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.
DM: They didn’t want you leaving without their say-so, I’d imagine.
Chachy: For sure. I mean, they had their eyes on us every single step of the way including on the runway of the Pudong airport in SHANGHAI. It was a sort of tour group that allowed us to use the carnival setting and a few other locations for a shoot. No performances, for the time we arrived happened to be The Party Foundation Day, a very important holiday for the DPRK, and literally the entire country was preparing their celebrations in the streets of downtown Pyongyang. We were actually stuck in the middle of the road while hundreds of thousands of people rehearsed their ceremony. It was also a very weird time to go considering they had just done an underground nuclear test in September.
We didn’t have any gigs, we chose this location for the video when we found out on the road that we’d be hitting these locations up. We primarily went to see the country and shoot the video, but shooting was something that we didn’t think would be able to happen realistically. We were thrilled when we got the ‘OK’ when we brought it up upon arrival, but of course we couldn’t film basically 60% of the time.
DM: So what shots were authorized? The amusement park stuff?
Chachy: Definitely the amusement park, the quick shots of the Arc of Triumph, the location of the two statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il, who BOTH had to be in the shot, disrespectful for just one apparently, and SOME of the countryside. The street shots you see of us driving around weren’t permitted for the most part, nor was most of the countryside. They were pretty stringent on checking our photography. We got detained in the mausoleum of Sung and Il for taking a picture of a shoe cleaning machine…go figure.
DM: Clearly you had an insidious agenda to imply to Westerners that glorious North Korea could possibly have dirty shoes. All True Korean shoes are spotless like the Great Leader’s, Chachy.
Chachy: Ha ha I know right? They caught us—dem and their glorious shoes! But you see it’s precisely that kind of shit that can land an American into some pretty gnarly situations. Just the misunderstanding, you know?
DM: DID you capture anything particularly revealing of everyday life there? Still photos have been sneaking out here and there lately, but some of it seems so prosaic it’s baffling as to why it would be repressed.
Chachy: We snuck a lot of stills when we could of things that struck us as peculiar…restaurants, bars with no seats, classrooms—our drummer actually taught a demo class for some highschoolers there, the OTHER side of the DMZ. I got a great shot of us with some of their soldiers. None were terribly happy about that as you’re not supposed to photograph the military personnel, a farm, a performance by some of the students we were introduced to, some of which you can see in the video with their brightly colored traditional dresses. One thing that I’ll never forget was sitting outside of a temple waiting for the others to finish their tour and watching a group of kids painting a landscape. About four kids just sitting and painting. What was strange was their paints were dry yet their strokes persisted. Nothing changed with the image. They were faking the whole time. I sat there for at least 30 minutes watching them put on this show for me, but see, during this trip we saw quite a lot of ‘play acting’ going on all around us. It was so obvious and so eerie. We played along of course but there was no doubting what was happening.
DM: That’s WEIRD.
DM: I’m having difficulty trying to parse this. So they want people to see happy painting children, so why not just let the kids paint? Why the subterfuge that they’re painting? It seems like an absurd expenditure of effort.
Chachy: All of the people we met there, the professionals whom we spoke with, explained to us that their fields were thriving. We never questioned this, we simply listened. Everything seemed very peachy, very organized, choreographed, and very artificial and spooky. An example—while we were shooting the video I took a bathroom break. While there at the stall some college/high school kids approached me from behind and started asking questions a mile a minute, enthusiastically. I was so happy to answer! “Do you like our country” “Where are you from” “Would you want to visit again?” “Do you like basketball” standard stuff but in a real hurry. It felt great to finally talk to and level with some of the locals on normal terms. I went to wash my hands and follow them out only to find that they had made a very quick exit ahead of me. I called after them but they neither replied, looked back, or slowed down. It was super abrupt and all at once.
DM: That sounds like the first ten minutes of a horror movie.
Chachy: Seriously man, it really was odd. And that feeling never left you while there. Especially when we were filming the video. They knew what we were going to do, but I think they had it in their minds that we were going to do something a little more subdued, like a documentary or something, not run around like a bunch of idiots miming nonsense for the cameras!
DM: Yeah, I was struck by how mundane it was compared to “Billy!”
Chachy: Exactly! We couldn’t really go all out with production, you know what I mean? We kept it simple because we could tell that after a prolonged period of filming, things were getting a little too curious for them so we would take a break and just chill for half hour before beginning again. We were NEVER left alone save for going twenty feet outside the hotel entrance to smoke a cigarette and listen to the absolute silence of the city at midnight on a Saturday night. Not a single sound save for the weird synthesizer bell chime they had every hour that we recorded and put on the album at the end of the song “Pink House”. We were shadowed by two very sweet mid-twenties female guides, fluent in English, informative, yet completely clueless to what’s going on on the outside. Very nice girls, though. While we were traveling there were military checkpoints after every 15 klicks or so, where our guides would hold up some documentation and we were waved through. NO traffic on the road whatsoever outside of Pyongyang and even in the city there was very little.
DM: That’s beyond creepy now, and just plain old sad. All the human potential in a nation subdued in the name of fluffing a dynastic leader’s egotistical whims.
Chachy: It’s their dream for Korea to be one, and they told us the only thing keeping that from happening is, you guessed it, the USA! Visiting North Korea altered my perception and enhanced my respect for China as a country and as a people for being able to progress from the state they were in in the 50s and 60s. That’s no easy thing, and obviously things aren’t perfect here either, but are they anywhere? At least there was some movement forward.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘I am a Sunflower’: Amazing Chinese children’s propaganda record
North Korean paintings of contemporary China as a socialist utopia
Expat punks Round Eye totally nail American right wing authoritarianism and paranoia in ‘Billy’