Interview: Alpine Decline

The American rock duo discuss starting all over again in China

Despite success in the US with their previous band, husband-wife duo Alpine Decline decided to start all over again in China. Ahead of their Shanghai show, they tell Liz Tung why

‘This,’ Jonathan Zeitlin says,spreading his fingers across the table of beer and food that sits between us, ‘is an economic disaster for us.’ It is an incongruous statement to make in our current setting, a dingy Xinjiang joint on Gulou Dong Dajie, but Zeitlin – a boyish Ohio native with curly hair and a thoughtful, self-deprecating way about him – has his reasons. He glances at his wife and bandmate, Pauline Mu, before breaking into a crooked smile. ‘There is no question that if you’re into having nice things or making money or feeling like when you’re old you will not be in a sad, sad place, this is not a good idea.’

This is Zeitlin’s answer to my suggestion that he and Mu had moved to Beijing late last summer so that they could have the time and the money to develop their band – Alpine Decline, a shoegazey, noise-psych outfit featuring Zeitlin on guitar and Mu on drums. This, he assures me good-naturedly, could not be more wrong. 

‘We left relatively easy,comfortable lives in Los Angeles to live in a pretty gnarly part of the city,’ he says of their digs at the Communication University of China, a broadcast institute near Tongzhou where they teach. ‘No, it wasn’t that; it was more embracing our private little world that we were building.’

If it seems frightfully naïve (if not a bit mad) for a band to uproot themselves from an established scene for the express purpose of finding privacy in a city of 20 million people – well, there’s a reason there aren’t a lot of foreign bands settling down in Beijing. 

In the admittedly problematic category of ‘laowai bands’, Alpine Decline occupy a special position. Unlike most foreigner bands in China, the duo formed and cut their teeth in their home country, arriving in Beijing as relatively established artists. And unlike ‘professional bands’ who swing through on tour, or make abortive efforts to settle here (see Handsome Furs, who spent a year partying in Sanlitun), they aren’t here as tourists, or to show Chinese bands a thing or two about how it’s done in the West – they came here, Zeitlin says, to make art.

The idea to move to Beijing came at a turning point in the couple’s creative life, which for ten years had been built around LA, where they played together in a dream-pop outfit called Mezzanine Owls. The group found moderate success on the local and national indie circuit,but in 2010 combusted in a fiery, mid-recording meltdown. Zeitlin and Mu found themselves at a crossroads; though they’d already been making music as a duo for several years (a creative relationship that eventually bloomed into romance), the couple knew that it was time to reorient their artistic and philosophical compasses. 

‘In our old band we’d spend all our time trying to get bigger, trying to get more people interested, trying to get the next big show, so we really pushed away from that,’ Zeitlin says. ‘We asked ourselves, if we’re going to keep spending our lives making music, what would be the way to do it that would be the most valuable and meaningful in our lives?’ A shoulder injury that prevented Mu from playing drums gave the couple a chance to take a break from making music, and for six months they thought about what they wanted, both out of their music and out of their lives.

The result of their ruminations was Alpine Decline, a prolific project that within a year yielded three records filled with appealingly evocative soundscapes. Between Mu’s powerful drumming and Zeitlin’s dreamy, reverb-filled guitar, the duo create wind-whipped, distortion soaked melodies that roar in your ears like the moment of sublime suspension between jumping from a cliff and landing in the snow. 

A few months after forming, they decided to play some of their first shows while on a hiking trip in China. By most standards, the mini-tour was something of a flop: arranged at the last minute and with almost zero promotion, they ended up playing to nearly empty houses. Yet back in LA, they couldn’t get the trip out of their heads. In what they saw as its dystopic ugliness, its undefined wilderness, China – and specifically Beijing – seemed like the perfect place to hide out and enact their creative plans.

‘By the time we decided to move here it was not because it was like, “this is a scene we want to participate in,” it was really looking to get away from scenes,’ Zeitlin says.‘We didn’t think we were coming into a place with a viable music scene at all. We really felt like we were going to be on our own and wouldn’t have to worry about appealing to people.’

It was less than six months before their carefully laid plans were wrecked, and through a tenuous connection with PK14’s Yang Haisong, Alpine found themselves swept into Beijing’s experimental scene – a community that, inexplicably, felt more like home than home. ‘We thought we’d come here and be in this bubble, and instead we met people who we really were drawn to on a personal and creative level, and they were Chinese bands,’ Zeitlin says. ‘Whatever it is we were trying to create that felt like a foreign element in America, fit in really well here. It doesn’t make sense... but we genuinely feel more a part of this community than we ever did in Los Angeles.’