Photo Credit: Forrest Sherman
The first time I went to see Paul Lai perform, the show’s organizer felt she had to brace me. Aristophanes, the Taiwanese rapper, was the headliner and the presumption of my willingness to spend NT$ 350 or whatever it was. When I said I was there for Paul’s set, I noticed a look of concern. The thing about Paul, I was informed, is that he doesn’t so much make music as push the limits of the sound a guitar can make. With the good news, I bought my ticket.
Paul did not disappoint. But to understand the scope of Paul’s artistry, the reader would be well-advised to dig into the back catalog of his long-running band, Upsilon Acrux. Prog, noise, math rock, polyrhythmic twin drumming, metal, free jazz, lightning-quick guitar work, constant change, super-detailed compositions are just a fraction of the description one could provide for the group. Elements of Captain Beefheart collide with the note-per-note intensity of Orthrelm and the epic scope of progressive greats of yore. However, the band is on hiatus as Paul – the founder and only permanent member – has moved from Los Angeles to Taipei with his young family.
Now under the moniker (Z)erpent, one can find Paul in Taipei performing solo guitar shows or sometimes with a single drummer. With a battery of pedals unleashing crushing din, he has traded in the intricately detailed compositions for improvised intensity and massive squall. It is an often stark and often interesting change.
I caught up with Paul after a recent performance with Tim DeWit on drums (Dutch E Germ, Gang Gang Dance) to discuss his new approach, his connection to Taiwan, guitars made of metal, and other delights. The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Upsilon Acrux’s work can be seen on their Soundcloud. Paul’s next performance as (Z)erpent is with Sonic Deadhorse at Revolver, June 12th 2018 @ 8:30 p.m.
Forrest Sherman: So about you and Taiwan…what brought you back here?
Paul Lai: I was born here. I was born in Taichung, but I left when I was 8 to go to California. Moved to L.A. I guess 15 years ago. Everybody who does crazy music I know from all over the country. What started as rock in opposition became DIY. It’s all the same thing, just bands helping each other, musicians helping each other. There’s someone in every city who plays weird music. We put each other up and support each other. The basic proposition is artists helping artists, cutting out the manager, the PR guy.. I was told that if you want to do weird music here you gotta talk to [Sonic] Deadhorse—he’s the guy. So that’s what I did. Now we’re playing together at Revolver.
FS: Let’s dig into your history a bit—you started the band Upsilon Acrux in the late 90s?
PL: Yeah, we put out our first record in 1998, so it’s been 20 years.. seven records, probably about 35 people in the band. Until the last two records, we never put out a record and toured as the band. During the process of making each record, we lost at least one person. The same rules apply to every person who comes in. You can’t say no to a part because it’s too hard. And you can never be too precious about a part you write. Whatever is best for a song—the song rules, not your emotions or your personal attachments. I promised them that everything after playing in this band will be easier. Nothing will be as challenging as playing in this band. We have done some weird shit, some stuff that’s pretty out there.
FS: Let’s talk about that—it’s something unique. You’re technically advanced. But in the scene you often find yourself playing in, few people are interested in being technically advanced. There’s almost a negative attitude towards it.
PL: Yeah of course. Well, we have played with bands that were very well schooled, and I thought to myself, fuck, if we have to play in a genre with this group I’m going to fucking kill myself. I have nothing against schooling, but rules were made to be broken. We are very technically proficient. Everyone in the band has to be technical. But none of the music is written down. Everything is by memory. I am self-taught. Yeah, I want to shred Eddie Van Halen, but I want to do it like Sonic Youth in the eighties, who were like a train going out of control. It might be a very technical, futuristic train from like 2050, where you are running on nylon or something, but I still want that train to crash.
We never play something that’s easy. The newest song is always the hardest song. It’s not always technical. It’s more than anything the arrangement. The way things are arranged is more interesting than the technicality. That whole punk ethos, that you’re only creative if you can’t [technically] do something, I think that’s total fucking bullshit.. You’re either creative or you’re not creative. If you’re creative and you paint an awesome painting in black and white and someone said they don’t want you to paint with colors because this is how they picture you.. I think that’s fucking bullshit. I think a person who painted that awesome painting in black and white could do it a hundred times better with 50 more colors. It’s just more tools.. So if Sonic Youth could shred like Eddie Van Halen, that’s where we’d be. There are never any guitar solos. It’s only about the melody, the rhythms, the sounds.
FS: Who are your biggest influences?
PL: My all time favorite dude is Coltrane. I also love Lou Reed. I love Iggy Pop, Sonic Youth. I love Eddie Van Halen. I love Allan Holdsworth…To me it’s all about contrast. I want it to encapsulate all that I experience. To me, the contrast is where it’s at. I like to be equally all those things because I feel that they reflect the actual life, the actual experience. When you see me play solo, there will be parts your girlfriend will enjoy – things that you’ll remember, and there will be parts where you’re like, can you just get this shit over with. And I don’t care, because I’m there to do that. That’s real life. I’m not going to sit there and just play the pretty stuff. I’m going to give you the whole picture. For some people, art is a lot of editing. The purest part they think is the best part. For me, art is war. I want it to be about life and death, beauty and ugliness, love and hatred too. I want it to be about the stagnant part, and movement too. I’m just the contrast. I’m not making bridges between these things. Pure black, pure light, all good, all bad.
FS: You mention Eddie Van Halen – that stuck out to me as an unique influence. Not a lot of hipsters (or me) would cite him. What about him would warrant listening with a new perspective?
PL: The way people perceive 80’s hard rock is that it’s party music and it’s insincere. It’s a fake lifestyle, which is actually the state we’re in now. The truth is that the Van Halen brothers are from Pasadena. California life is a thing. They go to parties. They do like to drink beer. This is who they are. I feel like that band is way more authentic than something like Black Flag. I look at Henry Rollins as someone I never want to have a conversation with. If you’re [Henry Rollins] the truth, then I’d like a different truth. These guys, Eddie and Dave, were all about the California lifestyle. That is also true. Dave just wants to get laid, to party, to tell you how he’s feeling. He wants to tell you doesn’t care about love—he just wants to bang around. But he is serious about that.
You can’t say that’s not authentic because he’s not saying hey, we’re gonna have a punk rock tv party tonight and we’re gonna watch this shit on tv. What’s authentic about watching tv? Being truthful to your life and your lifestyle is being honest. Henry Rollins is the father of punk, but he works out 8 hours a day. Why does he always have to have his shirt off? Is this real? Because I don’t think this is real, you know.
FS: You have a metal guitar [not metal as in the musical style]. It is made out of metal. Tell me about that.
PL: I love guitars. I like odd things. I decided early on I wasn’t going to be about Jimi Hendrix. I wasn’t going to play a Stratocaster…If I wanted to get lost, and have my own piece of land in this world, it’s hard to get lost on the freeway. So I had a friend build me a submarine on wheels [the aluminum guitar he now owns]. I already had a thousand guitars. I wrote down every radius, every fretboard width – everything that I thought was important.
Whenever I found a guitar that played well with me, I wrote numbers down and measured it out. I like aluminum. Wood, the sound goes in and resonates and come back out. It’s all about sustain—in general, playing, I don’t do a lot of sustain. I just need it to reflect the speed that I want to play at. I don’t need you to go inside and come out a changed man. I just want to see what’s in the mirror. It looks like glass, it looks like a mirror and it reflects like a mirror. I’ve owned every aluminum guitar ever made, from Tokai to Travis Beam to Kramer to Veleno.
You ever hear of Veleno? There was only 179 made of them in the 70’s. Veleno is the first all aluminum guitar ever made. It had a ruby on the headstock. And the only people who ever owned were famous people. It started with Grand Funk Railroad, and went as far as Kurt Cobain, who gave it to Courtney Hole [Love]. I bought that guitar for $2000. I sold it when I was playing shows for $100 and I had a $3000 guitar in my car. I really wish I kept it. Now it’s a $30,000 guitar.
FS: Now you are here performing solo, or generally one-offs with different drummers. What’s the big difference between moving from a long-running group [in L.A.] to doing solo work here?
PL: It’s pretty hard for me, because I’ve been playing organized music for a long time, and I always had a group of guys I could count on. [But] if you’re artistic, the whole idea is that you’ve got to break your mind free. Whatever your idea is, that’s what it’s got to be. You’ve got to live it, and you have to go 100% in. You can’t go 25% in or 50% in. Modesty has nothing to do with. This is my life, I’ve been doing it for 20 fucking years. There’s a bunch of things I could of done, a bunch of things my parents would probably tell you I could have been. But I’m not any of those things, and I’m not the worse for it. I have zero regrets. My bank account has a lot of regrets.
I’ve been free for a long time, so I’m here to help other people who want to get free really get all the way free. So you can be 100% of what you are. If you cannot gamble on your life, there’s no one else’s life you can gamble on. I’ve got a kid. I’ve got a wife. I’ve got no savings, but it’s cool. I’m liberated. I’m happy.
FS: It must be a massive change of scene coming from L.A. to Taipei.
PL: It is a massive change of scene. I’ve been thinking about Taiwan. I love Taiwan. I’m from here, but I don’t know shit about here. It’s a great place to live and a great place to raise a family. But its art suffers because it is a great place to live. As a group of people, [Taiwanese people] their core strength is modesty. Everything is reasonable. Because other people [in Taiwan] are of the same sound sense, that’s how they live their lives. It’s modesty. But modesty has nothing to do with art, to me. There are of course very different schools of thinking about this. But I’m here to crack the sky open. It’s not about if you’re doing great art or not. It’s about the degree of devotion, of conviction.
As Americans, we always think it’s our god-given right to tell you what you’re going to like. But Taiwan is in limbo politically. Half the world doesn’t even recognize Taiwan as a country. This is the reason I started playing music in Taiwan. I’m not just an American musician. I’m a fucking crazy American musician who plays crazy-ass music. But I was born in Taiwan, and I’m Taiwanese. We are alike…but our core values are so much different. I think the people here are way smarter than Americans. But if you want to do art, you need to think you are going to break the sky in half.