From Shanghai, China, expatriate freak-punks Round Eye are, against all odds, having a pretty damn good July. The band just released their fourth full-length, Culture Shock Treatment, on July 3, a manic, hairy, discordant, art-rock explosion that was produced by the Minutemen's Mike Watt. According to the band, it's a "protest record," an expansive and strange sonic stew with a sharp lyrical focus on the state of human rights in China and Hong Kong. And as I write this, Round Eye are currently on a tour of China.
Yes, there are DIY punk shows in China right now. It's a wonder what masks and proper health policies and precautions can do. (Thanks for fucking nothing, Gov. DeSantis.)
Despite their faraway home base, Round Eye has deep Florida roots. The new record is out on Paper + Plastic – Less Than Jake's Gainesville-based imprint – and vocalist Chachy (né Craig Englund) was a familiar face in Orlando's underground, playing with SuperAids and fronting unpredictable local avant-punk band Libyan Hit Squad in the early 2000s. (At one point during our interview he laments missing "Wally's, Hungry Howie's pizza [Cajun crust] and Will's Pub"). But Round Eye has been his main musical concern since relocating to Shanghai.
Round Eye has fit in well with the DIY underground in China, touring on their own, organizing shows and regularly hosting international acts from the Dickies to Descendents. They've played all over the world, filmed a guerrilla music video in North Korea, and collaborated with Joe Bob Briggs, so that's pretty much all boxes ticked. Chachy emailed back and forth with Orlando Weekly as Round Eye's tour (ahem, TOUR) got started.
What's daily life like in Shanghai in the time of coronavirus?
My daily life ... In February, my life as it is now was completely different. No shops, bars, movie theaters, anything. All food was delivered to me via apps. The delivery person would leave the parcel at a designated area in the front of the compound. Everything was sterilized. Everything was very quiet. Life as I knew it stopped dead in its tracks. But we all understood the situation.
These days things have returned to normal, sort of. If you want to ride the subway you have to wear a mask. However, things have curbed so much and the numbers are so low now that as of late April, Shanghai has seemed more like its former self. Movie theaters are still closed, the country's borders are still closed or only open to very limited travel, and masks and QR health codes are still a very constant necessity but aside from that, all is well.
Culture Shock Treatment's lyrics are closer to home this time ...
With this record I felt we had to focus on China. It's been the elephant in the room since we started the band. The last record, Monstervision, focused on the U.S. elections with the ascension of Trump. This one, we had to address Xi Jinping, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the advancement of the totalitarian state China has created for itself and how that has affected the world via its paper fist of hard cash. Frankly, we felt it'd be disingenuous, cowardly and wrong to ignore China. I mean ... we live here and have been here for 10 years.
What was it like recording the album with Mike Watt?
I think I can speak for the band when I say that Watt is a hero to all of us. His philosophy of creating music, touring, networking and "jamming econo" is gospel to us. The connection to Watt was Steve Mackay [sax player for the Stooges and former sax man for Round Eye]. It was a long time coming as Watt and Round Eye toured the mainland of China back in 2017 and we'd see Watt every time we played the U.S. One night after a gig in Pedro we talked to him about producing our next record. We didn't really know if he did that sort of thing, but I knew he produced his solo records and a lot of the Minutemen/fIREHOSE stuff and we all loved that immensely. He was gracious enough to accept and – this was a total trip to us – was happy we asked!
When you work with a guy like that, you really get a sense of how things operated in the SST camp: no frills, no bullshit rock star self-indulgence, no jerking off, just rock that shit and get the fuck out.
Tell me about the Shanghai quarantine show you did.
When China shut down there was absolutely nothing to do but stay in your home and wait for word from the government. I'm sure you're experiencing something similar to that in the States now. In March, the owners of a very popular club here in Shanghai that Round Eye frequents called Yu Yin Tang (YYT) were working with the social media platform Bili Bili to try and find a way to keep their patrons and fans of live music connected ... They decided to commandeer the club and stream live events to keep a sort of connection to the former patrons or the club and keep live music around. They asked us – I believe we were the second band, I could be wrong on that, but it was very, very early – and we loved the idea and were dying to play together again so accepted.
Thousands of people tuned in. It was actually a really great moment. You understood the gravity of how important live music actually was to the audience as they had the means of commenting while it was streaming and we received so much love that night. So glad gig-goers and us are back in the same room again.
You'll be touring in July?
Happening right now. There are a few hotspots we can't go to, places like Xinjiang (this one I doubt it's the virus, probably the Muslim concentration camp remodelizations ... gotta keep up with the aesthetic trends, man), Heilongjianand, Wuhan but aside from that all is OK. We've been playing live shows since May and they went very well: packed houses, good times, masks and virusless.
Still checking QR health codes and temperatures and writing down ID/passport numbers at the front of the bar, but things are good. Our tour will take us to Hefei, Qingdao, Chongqing, Chengdu, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Tianjin. All of these cities do not require a 14-day quarantine time so we're all clear for travel.