Talking with Matthew Johnson of Imperial China

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Forming in late 2007, Imperial China’s assertive art rock sound has been a mainstay on the newly developing DC music scene. The trio spent much of 2011 hibernating while recording their sophomore release How We Connect, which is out the 28th on Sockets Records. How We Connect leaves behind the post-hardcore aggressivity heard on their debut Phosophenes while still producing an energetic charge from drummer Patrick Gough as the trio delves more heavily into Matthew Johnson’s intricate guitar work and singer/bassist’s Brian Porter’s innovative use of samples and loops. I recently chatted with Johnson about How We Connect’s recording process, playing Double Dagger’s last DC show and the spark needed to ignite the DC music scene.

IMPERIAL CHINA – “Limbs” from Sean Peoples on Vimeo.

Imperial China’s first full-length Phosphenes was released in 2010 on Sockets Records, which is also putting out How We Connect at the end of January. How did the relationship with Sockets and Sean Peoples start?

Matthew Johnson: We were looking for someone to put out the first full record and we got to know Sean through mutual friends and he loved the album and it fit. I’ve grown up in this area and always loved Dischord, but they don’t put anything out anymore. Sockets came along though and it is a new thing that combines and puts out what is going on right now. The recent listening party Sockets organized for our and Buildings’ upcoming records is a great example of that community. It was a great event of press, artists and musicians getting together. It is rare in DC. As soon as something becomes accessible to people a majority of artists tend to shy away and find something new, but Sockets has done a really good job of keeping it together. Sean has such a positive attitude and puts out so many records. It’s awesome.

Compared to Phosphenes, was How We Connect a harder or easier record to make?

The goal going into this record was to make an album. Phosphenes was much more of a collection of songs over a long period of time. We really sat down on this and created a common theme that is seen throughout the whole album and in the songs. This album was much harder. We went in and spend seven or eight months working on it. It was important for us to create it in one period of time because you can change over time what you are into musically and that reflects in the songs you create. We just tried to write this out.

Seems much more like a classic approach to recording, which you always don’t see that often today.

I agree. It was a way for us to take the band to a new level because we aren’t a touring band. We all have day jobs that don’t allow us to take a month off because we’d be fired. So we sat down and thought what was the next step for us and it seemed liked putting out a better album that was one set piece of work was the answer. We’re very happy with it and for me it is a crowning achievement.

A lot of Imperial China songs employ the use of sampling and loops. Did you guys always envision the band having an electronic element mixed with a post-rock sound?

Brian is more spearheaded with a lot of the ideas. He just hits the ground running with things like buying a sampler and finding sounds. I sample some guitar stuff with my pedal, but he is the one putting the sampling together and has his huge table full of devices. At the beginning it was just guitar but we decided we wanted a three-piece, which is how Patrick got involved. We also wanted a way to create a larger sound without the need for extra members and sampling/looping was a great way to do that. Originally the sound was probably more post-rock than electronic but it has evolved over time with the writing.

Imperial China’s innovative mixture of aggressive drumming and electronics reminds me of former semi-local band, Baltimore’s Double Dagger, who you guys opened for at their last DC show. What was that like?

They are probably still my favorite band ever. There was nothing better then being able to play their last DC show. I don’t know…there are not many bands with that much power and after the show I told Nolen (Strals, lead singer of Double Dagger) “I don’t know if I can get into another band like this because it just reminded me why I got into punk and loud and powerful music.” So raw and powerful and no bullshit. I just don’t know if I have it in me to get into another band like that. They are so powerful. It just reminds me of being young. It meant a lot for them to call us up and ask us to play their last DC show. It was bittersweet.

Just as Double Dagger is known for their live shows, Imperial China has also built a reputation around DC for putting on captivating shows. How has your performance style developed and changed since starting?

I actually don’t like playing live all the time. I don’t always like being up there. When we first started playing we were much more reserved. I remember coming to this point where I realized that this powerful music we’re playing needs to have a live show that reflects it. At least for me I had to have more of a parallel between the music and the performance. I always think it’s strange when you see a band and their not emoting. I always much rather see a band that kills it like they are kids playing in their first punk band than a band playing super intricate notes and just standing there. That can be great but I would almost just rather listen to that at home or go to the symphony. I think our live performance just developed over time as we got more comfortable it became easier to let loose more on stage. It’s like being in a relationship, we didn’t know each other that well at first and as we started to pick up cues from one another we knew we could go off somewhere for a while [when playing] and have each other as a base to come back to.

Is the creative process in practice also a very collaborative one?

Definitely. Coming into the band I don’t think anyone wanted to be in a “singer/songwriter band” where one person came in with the ideas and explains it to everyone else. Patrick is an amazing arranger, as many drummers are and not given credit for and he’s very good at picking and choosing where things go and with the big picture. It is very collaborative. Someone might come in with an idea regarding a guitar or sample and from that we expand and build from it. It is a pretty open process. It’s good for keeping the tensions down and for fighting too as everyone gets very attached to their idea. It is like being in a relationship with two other guys. How we work together is somewhat where the name for the new album How We Connect came from.

Critics often compare Imperial China to stalwarts of the DC Dischord sound. What are your thoughts on these continual comparisons?

We never sat down and said we want to sound like Fugazi, Minor Threat, etc. I was largely influenced by the Dischord sound; Fugazi will always be in my top five influential bands because it just changed the way I thought about music. Maybe if I was to start my own band it would just sound like that but luckily Brian and Patrick come in with other influences and we keep each other original and grounded. Everyone needs a basis for understanding new art in any type of field, I don’t think people should shy away from using comparisons. I find the overlying descriptions of “post-post-post” to be more annoying because it doesn’t really mean anything. Comparisons don’t bother me and I don’t think we were even really aware of the similarities between us and past Dischord bands until we started reading about ourselves and saw them being made. I mean, it is there. We are from the area. I think we are getting better now. There are a couple songs on this record where it just sounds like us. If you asked me when we first started playing what Imperial China sounds like I wouldn’t have an answer but this is the first record where it feels like we are playing our music.

So what does Imperial China sound like?

I think that our single “Limbs” is the realization of the vision I had when we first started the band. It took five years but we’ve finally got to a point where we started playing our own songs. I think it happens with a lot of bands, like Spoon for example, where you just start writing and it’s you. I feel like I just keep rounding this back to the album title, How We Connect. It’s about writing songs together.

You guys recently recorded a video at the now shuttered Gold Leaf (a local performance/studio space for visual and performing artists) for “Limbs”. What made you guys delve into the visual side of things?

We have a very talented friend, Nathan Golon who is a filmmaker and we’ve never shot a video so we thought why not create one for the single? Now that Gold Leaf is getting metaphorically bulldozed it was nice to shoot there and we were able to reach out to some really talented friends and create the video.

That is one of the benefits to having an artistic community to fall back on. The continuous support of one another’s projects.

It’s true, I think there is some of that in DC although I definitely feel like artist in DC have to work harder.

That reminds me of a recent Slate article that has received a lot of backlash in DC. It discussed the difficulties of being an artist in DC compared to NYC or Philadelphia, mostly because of DC’s high living cost. How do you find being an artist in DC? We have had so many great spaces, but then they seem to close. Have you found things getting harder or easier since forming back in 2007?

I didn’t see that particular article, but a version of that has been written many times. In a way, we have been isolated from a lot of the standard difficulties bands come against here in terms of practice space because for a long time we had an amazing row house with an absentee landlord and great neighbors so we just practiced there. That property ended up getting sold, so our drummer Patrick got a place out in Virginia where we now practice. So we’ve always been our own little pod and never really relied on others for space.

But with things like Gold Leaf of the O Street Studios closing, it just shows that as the circle of gentrification keeps going out it is going to become harder for artists to find space. There are so many places to play in Baltimore, which is why you are seeing so many more bands coming out of there right now. They’ve got exposure because there are cheaper places to play. It all comes down to how much money there is to get a practice space and then having space to perform. It is hard to go out on tour and support yourself. For a while there wasn’t a lot of new bands coming out of DC. Ever since The Dismemberment Plan fell off, which was the “last big DC band” there was kind of a vacuum. Now though there is Hume, which is amazing, and Deleted Scenes who are also amazing, and Buildings. Hopefully they don’t leave. It can be hard to stay a band in DC, people become battered and bruised and head to California. But people are also starting to push back since Dischord left and set up a new community. I don’t know. DC is a weird and interesting little place.

What are your thoughts about what is happening in DC music at the moment?

DC is not New York City or LA. But we have to stop looking at the past and at Dischord and we need to get young people up here and taking over. It does take effort. We just need a rich benefactor here…tap into Romney’s money. To do it here, you really need to want to do it seems. In New York City it’s easier. Yes there is more competition but there are also a lot more venues. If you want to play a show on a weekday night at a bar or house you can. There is a huge scene. In DC you really got to push it. I’ve been down on DC in the past, but recently less so, maybe it’s maturity. I feel like there is a ton of potential but that’s just it, potential. Imperial China isn’t going to do it because we can’t go and hit the road, but Hume is an amazing band/collection of artists. They go out and tour and really are bringing attention to DC. I think that is really cool. Brit (Powell, lead singer of Hume) is an amazing go-getter, if he wants to start a quartet he’ll do it, if he wants two drummers in his band he’ll have them. I hope they blow up.

To go back to Double Dagger, what they said said at their last show was “if you love our band, go and create your own.” That is what it is all about. Even if Deleted Scenes don’t explode like I think they should, they are still showing other people and kids what music is about. We need bands like that; showing what being artists are about. With music programs being underfunded or washed out now I don’t know. I remember being a kid, thirteen or fourteen and the hard work it took to find punk and hardcore. You have to really pay attention and want to go to those shows. You had to rely on others because you didn’t have the Internet. It was like your own little Chinese walled off Internet. But you wanted to. Double Dagger was a band that reminded me of being young because they just tapped into it and killed it. I’ve been to shows at Baltimore’s Floristry and there were kids there who had to go to their parents and specifically convince them to take them out to the middle of Baltimore to go see this band that they love. Youth is one thing I feel that is missing in DC, I wish there were more kids at DC shows. I should being doing more.

What do you think can be done to get more kids involved or more general attention to the DC scene?

Ian (MacKaye) was a political figure in a way. Not just because his songs had a political edge to them but more because when he spoke people listened. We need someone to come again and say this is going to be a community. DC does have a lot of solid positive people like Sean Peoples of Sockets, Pat Walsh of Positive Force, Hugh McElroy of Ruffian Records and Jason Mogavero of The State Department. You have to work at being positive. There’s a lot of tender around and I don’t know what the spark is going to be. Is it going to be a person or a band? Maybe people just haven’t completely latched onto a band yet. DC definitely does have a music scene with recognizable people and bands, but it feels like it could be more…although I don’t have my finger on the pulse that much anymore. This isn’t a call to arms but for DC to survive we need an identity for kids to get involved. It could happen simply with some kids forming an awesome band from Cardozo High School that just gets people excited and involved.

Imperial China plays Sockets Records Showcase with Buildings, Cigarette and Protect-U January 28th at The Black Cat.