How One Beijing Band’s Album-making Process Took an Unusual Route

By Mike Fox, November 21, 2022

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Cricket fans will know all about the T-20 World Cup that recently took place in Australia. It’s a more fast-paced, dramatic and exciting take on the sport’s regular format. Purists would argue it’s a watered-down take on the more historic, thoughtful and traditional ways of a five-day test match and much like a greatest hits album, the storytelling and substance are missing.  

Admittedly, our chat with UK musician Dan Taylor doesn’t mention cricket but his approach to music is like that of a test cricketer. He has patience, consistency and a willingness to be in close confinement with his group for long periods. 

Taylor arrived in Beijing in 2013. He has gone on to be a mainstay in the city’s music scene after forming and acting as a singer-songwriter for The Harridans and more recently Phuture Vulture & the Absolute, the latter of which are in the process of recording their first album Good Grief. A charismatic character, to say the least, but Taylor's philosophy on music doesn’t match his quirky personality.

Taylor-taking-in-one-of-many-Beijing-winters-during-his-time-in-China.-Photo-via-Joanna-Ma.jpg

Taylor taking in one of many Beijing winters during his time in China. Photo via Joanna Ma

“I'm sort of reserved and a little bit shy when it comes to music,” Taylor tells That’s. “Being a great player is not important to me. I think technicality is something that people sometimes get a little bit distracted by in music when the song should always come first.”

The Harridans released their debut album Fuzzing the Muse in 2016. The record is an unapologetic layered melting pot of sounds stirred together with Taylor’s folk-inspired, spooky vocals. It incorporates disco and prog with a catchy singalong sensibility and  hasn’t been matched at this local level since. However, that was six years ago and while praise for past endeavors is appreciated by the Yorkshireman, his conversational focus would much rather be on all things present. 

“I remember playing the first Harridans album to my family. My mum said, ‘Oh yeah, it's lovely, but can you make something nice and a bit romantic.’ I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, I can,’” the 34-year-old explains with excitement. “I want to embrace the idea of romance and make something sumptuous and not just sort of throwaway. 

“The first Harridans album was a little bit like throwing all the ingredients in a pot. For example, we would have a 14-second recorder solo followed by a metal drum breakdown. I want this new album to have a theme, be concise and have its own character so it can be a cohesive project. I also want it to be beautiful and melodic.”

If The Harridans were about getting the crowd on their feet, then Phuture Vulture & the Absolute are about getting them back down again. The slow string-inspired songs carve out images of sorrow and regret but ultimately hope when performed in an intimate live setting, they create a mellow atmosphere that Taylor is trying to replicate for the upcoming record. 

“I feel that I'm more passionate about what I want the end project to be. I feel very strongly about it. I feel like it's not just something to toss away or something to only mess around with. When I listen back, I sometimes think it's the biggest pile of rubbish I've ever heard in my life. Sometimes I listen to it and think it's all right, but I never think it's great. It's taken a long time. I think partly because life gets in the way, but part of it is also because I really want it to be good.”

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Taylor and his bandmates at his home in Beijing. Image via 大宇 Sam

To those who know him best, Taylor is laid back and has a silly side that doesn’t take much to come out. He cracks wise on stage while pulling off comical behavior in a genuine way. On the other hand, his lyrics from the new album explore a mix of themes that range from personal experiences to tall tales inspired by unusual sources. It’s been this combination of foolish, yet fascinating that give his compositions a distinctive edge. 

“'The Wise, the Kind and the Eternal' is the first song we recorded for the album. The title comes from a phrase that my ex-girlfriend’s father, a painter, coined with regard to making art. We used these three tenets of 'The Wise, the Kind and the Eternal' as a kind of dogma for the album. They’re lovely, grand principles for creating something. The Wise: to inform. The Kind: to express love. The Eternal: to invoke timelessness. Of course, we had to balance all this grandiosity with dirty puns and songs about spilling cream down your blouse.”

Good Grief is a listening experience that acts as an exploration of art and identity that is not only expressed through its songs but also its process. It’s taken nearly two years to complete and has involved Taylor spending a lot of time at the home of Eric Ji, who is the album’s producer. Ji’s house is situated on the outskirts of Beijing and for large parts of 2021-22, the long-time friends have been living together and recording there. The rest of the band occasionally makes the trip to the capital’s suburbs, but for the most part, it’s just the two of them. Think Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in Fight Club.

“It's not a studio where I'm paying by the hour. We can sit there, we can talk, we can try different things and we can experiment. We have time to try out different arrangements and different ideas. It definitely helped the album sound more interesting.”

Having such a close ally to collaborate with has taken away the penny-pinching pressures that come with studio time. It also means Taylor can take one or two liberties, as Ji himself explains. 

“Taylor and I have spent a lot of time together over the past two years. He’s slept in my bed nearly as much as my girlfriend has. The plan was to record the album quickly, from the acoustic demos that he gave me. Of course, once he starts adding one thing, he wants to add it all. It was about 10% recording and 90% sitting around talking about the best way to mic an egg shaker.”

Most recently, the group spent two days of the National Holiday filming a live performance of the album at Ji’s house, one song in one room at a time. It was 48 hours of elaborate costumes and liquid courage culminating in a very unique show. Percussionist Jake Nimer sums up the taping, which perhaps should be referred to as ‘Top of the Alcopops.’

“It was two days spent at the bottom of a bottle with Taylor dressed in fur barking instructions at us. English renaissance at its best. We were trying our best not to freeze to death in a ludicrously cold room for the time of year. We persevered to get something half decent!”

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The Harridans looking natural during a photo shoot. Photo via  大宇 Sam

Although Taylor is the main songwriter for Phuture Vulture & the Absolute, he’s been fortunate to find the right people to bring into the group after laying down the foundations for the ambitious project. As well as fellow Brit Nimer, he’s joined by Finnish guitar player Jukka Ahonen, who was the subject of a That’s article in the August 2022 print magazine issue. Those who read it will know what a sought-after player he is. American brothers Shawn and Stanley Moore are on violin and cello duties with their compatriot David Bond on keys and Iranian clarinet player Hadi Marvian. 

READ MORE: For Love Not Money: The Best Guitarist You've Never Heard Of

The secret to whatever success Good Grief goes on to have will be down to Taylor’s “sky’s the limit“ attitude. There is a beautiful structural simplicity to the tracks which can be performed with just the man himself and an acoustic guitar. But what he’s doing is accompanying the folk riffs with heartwarming touches to give it an overall epic feel. 

“I was listening to this interview with Brian Eno (Roxy Music keyboard player and U2 producer), and he was talking about one of his early albums. He realized there was a lot of ‘I’ in the lyrics, so he changed ‘I’ to ‘We.’ I tried it with this album, and it gives it this sort of almost cultish behavior. Instead of saying, ‘I love you’ and ‘I miss you,’ it was changed to ‘we love you’ and ‘we miss you.’ Then I realized if I’m singing ‘we’ I need to have group vocals, so I got loads of people down for backing vocals. So, we had strings and we had group vocals and it just exploded into this project that is a little bit over the top.”

Good Grief is set to come out in mid-December 2022, ending a two-year recording process, which would rival even the most particular of artists. However, it’s not about the destination, it’s the journey that counts, and given Taylor’s tendencies to get carried away when it comes to music, the adventures for Phuture Vulture & the Absolute are only just beginning. 


[Cover image: Phuture Vultures & the Abolsute performing in Beijing photo via 海淀阑尾]

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