Still wet from late June’s Glastonbury Festival, the six members of Brighton, England’s Go! Team packed up their drums and their jump ropes and flew to China for a pair of shows before hitting the summer festival circuit. The original Red State is a rare stop for Western bands — the government has turned away the likes of Pretty Girls Make Graves and Jay-Z — but the Team made it safe and sound. And they brought their exclamation-point enthusiasm with them.
The Go! Team descended on Beijing’s the Star Live on June 29, when I caught up with them, to unleash their playground-party sound to a near sold-out crowd of both Chinese and international fans. The huddle formation kicked out a series of jams, including eight cuts from their forthcoming Proof of Youth, which is set to be released in early September. Before the show, I sat down with songwriter Ian Parton and martial frontwoman Ninja to discuss culture shock, the new album, and the drawbacks of government-authorized funk.
How was Glastonbury?
Ninja: Glastonbury was muddy. It was a good show. We had a lot more people coming to see us than I ever thought — and people really enjoying it. It wasn’t a sympathy audience; it was an audience that had actually come to see us, and it was loads of people.
Ian Parton: I think we had to win people over as well, though, because people were kind of gravitating more as we played, weren’t they?
Ninja: I think we drew a pretty good crowd. It was a really good crowd to start off with, and then it got more and more packed as it went on. And they stayed. Because I’m always watching to see if people are wandering off, down from the main stage to watch us. It was just really nice to see that, because the first time we played Glastonbury we were on a smaller stage, and we were really, really unknown, and that was even more of a challenge. This was hard in a different way because it was for TV, so it’s just different. TV’s just different altogether; it’s another world from playing onstage in front of people. It went well. It was good.
And so now you’re in China.
Ninja: Now we’re in China!
How long have you been here?
Ninja: We’ve been here for, I don’t know — we’ve done so much it feels like a week.
IP: Yeah. Two or three days, now.
What have you been up to?
Ninja: We climbed the Great Wall, which I didn’t know you had to climb. I thought it was just a wall, and you look at it and go, “Wow, great.” But it’s not. It’s an actual architectural structure that you literally have to climb.
IP: You realize what a load of bollocks the whole myth is about seeing it from space when you’re there. It just disappears into the mist as soon as you take a footstep, doesn’t it?
Ninja: It’s really, really long, that’s what it is.
IP: Yeah. But I’m amazed how they managed to get that myth properly off the ground. Why would you be able to see it from space? It’s like, the width of this room.
I don’t know. I was just convinced that’s how it was. That’s what teachers tell you.
Ninja: Maybe it just turns up as a black line.
Ian: Nah, you wouldn’t see anything. It’s like seeing a tree or something from space, or a building.
Have any of the band members been here before?
Ian: No. I mean, I’ve always been interested in the place, but really haven’t thought to come otherwise.
Western bands really don’t come to China very often. I know Jay-Z and Pretty Girls Make Graves both had some complications. Where did the decision come from to play here?
Ninja: They asked for the lyrics! [laughs] They asked for the lyrics to be sent over. Some of the lyrics are quite political, so I changed them — just random stuff, it made no sense. Like, one of the lines was “When the meat is ready you put it in a bun,” and the real line was, “When you get it right you know the power is on.”
IP: Wasn’t there something about green limes or something?
Ninja: Yeah, yeah: “Back it up with a ‘V’ sign,” and I changed it to “Something something green lime.”
That doesn’t sound that much less political.
Ninja: It just makes no sense. I was surprised nobody asked, “What the hell are they singing about?” Mainly food-oriented — I think I might’ve been hungry at the time.
IP: I can’t believe it’s just some bloke’s job, though, just to look through band’s lyrics. You’d think we could bring down communism if we took it to the streets.
I think it would last about five minutes, no doubt. So, do you have any gauge of how well known you are here in Asia?
Ninja: We’ve been played every day here on the radio station. The Pulse, I think. We’ve been played every day on the Pulse.
IP: Imagine if we did become massive in China.
PM: It’s a billion people.
Ninja: A billion people to copy our CDs. A billion people to reprint our T-shirts.
IP: We’d be playing stadiums. But, no, we’ve got no idea.
Ninja: I’ve been asked a few times to take photos with people, because they’ve never seen black people before. It’s really sweet. Everyone’s been staring at me, and I didn’t know why. I thought I was just paranoid, because if you look at someone, then you know they’re looking at you, ’cause you’re looking at them. So I thought I was just being paranoid, but then the words came out, you know, it was because I’m black. It feels good to know you’re not mad.
I feel like any Westerner definitely gets stared at, but especially the six of you guys, walking around together. You’re a pretty diverse group, and none of you are Chinese.
Ninja: Kaori’s got it into her head that everyone’s out to get her because she’s Japanese. She’s getting more and more paranoid by the minute.
IP: Really? Is she getting evils and stuff?
Ninja: She’s not. That’s what I’m saying: I thought people were looking at me because I’m with her, but now I realize they’re looking at me because they haven’t seen a black person before. She was saying, “They’re looking at me. It’s because they know I’m Japanese.”
Your music definitely has this retro sound. It’s got all these samples and references of classic hip-hop, Motown, and soundtracks. What do you think they make of it here, where the people haven’t grown up with all these references?
IP: I really don’t know — that’s the thing, isn’t it? I don’t think music has to be analyzed. I think music’s quite a responsive thing. It’s quite physical in a way. Or kind of an emotional thing. It’s almost like the references are for the critics, for something to write about.
Ninja: You might not know why you like it.
IP: It’s either a good song or it’s not. So, I don’t know, in theory it could be some international thing.
Ninja: Wow, I wonder if they know about what other decades were like. Are they allowed to know? Because that’s all part of communism, isn’t it? If you stop them from knowing what everyone else is up to, you won’t want what you don’t know about. You won’t want a flashy car if you don’t know that everyone else in the world is trying to get one. Imagine the ’70s happening here — they find out what happened in the ’70s.
IP: Everyone starts wearing flares and stuff. They start from year zero and work through to flower power in 2007.
There is a hip-hop culture here, but it’s really young. There are no thirty-year-old guys that grew up with Grandmaster Flash. They just get a small percentage of what Westerners grow up listening to.
Ninja: That stuff is evil. It’s the worst type of hip-hop to bring over here, if it’s every going to come over here. Because it’s the most material form of any music that’s out there at the moment, and it’s the worst thing to bring into a communist society.
IP: Yeah, that’s true. We saw a band the other day that was a funk band. It was quite funny, because they were seven or eight Chinese geezers, you know, quite conservatively dressed. Didn’t particularly look like they were enjoying it, but they were rocking out this funk stuff onstage, like they were a government-authorized funk band or something.
I guess we had the Godfather of Soul, and they have the Ministry of Funk.
Can that be the same thing? If it sounds the same, but they don’t know where it’s coming from?
IP: I don’t know, you can’t be too snobby about it. If people dig it, they dig it, you know?
Ninja: I think music comes from the heart. Something in it has to come from the heart.
IP: That’s why I think learned soul or learned funk is a bit jarring, because you can sense when it’s the real deal.
I guess it doesn’t all have to be about references. The sound that made Motown popular forty years ago makes it still get played on the radio now.
IP: It feels real. Even though in reality there was a sort of Svengali-like character that was shadow-writing, you know ghostwriters and stuff.
Would you say there’s a kind of irony to the music, too?
IP: Go! Team music?
IP: Irony isn’t the right word, no.
There’s something throwback about, say, the “Ladyflash” video. Everyone there’s dressed like the ’70s — they’ve got the headbands, and they’re break dancing and jump-roping.
Ninja: We play it up a little bit as well.
IP: Yeah, it’s not irony; it’s genuinely digging things. There’s no kind of Darkness-esque —
Ninja: Darkness-esque. Ian likes to make up words at interviews.
IP: The band the Darkness, where it’s kind of, “Did they really like it? Were they a comedy band?” It’s nothing like that. It’s all genuine.
Ninja: Well, he destroyed his career, so we know it was the real deal.
IP: There’s got to be a lesson there.
Ninja: Yeah, don’t do a Eurovision song contest.
IP: [laughs] I don’t think irony’s quite the right word. I like things to be funny sometimes in the right kind of way, but not in a “we’re a comedy band” kind of way. Like (bass player) Jamie wearing a headband could seem like it’s a piss-take, but actually he just looks good wearing a headband.
Ninja: He’s got a style that’s from the ’70s. That’s just how he does it.
IP: You either can pull it off or you can’t, you know what I mean? It’s kind of a comedy thing, but it’s not really. There’s nothing too knowingly cool about it, but I think you can be cool in different ways other than wearing a leather jacket and tight jeans and a cool-looking haircut.
Ninja: And the eyeliner. Don’t forget the eyeliner.
Your new single, “Grip Like a Vice,” sounds like it was made more for playing live. It sounded more like a live mix. Have you been writing on the road, or has being on the road changed your writing style?
Ninja: The whole album sounds pretty much live.
IP: Yeah, that’s what people are saying. I wasn’t really aware of that.
Ninja: I think it’s good, because it sounds like you’re in the room at the same time as it’s being played. [mimics Borat] I like.
IP: I think I was sort of going for a tougher sound with the drums. It was actually recorded in a room bigger than this, so the sounds coming off the walls more.
Ninja: I like that. It’s good, because you know when you go to a classical concert — you know when they’ve got the whole orchestra under the stage? That’s how it sounds; it’s got that feel to it. Because when they record classical albums, it’s got that live feel to it as well.
IP: You’re in the room, in the space of it.
Ninja: Yeah, like surround sound, built in.
IP: It wasn’t consciously more hi-fi. It still went through all the same fucking-up processes, like the distorting, et cetera. I think a few factors made it bigger sounding, though.
What kind of factors?
Ian: Better instruments, better mikes, more time. Better gear, better Pro Tools, all that.
Was the live-instruments-versus-samples balance different this time?
IP: Yeah, but there are lots of trumpets, lots of samples. It’s hard to tell what’s live and what isn’t. It feels more like a live record, I think — which might disappoint some people, because it’s less cut-and-paste.
Was that just a product of having a full band together? Or were there any sampling complications that affected the makeup of the album?
IP: Not really. That’s still ongoing, the whole sample-clearance thing. We’re nearly there, but these things have a habit of going wrong. There’s such a gray area.
What about the collaborations, like with Bonde do Role? You worked on the first album solo, so what was it like bringing in not just a full band but also other artists?
IP: It was interesting. It was experimentation, really; it’s a “see what happens”-type approach. I often went to Brooklyn to record with this double-dutch team called the Double Dutch Divas, who are like, forty- or fifty-year-old women. They’ve been around since the late ’70s.
They toured with Run DMC, right?
Ninja: We should get them to support us.
IP: They’ve never been in a studio before. They’re not really —
Ninja: No, to do their jumping onstage, by the drums and stuff.
Ian: [laughs] They’re so old; they’ve got the footwork down, but they can’t really get much else. When I was playing (the new song) “Titanic” in the studio, all of a sudden they got up and started doing their footwork and stuff.
“Grip Like a Vice” is also more vocal-heavy than most of the songs on the first album. Is the whole album going to be like that?
IP: There’s a lot more singing; there are nine vocal songs and two instrumentals. The song structures are still quite strange. Some songs have maybe what you’d think could be three choruses or something like that. It’s not always verse-chorus. Like “Ladyflash” has what could be three or four choruses. . . . I like that, not knowing what exactly you’re supposed to be looking at, but each thing flows into the other. I think that’s a sign of success when people don’t actually know the chorus is, because it’s all natural, it’s all flowing. I like a song to sound like a song, not a bunch of ideas being thrown together for the sake of being experimental. Melody’s what it’s all about for me. That’s your starting point, and then you can build chaos and strange stuff around it. You’ve got to have something to justify its existence. You’ve got to have a song which can stick in your head.