Interview: The Women Of Guji On Making The Leap Into New Musical Territory To Share Their Truth

[Cover photo credit to Glitch]

GUJI 咕叽, is a new synth-driven quartet comprised of Chinese nationals Klaire (synths), Alex (bass), Stacy (drum machine) and American guitarist and singer Chachy (aka Craig Englund) from Shanghai Punk band Round Eye. They have recently released their self-titled debut EP via Floridian label Godless America. Their music not only reflects on Chinese heritage but also on waves and eras of musical tradition ranging from classic sounds and harmonies from the likes of The Everly Brothers and The Beach Boys to a perfectly imperfect approach to Garage Rock that brings the texture of homemade things to their work.

Guji was born from pandemic lockdown when Klaire and Chachy started collaborating and later expanded to a full band, bringing in Alex and Stacy. For all of the members, who have differing levels of musical experience, this is something of an empowering leap into the unknown as they express their thoughts and feelings in new ways.

I spoke with Klaire, Alex, and Stacy about the origin and development of their sound, and of Guji as a band. We also spoke about the challenges they face making music in China and navigating their positive and negative feelings about their home country.

Hannah Means-Shannon: It’s great to close out summer with some new music, both live and recorded.

Klaire: Chachy is actually on tour with another band in America right now. I hope we can tour there sometime, too, but we definitely need more songs!

HMS: It’s impressive what you’ve managed to create with this first set of songs. I was wondering if you’ve ever played them live for an audience, or want to in the future.

Klaire: So far, we’ve already played about ten shows. I would say that about 50% of them were good and our musician friends liked them a lot. We’re still practicing and working on making ourselves into a good live performing band.

HMS: That’s great to hear. Your music is very powerful, with a strong sound, and a lot of layers and I think it would work really well live.

Klaire: Thank you. It’s a little difficult for us to play this music live because it’s difficult to get the sound quality we want with songs like these. Every time, sound check is very important to us.

Alex: Sometimes our performances aren’t as good because the sound check didn’t go well. Or because we fucked up! [Laughs]

Stacy: Sometimes the sound people make mistakes.

HMS: It’s a unique and personal sound that you’ve created, and I can see how it would be difficult to capture live, especially the layered vocals. Those would have to be very clear over a sound system.

Klaire: Yes! You understand.

HMS: Can you tell me more about the beginning of writing songs together? Was that something that you’d thought about doing in the past, or was it totally new to you?

Klaire: My boyfriend, Chachy, brought me into this whole band thing and starting to create music. In the beginning, we were just harmonizing together at home because our voices worked really well together. I only had a musical background with Chinese traditional instruments. I knew a little bit about how to sing and harmonize. We were thinking about having a band with just me and him. During the pandemic, we had nothing to do, when everything shut down. All of the sudden, we decided to start writing songs. Mainly he would write songs and lyrics and ask for my advice at first. I would give him opinions and he would change the music accordingly. It was born in the womb of Chinese lockdown.

HMS: I know a lot of people who worked on during that time and music gave them something to do to keep from going crazy.

Klaire: That’s true! A friend of mine used to play in a Jazz band, and during lockdown, he started to get interested in Noise Rock and experimental music. The last time I saw him, he played a Noise show for 30 minutes. The experience really changed peoples’ mindsets.

Actually, Stacy is the one who has been in bands earlier than me and Alex. She used to have a band who would create their own songs, so she’s the most experienced!

HMS: Do you think some of the sound that you’ve developed is coming from all of your different interests?

Klaire: Yes, I think so. I never wanted to sound perfect, or very polished, or very sophisticated. I always wanted to be a little bit childish and creative in my music, so that when you listen to the music, it suggests images in your brain. That’s what I want to do. Sometimes when Chachy goes a little too Punk Rock or poppy, I tell him directly: “I don’t like this. Can you change it?” That’s the advice I would give. We’d change things until we both liked it.

When we’re practicing together, we do that as well, since we’re still working on new songs when we’re practicing. At that time, everyone contributes ideas about what they like. We all give our own thoughts and try to make the songs better.

Alex: I like the parts where I can join in the songwriting. That makes me feel great because I have never been in an original band where I could join in the songwriting. That’s really cool to me, that experience.

Stacy: Every time when we’re jamming together on the new songs, I change the way that I drum. I do that according to how I feel about where the song is going. Sometimes I come up with new ideas and new directions.

Klaire: Everyone is understanding the direction the song is taking in their own way and contributing to it.

HMS: That’s a great approach. Regarding the songs on the EP, did they change a lot as you were working on them, and then you recorded them, or did you record them early in the process?

Klaire: In the beginning, the songs were all recorded on Chachy’s iPhone. On top of that, we added things that we wanted to make it sound “thicker”. When it was just recorded by phone, it sounded very underground and unpolished, which was cool, but we wanted more layers, so we recorded more at home. We’re friends with Modern Sky Recordings producer Li Wei Yu and he recommended all this equipment that we could use at home to build a recording studio. Me and Chachy would record pieces at home or in a practice room with a phone. Then we’d put things together.

Alex: Me and Stacy went to their house to record our vocals, too.

Klaire: The screaming vocals at the beginning of “Judgment Day” were recorded at home about six months later with Stacy and Alex. We decided to add more to it.

Alex: For both me and Stacy, this is the first time that we are learning to sing and do harmonies. It was really hard at first and was a big challenge to me. I’ve never been able to sing with other people. It was a good experience, though, and I now feel like I can do a lot more.

HMS: You made yourself try something new and learned a lot.

Alex: I learned a lot about music from them, Klaire and Chachy.

HMS: The vocal harmonies are not so common in Rock music and it’s something I love. I love early Rock ‘n Roll, just after The Beatles, and I’m reminded of that period when I hear your music, though you also allow a lot of different influences to come in.

Klaire: I agree. That’s how we got started, actually. Me and Chachy would harmonize The Everly Brothers or The Beach Boys together and we’re big fans of those guys. We found out our voices worked well together and that started it all.

HMS: There seems to be an interest right now in looking back at musical traditions and deciding what works for them. Maybe it’s because of the internet and because people can listen to music from different time periods so easily.

Klaire: I think that’s true.

HMS: One of the songs, “Judgement Day” starts like a real Punk song, but gets gentler and happier sounding as it goes. However the lyrics are quite heavy, so that makes for an interesting contrast.

Klaire: That was actually the very first Guji song. Chachy is a music teacher and he was writing some original songs for the kids he was teaching, but that one didn’t get used, so he brought it back home. I thought it sounded interesting. He changed it a little bit, then it became “Judgement Day.” I said, “I don’t like for a song to be wholly positive. I want the lyrics to sound fucked up.” So we decided to make it a story that’s fucked up, about a person who is living a miserable life, and wants to self-destruct.

HMS: I see what you mean with “Judgement Day.” Why do you think it’s good to have fucked up stories and darker things in songs? Is that because it’s more real to you?

Klaire: Firstly, I don’t think any of us are very happy in China, to be honest. Are you guys happy?

Alex: No.

Stacy: No.

Klaire: No one is 100% happy, at least. China is not a very pleasing country to live in. It’s very depressing.

Alex: It destroys your mental health.

Klaire: I have a lot of friends who have mental issues, and they don’t even realize it until it gets really bad. I’m sure it’s the same in America, I’m not say that China is special in that way. It just doesn’t feel like we’re living freely or being who we actually want to be, because we are not allowed to.

Alex: It’s not autonomous.

Klaire: I don’t really think about happy stuff. And even when I do, I’m not 100% really happy, because I know the Communists are watching.

Alex: Even when we are drinking, we worry, “Will I be caught? Will I go to jail?” We’re paranoid.

Klaire: It’s true. Sometimes at the bar we usually go to, sometimes there are police raids. Everybody has to wait in line and they will check your hair to see if you are doing drugs as well. If you are looking too drunk, they will check you as well to see if you are doing drugs. It’s hard to think of happy stuff to talk about, and I’m sure most people here feel the same, so I think unhappy things will resonate with them the most.

HMS: Do you think that when you’ve made a song that has some of those darker elements, you feel better having made it, or when you perform it? Or is it more about just being real with people?

Klaire: I’m not sure.

Alex: I think music is therapy. I think that’s true when you have a show, and is really true of performing vocals. You feel like you’ve expressed those things.

Klaire: For me, it’s the first time I’ve been in a band, so when I perform, I’m pretty worried about making mistakes. Now, that’s getting better, but at the beginning, I was worried about the technical side of things. After a few shows, that got better, and now when I sing, I can feel like I’m trying to express myself through my voice. It doesn’t make me feel better, but I’m happy that I’m heard. I want people to feel the feeling, even if they might not be listening to what I’m saying.

Stacy: I feel the same way as a drummer.

Klaire: Stacy plays the drum machine, so it’s very technical for her.

HMS: One of the songs from the EP, which has a video, is called “I Like To Hang Out in China”, and I feel like that’s a good introduction for Guji to the world. Is that why you released it first?

Klaire: It just represents where we’re from the most. The whole band was born because of lockdown. The thing is, we do love this country. We love the culture, the landscape, and we love the food. We just don’t like the cultural environment here. It’s just so sad because it’s so beautiful in appearance, but the spirit of it is long gone.

HMS: Wow. That’s really a significant thing to say.

Klaire: That’s how I feel.

HMS: The song is like that, too. It has some kinds of sentimental elements, and some warm and nice things mixed into it.

Klaire: It has love and hate at the same time.

HMS: I appreciated the song because I felt like I could hear that experience of the place in it. Tell me about filming the video. How did you plan it?

Klaire: At that time, we actually hadn’t started a band yet, and I hadn’t met Alex and Stacy. We were just making videos. “Build a Friend for Me” was the first video that we made, just during lockdown at home, and we got such a big response from it, that we decided to make a video for “I Like To Hang Out in China.” That was right after the lockdown. I invited one of my best friends, who I’ve known for over 15 years, to do it with me. It was pretty dangerous. We did it outside a very famous university in Shanghai and we got caught by the security guard. He said, “You have to leave. You can’t do this here!”

Then we went to a very famous temple in Shanghai, and the security guards were coming at us there, too! Everyone told us that we couldn’t do it, but we still did it anyway. It worked in the end. There’s part of the video where you can see the security guard telling us to stop!

HMS: That proves the song! Since there are beautiful things that you want to put in the video but you have a negative experience making the video.

Klaire: Exactly! But all of us are making new videos for “Mao Suit” and also for “Judgement Day.”

HMS: [Laughs] Be careful! Be smart about how you do it!

Klaire: A friend of Stacy’s was telling us not to do this because it’s too sensitive.

Alex: Because Stacy was wearing a Mao suit, and a Communist hat. He said, “You’re putting my friend in danger.” But we are doing it.

%d bloggers like this: