Colin Phils

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May 7

Shenzhen-based indie-math-rock group Colin Phils talk to Josiah Ng about their new EP and upcoming gig in Hong Kong

It's not often you come across a band that plays both math rock and indie rock, that hails from America, was formed in Korea and is now based in Shenzhen. In fact, it's never, unless you're Colin Phils, that is. The quintet, which consists of frontman Ben Tiner on guitars and vocals, Karyn Harding on vocals and keys, Ben Mauch on drums, Jon Howland on bass and Greg Householter on guitar and vocals, was formed in Cheonan, South Korea, in 2013 where they built a solid following in the region. Itching to be where the music is, they made the move to Shenzhen in August 2015.

With their first album, Right at Home, already under their belt, the band is setting out to do another China tour in anticipation of their new EP, e,r,som,sa..., which promises a shift in their sound to something a lot harder. Though they're essentially an expat band that sings primarily in English, their music has been a hit across the region over the past couple of years and they arrive in Hong Kong this fortnight to play a rocking set at Focal Fair. We sit down with Ben Tiner to find out exactly what new sounds the maestros have in store for us.

So, how did you guys all end up in Korea?
I went to a small private school in San Diego called Point Loma, and one of the things I found out at the post-grad fair that you could do was to teach English in Korea. The fair was partnered with another Korean University called Korea Nazarene University, a private Christian school, and we were all in the same program. At one point, all of the members were working at the same school there. We all just went for random reasons and ended up meeting. You take classes together, it's a small group of foreigners; there were probably 100 to 200 foreigners altogether in the entire city. So if you play music it's very easy to join a band. We primarily we played at bars that just had a stage, underground pubs throughout South Korea. As an actual band we weren't taking it that seriously. We were just gigging around Korea getting free beers.

And how did you all end up in China later on?
We were all planning on leaving Korea at one point and we knew we had to go. The lifespan of an expat in Korea is about one to two years and I had been there for three, so I was way overdue. I think it was actually Karyn and Ben [Mauch] were planning on going to China; they mentioned Hong Kong and we even thought that Shenzhen might have a bit of a scene for us, because we knew that postrock and math rock bands are actually getting kind of popular in China, given the fact that White just went on a big China tour as well as Caspian. We see a lot of our favourite bands here, and that wasn't happening in Korea. So we made a decision to move here together to try to play music.

My next question is a bit more political. China is not exactly the freest speech country in the world, what's it like being not only expats but also musicians who write their own music in China?
We really haven't had any problem with anything like that, the only thing that'll occasionally happen is, because we play a lot of do-it-ourselves shows where the people that are coming are expats. Maybe three times out of four are those expat shows and then one in four, we'll go to play for an all-Chinese audience, which is called a monkey gig. So, monkey gig is when a company or organization or a specific private party invites your band to play, and this happens all the time in China, and you end up playing for this group of people, not your friends or anything, but it all just comes down to money. They hire you and a lot of people just say 'it's because you're white', so it's a white face kind of show where they just wanted a band that's gonna look good for this organization and they're gonna take pictures and say "look we had an international act!"

So do you end up playing a lot of covers at these shows, or do you get to play your own stuff?
We have been very strict; we've never played a cover song in China. Probably never will. We came here to play our music. One of the things when we first came here was whether we should fall into [playing covers], and then I was strict and said 'I don't think we should ever play covers again if we want to take our own stuff seriously,' and that was probably the best decision that we ever made. Because when you take your own music more seriously, other people take you more seriously as a band, and a big way to do that is not doing covers, and doing that sort of style. It's fine to play covers, but we're a band that plays original music and we're happy to share that music with people.

I did want to ask about the new album next. First off, the name e,er,som,sa... how did that come about?
It's sort of gibberish, but it's also like counting from three to four in three different languages. Some of it was from when I was living in Korea, and then Mandarin, and Cantonese. We just wanted to be a little bit goofy because [the album] certainly is. I didn't want to name our album 1234 straight up. That seemed kind of boring. It's also a tribute to where we've been. We live in Shenzhen, used to live in Korea, and we've been in Hong Kong. These are also the three places we're visiting as well. So that's why we named it that.

I wanna ask about the sound of the album. To my knowledge, it doesn't look like you've released a tracklist, but how does the sound differ from your first album? Or does it differ at all?
In my opinion it's very different. When we perform live it can be pretty heavy. When we started booking this tour, we sent everybody our last album, and they're going to expect this indie pop band, because we had a bunch of songs like Summer, that are just really happy and pop-esque. Then we get in there and our first song just slams really hard. We have three or four songs that are definitely way more intense than anything we've ever done before and we're actually kind of excited for that, because people don't know. They're like "Oh, we're gonna see this really chill band." And then we just rock out really hard. There's some parts where we have triple or four different guitars back tones. We recorded my guitar in stereo, so it has this really full sound. Like two different guitar/amps in two different rooms with these delay pedals that play to the amps differently for the stereo effects. So, from the last album, it's gonna be a lot heavier, it's still gonna have a lot of the same things though, the melody qualities and the vocal parts are still going to be signature. We're not a punk band or anything, but for this genre, we go as hard as we can. We wanted to express that also on the album.

Finally, this is obviously not your first time in Hong Kong, but what's your experience been in Hong Kong so far? And what are your hopes and expectations coming in this time?
We've really only played two shows in Hong Kong. In my opinion they were both awesome. Both of them were for people that weren't expecting to see us at all, so it was awesome. We've done our own promoting for small gigs that we'll throw, but this is actually one of the first show we're headlining with supporting acts. Our label has Phoon and Empty Bottles opening. I have a lot of respect for both those bands, I've seen Empty Bottles, they're amazing! We're honoured that they would want to come out and support us for our album release. We're hoping that a lot of people will come out, and we know that Sweaty and Cramped [label] throws pretty good shows; we've been to the last one and they filled up Hidden Agenda, there were about 300 people there. That's kind of the whole reason we wanted to associate ourselves with Sweaty and Cramped. We wanted a chance to play shows for people that are into this style of music and we knew that Empty Bottles was also kind of pushing that sort of style. So, we're really excited. Hong Kong is like one of my most anticipated shows for the tour for sure.

Colin Phils Sat May 7, Focal Fair, Causeway Bay, 7.30pm. Tickets: $150


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