Behind the Music:Alpine Decline

Alpine Decline performing on tour with producer Yang Haisong on bass.
Alpine Decline performing on tour with producer Yang Haisong on bass.


There is a music urban myth about a band relocating from their small hometown to a big city with big dreams. Reality typically doesn’t coincide with such hackneyed tales. Alpine Decline left their home in Los Angeles-the city most musicians behold as the promised land-to Beijing, China. The result is a concoction of genres from noise rock a la Les Rallizes Denudes to some Sonic Youth-y post-punk and a contemporary touch of garage rock.

Their recordings have such a full sound, it’s amazing to believe they’re a drums-guitar duo consisting of husband and wife Pauline and Jonathan Zeitlin. However when they are on tour, they are joined by their producer Yang Haisong. This fall, they will be on a US tour with other Chinese indie band Carsick Cars and Chui Wan. No Florida dates, unfortunately. But, Tropicult was able to talk to Pauline and Jonathan before they hit the road:

What made you guys decide to relocate from LA, probably the biggest music city in the world in a democratic nation, to communist Beijing?

PZ:  We weren’t interested in the politics of the whole thing, we just wanted to move to a place that was as remote as possible from what we were familiar with.

JZ:  Our idea was to forget about finding a place in any kind of scene and just make a bunch of albums that didn’t have any threads to anything else.  Being outsiders in a foreign place, and even being outsiders a little bit to the scene here, living kind of far outside the city, we don’t need to work hard to make our music sound removed from familiar contexts—

PZ:  —we’re already pretty far removed!

Your 2016 album, Life’s A Gasp, talks a lot about the good and bad of living in Beijing among other things. Overall, have you enjoyed the move?

JZ:  I don’t know if “enjoyed” is the right word, but—

PZ:  —it’s one of the best moves we’ve ever made.

JZ:  Life’s a Gasp mostly focuses on the costs or consequences of the decisions we’ve made trying to live life burning as bright and hot as possible, not the joys.  But to be sure our life in Beijing is full of thrills.  It’s just that I get more relief from music that most honestly examines real experience, rather than music that offers an escape from real life or just cherry picks the best parts.

In an article by NPR written in 2015, they mentioned that police were shutting down a lot of concerts due to safety reasons. Do you think this is a way for the government to control rock and roll youth? Has this been something you’ve had to deal with since coming here?

JZ: Yeah, but it’s too opaque to say what is about controlling the art, or outside cultural infection, or public gatherings, or sometimes just business, property schemes, the rent goes up, neighbors, I don’t know…

PZ: We haven’t really read any of the Western news about it, but from the inside it still feels like, despite a lot of venues shutting doors, the scene is still really vibrant and growing in every direction.

On your website, it says Alpine Decline is not only a band, but a lights/sounds art experiment. What is it exactly, if you can describe it, that is done with that?

JZ: We aim to make music that isn’t easy to contextualize at first blush —especially live — so we’ve always tried to use live visuals, photographs, iconography, album art, videos and the like to help people orient their heads.

PZ:  If you see us live, or pull one of our records out of the bin, or are crawling around after us online, we want the experience to resist categorization as long as possible, to let you approach the music with a little uncertainty and openness.

A big element of your music is recording on tape. Here in the States it’s a challenge to find studios and equipment for that. How do you manage to do that in China or is just way easier?

PZ:  We bought a reel-to-reel tape machine in Japan and shipped it the slow way to Beijing.  We also brought five or six different smaller tape echoes from the US, which in the past we’ve chained together in different ways to create some blurring and density.

JZ:  But we’re not crusaders for tape or analog or whatever.  We try to come up with a different way to approach the recording and sound design for each record, mostly just to keep things off-balance and more exciting.  For Life’s a Gasp we wanted everything performed live, instead of laboriously overdubbing, so after tracking the guitar and bass and drums together, we recorded all the other layers as one shot performances on a modular synth patch built up specifically for each track.

You guys have a very full sound. How do you create that being a two piece?

JZ:   We’ve used tape echoes, reel-to-reel drones on 1” tapes, and synthesizers and stuff, but Pauline and I kind of only get off on the unpredictability of playing loose and in the moment — our heroes are the nuts and bolts song and dance folks who just know how to get down on their instruments.

PZ:  On the new album Life’s a Gasp and on tour around China our producer Yang Haisong played bass, and we kept shuffling the deck and didn’t really practice things into stone, and that helped keep us in the moment.

Is there a plan to relocate in the near future? To another country or back home?

PZ: After a US and Canada tour this October with Carsick Cars and Chui Wan, two great Beijing bands on our label Maybe Mars, we plan to stay in the US for a little bit, take a little rest and prepare the next record, which we’ll make in Beijing next Spring.

JZ:  We are calling it “scheduled mental and physical recuperation.”