Photos courtesy of Ghost Bath
It's far too easy—and lazy—to gawp at a band from an unexpected (i.e. non-Western) locale who's making waves, and to revel in their exoticism. It's so easy that Vice has done its best to discourage people playing guitars in strange places pitches, since, "If you’re still surprised pop culture extended beyond London and New York, I suggest you Google 'the 21st Century." Today, though, we're talking about China, a sprawling megacountry still haunted by the ghosts of the Cultural Revolution. Until the 80s, Western music—including rock'n'roll—was forbidden, and heavy metal didn't rear its head at all until 1988, when Party-friendly trailblazers Tang Dynasty burst onto the scene. Given that history, it's more impressive than it is surprising to come across China's thriving underground music scenes.
With that in mind, I interviewed Ghost Bath, an up-and-coming black metal band from bustling Chongqing (we're streaming their excellent new album, Moonlover, below). I still can't say for sure how living in China or growing up under the iron fist of the Communist Party has impacted their life as a band, though, because they refused to tell me. They fobbed off my questions with vague statements about art, and offered musings like, "As humans we all undergo certain challenges and obstacles in life. How you overcome them (or not) is up to the individual." When I asked them if they'd give me some insights, off the record, to satisfy my own curiosity, they politely demurred. As frustrating as these sort of roadblocks can be for a writer, it's Ghost Bath's prerogative to control their image and aesthetic in whichever manner they choose, and clearly, these dudes are not looking to capitalize on their origin story. It might be because, as several trusted sources told us, the band actually splits its membership between Chongqing and North Dakota (which might in turn explain why they chose to record in Michigan). We've also been told that the project itself is one person from North Dakota simply pretending to be Chinese for publicity purposes. We reached out to the band for comment, but, they refused to confirm or deny the rumor, saying, "I am sorry but anything personal about the members or their surroundings would be in direct contradiction to the intent of the band itself. The focus should be on the music. Our personal connections with the band play a role, but the bigger picture of all human emotion should be center stage. Ghost Bath should be a thought of as a single entity, Nameless. We are all nameless in the scope of existence's vast reaching mass. We have never and never will speak of members or locations." They later posted the text of their response to us on Facebook as an official statement. Make of that what you will.
In fairness to them, it's understandable that a Chinese musician might want to reach out to the international community for like-minded collaborators. Despite the vibrancy and dedication of the overall Asian metal community, of the many thousands of metal bands in this world, only a small percentage of them call China home. Taiwan's theatrical Chthonic is still the biggest band from the area, and depressive trio Be Persecuted joins the more upbeat, folk-influenced Tengger Cavalry as two of a very small number of prominent extreme metal bands from mainland China. Be Persecuted has worked with Chinese extreme metal/folk label Pest Productions, who alongside Temple of Torturous (who recently moved to Sweden) is one of the only labels supporting a number of up-and-coming underground Chinese metal bands. The scene here seems small, but strong, as Ghost Bath's rise makes clear. These morbid young upstarts have gotten an impressive amount of attention for their upcoming Northern Silence debut, Moonlover—a boon for any young project, of course, but an especial bonus for one of China's best black metal bands.
Stream the album in its entirety here:
Now that restrictions have loosened somewhat and more bands are cropping up, depressive, atmospheric black metal like the aforementioned Be Persecuted, Deep Mountains, Heartless, and Ghost Bath seems to be the go-to genre for Chinese metal musicians (though the 182 active metal bands the Encyclopedia Metallum lists for China span a variety of genres). The Ministry of Culture still keeps an eagle eye on proceedings, but Western bands like Sonic Youth, Nine Inch Nails, and even the Rolling Stones—who were famously shut out in the 60s—have launched successful recent Chinese tours, while DIY bands like Corrupt Absolute have turned Chinese touring-as-a-Westerner into an art, and this month alone, Arch Enemy, Bane, and Katy Perry will roll through the Middle Kingdom. There's big money to be made in China's booming economy, and bigger artists (and savvy DIY bands) are swooping in.
It's all well and good for Western acts who manage to make the trek over, but what's going on in China's homegrown metal/punk community? One might assume that this project's geographical limitations would stymie their success, given the Chinese government's historical anti-rock'n'roll stance, but clearly, they're doing just fine. Despite living under a govenment that shuts down websites on a whim and stifles the press 24/7, Ghost Bath has managed to catch the attention of an established European label, pull in glowing reviews, and rack up numerous plays on their Bandcamp page. What's their secret?
I did my best to find out—though they didn't make it easy, and their refusal to come clean about their whereabouts is more than a little sketchy. The rest of my questions were answered collectively, under the band's chosen alias, -无名 (Nameless).
Your debut album, Moonlover, has already gotten quite a few comparisons to Deafheaven's Sunbather. How do you feel about that? Would you name them as an inspiration—or, do you think people are just reaching for an easy comparison?
I feel that people will have their own perceptions based on past experience with music. There are a great many factors that affect the way that someone hears a band's music. These do not necessarily have to be related to the music itself. The listener's mood and environment as well as their preconceptions about music developed over time, whether they be good or bad. I would go as far as to say that any reaction is better than none at all. This is true with any form of art. If people wish to compare us to a band or not is up to them.
George from Deafheaven did tell us he enjoyed our songs and welcomed the comparisons. He also brought up the idea of doing some shows together. We are still waiting on any developments for a tour with them.
You've previously released an EP and a full-length, Funeral, but the amount of attention you've gotten has exploded with Moonlover. What changed?
Moonlover is a bit more accessible than our previous work. I think this happened by accident through a few factors. The first factor would be the style of recording used. With both the EP and Funeral, we used techniques that were simple and less polished sounding. This was done purposefully to capture the essence of each of the albums. Funeral attempts to explore aspects of death through the dying and the observing humans looking in.
Moonlover was recorded in a proper studio. This was done to fully realize a better connection to listeners as Moonlover was an effort to really connect to human beings and their life on this earth. A more modern approach to recording helps the listener relate to the songs a bit more. I think that Funeral had a fair share of attention but it was different attention than what Moonlover has received thus far. Funeral made its rounds on more underground and specific blogs, sites, and magazines while Moonlover has connected with larger and more mainstream coverage. I think this fits well with the themes of the albums.
Is Moonlover a more positive album than your past releases? Your name itself is so dark, and both Ghost Bath and Funeral leave very little room for hope, that 'Moonlover' provides quite a contrast.
No, I do not think so. Moonlover is sort of a hopeless longing for something unattainable. It refers to the observation of the Moon from our lowly place in the universe on earth. The idea came during one of my many walks through the graveyard in the dead of night (I enjoy the peacefulness of it.) Looking into the sky, the Moon reminded me of my nocturnal nature. I prefer to be awake through the night in contrast to the daytime. I think part of it may be that the released songs are a bit more hopeful than the rest on the album. I will admit that this album provides a glimpse of hope, but without the taste of something comforting and desirable, one can't truly be crushed or stagnated within melancholy.
Can you tell me about the recording process for Moonlover? Is it expensive to record in a studio in your area? The production job is especially impressive.
We traveled to record, so it wasn't in our area. [Michigan-based engineer] Josh Schroeder (King 810, In Hearts Wake, Legend, The Color Morale etc) was our producer, mixer, and engineer. I'm sure Josh will be pleased to hear your praise of his work. He is wonderful and very specific to our needs as a band. That being said, we are hard workers and finished the album in its entirety in just three days.
Sweden has death metal. Norway has black metal. Is it possible to isolate a blanket Chinese metal sound? I'd guess depressive black metal if anything, since so many bands gravitate towards that style.
I try avoid the over-generalization of expression in art. I believe there has always been an unfair skew towards cultural and environmental factors and their contribution to the art piece as a whole. They certainly play a part, but mostly on the surface. What we really need to look into is the minds and emotions of us as human beings. Less dividing and categorizing to make us all feel so different, when really we are much more alike than we care to admit as a species. I would say our music, as well as the art of others is an expression of basic human emotion. The flavor and style in which it manifests is less important, in my opinion, than the internal mental state of a fellow human being externalized for others to share.
How did you first get into heavy metal, and later, black metal?
I would say the first connection was through buying and learning to play a guitar. I always had a fascination with writing original songs. I saw that a lot of my peers liked to learn others' music but it never interested me. This lead to a further exploration of music in general. Of course, the more popular songs of rock and pop came first as they are easily accessible. When I found myself in darker and darker places I searched for something that could better fit my mood. Black metal was focused more on the atmosphere and raw emotion than was other forms of music. I would almost call it the "Rothko" of musical genres. Are we really black metal? I'm not so sure. Call us what you wish.
What are Ghost Bath's plans for the rest of the year? Do you have plans for more releases, touring, or festival appearances?
Release Moonlover to the world. We are the type of band that immediately moves on to our next work. So our next album is already ten songs deep and almost twice as long as Moonlover. It will differ greatly from any of our previous work and explore some strange questions such as celestial existence and the idea of free will (or lack there-of.) As for touring and festivals, we would be happy to play any if offered or if anyone would actually get back to us about them. Meanwhile, we are crafting our live show to perfection before we play any shows. The visual and auditory aspects to a live show make it exponentially more difficult to properly prepare with the least amount of incongruence possible. We hope to capture the exact experience within us at performances.
Moonlover is out 3/17 via Northern Silence.
Kim Kelly is bathing ghosts on Twitter.