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‘Sifter’: Round Eye talks to Dangerous Minds about shooting their video in North Korea

As a band of American expats (and one Italian) living in Shanghai, the pre-emptively named prog-punk band Round Eye get opportunities that most bands would envy, even while living under the boot of a censorious authoritarian government. About a year ago, we told you about their video for “Billy,” an attack on the increasing brutality of American police—a nervy move, as China’s censors could have easily taken the song’s anti-cop sentiments as a sideways swipe at their own police state. Living under a regime that sees a nail sticking up and immediately moves to hammer it down is surely tricky to navigate as an outsider, and Round Eye have had run-ins with Chinese authorities before.

More recently, they landed an incredible opportunity that’s been extraordinarily rare for a band of Westerners—they were able, in October, to film a music video in the even more insanely repressive state of North Korea. Precedents for this are few—Washington D.C. rappers Pacman and Peso pulled it off in 2014, and last year, a pair of YouTube personalities went to North Korea to make a pretty fucking execrable everything-is-awesome pop video that seems almost certain to have been a propaganda device for Pyongyang. Round Eye, though they had no tour dates in the country (that might have been a bigger score than shooting the video there) were permitted to record footage under extreme restrictions. Naturally, they managed to sneak out some unapproved images, though.

Recently, some unauthorized photography has been making its way out of North Korea, and much of it is striking for how mundane it is. If it were all images of starving kids (of which there are sickening numbers) it would be understandable that a despotic regime would try to clamp that shit down, but much of it prompts wonder at why it would merit repression. The Round Eye video for “Sifter”—from the forthcoming Monstervision, an LP which includes “Billy,” and which features the final recorded performances of the late Stooges sax man Steve Mackay—features guys in an underground rock band being goofballs at an amusement park that could have been anywhere, cut with stolen shots of countryside and people that again, feels like it could be in any Asian country if you don’t look all that closely. It’s rendered compelling by the fact that it was shot furtively in a really heavy repression/censorship state. While “Billy” was an over the top attack on authoritarian violence, this feels like a mere travelogue.

Round Eye’s singer, the mononymic Chachy, took some time to talk with us about getting approval to bring the band to NK and their experiences in that nation.

Dangerous Minds: Obviously North Korea is a real diplomatic sore spot when it comes to Americans, how did you even get to go? Was it easier because you were coming from China?

Chachy: Well logistically it was. Politically we had to go through a screening process with a North Korean touring agency called UriTours. We had to get specific visas that could NOT go in our passports, and while we’re there mum’s the word.

DM: “Mum’s the word” meaning you had to keep it concealed that you’d been there?

Chachy: On our passports, yes. No stamps, no glued visa.

DM: Was that for NK’s sake or for yours?

Chachy: I really have no idea. Things were very vague when it came to documentation. They even held onto our passports for the duration of the trip, which was a week.
Keep reading after the jump…

Posted by Ron Kretsch | Leave a comment
Expat punks Round Eye totally nail American right wing authoritarianism and paranoia in ‘Billy’
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Round Eye

In 2010, a mononymous musician going by the handle “Chachy” needed a change. His Florida-based prog-punk band Libyan Hit Squad had finished half an album with Black Flag’s Greg Ginn, but he was enduring a serious employment drought and mourning the suicide of his band’s drummer. Attracted to the rather incredible post-punk scene happening in Beijing, he severed his lease and some personal ties and made his way to China. There, he joined up with another American expat, a Southern Rock drummer named Jimmy Jack, with whom he formed a freakish art-punk band with the pre-emptively othering name Round Eye, whose first release was a 2013 split LP with Libyan Hit Squad, a bridge between Chachy’s past and future titled Full Circle. In 2015, an eponymous LP followed.

Based in Shanghai, Round Eye are set to release a new LP this summer—one which happens to feature the final recordings by ex-Stooges saxophonist Steve Mackay—and they’ve made a brutal video for their single “Billy,” a caustic indictment of American police culture’s pathologies that in its anti-authoritarian ethos recalls the finest and most scathing moments from the heyday of ‘80s I-hate-Reagan hardcore. While China is hardly an apt place from which to lob brickbats against abuse of power, Round Eye’s critique is nonetheless dead-on in its depiction of the US right wing’s paranoid fantasies about Muslims, gays, the urban underclass, and non-white people.

Chachy was kind enough, despite a 12-hour time difference, to answer some questions via online chat.

Dangerous Minds: So you moved to China and formed a new band, and obviously you’ve been following the news from home. You clearly agree with a growing number of Americans that police culture is getting out of control.

Chachy: It’s insane. You know, it’s even more striking and vibrantly illustrated to us how bad things are when we tour the US now having our lives anchored in China, seeing our home as visitors.

Dangerous Minds: Could you talk some about the inspiration for the song and video? There are clear references to specific incidents…

Chachy: When I lived in the States, I was so used to the chaos of being inundated by everything that was happening socially. It’s a common topic right? No one is surprised by racism, bigots, over saturation of pop culture and violence in America. It just is. The Wild West with iPhones and Facebook. DE-evolution has truly arrived. But now, being away from American culture for so long things look sharper and more potent.

Our only news of the west comes from the sensational news headlines and articles on the Internet and whatever the Chinese media platforms will allow to enter the mainland. It’s almost like a perpetual stream of very bad and horrible news.  It’s funny, Chinese media is using what’s happening with Trump and America as an example of why Democracy doesn’t work. Trayvon Martin and the countless other victims of cop insanity, the Klan, the Muslim stigma, LGBT discrimination, all flowing from what seems like one place and then I turn off the computer.

I try to think “it’s the just the news and what they want to show”; surely things can’t be that bad in the States can they? But then we go on tour in the U.S. for something like 60 dates in the deep south and I’m quickly shown that yes, indeed, things are on a very dark path. Shanghai, 24 million people and I’ve never, not once, ever experienced fear in the streets. No guns in China. Then we go play a gig in podunk Florida and 30 minutes after we leave the bar four people are shot and killed over a drunken brawl in the very bar we were at. I kept the news article on that particular incident. I simply couldn’t believe it.

Dangerous Minds: Yeah, the cherry-picked news info may have a propaganda agenda, but it DOES underscore a valid point: The encroachment of authoritarianism here is really fucking alarming, and it’s accelerating after 30-35 years of steady growth. I trust you’ve been following the presidential elections. What do American expats think about the rise of Trump? And what do the Chinese people think of it, is there a broad consensus?

Chachy: Shanghai’s expat community is very very mixed.  People from all over the globe. In fact I don’t have that many American friends here. They’re from Russia, South Africa, England, Oz, Tazzy, France, etc. etc. etc., so I get a good earful of global opinions on how America is presenting itself and trust me, it’s universally laughed at. They laugh at the fact that it’s gotten this far, and trust me, I laughed with them. It’s all “can you believe this is really happening.” I remember a time only a few months ago when most of my expat/Chinese friends weren’t aware of who Trump was; this is when the astonishment sets in—now everyone knows who he is. Everyone sees the social nightmare he’s dredged up and they start to realize that what was once an American issue is now getting dangerously close to becoming an international one. Not laughing as much anymore.

Dangerous Minds: So this begs to be said—China is arguably kind of a HUGE glass house from which to be throwing anti-authority stones. How does Round Eye reconcile that stance with living in such a rigidly policed nation?

Chachy: Yeah, totally understand. China is indeed an extremely authoritarian place. There is no freedom of speech here and we’ve felt the influence of the Ministry of Culture quite swiftly when we had a tour cancelled and banned due to ‘unharmonious’ art for a flyer [NSFW-ish image at link]. But when it comes to these sorts of issues with China we feel that we’re in more of a position to support rather than to lead. We’re not Chinese. It’s not our place to criticize Chinese policy within its barriers but it is totally our responsibility and right to criticize American policy. I admire the hell out of the Chinese bands like SMZB, PK14, and Pangu who take a very very real risk in voicing their indignations.  I mean Pangu have been living in exile for nearly a decade because of their support for Taiwanese independence and their seditious content in their music.

But that being said, the line between what is allowed to be criticized and what is not, what is allowed to be played and what is not, who is allowed to perform and who is not, is a VERY blurred one but it’s generally always understood that Big Brother is definitely watching. With “Billy” we were a bit concerned with how the Chinese government could react to this. There isn’t any criticism of Chinese matters, but the very nature of this video and song go very much against Chinese political ideals. The fact that we’re directly addressing problems within our own government could be seen as an ‘unharmonious’ incentive for Chinese citizens to do the same themselves.  We haven’t released this video in China yet, but we may very shortly, and what follows, no one really knows. We’re a bit nervous to be perfectly honest.
Watch the video for “Billy” after the jump…

Posted by Ron Kretsch | Leave a comment