Think of Mongolian music, and chances are traditional costumes, horse-head fiddles and throat singing will spring to mind. The likes of Hanggai, with their highly likeable songs about the grasslands and drinking, have helped make such connotations inevitable. Yet with his album The Flesh, Shanghai-based Mongolian musician Hai Qing has put a decidedly different spin on contemporary music from the region.
'I had a band playing pure Mongolian folk music for a bit before,’ he says. ‘But it wasn’t very interesting.’ His debut album doesn’t suffer from such from a problem. Self-released online with minimal fanfare at the end of February, The Flesh is a startling and highly accomplished work that’s already being talked about as a shoe-in for China’s 2017 best albums lists.
Listen to The Flesh in full on Hai Qing's Douban page here.
Throaty, booming vocals imbue the record’s nine tracks with a Mongolian flavour, something aided by the use of traditional harmonica and reed pipes, but the songs are also layered with experimental guitar-work and jubilant brass sections, incorporating elements of jazz, psychedelia, art-rock and folk. There are echoes of King Crimson and Captain Beefheart, Xiao He and Wild Children (sometimes in the space of just one track) – all while maintaining a strong sense of originality.
Born in the central Inner Mongolian county of Abag Banner, Hai Qing taught himself classical guitar as a child, but soon succumbed to the allure of rock ’n’ roll. Since then he’s engaged sporadically with traditional Mongolian music – including a stint studying throat singing – but his love for the psychedelic art-rock bands of the ’70s has never faded. With The Flesh, he’s reconciled these two influences.
The lyrical structures on The Flesh are ostensibly straightforward, sometimes featuring a single line repeated with just a word or two of difference, but they convey a deeper meaning. ‘The theme of this album is the conflict between your brain and your “conscience,”’ explains Hai Qing. ‘The majority of the album is written around “the flesh”. “The flesh” is not our body, “the flesh” is unconscious, it’s where our soul – our mind, our emotion, our will – lives. Everybody obeys “the flesh”, and I am no different. How can our “conscience” overcome “the flesh”? I’m still seeking that answer.’
The album’s music and Mandarin lyrics were originally penned by Hai Qing alone, but the cast of musicians featured on The Flesh helps inform its varied sounds. Also hailing from Inner Mongolia, producer and guitarist Li Xing has collaborated with noise artist and former Muscle Snog frontman Mai Mai, and plays in jazz-rock outfit Red Scarf Trio with two other contributors to Hai Qing’s album: drummer Deng Boyu and flautist, didgeridoo and harmonica player Lao Dan. Deng also drums for popular Chinese folk act Wutiaoren.
In addition to pursuing philosophical questions and traversing genres, The Flesh saw Hai Qing clock up some considerable literal mileage during the recording process. Although the majority of the songs were laid down in a basement studio on Huashan Lu, the group of friends in Hai Qing’s band have scattered across China in the last couple of years and he travelled as far afield as Guangdong and Inner Mongolia to record some of the instrumentation.
‘There wasn’t a recording studio where we were in Inner Mongolia, Li Xing and I just took our own equipment into a friend’s rehearsal studio. We recorded the double bass there, but it was only when I got back to Shanghai that I realised the quality of the recordings wasn’t good enough,’ he says. ‘We had to do it over.’
Not that he was overly perfectionist about the album; the whole thing was recorded, mixed and mastered in just six months. ‘Most of the songs were put down by myself, Li Xing and Deng Boyu in two days, and a lot of them we just played once through and recorded that version,’ he says. ‘If there were small problems or errors we left them. I wanted it to feel real, to have a live feeling.’
The band’s diaspora means that getting everyone in the same city at the same time has been a challenge. But with a deal with Douban's D Force record label close to being signed when we meet, Hai Qing is confident that the band's live appearances will increase in the coming months. ‘I’d like for us to perform more and, if there is the chance, to go on tour and appear at music festivals,’ he says. ‘But I want us to choose the venues we play in carefully, not just perform randomly.’
Given the talent of the multi-instrumentalists involved in The Flesh and the quality of the tunes that Hai Qing has put together, he shouldn't lack for opportunities.