Gong Gong Gong has seemingly come out of nowhere. A few months ago the duo was nowhere to be seen and now their stripped down music fills every moment of silence. Through Gong Gong Gong, Tom Ng and Joshua Frank have cultivated a sound that is unplaceable within the traditional western musical landscape—it forces you to deconstruct your notion of ‘rock” and rebuild it using only your most guttural instinct. Unless you understand Cantonese your relationship to Gong Gong Gong’s music lies outside of rational thought—instead, it’s about the primal connection the phantom rhythm creates. Ahead of the band’s November/December tour with Public Practice and Flasher, I spent some time in the Beijing-based duo’s world.
I saw you guys at a very small and intimate show. You guys interacted with the audience by playing in between the crowd and getting up on chairs. When you both disappeared from the stage and continued to play off stage, I took a moment to listen to your sound without looking for either of you—did you do that on purpose so that the audience could interpret your sound without directly seeing you play?
Tom Ng: It’s boring to see bands playing on stage sometimes so I like to do something different when possible. There wasn’t any purpose really but it’s good that you reacted to the performance while we were also reacting to the space! To me Gong Gong Gong is more physical than musical if you know what I mean.
I remember clearly that at one point I played sitting down in the crowd at Outpost, my body was in a different state and my ears were working in a different way so I could finally hear how we sound like to the audience for the very first time. It felt weirdly good! The next thing was seeing our friends Lydia and Madison from The Wants who were sitting right in front of me but they weren’t sure if they should turn around. It was pretty funny. Haha
Joshua Frank: We like to interact with the space when we perform, so sometimes we do enjoy moving around and getting closer to people. Actually, I really like for the audience to see very clearly what we’re doing, to show how our two instruments become more than the sum of their parts. This is our concept of “phantom rhythm”: that between our guitar and bass, you actually can hear the percussive sound of a drumbeat and melodic overtones.
What makes you want to perform with no shoes on, Tom?
Tom: I was kind of worrying about our sound that night because the space was very echoey. So I gave myself some different sensations to draw my attention back into myself. I usually do that if something’s not right before the show. The floor of Outpost wasn’t as clean as I thought tho.
How would you say you make your shows feel as interactive / immersive when you’re performing at a big venue?
Joshua: When we’ve played bigger venues, it’s much harder to take up space, both physically and sonically. However, because we’re only two people, I think on a huge stage, we have an even more apparent “underdog” quality, which draws people in. Our setup is so minimal that when the audience realizes how wide a range of sounds we can make with such stripped down instrumentation, it can be compelling. We also enjoy performing and bringing out the physicality of the music, and I hope that our energy is sonically apparent no matter the size of the venue.
Tom: Yes usually the last thing we say before we go on stage would be reminding ourselves to release all our energy to the performance and it’s the most important thing. It could be very subtle but people always get influenced by it. The more they react, the better we react back. I also like to interact with the crowd a lot, mimicking their cheers, telling banter or even staring at them until they get uncomfortable. I’d like to remind them they are only seeing two real human beings playing guitars and nothing more.
Gong Gong Gong consists of racing guitar and bass sounds, are there other instruments that have inspired you to play yours the way you to? What are the instruments that you feel most connected to that aren’t yours?
Joshua: Great question. First of all, we try to play our instruments in unconventional ways, and sometimes that creates unexpected sounds that remind us of other things. For example, we realized our sound reminded us of cleavers on a chopping block. The song Siren 追逐劇 gets its English name from the fact that the harmonics of the bass sounded like a car siren to us.
We’ve been inspired to emulate the sound of traditional Chinese drums used for Cantonese Lion dances, as well as orchestral timpani drums.
Tom and I are both fans of the Monks, who were a band formed by American GIs living in Germany in the mid-1960s. They were really wild and percussive, in part because they used aggressively-played banjo as a central element to their rhythms. That’s a touchstone for us both.
I’m really interested in non-Western guitar music and the different scales and tonality that exist outside of American rock n’ roll. West African electric guitar and Southeast Asian instruments like electric phin and scalloped guitar are an inspiration to me, although I don’t have any training in those musical traditions (and actually don’t know how to play a single chord to begin with).
Tom: I always see myself as a drummer on guitar. And Cantonese (which the each character has an exact sound, or you would change the meaning if you alter the tone) is also a very important instrument to our music. In most cases the language determines the melody but not the other way around.
What are the cliff notes of the bands inception and journey so far?
Joshua: We’ve known each other for almost 10 years now, through playing music in Beijing. My band with my brother, Hot & Cold, used to play shows with Tom’s previous band, The Offset: Spectacles. We all really clicked, and started a label, Rose Mansion Analog, together with some friends. Tom’s been living in Beijing continuously for about 10 years, whereas I’ve been back and forth between New York and Beijing. The two of us had begun working on music together around 2013, before I lived full-time in China, but things took off more in 2015 after I had settled back in Beijing. Lately we’re both kind of between the States and China, but in spirit we still feel quite connected to Beijing.
Tom: I heard Virgos and Scorpios are very good at working together creatively.
Are there any films that you feel are aesthetically parallel to your sound?
Tom: Not that I can think of, but I do have a lot of imaginary scenes in my head for each songs: water dropping onto the surface of a lake and rippling across reflections, a car speeding into the dark, chopping vegetable on a cutting board while riding on a horse galloping across the desert, and some XXX scenes too.
What language did you choose to write your lyrics in? Why?
Tom: Cantonese is the obvious choice as it’s my native language and I am not confident writing in Mandarin Chinese or English anyway. I believe I’m using the language in a way that no one has done before so that’s quite challenging too.
But it’d be fun if Josh come up with some lyrics in Mandarin Chinese, haha.
I felt a lot of emotions with the song “Siren 追逐劇”, yet don’t understand any of the lyrics. Can you describe how you feel you connect to the audience with the melodies?
Joshua: We try to create an atmosphere, whether it be through melody, rhythm, or repetition. While preparing for our last tour, our friend’s 8 year-old daughter sat in on one of our rehearsal sessions—within a matter of seconds, she could grasp where the song was going and how to join in on her own instrument. It was amazing to us that she could so quickly relate to what we were doing, and was a reminder that even though our setup and approach might seem unusual, we do make music that can be engaging and relatable to all open-minded listeners.
Tom: The lyrics of Siren are quite different from our other songs. It’s a storyteller describing this unfortunate horse being hunted without any reason. So I kind of need to sing from the perspective of the horse, the hunter in a car, and as the narration. Therefore I kind of have to alter my character between lines.
But personally I tend to avoid playing the song because I cut my finger open a couple of time playing it and that almost stopped us from going on tour, also the string tends to break when I play this one so I always want to finish playing it ASAP. However this nervousness and anxiety does contribute to the emotions of the performance so it’s always a weird song to play.
Gong Gong Gong are going on tour with Flasher and Public Practice at the end of November. Following the tour they’ll play with Bush Tetras at the Kitchen on December 15th. They also have a new flexi split with Flasher and Public Practice out on Wharf Cat Records which you can order here. Their 7″ comes out on November 9th on Wharf Cat Records and you can preorder that here.
11/30 – WASHINGTON, D.C. @ THE BLACK CAT
12/3 – CLEVELAND @ BEACHLAND TAVERN
12/4 – CHICAGO @ THE HIDEOUT
12/5 – COLUMBUS @ ACE OF CUPS
12/7 – BROOKLYN @ SAINT VITUS