INTERVIEW Hsunami Merge the Old with the New
Who Else Could Rock the Erhu?
At the CSC Chinese New Year banquet, the closing performance featured Hsu-Nami, a group named after founder Jack Hsu. The band labels itself as part of the “progressive Asian soundscape.” An instrumental rock band, they feature a traditional Chinese instrument called the erhu. The erhu is sometimes called “southern fiddle” and its sound can be compared to that of the Western violin. The usage of an amplified erhu lends a touch of classic Chinese folk to the predominantly rock songs.
Initially I had been slightly skeptical because I am one who sometimes listens to songs purely for their lyrics. However, the erhu was surprisingly effective as a replacement for vocals and possessed a versatility that even, dare I say, surpasses that of vocals. Perhaps it is for this reason that their song “Rising of the Sun” was chosen as the entrance theme for the Chinese basketball team during the 2008 Summer Olympics.
I had the opportunity to catch the band after their act and interviewed both Jack Hsu (erhu/violin/synth) and Brent Bergholm (guitar). The whole band consists of the erhu, two guitars, bass, and drums. During the live performance, there was also a female keyboardist.
(TT = The Tech and HN = Hsu-Nami)
TT: I was really impressed by the band. It’s an interesting twist on both rock and traditional Chinese music. Who came up with the concept?
HN: We actually met at college. We were all music majors at the time and it just kind of … started.
TT: So how long have you guys been together?
HN: About three years? I don’t remember if we officially started in 2005 or 2006 but it was around them.
TT: What do you count as your influences?
HN: Japanese rock was a major influence — X/Japan, Porno Graffiti, BIS. I could name some more — we really liked the usage of guitar riffs and other techniques. But you know, these Japanese bands were actually influenced by Western bands. We also listened to a lot of 70’s, 80’s oldies — Led Zeppelin and stuff.
TT: So, Jack — how old were you when you first started playing the erhu?
HN: In elementary school? I started the violin when I was 4. You know Asian parents. Mine wanted Chinese culture to remain with me, I guess. It was a way to embrace my heritage.
TT: The erhu definitely lends a distinctive quality to the songs.
HN: Yeah, we try to combine the classical folk with other modern instruments.
TT: Well, it’s awesome stuff. But I was wondering, will there be a vocalist in the future?
HN: We actually get asked this a lot. We never really felt that we needed one. Jack’s erhu is pretty much the melody. As for vocalists, we never ever encountered one that really fit with the music.
TT: I definitely agree. The erhu is more than sufficient as a substitution for the vocals. So last question — what direction do you think the band is heading in, musically and commercially?
HN: Well, I guess, just continuing to play music we like. We’re also probably going to try to enter the mainstream — nothing too avant-garde. We really want people to listen to our stuff and get ourselves out there. We’re actually releasing our new album The Four Noble Truths on March 24th. You can also find more updates about our band at our website (http://hsu-nami.com) and our MySpace (http://www.myspace.com/hsunami).
TT: Thanks so much. I understand you’re based in New Jersey?
HN: It was a five-hour-long drive but it was pretty awesome playing at MIT.