Taiwan’s Sunset Rollercoaster on Taking Inspirational Scooter Rides

Welcome back to our interview series, Incorrect Music, curated by guitarist, singer, and composer Lora-Faye Åshuvud (of the band Arthur Moon). In this series, we present intimate conversations with artists who are striving to push the boundaries of their process and craft. Join our weekly email newsletter to get more insights like this into how professional artists are making music, and how you can apply those lessons to your own music.

We were lucky to get singer and guitarist Tseng Kuo Hung (Kuo, for short) from Taipei’s beloved rising indie band Sunset Rollercoaster on the line for a quick interview before the band embarks on its highly anticipated US tour this fall. Sunset Rollercoaster’s music is like a tripped-out collage of retro American soul and smooth psychedelic rock. Live, they simmer with an understated cool that makes me feel like I’m in some kind of fantastic, synthy 1970s throwback hallucination. On record, there’s an additional layer of production, tinged with Kuo’s unique approach.

“I’m not that confident about my voice,” he says, so he spends “a lot of time producing  vocals.” He sings intentionally out of key, and then pitches the recordings down or up, mixing them back in with the lead vocal for added texture and support. It creates this ethereal, very unusual sound that colors Sunset Rollercoaster’s music with an added degree of originality. Out of Kuo’s creativity around his lack of vocal confidence comes this new, exciting sound.

Maybe he’s not the most traditional lead singer out there, but I think he ends up doing something way more interesting, something way more “incorrect.”

Sunset Rollercoaster’s latest album, Cassa Nova, is out now via their Bandcamp page. They’ll be touring the US in late September, and my band, Arthur Moon, will open for them at their first show at The Black Cat in Washington DC on September 20th

– Lora-Faye Åshuvud

Interview by Lora-Faye Åshuvud

You guys are working with such a diverse array of influences in your music. I read in your Bandcamp Daily interview that one of the foundational moments in the development of this project was an internet search adventure that led you to The Velvet Underground, who you found “lazy, skewed, but awesome!” Who else is an influence on your sound, and did any new influences emerge on the new record, Cassa Nova?

There’s tons of good music from all over the world on the internet. I love spending time digging new stuff through Youtube, Bandcamp, and sometimes Soulseek. They all have an impact on my personal music tastes, and will definitely continue to influence my aesthetic in making music.

I can’t say what new influences there are on Cassa Nova, but I can say it is more synth-heavy. We try to combine jazzy chords and ’80s disco/electro funk rhythms into indie pop songs, and sometimes the songs will come with a long psychedelic instrumental bridge.

What’s the best mistake you made while making Cassa Nova?

It took us a year and four months to finish the album. Because we didn’t really have a set timeline for our recording schedule, we just let the music to guide us. And after spending eight months in the studio, we totally got lost in the middle of nowhere, we were all really frustrated and confused.

We stopped the sessions for about one month, set up some shows and went back to touring. We started to mess around with our new songs in gigs, and the music became fresh to us again. After we came back to Taipei, we had more solid ideas and sentimental feelings about these new songs.

So, it is fair to say that because of the scheduling mistake, we all have more emotional connections to this album. It makes this album have a bit more depth — to us at least.

I love watching Sunset Rollercoaster’s live show — you have a really fantastic, playful energy, and such a wonderful balance of tight and loose to the group synergy. I hear a lot of that in the recordings on Cassa Nova. Was that something you achieved by mostly tracking everyone live together, or is your process generally more piecemeal, with overdubs and individual sessions?

In the process of making Cassa Nova, we recorded the band live, then we started to rip things out track by track. We chopped and messed around with the original arrangements, then we started to dub things back to the tracks, so the sessions are massive — some of them are over 100 tracks. It’s crazy.

Do you ever find yourself migrating towards songwriting (or recording) practices that introduce an element of chance, or of the unpredictable, into your process?

I always write one or two melodies to throw into the band’s jamming rehearsals. And I will use my phone to capture the whole session, so I can listen to it when I go home or especially when I am riding my scooter. I can let my imagination speed along with the demo, and sometimes the results are pretty amazing.

I’m really enjoying the creative vocal production on this record. You guys often choose to bring the lead vocal a little lower in the mix than a lot of traditional pop music, which has this cool effect of making your voice feel really textural, almost as if it’s another synth. How did you discover this approach?

I’m not that confident about my voice, so I spent a lot of time producing vocals, making it a bit dreamy, which is more acceptable to my ears.

I did a lot of double tracking and harmonies, then auto-tuned it. Sometimes I would record myself singing in another key, and then I tuned them down to some bigger intervals (like a 4th or 5th lower) to get a digital artifacts and then I’d mix it with the main vocal.

At Soundfly, we use the term “Incorrect Music” to describe the things an artist does that might go against people’s assumptions about what constitutes the “right” way to do something, but which yield exciting and unique results. Is there anything about your music might you consider to be “incorrect”?

In a cultural context, writing songs in English and singing/performing songs in English in Taiwan is super incorrect based on our industry standards, because Taiwan’s music market is 99% Chinese and Taiwanese oriented. What’s more, most mainstream Mando-pop songs are basically the same, from lyrics to arrangements, just slow love songs for a karaoke audience. Only this kind of music can maintain the profits driving the industry.

Sunset Rollercoaster is just an indie band. We don’t share the same burdens as other bands on mainstream record companies, but somehow, we started to get noticed by the companies because of our music and our sold out shows. Singing in English might be incorrect in a Mando music market, but because of the internet, if our music is good enough, then we can have a bigger potential market which goes beyond regions.

What’s next for Sunset Rollercoaster?

We are planning to do a mini cover album, which include Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese pop music from ’80s to ’90s. We’ll keep the melodies and lyrics, rearrange the chords and rhythms, try our best to mess around, see if we can make East Pacifica great again.

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