A Personal Rock’n’Roll Testimony – Sean Hocking’s Fateful Encounter with the band Pairs in Hong Kong (including mini-interview)

Pairs
If This Cockroach Doesn't Die, I Will
Metal Postcard

Written by:

Casual impresario, Dandelion radio presenter, Metal Postcards label owner and Hong Kong habitué (somewhat stranded division) Sean Hocking talks intimately and persuasively about the power and primal bewitchment of Pairs, an Aussie/Chinese, umm, pair of inveterate raw rock noisemakers that reinvigorated the pure teenaged sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll senses of anyone that dared pay them any attention. Part review, part memoir, part pop agit-prop, we here at SEM are more than happy to gain a deeply considered look-in to the Shanghai alt.culture while being wised to the wonders of this dynamic, if unlikely, duo.

Arriving in Hong Kong in 2007 from New York I set about doing what I always do when arriving in a new city, digging up local unheard and heretofore believed un-listenable music in order to get the real pulse of a place.
After a month or so of exploring every nook and cranny of Hong Kong and digging up only two acts, The Yours, now a rather dull guitar band but at the time a glorious mess of sub-rockabilly guitar noise, and My Little Airport, the Cantonese version of the Clash with the indie pop sensibilities of Belle & Sebastian circa 1995 that, incidentally, have now become the darlings of the yellow umbrella set and play sellout concerts to thousands of locals. These were my only finds, so what choice but to look further afield and explore Beijing and Shanghai.
Soon, via friends of friends, I learned of bands now popular with hipsters the world over, the likes of Hedgehog, Carsick Cars, PK 14, and a plethora of others, and although interesting in an “Oh that’s how they do rock in China” kind of way, none of it really set my music synapses on fire.
Such it was until one fateful day when I was told of a new band  from Shanghai going by the simple and un-ironic name of Pairs.
An email directed me to their douban page – http://site.douban.com/pairs/ –  then a  place that was still a rather anarchic version of Myspace, full of Mando pop and strange noise-atronica. Tapping away at the play button and waiting for the music to buffer I expected nothing more than the standard pastiche Asian shoegaze but instead, through the tinny laptop speakers, came a squall of trebly lo-fi noise anchored by dustbin drums and some Australian bloke putting his heart on the line.
I remember being 13 and hearing the Swell Maps for the first time, I remember being 14 and hearing the Fall for the first time , I remember being 15 and hearing Damaged for the first time . This felt the same and I was in my late forties.
There are times when you come to those holy grail moments of music that make no sense and yet make all the sense in the world at that same split second in time. Peel would always say that if you didn’t quite understand, that means there was something in it.
Whatever it was I’d found it.
pairs photo
[photo: Metal Postcard]
Within days I’d located Shanghai resident Rhys O’Loughlin, one half of Pairs, and started applying Metal Postcard pressure to persuade a small slab of 7″ vinyl out of the band.
By this time I’d listened to the douban songs over and over again and although the sound still grated it was the frustration and incomprehensibility of the songs that began to make more sense. It was early days for me in China but I was already getting a notion of the daily  difficulties of living the 21st century Chinese urban life; its confusion, disconnection and downright dystopia, and these songs, and their sound especially so , said all of that, in the peculiarly Chinese way of not saying anything at all.
Within weeks i had the songs for a 7″ep out of the band (https://metalpostcard.bandcamp.com/album/pairs-debut-7) along with the usual plethora of  questions.
How had the band met ?

 “F & I met whilst watching Japanese brothers use a half pipe in a park in Yangpu. I originally asked F to come sing on some songs I was writing, then she picked up the guitar and we wrote a song that way. We still haven’t decided if we’re a real band, I’ve popped the question on one knee, just waiting for a reply. But we’ve been writing since we first started and been playing shows pretty solidly for 18 months, so that’s nudging us closer to real band turf wars.”    

Later I would learn that the mysterious F had commented on a tee that Rhys was wearing and that’s what had really set the ball rolling.

How do you write your songs ?

“I write most of the songs on my cheap Tianjin-bought acoustic, record them on my cheap 6 year old camera, send them to F and she says cool or shit. She’ll pick parts of the song and say I like this better, or that first part is trash. But she’s writing more and more now and coming to me with some ideas and chords and we’ll work around that.”

What are your live shows like?

(I was to discover what they were like later when I got them to come down to HK and play one of the noisiest most anarchic things I’ve ever seen. A room jammed with confused people ( the band  were hip for a week or two in HK), false starts, calls for requests of songs nobody knew anyway and F always there, quiet, silent, the Kim Gordon of Shanghai generating guitar noise the simplicity of which still surprises me today for the effect it generated in the audience.)

“I usually say the show at Zhuhai is the worst, where we got heckled by another band and the singer stormed the stage to try and fight us and then got told off by the bartender and he cried and sulked on the bass amp.  But even that show wasn’t too bad. There has been only one time in Pairs’ history for me that I wasn’t in to it and that was a show at Live Bar, not sure what happened, just wasn’t digging it. But that was the first night I saw Yantiao so I guess it all worked out.”

The single once made sold the usual half a dozen copies via the likes of local hipsters, Rough Trade West and Normans Records and I decided fuck it I don’t care if I sell zero copies, this band are on fire I’m going to ask them to write an album.

It took a little persuading and cajoling to make Rhys believe that they were actually up to making a real album and could write the songs to do so. But it felt like only weeks before 17 marvelous slices of noise came flying into my inbox. To be honest I don’t know long it all took but I think the songs were written in a matter of a few weeks and the whole thing recorded in days.

Just some of the titles were enough to make me salivate: “Mean Buzz,” “Cosplay Girls,” “Part Songs,” “Don’t Fly My Body Back,” “You’ve Wasted All Your Time,” and of course the album title If This Cockroach Doesn’t Die, I Will.

And this is the genius of the album: the songs all live up to their titles. Short sharp songs always with that guitar and always those crash bang wallop  drums and Rhys deconstructing the experience of just being in the life that is living in a 21st century Chinese city that amounts to an alienation that’s felt not just by the Laowai but also the young locals growing up in cities expanding at such a pace that nobody can keep up with themselves.

Cockroach isn’t easy listening and can be hard to take in one sitting but it’s well suited to dipping into and out of as well. Songs like “Mean Buzz” will just make you want to place that needle back at the beginning and play it again. Coachwhips fans will feel right at home with this album.

However, those of you with staying power will be more than well rewarded by listening to all of the album in one sitting. You’ll experience the frustrations, anger and bewilderment as to why life can be the way it is in Shanghai when you’re this young and wired for sound with an aesthetic that is purely Pairs and not possibly anyone else.

As the China experience slowly infiltrates the urban experience of every city on the planet – and it will, I assure you – younger punk / DIY kids are going to get this album without hesitation. It’s about a life not many of us live at the moment but it is a life that those under the age of 15 now will live for a good part of their existence.

Of course the majority will still be drawn to the sickly, anodyne sounds of K-Pop, Mando Pop and the censored online world where cuteness, owl cafes, and Hello Kitty theme parks reign supreme, but on the other side of the coin are Pairs and I say Pairs are the harbinger of the reality of China’s hopes for cultural globalization. One day we will all feel like Pairs do and be muttering to ourselves ‘If this cockroach doesn’t die, I will.’

Here’s a rash of links to satisfy your no doubt, by this point, bristling curiosity:

METAL POSTCARD BANDCAMP
Cockroach
Summer Sweat
Brief Lesbian
Grandparent
Also Check Out
Reyakjavictim – Xiao-di-fang
Gui Gui Sui Sui Write Me A Death Letter
YOU TUBE
Mean Buzz
New Blowjob
Yangpu Qu
A Surgeon In Shanghai Severed A Nerve In My Groin
Gig Of The Week
Hotel
Take It Off
Farmer Gangsta
Regional Victorian Lover
Loose Strings
Cat Food (Live)
Live in Indonesia
Live In NZ