you compare it to Beijing? Do you see a similar incipient scene coming together, or is it totally different?
Simon: Yeah, when we were there before we weren't part of a scene at all. We were vaguely aware that bands in Delhi did exist, but we had no clear idea of how to tap into it. I went back to Delhi in the summer of 2012 and started to find out about music there. There's some interesting stuff going on, like the band Peter Cat Recording Co., who I'd say is probably the best band in Delhi. I don't know if he had started it yet, but their lead singer Suryakant eventually started this solo project, Lifafa. So it was interesting to see that as maybe the blossoming of something analogous to Beijing, starting a bit later.
Simon performing at Delhi DIY venue The Penthouse (photo by pcrc)
Simon: Though, because of how stuff works in Delhi, I honestly found a lot of things pretty curious, compared to Beijing. Most people in Beijing playing music in the D-22/XP scene, even if you're acting like a total gutter punk, you're probably from a well-to-do family, but not to the point of being an absolute member of the elite. And I think the audience is pretty open in terms of who can come there. But basically, in Delhi, if you're playing Western-influenced music, or into it, and it's not metal, you're probably super rich. And the people going to see the music are super rich, and a lot of the venues are resto/bars with Nepalese waiters in tuxedos bringing around snacks as the band plays. I think there are starting to be analogies [with Beijing], but I see it more in terms of new, more DIY, scrappy electronic music, rather than guitar bands. Maybe it's hammering in a piece of D-22-era propaganda that doesn't hold much water, but definitely when stuff started happening in Beijing it was, if not as extremely No Wave and industrial as people make it out to be, a New York City-scene sound. And in Delhi it's more lackadaisical hippie vibes that go into the music. There's definitely interesting stuff gathering momentum. I was in Delhi before I came here [this summer], there's definitely talented people and interesting stuff to listen to, but I guess what I've been approaching saying is I wonder about the social space and the way that kind of music can be presented in India. I'm never certain if there's something that I would recommend to someone here in Beijing, like, "You've gotta hear this Indian band." Though I imagine Wang Xu and Shouwang [of White+] would be pretty into Lifafa.
Josh: I guess I don't really have anything to add about music in India. When we were playing music when we were in high school, I think we felt like we were definitely doing the weirdest guitar-based music in Delhi, if not India, and I think that was probably accurate. Maybe there's some crazy high school noise band in India right now that's killing it.
Simon: That would be amazing. When I'm in India I keep on trying to go to shows or read about music there. I want to find that crazed noise punk band from a city in northeast India that nobody's ever heard of. But I haven't found it yet. [laughs] It's like, if you're somebody that's going to shows in Delhi, in that cultural scene, you go out on the street and it's kind of unpleasant. You're driving by in your car and you're seeing poor people. So you go to a show, and I think unless it's a highly codified thing, like metal, you want to forget about it for a little bit. Going back to Suicide, I remember reading some Alan Vega interview that had a big impact on me, saying that when they were playing in New York in the '70s, he wanted to bring the street back into the concert venues. People were paying money to be entertained and he would throw it in their face. I don't really go crazy playing in Beijing any more, but I'll sometimes do that in Delhi, get up in people's faces. Not that it accomplishes anything. In terms of more activist stuff, people making music that's really trying to confront social conditions, that's either more into traditional music, writing revolutionary lyrics for folk-based music so it has a wide audience. Or there's some people doing that with hip hop.
SmBJ: So you have that split with Skip Skip Ben Ben and a few Beijing gigs coming up. Anything else on deck for Hot & Cold at the moment?
Josh: One thing to say: I always find it really funny when people are like, "Oh yeah, Hot & Cold, didn't they break up?" I find it funny that the attitude is, if we're absent, it must mean that we broke up. But I mean, we're just gonna play music. Even if we don't play shows, I don't think there's such a thing as Hot & Cold breaking up. We're in Beijing now, and we're gonna play some shows. We're not broken up.
Catch Hot & Cold on Saturday, July 19 at XP along with Snapline and Chui Wan.
(Top photo by Lai Fei)