Confucious say: "when one journey ends another begins". Not sure if he did...but someone said something like that sometime. I had only just finished stamping the new Celtic Heart album when I received a Facebook message from Ej the engineer and co-producer of Firesonsgs for the soul EP about a trip to China:
“Morning, will you by any chance be interested to perform at a music festival in Chongqing, China? Me and my project band will be going there for the second year. It's nothing fancy but from my experience it was fun. The catch is that there could not be any payment for the shows because it is part of a university's welcoming festival. You are however will be fully taken care of (flights, other transports, food, hotel, translators, small trip). And you are free to bring along band members and crews whom they will cover for as well. Festival is between 24-30th October. Let me know if you are interested mate “
So I went through a process questioning if it was real or not. But EJ is a man to be trusted, so I took it on face value and accepted. Who couldn't trust this face?
I had been playing with a harmony based trio that included Mark Heazlett (co-producer of Celtic Heart) and Mat Akehurst (drummer on A Horse called Freedom). Initially they said yes. however for different reasons eventually both guys opted out. I knew I had to get to China. Even thought about going solo with the 12 string. I love playing with other musicians, and if the intention was right I believed I would get a good crew for the project. Time was running out. There was hesitation from various people I ‘felt’ out. I then invited my old originals band from Sydney - Spinifex. We used to play around Sydney in the 90's.
We were only a small indie band but I had this kind of "Spinal tap" moment where I thought it would be good to invite the whole band to do a reunion tour in China and film it. The bass player declined but Jay Kong (violin and guitar) and Carl Hemmings(drums) said yes. A week later Carl also pulled out on personal reasons. He also has anxiety around flying. I then asked Dave Atkins (sometime drummer from Wolf Mother, and key figure of the Resin Dogs) who was giving a lecture at SAE where I teach. He said in a text: F%^$# yeah and told me he knew of this dope bass player Ben who may be up for it if we needed a bass player. Based on one phone call I booked him in. It seemed trust was going to be a key component for this adventure.
I did one quick rehearsal with Dave and we had a plan to use some loops with organic drums, however again something came up for Dave and he pulled out. When Dave pulled out I called Carl again and this time he seemed ready and took the plunge. He only got his visa approved the Friday before leaving. We left Sunday. Paul Pilsneniks who co-produced the Horse album was in from the get go, originally for audio crew support but then included to play keys, backing vocals, and percussion. It was to be his first ever band gig. I also had the hidden agenda he would record the band at a later date. Here Paul introduces himself:
I also went through a process of what 'set' to tour and decided that the Horse Called Freedom was the best vibe for the trip and based on Carl’s ‘John Bonhamesque’ (Led Zeppelin) take on drums I focused more on the rock element (featuring the tracks A Horse Called Freedom, Back At the Start, Burnished Gold, Good Feelings). I did some research and found out that Hotel California was a big deal in China and also Blowers Daughter (Damien Rice) was quite popular. I learned ‘Hotel’ as one of the first songs ever on guitar and I loved Blowers daughter so they got included. Because Jay and Carl were coming I wanted them to connect to the set, so I included one of the first songs he, Carl and myself wrote called On My Mind. It was a long song and never really got completed until this tour. Also Snake was in the set which features Jays violin prowess. See old recording excerpt of Jay tearing it up on violin:
Finally I wanted to present one of my favourite rock tracks I have written but never recorded properly called “Give Your Love To Me’. I had a hidden agenda to record the band either in China or back home.
Right until we left, I was dealing with one line emails from my contact in China ‘Robert’. The biggest email of the itinerary which includes a 'lecture' I was to do is below. The details of said 'lecture' are outlined in another 'chapter' but lets just say it was more than a "lecture' - it was in a huge auditorium seating 500 Chinese students complete with coloured balloons written in my name. This became the theme for the trip. What you expect may not arrive but won't you don't expect will arrive in spades. Email example here:
I was also getting random emails from other Chinese people, ‘Mark’ who said he works for Mr Lin. They spoke of this lecture I would do. But no real details whatsoever. For example suddenly the concept of B-boxing just appeared in an email:
The final hurdle happened for me just 3 days before flying out. I face planted on a new skateboard I had just bought and I was in Tweed hospital emergency getting treated. Given the water issues in China, I am thankful no infection happened but it remains a blemish on all photos and footage form the trip :-)
Remarkably we all got our visa’s, and there we were at Ghuong Zhou airport in the humidity and throng, meeting as a group for the first time. Bonding began whilst waiting in the queue at immigration and on the plane to Chongqing (Deepening through music, good times, laughter and a few hotpots).
When we landed the big question was : would my contact Junia be at the airport to get us to Heshuan (1 hour out from Chongqing airport). We had genuine trepidation based on the communications trail.
Our thoughts were answered as we came around the gate to collect luggage. A smile that would guide and support us throughout the whole of the Chongqing trip. Junia was here.
Bags loaded, dark night, on the road. No idea where we were really, nor where we were going. Finally end up at the hotel which was pretty amazing to retreat to. Huge separate rooms (that would end up being a saving grace for us to have our own ‘retreats’). Drinks overlooking the streets of Heshuan and marvelling at the artistic nature of the printed language - Hanzi. We had arrived. (Stay tuned for Part 2 ).