Interview with Shanghai-based synth-driven new wave band GUJI

The self-titled debut EP from GUJI showcases a catchy, somewhat lo-fi synth-driven sound that merges new wave influences with a Chinese perspective. The group consists of Chinese nationals: Klaire (synths), Alex (bass), Stacy (drum machine), and American Chachy (guitarist and singer for Shanghai punk band Round Eye.) It was born out of Shanghai’s extreme COVID-19 lockdown, when Klaire and Chachy began filling their time playing music together. Initially covering songs that had double lead harmonies, they began writing their own material and turned it into a band.  The EP came out in August 2023 on Godless America Records, digitally and on cassette.

Over a Zoom interview, Klaire and Alex talked about GUJI.

Could you talk a little bit about your musical backgrounds prior to this project?

Alex: I’m playing bass and sometimes keyboards and drum machine. I used to play guitar. I had a band, a cover band, mostly covering metal music and punk. But that only went for a month or two. Then people went to other countries. So we stopped, and after maybe two years I joined GUJI.

Klaire: So I never had any band before. I was growing up playing a Chinese traditional instrument called Erhu. Which means Chinese violin. For over 10 years. And I grew up being in the local choir. That’s all my music background, and I’m a music lover. In GUJI, I’m main vocal and keyboard.

How did GUJI come together?

Klaire: So at the very beginning it was me and Chachy just harmonizing at home. Really doing songs of the Beach Boys or Everly Brothers and just any two-person harmonizing songs. Because our voices match pretty well together and it was during the lockdown of course. We just did that at home for fun. We had a synthesizer, a Korg one, at home. So we would play the songs along with it. And then one day, all of a sudden, we just got the idea to make new songs, our own songs, and form the band. Actually, at that time we didn’t even want to form the band. We were just writing the songs for fun. And then when we had enough songs, we started to think maybe we could have a band for fun as well.

At what point did you realize the music was developing into something you wanted to form a band around?

Klaire: At the very beginning we were trying in the practice room, just me and Chachy, and then we invited some friends to come along. We needed one person to play the keyboard, one for the guitar, and then also one for the drum machine. At least at the beginning, GUJI didn’t have a bass player at all. It was just a keyboard, a guitar, and a drum machine. So usually we’ll invite a friend to play the drum machine with us. Chachy would do the guitar. I would do the keyboard, just to see how the song sounds when it’s like live played. It was kind of like experimenting. We’re just killing time and just having some music moments when we are free.

Alex: It was totally just like very, very random and casual.

Did the decision to form a band affect how the music developed going forward?

Klaire: Almost all the songs are mainly written by Chachy. But I will be next to him giving him some Chinese perspective. And during our practice, Alex and Stacy will also give some opinions about what maybe some Chinese ear would like. So we kind of do it together, but Chachy is the main songwriter, and we’ll also give out ideas about what the songs will be about. We always wanted the idea to be about some random, weird, but sad and tragic stories, but then we don’t want it to sound too unhappy. And the music we make, always melody which will sound kind of happy and bouncy. To kind of balance the bad feelings.

Was it obvious that you wanted to release an EP as opposed to perhaps, you know, doing a full album?

Klaire: We just don’t have enough songs. Like Chachy, he already has a band and he has like two jobs and he’s studying. And I’m also, everybody’s like super busy in this band. Stacy, who is our drum player, she probably has like ten bands! So everybody’s super busy. We are squeezing our time to do the songs, so it’s going pretty slow, but it’s going.

Do you think that impacts how the music turns out? Do you think it would be different if you were working on it non-stop?

Klaire: It’s not a very good feeling to live in China. So those bad feelings are just everywhere, every time, all the time. And when it builds up, that’s when the lyrics can come out. Sometimes we’ll just focus on one, on finishing a song for a really long time and like for one month, two months, but nothing comes out. We’ll talk about how the song should go during the practice, but then nothing comes out. But maybe after a while one of us had a really bad day and then the song will be done.

Do you consider who your audience is? For example, the fact that listeners in the US are hearing it?

Klaire: I actually wasn’t thinking because I think in Shanghai we are kind of unique. I have never been to America. But according to what I hear from my friends, it seems like cool bands everywhere, like all over America. So I don’t think we can really stand out that well in America. I just hope that we can get some people who like synthesizer style and eighties New Wave style who will have a little bit of interest in the music. Like, this is made in China during the lockdown. I don’t expect the group to be huge or we can become really big. I just hope we can get some people that can appreciate it. Then I’ll be really happy about that.

Given the origins of the band, how has it been bringing it to the live setting?

Klaire: I think as a new band, and as some of the members have never been in a band, it’s going pretty well. The audience is giving really good feedback. We are getting more and more comfortable on the stage. And some sounds that we think that cannot be achieved on the stage, we are trying to make it happen. And we are also figuring out what it looks like on the stage.

Are there any particular ways that you feel your sound has developed as a live band – compared to what we hear on the recording?

Klaire: The songs sound definitely different live. We’ll make it sound more experimental when it’s live, like weirder. And more instrumental parts.

Do you feel becoming more of a band and performing live has affected how you make music?

Klaire: Our songs, when recorded, sound very thick because we will first record a very basic version with our phone. And then on top of that, we’ll put more layers to make any part that we want sound more or we just record another instrument and put it on top of that. But, when we do it live, we can’t really make all that happen at once. So, every time we’re thinking about how should we make the band sound bigger, sound as good as the recording. And also we are trying to get Alex to sing with us, as well. So three persons harmonizing.

And also we, on the stage, we’ll also look at the pictures afterward and think maybe in the next show what we can look like. Maybe we can look different or can we keep this style? Can we keep that wig? Can we keep that make-up or make it different? And like it’s like musically and visually, we’re just trying to improve.

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