Low Wormwood on Eminem, 'dubious girls', and sleepless nights

Lanzhou folk-rockers' frontman Liu Kun discusses new LP One Day

Low Wormwood's Liu Kun
In many ways, as they prepare to release their sixth album, One Day, folk-rock act Low Wormwood's stock has never been higher. Yet frontman Liu Kun is not one for resting on his laurels. After nearly 15 years at the helm of the folk-rock quartet, he likens the band reaching this landmark to a person reaching middle age, and clearly worries about the potential for slipping into comfortable routine.

Liu was born in the '80s, but occasionally there's the kind of wistful nature to his words that you'd expect more from someone twice his age. And sometimes his exhortations and reflections on the nature of life can wander dangerously close to cliche, but he's clearly a genuinely poetic soul, and in fairness some of his self-contemplation in our interview is prompted by our questions regarding Low Wormwood's upcoming 15th anniversary. Still, it's very much in keeping with his somewhat bashful stage presence; though he clearly revels in performing Low Wormwood's music live and does so with an uplifting energy, in his interactions in between songs and after the shows he is often quietly humble and introspective.

Nonetheless, Liu has had to adapt to being in the spotlight. Low Wormwood have been riding high ever since they released their second album with Maybe Mars in 2011, entitled Lanzhou, Lanzhou. The ode to their hometown was so popular that when they arrived at Shanghai's Yuyintang on the promotional tour that year, they'd already sold out of all the initial first run of the album. The record built on the low-key success of their beguiling second LP We Can't Help Kissing Each Other - the title tracks from those two records remain crowd favourites to this day - and they've since built up a strong following across the country.

(Watch Low Wormwood performing 'Lanzhou, Lanzhou' at the foot of the city's Baita Shan below.)

After 2013's The Watcher, the band switched from Maybe Mars to Modern Sky for the 2015 release of Midnight Singer, which once again displayed their knack for building delicate, well-observed folk-rock songs around thumping, sing-along choruses.

Ahead of the release of new concept album One Day and a show celebrating the band's 15th anniversary, Liu told us about the impetus for their latest record, reflected on a decade and a half of Low Wormwood, and shared his opinions on The Rap of China.

In the promo video for One Day, you talk about how each album you make is based upon the changes you’ve been through in your own lives or the things you’ve seen during that period. What were the main inspirations lyrically for this album?
The original inspiration for this record came a lunch with some friends in an industrial park in Shenzhen. At lunchtime, the restaurants are full of people who have just come out of work; not workers - white collar folks, management and so on. Pure expressions, indifferent, independent, high performance, quiet; they leave as soon as they've eaten. A lunch there is less than 100RMB, and dangling in front of them are different coloured lanyards and cards, representing different areas and jobs. I was amazed. They were all part of a whole, but was there any difference in their feelings? Was there someone there who loved art? Was there any sensitivity or fragility?

This album is written about a day in the life of a young person in their midst. The elements all come from their orbit: the cinema, cafe, noodle shop, cats, sleepless nights, dubious girls on WeChat, the metro, the hope that in this most normal of lives they can find a heartbeat. Each thread has a feeling and they come together to create the overall theme: The Strings of Life [a book by Shi Tiesheng].

For this person, at 27, their life is at a crossroads: they're moving with everyone else, but they also want to take their own path. The world is mediocre, and they need to find a way to navigate the rest of their life. 27 years-old is the time to find this way.

How does this record differ musically from your previous works?
This is a concept record, with nine different threads that make up the theme of The Strings of Life. A concept album can be like a book, it can provide some of our reflections and thoughts. And all of the music revolves around this theme, all of the songs work toward this theme. To this end, there have been a few changes to our style in places; the ten songs on this album feature elements of pop, rock, and folk; just like how our lives have different forms, different elements.

You also have some rap on this record, right?
For this album we invited our good friend [Beijing folk singer] Ma Di to guest on the song 'Forgive Me, I Can't Reply to You'. The song is about love in the age of smartphones, how dating and break-ups all take place on phones - the sending of a text message can be faster than transmitting an emotion. I felt like rap was a suitable way to express this and though this was Ma Di's first rap work, he really delivered.

Are you a rap fan yourself? What's your favourite hip hop record?
My favourite rap record is Eminem's 'Lose Yourself'; the music and the lyrics really reflect a rapper's mental state, confusion, self doubt, struggle with oneself, self reflection and affirmation of faith. It made me realise the psychosis of a rapper is a lot like that of someone involved in rock music: it's resistance and awakening.

Did you watch any of The Rap of China?
I watched a bit of it. It brought a lot of previously underground rappers into public view, and some are excellent. Young people think they're really cool and this is the kind of style Chinese cities should have: fans of lots of different types of music. I hope the cool surface appearance will foster cool with substance, a cool city culture, independence, clarity, self-worth and innovation while preserving the fight, the spirit of resistance.

Low Wormwood

Low Wormwood are coming up on 15 years together now. What's changed for you as a band over that time?
15 years for a band is like entering old age; we need to maintain our power and creativity - and that's hard. We're really familiar with each other now, it's easy for our creative process to become routine, but breaking through this routine is the biggest problem we face; over the course of 15 years we've achieved a tacit understanding that when we have differences we'll always reach a tacit understanding. The thing that really keeps us going is love. We really love music, love performing and love live rock 'n' roll - we're willing to give everything we have to it.

What were your goals for the band when you first started out?
When I first started I just wanted to make music I liked, to express myself: my darkness, my low spirits, my mumbled words. After a while, creating this music helped me to open myself up, and to express the feelings of other people, to the point where our album Lanzhou, Lanzhou became well known. From that point on, I wanted to talk to the silent people, to let them know I understand them.

If you could go back 15 years, what would you tell yourself?
If I could go back 15 years, I'd say to myself, 'be braver, be braver' - live the life you want to live. These days it seems like we lose famous musicians on a pretty regular basis; I'm getting that feeling that time flies and life can be cruel. Life is short, so it's important how you live it; it's important you're living the life you hope for - or are at least on the road toward it - and that your dreams are your own, not based on envy.

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