We all remember a time when we were young and someone of the older generation, usually a grandparent, would snarl and turn their nose up at “the racket young people listen to today.” Since picking up a guitar 17 years ago, Beijing-based Dann Gaymer has been trying to bring out the inner grandparent in all of us.
Through various projects, characters and disguises, the 35-year-old has toured China and the world and always showcased a passion for his unique beliefs on performance. Whilst understanding not everyone will be onboard with his creations. What he always wants from an audience is a reaction, not appreciation.
“If they don’t like it, they're still going to be thinking and talking about it,” Gaymer tells That’s. “My raison d’etre for all of this is to show people a different way the world can be. It might sound a little bit pretentious, but I like messing with how people might perceive how a certain genre should be.”
Pretentious it may be, but Gaymer’s personality is anything but. A down-to-Earth and warm fellow, away from the stage the Englishman is an ‘everyday sort of bloke.’ However, if you were to see him perform or catch him on the street without knowing him, you would have an entirely different perception of him.
His long dreadlocked head of hair features a strategically placed bandanna that covers the shaven top. An odd and deliberate look, it only adds to the performative weirdness. So much is the commitment to the unconventional style, that he even uses our conversation as an opportunity to paint his nails in preparation for a DJ set at a local bar later in the evening. This approach is not an act for the stage, Gaymer believes the biggest performance is the one he gives for everyday life.
Dan Gaymer painting his nails during our interview. Image via Mike Fox
“I concluded a while ago that real life for me felt like I was wearing a costume on stage. I still feel that way,” he says smiling admiringly at his neatly painted cuticles. “I feel in day-to-day life that I’m wearing a mask in a performance where I am trying to conform because I must. That’s fine, I don’t complain about that. I have to play along to be a somewhat functional human being and be able to pay my rent. When I'm on a stage I feel alive.”
Perhaps Gaymer’s most famous venture is one that goes by the name of Guiguisuisui. Much like his hairstyle, it’s a rather bizarre blend of styles and started growing in 2014. With a blues base, it incorporates rock, electro and even a bit of disco.
At first, it consisted of the man himself, a couple of guitars (one of which was made from an old skateboard), a heavy range of effects pedals, a couple of backing tracks and a few elaborate costume changes. It was a process that was as much about storytelling as it was about music. That story extended into his personal life when his now ex-wife joined to make a duo that played on a global stage.
“Initially when she joined, we were just doing the same kind of stuff I'd been doing before. Then she came a little bit more to the forefront because she could sing more melodically than I could. She was also a visual artist, so she could do more of that kind of stuff. It was a balance between brutal male energy, even though I'm not a very masculine dude off stage. When I’m on stage I'd project that energy, so she gave it a softer influence.
Guiguisuisui on stage.
“We went to Europe four times and did some amazing shows in Cambodia and Thailand. There was a really fun techno festival in Poland where we performed in a tent. That performance attracted a lot of people and ended up being for those who needed a safe space, if you understand my meaning.”
Despite starting life as a one-man show, there are no plans to revert Guiguisuisui to its original format following the couple’s divorce. Ultimately, it was an experience made better with the inclusion of his former partner and he says to go solo with that project again would be a step backward.
“There might be room to pick it up down the line, but I definitely need some space away from it. When my ex left Beijing, she left a lot of her costumes behind. She was like ‘you can find another female singer to take my place.’ I might one day, but it's not quite as easy as that because it was so interwoven in our relationship.”
Since the mutual separation, Gaymer has immersed himself in a whole host of different ventures. Loooooongish Cat sees him get behind the DJ decks to provide a cacophony of electric sounds while wearing a giant cartoon cat head. Considering his previous form when it comes to choosing costumes and quirky accessories, it's surprising that this idea is actually a stunt to take attention away from him.
Gaymer in full DJ mode with his giant Looongish Cat head. Image via Nan Guazi南瓜子
“The influence for the cat’s head came from when I was working in South Korea for a couple of British performance artists. They had a project called Tiger and Bear and it was based on the Korean creation myth Ungnyeo, which is about a tiger and bear who live together. The artists would turn up to performance festivals or art gallery openings with one wearing a bear’s head and the other wearing a tiger’s head and they would just do nothing. That was the performance. They'd just stand around drinking, that was the whole point. People were still so intrigued by them because they had these giant anthropomorphic animal heads. I thought I’ll just do that. I'm not performing. There's nothing to look at, look at the cat head."
More recently he was asked to front Beijing garage punk outfit Ravages!. The band is a far cry from his usual cosplaying antics but that didn’t mean there wasn’t room for character building. The group has a high-energy, fast-paced yet old-school sound with a distinctive keyboard element adding a touch of carnival horror. Gaymer’s persona with his three other cohorts here is more down-to-earth than his other myth and surrealist-inspired ventures, but frankly, it’s still pretty nuts, as drummer Ryan Etzcorn explains.
Gaymer playing with Ravages! at 24D space in Beijing. Photo via 新雨
“Gaymer entered Ravages! and on the very first downbeat of the first song at his first show, he somehow mutated into some kind of fallen Baptist tent revival preacher who’d gone over to the dark side. We hardly recognized him. He can enter different characters with different acts. He performs in a way that feels unmatched in Beijing.”
With all the fanfare of performance experimentation involved with most of his music, it’s kind of fitting that the other band he plays in is just a straight-up hard rock trio with no gimmicks, consisting of two of his oldest friends in China.
Peachy Carnahan has built a reputation for being loud, thanks in part to guitar player Gil Brunhoeffer. For the past year, he and Gaymer have written music together with a more straightforward approach and the results are noisy.
Gaymer rocking the skateboard guitar.
“For Peachy it worked out to be a ‘happy accident’. We have all known each other for years and worked together on various projects; but never together as a band. It was really just a case of setting aside time each week to flesh ideas out and not let them fall into the background. Because we have played music together for so long, the process sped up. Being a three piece helps as well.”
All of this is down to a simple love of audience engagement. We live in a world where people try so hard to be different that they end up being as disingenuous as the mainstream they claim to despise. Gaymer is the antidote to this and if his niche became notorious, nothing would make him happier.
“If someone asked me when the weirdness started, I'd say it was 35 years ago when I came out of the womb,” laughs Gaymer. “As a performer, I’ve always felt a kind of freedom and liberation from wearing a costume. I step outside myself and feel more open to performing more freely. My first degree was in anthropology, and we did a lot of performance art. I still draw from some of those influences. It’s like everything in my life; if something interests me, then I’ll pursue it.”
Gaymer continues to prove that when performance art is done with honesty, integrity and talent it has to be admired, no matter the level of audience enjoyment. A high-school teacher in Beijing by day, he will be heading back to the UK next year, bringing an end to his 12-year stay.
“People don’t have to like what I’m doing but if I can just help people to see that there are always many different paths in performance then my mission is complete,” he remarks sentimentally. “I was given opportunities to watch things where I had no clue a musical performance could be done like that, and it just completely re-wired my brain about what’s possible. So, to the 80% of people who don’t like what I do, you’re welcome.”
The over-the-top nature of what he’s tried to accomplish is like that of a professional wrestler who’s undertaken many gimmicks but remained the same person inside as the world around them changes. The key difference with Gaymer is that there is nothing fake about the end product.
[Cover image via 新雨]