FRIDAY MARCH 6TH
THE SUPERMARKETS ● DEEPSPACE COWLAS ● NATHAN AND THE FLYING DONUTS
Nathan is a 25 year old li hai who does vocals, guitar and songwriting for 3 bands in Beijing. Each band plays their own original music plus the occasional cover. However even th covers aren’t the usual cheesy stuff I assume you are imagining, but well crafted interpretations of songs that have each made a significant imp ace on music history. Apart from his music, he is teaching English and Psychology full time, plus giving out free guitar lessons at Beer Mania, starting in April. Like I said… li hai as hell.
A SITDOWN OVER A FEW BEERS The bulky door with its lose handle was my last puzzle to figure out before it was time to put on the journalistic hat. Hit by a beer-and-burger-smelling wave of hot air when I stepped inside, I looked around for the friendly face I hoped to recognize. A hand gesture from a young man drinking unfiltered pilsner by the bar signaled that I had found him. It was easy to tell that Nathan had his shit together. There were real solid thoughts running around under that fluffy haircut. Half Irish, half Czech, he was born and raised in California with a dad who loved playing folk music in the house. One can say what they want about California today, but it wasn’t always like that. It didn’t always have “the migration of talent fucking up the ecosystem” like Clifford put it. Clifford was a fan who happened to overhear our conversation and came up to shake Nathan’s hand while were having a few smokes on the terrace of Great Leap Brewery, Sanlitun. Nathan continued to explain how he loved growing up in California, especially because it, in retrospect, shaped his idea of the world. While in other parts of America people grow up in in all white neighbourhoods, where nobody was teaching anybody anything anything about different peoples different ways, he learned early in life how multicultural this planet is. Having Japanese, Mexican and Filipino friends as a boy made it it easy to understand that we are all here together.
A young Nathan picked up a guitar for the first time in 7th grade. A decision made after many years of listening to his father jamming out at home to songs like Dont think twice by Bob Dylan and Cowgirl in the sand by Neil Young. He flipped through enough books to get the chords right, then he found his inspiration in Jonathan Richman. An easy choice because Richman’s style was so personal. See, Nathan doesn’t seem to believe in anything but being honest and sharing whats on your mind. Rather than trying to figure out whats on everybody else’s mind, and share that.
– Whats your relationship to Beijing? I moved to China cus I wanted to travel and teach. Moved here after spending two years teaching English in He Bei. Came into Beijing every weekend for the music, then I moved here to be closer to the scene. Been here for 6 months now and I am loving it.
– Would you say that starting a band in China is difficult? No, even though my two Chinese bandmembers in THE SUPERMARKETS doesnt really speak English, we managed to start a band in He Bei. In Beijing I met my pianist Cameron through a friend, so DEEPSPACE COWLAS happen very organically.
– What type of stage and crowd do you prefer? As casual as possible. I don’t want my show to be a presentation, more of a conversation. I like playing where I like hanging out. Mao Livehouse, Cafe 69, VA, Beer Mania, Old What, Temple Bar. I joke around with the audience between songs to keep the atmosphere light.
– How do you prepare for a set? It depends. For bars I’ve spent a lot of time in, I don’t prepare. I’ll probably have a few beers before and during the show, but for new places I don’t even smoke cigarettes the night before. None of my bands really does any rehearsal, except for DEEPSPACE COWLAS. Cameron comes to the school where I teach sometimes, and we rehearse with the schools piano. Cus neither of us owns one.
– How did you get started here in Beijing? I started at Open Mics, like VA bar. I also got some real support from the owner of Old What. They wanted something new and let me play hows. That was really awesome.
– How come you are into songwriting? I like fucking around with words.
– Has this time you’ve spent in China taught you something? Yes! I have learned that maintenance creates value. For my social life in He Bei, putting labour into communication was key to not being alone. A lot of Chinese didn’t speak English, so it was a mutual effort trying understand each other. And since we both tried so hard, our friendship’s value grew.
– Last but not least, how do you like 4 Corners? – I have heard about it many times, especially the Open Mic Nights, but still haven’t been myself. I would have attended this Thursday, but I’m playing at Old What. Maybe I can do both.
After a few beers, a few smokes and 2.5 hours of talking shit, we had covered the important topics of documentaries, language barriers, beer and people being born rebels. We parted for a time, but met up again a few hours later at 69 Cafe in Nanluoguxiang where he was performing. The one and only cover of the night was Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Then came Shoo shoo shoo. His fingers danced up and down the strings. The music itself is light and dancy. Eyes looking at the floor or closed. Sounds coming out of his mouth and guitar felt like bottled up trains of thought, fighting each other to get out. That rebellious cool punk musician he wanted to be when he first got into music now sat there pouring out folksy music with a raw and unpolished yet meticulous feel. Voice and strumming in sync but his feet was moving way faster. I took it that his slightly spastic feet were subconsciously performing his next chords or words. Always 1 step, 2 steps, 7 steps ahead. An open book, letting the ink of the letters spill out like water.
During his third last song, Luckiest Foreigner, I moved closer to get a good a good look at him playing. At one point it was as if his guitar was overwhelmed and begged him to stop. He she it was tired, but Nathan himself wasn’t. The energy was still high and ascending, the emotions could be read off of his face and that strumming was excessive. His 9 years old Martin DM guitar has got a human touch to it, grown out of how its owner interacts with it. Reminded me of the cooperation between a man and his interpreter. The guitar told us what we couldn’t read between the lines. He got off stage and I told him, “I had no idea you were so good”, he just smiled and took me outside for another smoke ■
Listen to his full latest album Douban.com/nathan/
Foonote: DeepSpace Cowlas Currently looking for a sax player.
Sanna K / Writer & Photographer / email@example.com