What The Sound recently spoke with China Gate's guitarist and singer, Tiger Adams. This Memphis-based band is absolutely one to keep an eye on. With vocals reminiscent of Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) and inspired by Girls and Elliott Smith, Adams writes his songs about past relationships. China Gate released their debut album, Hunca Munca, last March and have already began working on their next release. We'll keep you posted about their future work. It's going to be a doozy. Below, read our chat with Adams and check out their music.
What The Sound: When did you begin China Gate and how did you meet your bandmates?
Tiger: I started China Gate with my friend Jesse Wilcox as a recording project in the summer of 2013. We recorded 4 songs on GarageBand and made like 30 copies and gave them to our friends for free before we left for the University of Arkansas. I left Arkansas after the first semester, but Jesse stayed there. So when I came to the University of Memphis, I got Walt Phelan and Conner Booth to join. Walt has been my best friend since we were 14 and Conner since I was 15. Walt and I have been playing in bands since freshman year of high school and Conner and I since senior year. I met Kyle Neblett after we had finished the album. We met on campus through our mutual friend Parks. I knew Kyle played drums and tried to get him to join the band. We had rehearsed a couple times with Kyle, and he mentioned his brother Harry played music too. So Kyle brought Harry to my house one night and then the next morning we had our first rehearsal with him.
WTS: Can you introduce the band. Who is in it and what are their roles?
Yeah! Walt plays lead guitar and sings background vocals, Conner plays bass and sings background, Kyle plays drums, Harry plays keys, and I play rhythm guitar and sing. Kyle and I are 20, Walt is 21, and Harry and Conner are 22. We all go to University of Memphis except for Walt.
WTS: You’ve been establishing your name in Memphis, playing shows regularly? Sometimes opening for acts touring through like Diarrhea Planet. Have you opened for other acts of that size or bigger?
Diarrhea Planet is definitely the biggest band we have opened up for. We have played with them twice in the past 6 months. Very nice guys! I don’t really feel like we have established much of a name though. The crowd for most shows is still just our good friends.
WTS: Is the entire band from Memphis? What’s that town’s music scene like? Any overruling genre?
Yeah, the entire band is from Memphis. I would say if there were an overruling genre it would be punk/garage. I feel like a lot of it is due to this record store and label called Goner. We are pretty obviously not a punk band so we don’t get asked to play shows in that group, but I think all of those bands are cool. There are a handful of local bands that we play shows with that we feel pretty similar to like Loser Vision, Small, Melinda, and Ugly Girls. We owe a lot to the Hi-Tone since there isn’t much of a scene for a band like us in Memphis, and they always ask us to play great shows.
WTS: Any Memphis greats that you admire?
Yes definitely. Two of my favorite bands are Big Star and Magic Kids. Both are super under appreciated. Magic Kids were a band of people 7 or 8 years older than me, but I was really into their album when it came out my freshman year of high school. One of the guys from Magic Kids is in Wavves and one of them is in Ex-Cult, which is one of the biggest bands in Memphis now. I consider Loser Vision a Memphis great too.
WTS: Where did the name “China Gate” originate from? Why did you choose it?
It’s a Sun Ra reference. For those who aren’t familiar with Sun Ra, he is a jazz musician who claimed to be from space. I thought it would be funny for a band who plays relatively straightforward music to have a name that nods to someone as out there as Sun Ra. And I love his music.
WTS: What instruments can you play?
I can play guitar, bass, and drums.
WTS: How did you get connected with Pizza Tape Records, who are based in Nashville. When was this? Did they release Everything At Once or was that self-released?
Noah Miller, the founder of Pizza Tapes, is one of my best friends and was my roommate for 8 months. We got connected around the summer of 2014, which is when we were recording Hunca Munca. Noah and Sam, who also runs Pizza Tapes, are two very cool guys. “Everything At Once” isn’t necessarily a release in my opinion. We just put up four songs from our full length Hunca Munca on Bandcamp because we didn’t feel like putting the whole album up and called it “Everything At Once”. But Pizza Tapes did release Hunca Munca on CD and cassette!
WTS: Why do you make your music? What prompted you to start writing and continue with it. Has your motive changed since the beginning of China Gate to now? Or do you continue making it for the same reason? Which is?
I have actually been struggling with this question lately. I don’t want to say I only write when I’m sad or I only write when I’m happy. I can’t imagine it working that way for anyone. It just feels like a necessity for me to write, so I really write in every kind of mood. Whenever I write something that feels personal to me I remember that nothing else matters. I wish I could remind myself of that more often [laughs]. There’s also this sense of comfort the songs I write are just kind of floating around with me wherever I go. That sounds dumb but it’s true for me. I definitely think I tend to write happier songs when I’m sad. I can let things get me down pretty easily, and I can be stubborn and stay in a bad mood for a while. My songs that seem happier are written when I feel pretty down and just write a song without thinking whether I want to write a happy or sad song.
I get frustrated thinking about my motives for writing too, but recently I think I’ve gotten over it. I feel like the only thing that should matter is writing songs in my room, but I find myself caring whether the song I’m working on is good or not. I think I have come to terms with wanting to make a connection or an impact on people with my music, and it is hard to make songs that are good enough to accomplish that if they aren’t worried and stressed over. I have a group of like 4 friends outside of the band that get probably 2 or 3 shitty voice memos song ideas a week from me. But I am somewhat of an introverted extrovert; I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious. That’s just a term that makes sense to me [laughs]. I get stressed out meeting new people, but it is pretty easy for me to open up to someone. Whenever I talk to someone, I get too in my head and end up apologizing or attempting to take back everything that I said. Music is comforting to me because I can work on it for long enough to the point where I don’t have to apologize for myself. It really is hard to describe why I write music though. Since releasing Hunca Munca I have definitely decided music is what I want to do with my life, so the song writing for this second album I’m working on feels a lot more dedicated and committed.
WTS: The very first time I heard China Gate, I thought of The Districts. Then, I thought Conor Oberst. That clicked more, to us, your work matches more with Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band, a little bit more rock oriented. Have you gotten these comparisons before? Do you like Oberst’s work? Do you know it?
Yes! You are the fourth person to say that to us. Even my British Literature professor made a Conor Oberst reference recently. I really am not familiar with any of his stuff though! Our Conner (Booth, not Oberst) is or was a fan of Bright Eyes I think. I’m not sure. I am definitely not against the comparisons though. Someone should make some recommendations of his stuff for me. That’s funny you say the Districts reference! I heard them for the first time yesterday. My friend is moving in with me in about a month and brought his record collection over and he has the Districts album. I thought it was pretty cool!
WTS: Are there any influences of yours that the general listener may not be able to pick up on?
I’m not sure! I definitely get influenced by bands, but I try to not get influenced by a band because of their sound. I love all of Big Star’s albums, but I feel very influenced by “Number 1 Record’s” song writing and perfection in the studio. I feel very influenced by the way Pavement makes me feel, but people will probably never make a Pavement comparison with us. We are too uncool and will never be that good. Some lyricists I think are cool are Dan Bejar of Destroyer and Stuart Murdoch. Dan Bejar feels a little too theatrical or like a character to really be influential on China Gate, but I think what he does with lyrics is extremely inspirational.
WTS: What inspires you to make the music that you are making?
I do not really live in the moment. I write about situations or short periods of my life when I felt a certain way, but I usually have to give it some time and make some sense of a situation before I write about it. Even though there aren’t really any songs that are only about one person, I can definitely connect every China Gate song to specific girls. I hope that doesn’t make me sound like a lady killer, I can genuinely count every girl I’ve ever kissed on one hand haha…
WTS: How do you go about your songwriting? Is it a band-wide effort? It sounds like you write the music and the lyrics?
I write all of the chord progressions, melodies, and lyrics by myself. I think the rest of the band is more than capable of helping with that process, but I just don’t work well doing that part with others. I come up with a lot of embarrassing stuff before I get to anything I think is presentable. I send everyone in the band voice memos of me humming stuff or lyrics I’ve written for their input. I actually have been getting help from Harry on certain melodies for new songs, but I didn’t know either of the Nebletts when I was writing Hunca Munca. I think when it comes to instrumentation everyone does a good job of coming up with their own parts. For our first album Hunca Munca, the keyboard parts were very minimal and I had to overdub all the drums since Harry and Kyle weren’t in the band yet. Hopefully for this second album, those two parts of our sound will feel more animate.
WTS: What does "Hunca Munca" mean and why did you choose that to be the title of your album?
Hunca Munca is a mouse from a children's book. I can't remember which book or story, but it was kind of this inside thing between me and my girlfriend at the time. It was on a picture frame at her parent's house and it was a fun thing to say out loud.
WTS: How did you learn to song write? Did it come naturally to you? Any musicians who have really influenced the way you write your music?
I think the first real songs I started to write were when I was 14. I got more into song writing than my other friends who were my age because I never took any music lessons. When we would get together and try to jam I couldn’t contribute because I’m a shitty lead guitar player [laughs]. The only thing I could do was spend a lot of time alone and try and come up with songs so my friends would consider me a musician too. But I found myself enjoying writing songs more than playing a guitar solo or something. I definitely don’t have the confidence to play lead guitar. Walt and I used to write these really minimal noisy songs that would drag on for a long time in our high school band. I remember listening to the third Velvet Underground album my junior year and feeling very inspired to change up the way I was writing songs. But the description I just gave of me and Walt’s high school band sounds a lot like Velvet Underground now that I think about it. Our high school band was kind of “Primus-y” and obnoxious because we thought it was funny. Around the same time as that change Maddie from Loser Vision burned me “Album” by Girls and Conner burned me all of Elliott Smith’s discography. I’m not sure if I’m necessarily influenced by those last two, but I am extremely inspired by them.
WTS: Word on the street is that you once slapped a bag with Mac Demarco. How did that happen?
Uh yeah this is embarrassing because it sounds like I was partying and having a crazy time but I was so nervous because I was at Dent May’s house and I am Dent May’s biggest fan. I decided to stand in the kitchen and someone passed around a bag of wine and I took a sip because I didn’t want to seem like a square and the next guy in line was Mac. It was really not crazy, I was so out of place there. Me, Walt, and our friend Ethan Johnston were already on our way back to Memphis from Oxford after the show and Noah, Pizza Tapes guy, called and said he was at Dent May’s house. I didn’t say anything to Mac or Dent May. I spent most of the night studying Dent May’s record collection and trying to look through the crack in his door where I saw some recording equipment. Pierce the bass player came and pissed in the bathtub while Walt and I were in the bathroom. I sound very creepy I’m sorry.
WTS: What can we expect from you and your band in the future? New music?
Yes we are working very hard on new music! The process takes a long time for us, because I like to break the process into steps. I like to have all of the writing for the whole album completely finished before it leaves my bedroom so it feels like a complete and coherent thing to me. I think the plan is to record this next album in Nashville. I wish I had some to show you, I pretty much have the whole album broken up into different voice memos on my phone.