An interview with Math Rock Band Nakoma about its death and resurrection and more

(by Chris Stecher). 

Note from Djang San:

Nakoma is a band I have been following for many many years in Beijing, we have even shared the stage on different occasions. 

I remember seeing Nakoma in D22 with a tall and tuff Mongolian singer about five years ago, I wasn’t impressed, but what the trio has become since then is a reason to talk about it, the evolution of the music is amazing. Go see the band, it’s worth it.

Going out into the Beijing music scene for an evening of revelry and neck damaging thrashing can be a crapshoot at times. Venue lineups often include a couple of bands you may have heard of, along with others you haven’t, and the mix of musical genres can range from cat screeching Sonics that makes your head want to explode to candy pop that has you wishing for a quick death.

A year ago, in between suck aforementioned bands, a power trio caught our eye and slapped our ears around with instrumental rock that just blew our mind. Reminding us at first of an early RUSH or Coheed, we had to fight the throngs of sweaty fans to the front to see who the hell it was giving us respite from our musical desert.

That band was Nakoma, and although the three of them without instruments look like they could have walked off a fashion catalog photo shoot, with them, they brought out the serious A-game, full tilt, tight ass rock.

Now one and a half years and a more than a couple of fine shows later, we catch up with them for the Précis Interview:

State Your Names for the record and what instruments you play?

Linda Westman: Drums

Tim Zhang: Guitar

Nicola Mazzei: Bass

Where do you all hail from and how long have you been in Beijing?

Linda: I’m from Sweden. I first came to China in 2007, but have been back and forth between Europe a lot since then.

Tim: I came in 2012, I’m from New Zealand/Taiwan, I was actually living in Australia before Beijing though.

Nico: I come from Italy and I’ve been in Beijing since 2007.

What’s the backstory on the name and what’s the history of the band?

Linda: Me and Nico were both looking for a band when we came to China, which happened to be at the same time. We were playing some shitty kind of garage rock at first I think, and we went through a number of different guitarists and singers. We reformed with Tim a couple of years ago, and should have probably just gotten a new name since we started playing totally different music. But we were lame. And we like the random associations of Nakoma. I’ll leave the question of where the name came from to the Italian.

Tim: I hadn’t played music for a few years since my last band split in Sydney, after being here for awhile I got the itch to start playing music again. It was hard going to gigs and watch people perform and not be playing anything yourself. I was actually suppose to listen to some of the old stuff and maybe learn it but I really didn’t want to. I just started writing, they seemed to like it and we just went from there.

Nico: About the band name, Nakoma it’s a slang from Southern Italy, it’s an adjective which means appreciation, it’s used when you are under “self-medication”. When we started playing we haven’t decide on a specific music genre we were just writing music, we chose it mostly because it doesn’t have an immediate reference to any music genre.

Anyway I tend to give different explanations about it.

You just released your first album. What studio did you use and how long did it take?

Linda: It took fucking ages, I don’t even want to think about it. Most of it was done at Yang Haisong’s (PK-14) studio.

Nico: About above comment please notice that Linda is not a really patient person.

Tim: The actual time of recording and mixing didn’t take that long at all, I just left it for a very long time between recording and mixing.

You have such high energy shows, with building harmonics merging into a full force wall of sound that whip the crowd into a frenzy. What are your collective influencers?

Linda: Haha, we don’t have collective influences, which is why the music is schizophrenic. I’m into kind of metal-oriented stuff, this is a constant source of conflict. Bands I’m influenced by would probably be Tool and Mastodon, prog and post metal. I like complicated aggressive music, like Meshuggah, Dillinger Escape Plan, Converge… but would have to be much more awesome to be able to play that. I don’t mind when people say we sound prog (Rush, yey!), but have never been aiming for post-rock…

Nico: as my personal influencers: Soundgarden, Mars volta, Kyuss, Pink Floyd, Faith No More, some more ambient oriented like Tony Drake, Michael Manring, also some Italian bands with electronic elements like Almamegretta, 99 Posse and Subsonica.

Tim: I’d like to think I take from everything I like which is quite broad. I’ve never really been a 2 or 3 subgenre kind of person, if anything I try hard to draw influence from outside of the obvious and try to shoehorn it in, it doesn’t always work though.

If you had to pigeonhole or describe your music in one or two words, what would it or they be?

Linda: Moody, dark? (Turned out to be a wish-list, not necessarily a description)

Tim: Melancholy, Hopelessness and Anger. All the ingredients for a great party tune!

I notice a lack of vocals. Is this on purpose? Do you prefer being instrumental rock?

Linda: Hell no. I would love to have a singer. Work in progress.

Tim: We’ve never rejected a singer really but trying to find one that we would fit around is hard, I would like to be less busy on guitar as I feel I’m obviously making up for the lack of a singer. Getting a singer at this stage might also completely change the nature of the band. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Nico: In the future one (or more of us) could pick up a microphone.

Have you toured outside of Beijing? Have you toured outside the country? (If So) what was the one biggest challenge?

Linda: We played shows and festivals outside of Beijing, but no tours yet. A permanent challenge is to pull off an unmarketable genre with no singer. I always feel a bit like “sorry, we ruined the party” when we come on after really happy-sounding bands.

Tim: I always feel like I’m shitting on the party. Buzz Killingtons.

Nico: Now that the album is released touring both within and outside China they are both part of our future plans.

What do you see as the biggest difficulty being a rock band in China?

Linda: Dysfunctional market. Too few people have figured out how to make money on underground genres in China. It’s just really hard to sell. We kind of suck at promotion ourselves, so it is difficult to know how to reach a larger audience.

Nico: To me the main difficulty compared with the music scene in other countries is between being a “new” rock band or an “old” one, most of promoters and organizers give very small space and attention to new bands (with “new” bands I mean, you need to be active in the scene for at least 5 years). As example, I was used to play with Voodoo Kungfu (零壹) a metal band that was doing good in the local scene and we used to play in basically all the festivals around China for the 4 years that I was with them and like Voodoo Kungfu all the other bands that have been around for 10 or more years, it was never a problem of “are we going to play at Midi\Strawberry this year?” because the line-up of all festivals is quite similar each year, you could try comparing the billboards of 2 different years of any main festival and you would get a clear picture of this. This created a bad circle within the local scene because old bands get a much higher priority with no relation if they released an album last year or if the released their only album 8 years ago. There were some attempts to improve this for example Midi was used to have a small stage for new bands but the efforts on this could be much bigger.

Tim: There are similar challenges in China and overseas obviously, getting anyone to give a shit about your music when there is such a saturation of it is difficult. I’m not complaining at all as I feel its completely fair and natural. While the market for underground music is so small considering it being the most populous country, it’s actually quite easy to get gigs. The upside is that almost any act can get a gig here and cut your teeth much easier than some places overseas, the downside is also that almost any act can get a gig. 🙂

What’s your favorite Beijing venue to play (past or present)?

Linda: I like the sound system at Mao, but since we don’t pull audiences of 100 people (YET) I usually prefer the smaller venues like Temple and School. The audience is standing one meter away from the drum kit, so the show becomes more like interaction. I like to be able to see how people react to different parts.

Nico: Temple, School and DDC have all been great venues for us, about past venues, we played at 2Kolegas last year for DazeFest and was a great venue and a great event, and we miss them both.

Venues like Temple, School, DDC, Dmc, they are making the biggest efforts to book and promote new bands compared to venues like Mao, YuGongYiShan, which tend to focus on more established bands (same as the festivals that I was mentioning above).

Similar to venues there are also some promoters and events that should be mentioned like: Dr SmartAss, PangBianr, Live Beijing Music, Gulou Double Decker, FakeFuzzFest.

Tim: I love the tiny stage at school, it’s up close and personal. I also love XP for their dedication to experimental music and I also played my first show in Beijing there.

Who is your typical fan? Who do you see come to all of your shows?

Linda: Haha, it’s not like we have so many that we can collect statistics… We have a couple of enthusiastic supporters, though, they make it all worth it. Public thanks to those who show up to all our gigs, take awesome pictures, make Nakoma Beer, and head bang in the front row every time!

Tim: We have some enthusiastic fans, but I’m not sure who our typical fan is. We’ve had quite varied responses in how people interpret the music. People hear what they want to in the music I think, they interpret it in their own way which is nice.

Do you have groupies?

Linda: Haha, something that I should have considered when I started playing this instrument is that girl drummers seem to be most interesting to other girls. If I wanted to start getting groupies I should develop my gay interests.

Tim: We certainly don’t inspire any panties being thrown on stage. I find that it’s mainly guys who want to talk to me and what they hear in our music… or just tell me what I could be doing better and to tell me to find a singer.

How easy was it to book gigs when you were first starting out? What was your process? And is it easier now that you have a more established name for yourself?

Linda: It has always been easy to book gigs, but hard to book good gigs. We have played an infinite number of shows to a crowd of four people out of which one is our friend and three the other band. It naturally becomes easier the more people you know in the scene, and the more people think you are a good band. Some live houses have been very supportive, like DDC and Temple.

Tim: I always feel like we don’t really fit on any bills but the upside to that is we just end up playing with all kinds of bands it seems.

Overall, do you find that Beijing venues are easy to deal with in relation to getting paid?

Linda: Sure, it’s fair enough as long as you are not hoping to get rich on this. Normally it’s a split of the sale of tickets or bar income.

Tim: I just generally get told what we got the next day to be honest.

What do you all do for work outside of the band, and does that interfere with practice and gigging schedules?

Linda: I am finishing revisions of my PhD and start working as policy analyst at the Swedish embassy after summer. We all have jobs, so basically just plan practice and gigging according to work schedules. Works out OK most of the time.

Nico: I work for an IT company, it takes some efforts to manage the schedule and been able to play in a band with lots of practices, shows and have a full time job. I played with other bands in the past and with some of them this a very difficult point but with Tim and Linda we managed to figure it out a way to make it work.

Tim: I’m involved in a startup and I also teach English, I just wanted to be a bit different you see. 🙂

It does interfere but most musicians are in the same boat. I’d always like to put more time into music but really I should just learn to use my time better probably.

You have been billed with a lot of bands, who are some of your favorites to gig with.

Linda: Oh tough one. I don’t think I have preferences. It’s good to be a cross genre band so that we get to play lots of different kind of shows.

Tim: Yea that’s tough, recently though some of my favourite shows have been with the punk crowd, there’s more of a community spirit and less general divas and rivalry than the metal crowd here.

Have you been approached by any Labels in or out of the PRC?

Linda: PRC labels, no, but their usefulness could be debated. Labels from outside of China, does that actually happen in real life? I thought we might as well be waiting for the Tooth Fairy. It would be awesome if it happened though of course.

Tim: No but we’ve not had any releases until very recently, but that probably still doesn’t change anything.

What would be your most important word of advice for US or UK bands who want to come play China?

Linda: Do it for fun. Don’t expect to make any money unless you are seriously famous. It’s still worth it though, for the ridiculous unpredictability.

Tim: Do it, I think most bands would think its worth it but be prepared that things don’t work like they do in the US or UK. Laugh at everything that goes wrong and you’ll have a great time.

What does the future hold for the band?

Linda: World fame, yeah! Nah, song writing is first priority and we should be planning touring in China this year. Hopefully touring out of China eventually.

Nico: We all (Linda included) like to play with effects and equipment (not much with laptops), now that the first album is released we can freely add new elements so there will definitely be something new in the next album but I’m not going to spoil the surprise.

Tim: Hopefully become better musicians, write better music and try to play to more people outside of Beijing.

NAKOMA’s Self-Titled first album can be found here:

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