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.
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