Durian is a Hangzhou-based fusion band. The group, comprising of members from different countries, take collective responsibility for their songwriting which has now borne fruit in the form of not one but two stupendous debut releases. A veritable force in their live guise and true favorites of the local Hangzhou music scene, we are very grateful to Willem from the band for taking some time out to converse with us.
TSOFDs: Hi Willem. Very good of you to answer our questions. Tell us about the group and how you all ended up in China. Why the name Durian?
W(D): Our original line-up was a bunch of us who were hovering around the China Academy of Art all the time in 2012-13. I was actually the only one who wasn’t a student there but I was hanging out there anyway. The name Durian came about in the same way that many other great ideas do: while walking on the street talking about nothing. My conversation partner, now my wife, suggested: why not call yourselves Durian? And indeed, why not? I like random things, and what’s more random than a durian? As it turned out, we are very much like the fruit. Our music and style get people opinionated. It’s somewhat of an acquired taste to like durian, it’s not for everyone, but at least it evokes an instant opinion in everyone, either positive or negative.
TSOFDs: We’ve seen you play over the years in different venues around Hangzhou. Would it be fair to say your line-up has changed quite a lot – there seems now to have been a deliberate decision taken to present your core dynamic as a four-piece?
W(D): Our current line-up is very different from what it was a few years back. We had the standard drums-bass-guitar-singer line-up back then, with occasional additional instruments and guest musicians, like an extra vocalist, a keyboard, and later on more and more often saxophone. Our current line-up is the reason why we sound the way we do, it’s a rather rare combination of instruments for a ‘rock band’ or whatever we are. We don’t have a bass player these days, and there’s a good reason for that. For many years we had a hard time finding a steady bassist. While we were trying to move on as a band and book festivals and so on, we found ourselves often stuck without a bass, so we’d have to cancel. Of course there’s a certain logic to it that musicians would prefer paying gigs like weddings or so over uncertain and weird gigs with no pay (like ours). Anyway, the bass became somewhat of a liability and this spurred Daniel into action: he remodeled his guitar into what he calls a ‘tritar’. I think his obsession with the band Morphine had some influence on that: Mark Sandman played a two-string bass and had a whole musical philosophy about his less-is-more approach. In short, it’s a three-string electric guitar, but with very thick guitar string, and the whole thing is tuned down to C-G-C. It’s an interesting sound, because it really stands in the middle between a bass and something guitar-ish. Daniel plays them in a finger-picking way and has a lot of bossa nova-influences in his rhythmical approach. In our current line-up, I switched the electric guitar for the keys, my first instrument. Our four-piece now is: tritar/vocals, keys, saxophone/clarinet, drums. It’s a combination you don’t often hear.
TSOFDs: Having been a staple of the Hangzhou live scene for a long time, we’ve been aching to hear some recorded output. Now suddenly you have two records released in the same month. It feels like waiting for a bus back in the UK – it takes an age then two arrive at once. What prompted the decision to release two records?
W(D): We are very much a live band. Playing live has been our identity and musical philosophy. A lot of our songs were born during jams in front of a live audience, and if they weren’t, they at least took shape during live performances, when we could test in real-time what works with an audience and what doesn’t. We used to do a lot of improv, and I think even to this day we have never played one of our songs the same way twice (even though I now realize that’s not always a proof of interesting musicianship, it can as well just mean that we forget how to play them). So anyway, recording has always been a painstaking process for us, and we can’t be blamed for lack of trying. We’ve had several sessions and attempts over the years, but it never really seemed to capture the sound of the band. I think at some point we’d already given up on it. Last year we kind of unexpectedly won the Battle of the Bands at 9 Club, and I was supposed to leave China that summer to move back to Europe, so we all had a now-or-never feeling and went along with the momentum we were having. It seemed logical to record all our songs, but divided over two sessions, since our old sound is so different from what we’re doing now. We found some old friends to record to older, funkier stuff, in the ‘Coincidence’ album, and then recorded the newer stuff with our current four-piece, on ‘Kind of Nasty’. It just seemed more logical to separate them in two albums. I also felt it is a cool concept to have two albums as our debut output. All in all, it was the right decision to wait for such a long time. These songs have matured and changed a lot through our concerts. Some of the songs on the album were written six years ago, but I don’t believe we should have recorded them any earlier. They really had to go through some kind of musical puberty first.
TSOFDs: Where did you settle on to record your material? Did you take a lead in producing and engineering it yourself or did you trust someone else to do justice to the Durian sound?
W(D): One of our conditions was that we wanted to record everything live in the studio, and not instrument by instrument. For a while, we played with the idea to rent 9 Club and record there, but we finally decided to record at Nest Audio Studio, the owner of which is our friend Xiao Fei 小飞, who used to play drums in the band Spice. Everything you hear on both albums is recording live in the studio, and overdubs are minimal.
All four of us are pretty much illiterate when it comes to mixing and engineering. We did the production ourselves, in terms of musical decisions, you know, which instruments go where, where to change the dynamics, and so on, but the mixing was done by a Japanese contact of ours. He likes our music, which was the most important condition for us to believe he was going to do justice to our sound. We had to explain some things to him, but he was very communicative and didn’t try to push his own vision too much, which is what we needed.
TSOFDs: Did you find the recording process opened up new avenues to explore in your songs or do you feel you stuck very closely to how you’ve been playing the material live?
W(D): Believe me, even when recording we are still playing ‘live’ so even when we have 2 or 3 good takes of one song, they’re still very different. So maybe we really just don’t know what we’re doing. Recording definitely forced us to be very conscious about the songs, about what comes where, to add the right ingredient at exactly the right time. Actually, the recording itself went very fast: it took us one day per album. The real struggle took place during the approximately 9 months following those sessions. What to change, where to add a tiny detail or layer, what to delete, what to overdub. I learned about Daniel that he’s quite the perfectionist, who would have thought. In no way are our songs very close to how we used to play them live, because they are changing all the time anyway. On the contrary even, now that we have good recordings, when we play live we have been diverting less from the ‘standard track’ as heard on the recording. So recording has kind of had an opposite effect on us. But I think it’s a good thing. It’s made us a better band.
TSOFDs: It might be a difficult question in light of your different backgrounds and influences but can you point us to bands you’d cite as important influences who we should be checking out and listening to?
W(D): Everything is an influence in a way. For Daniel, I know his influences can sometimes more be found in poetry and theatre, or even the visual arts, than in music. He conceives song structures visually, like the song ‘Mandala’ is supposed to be shaped like a mandala. The instrumental section in the middle is the center of the mandala, so to speak, before getting back to the beginning of the round shape.
Sometimes an influence is more a certain state of mind, or energy, than a specific sound. I used to be really into Yunnan, as I’d lived there for over two years, and I loved the local music and musicians. Some of that influence can be heard in the bonus track on the ‘Coincidence’ album (Jekyll) but is harder to pinpoint on other tracks, as it’s more of a state of mind. Sigo, our first song, was written during a trip there.
For Daniel, it’s the band Morphine and their approach to music. We’re both huge fans of Tom Waits, even though I don’t know how this is reflected in our music, apart maybe from in Daniel’s voice. For Lucian, the sax player, it’s everything he listens to. There’s so much paraphrasing in his solos and riffs. If you want to go die-hard music nerd on his solos, you can find echoes of Sonny Rollins, Gilberto Gil, afrobeat, The Skatalites, classical music, and so on.
I’ve heard people compare us to Talking Heads. I liked that comparison, firstly because I’m a huge fan, and also because we (esp. in the older incarnation of Durian) also had something going on with one-chord songs with layer upon layer of sound, using riffs as building blocks. Recently someone said the song ‘The Wave’ reminded him of Weather Report. That’s a flattering one too. Anyhow, if you want recommendations, one can never go wrong with Tom Waits. That man’s oeuvre is like a universe.
TSOFDs: Good recommends. Good chat. Thanks for your time Willem!
Durian’s music can be purchased here on Bandcamp.