One of the best aspects of playing music is the naivety that comes with joining a band. The sense of camaraderie and togetherness with a feeling that the world is about to be conquered is what gives up-and-coming groups their spark, drive and ambition to create a magnum opus that will be talked about for generations.
Contrarily, one of the worst aspects of playing music is the naivety that comes with joining a band. Once the honeymoon period fades and each member is left with nothing more than resentment for one another’s mannerisms, the door to the real-world creaks open wider and wider.
For the past year and a half, Beijing indie rockers Axis Neptune have been displaying the best aspects. Four handsome and talented guys with an interesting and accessible sound, they have what it takes to grow the band into a sustainable venture. However, after our chat, we can see why the portal to profitability is only open to a select few, and often for reasons out of their control.
Image via Sofar Sounds
Born in Scarborough, UK, singer and guitarist Josh Cotterill used Axis Neptune as a stage name for his solo project in China’s capital. He soon realized that with the right acquisitions his musical vision could be expanded into something bigger and better.
“I think at some point you sort of have to accept that it's never going to be exactly as you imagined,” he tells That’s. “I realized that I needed to get other people involved if I wanted to translate my music better to a live context and make it sound really good. I have always had an idealistic idea about being in a band. I like having the camaraderie and working together.”
With two of the band being British, this conversation takes place over something that binds people of those isles together, curry. Nepalese guitarist Hikmat Yakha clearly enjoys spicier flavors. With a side dish of whole dried chilis, the 31-year-old explains why he was drawn to this project.
“Cotterill is a really good guitar player. He did the first album on his own and there are lots of interesting sounds on it,” he explains while nibbling his strongly flavored snack. “It's hard to pull off as a band but I feel that we are constantly improving. It has been a year and a half from when we first started, and we are always getting better.”
Incorporating new people gave Cotterill the chance to branch out his tunes into a live setting. After writing, recording and releasing the first album ‘Reasons’ in February last year, the next challenge was getting his new bandmates to fit his vision and make the project stand out in a saturated market for these kinds of acts.
Band founder Josh Cotterill performing a trademark melodic solo. Image via Sofar Sounds
“I think the most valuable move that we've made is to try to step out of the expat bubble,” explains the singer-songwriter. “You've really got to knuckle down and keep going. We haven't got a bass player, so we are leaning into a more electronic aesthetic. It's just about getting yourself heard. We play with other Chinese bands, and it’s wonderful to meet local musicians.”
Following the release of ‘Reasons’ and subsequent live shows with the new lineup, the group quickly garnered a following around China. COVID-19 restrictions permitting, they traveled and played around the country with one eye on a follow-up. With new talent and creativity to incorporate into the songwriting process, Cotterill did what most sane and rational people would do. He locked himself and the band away in a remote part of Beijing while they came up with new material.
Swedish keyboard player David Yang expands more on the band’s professionalism while in exile.
Keyboard player David Yang playing at Beijing’s 798 Art District. Image via Axis Neptune
“We had this nice place with an awesome backyard. It was so nice that it was hard to focus. We tried to be strict with each other, like implementing a no drinking until 8pm rule, but sometimes we wouldn’t stop drinking until 5am. I really enjoyed being away. We were still able to jam and record.”
“I get very overexcited about ideas,” smiles Cotterill. “We rented that house for about five days and the idea was to cut ourselves off from the world and record the best album that anyone has ever heard. Is that what happened? No.”
As the guys scoop up the remainder of their rice and reminisce over their “wasted” excursion, it’s easy to see why Axis Neptune is so strong as a unit.
Guitarist Hikmat Yakha playing at What the Folk. Image via @achiiiie_
Our dinner even acts as the perfect metaphor for how the band functions. Leader Cotterill is the rice that binds it all together, Yakha’s chickpeas are the healthy texture that makes the dish a bit different, while Yang’s combination of herbs and spices would complement any curry. What hasn’t been mentioned yet is the potato filling (which adds texture) on drums sitting opposite us.
Brit Patrick Waldron only joined in February and is the band’s fifth drummer in their short existence, a record that would give Spinal Tab a run for their money. Unlike everyone’s favorite parody band (where a string of drummers died in bizarre circumstances, such as spontaneous combustion and choking on someone else’s vomit), no one in the group can pinpoint why they have been so unlucky in finding the right person for the kit.
“I don't feel like we're asking too much from them,” remarks Cotterill, jokingly. “Drummers are a different type of musician. If you grow up learning how to hit things with a stick, you’re probably made a bit different. Drummers would join and some would be a bit more bluesy and swing it a bit and it just wouldn’t sound right.”
Waldron’s talent is backed up by his three cohorts at separate times during our chat. Watching him live you quickly realize why Cotterill and company feel they are lucky to have him in their ranks. Receiving another helping of homemade curry, he describes why Axis Neptune is the project for him.
Cotterill performing a song from the debut album Reasons. Image via Axis Neptune
“I think we have some of the most special musicians I’ve ever met. I already had a bunch of ideas based on the recordings from the first album. The band means I can play something exciting and interesting. I like watching pop stars playing with a live band. They always have high-quality musicians that know how to add extra flavor to the music. We incorporate a mainly electronic aesthetic, but then blend it with musicianship that we can pull off live. I think it's really cool.”
Being in Beijing may bring success but not sustainability. As an act comprised of foreigners, there is always going to be a glass ceiling no matter how well your music goes down.
Making it as a musician is one thing but breaking into the Chinese mainstream music industry as an overseas act borders on impossible. Axis Neptune is finding out the hard way.
“We've had gigs canceled with hardly any explanation,” says Cotterill looking to everyone else in agreement. “We never know what the truth is. It could be something to do with insurance. We have no idea.”
These problems have become apparent with the success of the band. A newly formed group in Beijing can put shows on by simply getting in contact with bar owners and reputations can build from there. Most bands are happy to stay at this stage but after Axis Neptune built up their fan base, the shows became bigger and then ultimately more bureaucratic.
Cotterill getting big screen treatment. Photo via Axis Neptune
While China has given them vital gigging experience as a band, there’s an ambition to explore different music scenes and cut their teeth in front of more diverse audiences and even make a documentary about their experiences. The first planned stop is Yakha’s motherland.
“I just suggested going to Nepal and the guys said ‘Yeah! Let's do it,’” Yakha explains. “Nepalese people are open to all sorts of music and people are always open to listening to ‘foreign’ music or something different. This trip will be basically about creating memories.”
Cotterill is also enthusiastic about making the trip as he believes it gives the band a chance to let people experience a side to touring that is rarely seen.
“My background is in broadcast journalism, and I want to make something real. We all agreed to let the camera keep rolling throughout the tour and it could be really interesting. We're only getting older, so if we are going to do something like this, we need to do it soon.”
Being expats, everyone in the band has the open-mindedness to live and interact with other cultures. The wider focus, for now, is to create experiences with each other and perform to as many different audiences as possible. There aren’t many places in the world where bands can get up and running as they can in Beijing. It can be the perfect platform for ambition. And wherever Axis Neptune’s drive takes them they, like the curry we enjoyed, will need time to settle.
[Cover image via Norman Manríquez]