Liu Bei are a London five-piece of former soloists, session players, and band members who have now come together to create bright and bold indie music. On first impression, you’ll see a band who are still very much in the honeymoon period, and HumanHuman have been with them since the very start thanks to one of our best discoverers Yne. This Belgian user brought Liu Bei to our attention 8 months ago after hearing the stunning debut single “Infatuation”. With 1.3K listeners and 21 agrees from some of the blogosphere’s most influential voices, Liu Bei became a HumanHuman featured artist, so we thought it’s time we got to know the band a little better.
Last time I was meeting Nick Hakim in central London, and this time I headed to Manchester’s Salford to seek out a little-known venue, The Eagle Inn, a traditional looking pub nestled between warehouses, which happened to be packed with excitable Liu Bei fans. After the band’s sound check, we all grabbed a drink and got set up on a slightly chilly stairwell.
I was joined by Richard Walters, Matt Reynolds, Aaron Graham and Patrick James Pearson, whilst the fifth member Dan Joyce, who the band lovingly refer to as Thor, continues to evade the limelight.
Hannah: First up, give one surprising fact about yourself.
Aaron Graham: I play drums. I would prefer to play football than play the drums.
Matt Reynolds: I can’t think of anything interesting. I play guitar, and I’m a keen… cook.
Richard Walters: I sing, and I would rather not be in this band.
R: There’s a surprising fact! But, I don’t really have any surprising facts.
M: I was trying to think, I must have something surprising!
R: It’s the kind of thing I’ll think of later.
Well, just tell me later then! I’ve read that Richard in particular had quite a few solo projects, but how about everyone else in band?
R: I did the solo thing for years and years, and I’ve been in a bunch of bands. You guys have been in bands together?
M: Yeah, me and Aaron played in bands together. I’ve done… four solo albums. Been in bands and stuff.
How did Liu Bei come together then?
R: Actually, I was thinking of quitting music, and I got chatting with a friend and he said that he knew some great musicians in London. We met up last summer and started doing stuff, and we did our first live gig last year, and the first single. From the first rehearsal we knew how big the band was going to be, in terms of numbers. Yeah, just through small circles of friends in London.
Richard Walters: “Actually, I was thinking of quitting music…”
So, the name Liu Bei – the inspiration behind that isn’t a secret, you know, an eight-foot Chinese warlord is hard to ignore, but why did you settle on that name?
R: He sounded like a pretty amazing guy, and we thought that would be a good thing to base the band around. It actually came about when we were listening to the radio and a documentary about Liu Bei was on. We thought it would confuse people with the spelling, because it might make people angry and then remember us!
M: Lots of bands try to make their names as Google-able as possible, and we wanted to be the polar opposite of that. We wanted to be completely impossible to find.
Yep, people just find some Wikipedia page about some Chinese guy instead.
All: Yeah, yeah.
Do you think Liu Bi would have been a fan of the music?
R: Absolutely! He’d probably be in the band.
A: He would be, yeah. He could replace me.
R: [To Aaron] And then you could pursue the football.
R: He would’ve been a fan, for sure.
You also looked to the past for the “Goodness” video, using clips from Japanese classic film Yojimbo. Where’s the connection there?
R: That video was made by our friend Jake Dypka, who did the “Infatuation” video as well. We just really like samurai films, and the footage works really well with the song, in terms of movement and stuff. Yeah, it looks cool.
Like you said, you worked with Jake Dypka for the “Infatuation” video, what do you like about working with him?
A: Well, he’s a good friend of most of the band’s, we’ve known him for years. He’s a cool guy, a Wes Anderson type of guy.
M: He gets it too. That’s the thing, that he really gets the music.
R: He gets really excited every time he comes to a gig, and he comes to like every gig. He just loses his mind!
A: I told you the first time when he came to us, to just see what Jake thinks of the gig. He came straight up to you like, “Oh my god, Richard. Oh my god.” [Everyone laughs]
R: Yeah, he’s a big… a super-fan.
Let’s talk about “Fields” with Rachel Goswell’s added vocals, how did that collaboration come about?
R: I’ve been a Slowdive fan for years and years, and I had a connection from when an old manager of mine produced their first record. I met Rachel years ago when she was doing a solo record, and we just kept in touch. They’ve just reformed Slowdive, so we thought it would be a good time to get her to sing on the track for us. She came down to the gigs in Oxford and London and sang with us as well, which was pretty amazing.
A lot of blogs have linked your music to those ‘90s shoegaze bands, would you say that’s your genre? Or do you take influences from all over?
A: Pretty much all over, in terms of what everyone listens too, it’s pretty different. I think the sets really vary. The shoegaze thing, it’s not a full connection, because we’re not that chainsaw-guitar-noisey bands. It’s kind of reverby. Yeah, there’s lot’s of reverb.
M: I think we’re all kind of musicians that enjoy trying to be good at playing our instruments. We can all play in lots of different styles - does that sound arrogant? I’m not saying we are good, I’m saying we try to be! [Laughs] Subsequently, we can play in lots of different styles, and this band is just one area of that.
So, what would you cite as this band’s main influences?
R: For me, lots of Mazzy Star, Slowdive and lots of kinds of things. Jeff Buckley has been a big influence on me for years.
M: Jeff Buckley, for sure!
How about non-musical influences, like places or books or films?
R: I think where the band started, London, has been quite a big influence, because none of us are actually Londoners. We’ve all moved to London in the past couple of years, apart from Matthew. Being in a big city has definitely has an influence on my writing.
M: For me, when we’re working on songs, I don’t really think about bands, I try to think about where the songs would be played; visualising a gig or a situation that the song would be played in. It’s helpful to think that this song would be played on a mountain top or by a campfire, you know, something like that.
So, where would “Atlas World” be played?
M: “Atlas World” for me, it would be a psychedelic merry-go-round… [Richard and Aaron laugh] I’m not even joking! That is how it feels, it’s all… [Matt makes what I suppose to be a psychedelic oboe noise.] It sort of circles around; it feels bumpy and wavy.
[Another band member, Patrick James Pearson, joins our stairwell hangout.]
M: Pat actually has synaesthesia.
R: Oh yeah, so Pat does keyboard for the band. Pat sees colours. What colours are the songs?
A: What colour is “Infatuation”?
Patrick James Pearson: Well, “Infatuation” is kind of blue and white, yeah.
A: I think you’re making it up!
P: What if I was or I wasn’t? [Everyone laughs.] It wouldn’t be a situation for me, it’s a talking point. Yeah, blue and white that one. And it helps me to remember the songs.
M: We were just saying that I do that thing where I visualise where the song would be played.
P: What do you mean?
M: When we’re playing, each song for me is in a different place, like a different ideal gig or a different fantasy place.
A: Fantasy?! Jesus… [Laughs.]
P: Well I’ve never really asked you this question before, but how do you…
A: Wait, who’s asking the questions?!
I really like this interview; you’re just doing the work for me!
P: Well, I remember songs just by associating colours, like I’ll always know that “Infatuation” starts in the D, because that’s the colour that I see, but nobody else in the band does that. So, how do you remember the song?
M: When I’m working at home on the song, on the arrangement, I start visualising where the song would be played. “Goodness”, for me, is like The Other Stage at Glastonbury, Sunday night, when it’s just getting dark and people have their lighters out…
A: And flags!
M: And it’s like, driving synth-pop-rock, because it just feels like that to me.
P: Wow okay, that’s something I would never have thought of.
M: It’s a long answer, isn’t it?
It’s a great answer. I actually wanted to talk more about your first single, did you expect such a positive response?
R: When “Infatuation” came out? Not really, no. It got lots of blog coverage, which was amazing. It was great to have such a good start with those first few tracks.
You guys played in Oxford a few days ago, how did it feel going back to your home-town?
R: Well, that’s only my home-town.
Oh, so everyone is from different places?
P: Yeah, from all different places. We all live in London though, apart from Matt who lives in Southampton. I’ve known Aaron and Matt for a long time, from just playing music in studios as session players. Then we came together and started from scratch, because usually you just work on one project with a band and you don’t see any outcome and don’t really take any responsibility. You just go away, play a show, do your thing, and walk out again. It’s nice that we all started from scratch and are seeing it through together, and we still have that attitude of knowing each other inside-out.
M: [Laughs] Emphasis on the inside!
R: I think, weirdly, the London gig last night felt more like a home-town gig.
A: Yeah. For sure, it did.
R: Because, so many of our friends were there; it was such a good atmosphere. When we played in Oxford, I just got really freaked out because I had to talk to loads of people I hadn’t seen in a long time. There’s a bit more pressure playing a home-town gig; it’s weird isn’t it?
A: It’s really weird.
M: Yeah, I don’t like playing hometown gigs.
R: It’s like going to a family function.
M: Yeah, you feel like you have to do something momentous or everyone’s going to think you’re a failure.
[All admittedly laugh.]
What can fans who haven’t seen you live expect from a Liu Bei performance? Do you aim for a bigger production, or something more minimalist, or the same?
A: It’s bigger.
R: I think it’s a lot more ferocious. It’s got a lot more bite to it.
P: I think it’s got a real dynamic.
M: It’s quite… raunchy [laughs.]
Ferocious and raunchy? Wow.
M: It can get pretty hot!
The band has started to carve out a certain type of style now, will that change or have you got any plans to experiment?
R: I think it will definitely change, because everyone changes what they listen to. If you think about a band like Radiohead or Wilco, they changed all the way through.
P: Yeah, yeah. Well, a band’s voice is always changing and that’s the overriding thing, unless it’s a terrible accident!
M: I think that the best kind of progression is not planned. I don’t think we really plan to do anything in particular, we just make music.
R: I think that’s already in the set. The latest song we’ve just written feels like a step towards something else, it incorporates everything that we’ve done.
Do you have a favourite song from what you’ve written so far, whether that’s unreleased or not?
R: Erm, it’s really different playing live, but I really like a song called “U”; that’s my favourite in the set. There’s a new one called “Philip Seymour Hoffman”, which I really like playing as well.
M: I agree! What about you Patrick?
P: I kind of like “Atlas World”, a lot actually.
A: I thought you’d say that.
P: It’s really different live to on the record, so that’s the thing. It’s a good colour as well. That and “Philip Seymour Hoffman”, which, for me, feels really special.
A: My favourite song from last night [their London show] is actually the one you [Richard] did on your own.
R: Yeah. I didn’t want to say that was my favourite [Laughs.]
M: We have a song in the set which Richard plays on his own.
R: It’s on the new EP. It’s a bit glitchy and has more raw notes in it.
M: It seems to just work with you on your own, doesn’t it?
A: That’s why it’s my favourite. I don’t have to do anything!
There’s plans for an EP out soon?
R: Well, the ‘Goodness’ EP was out on Monday, and we’re just chatting about the next EP. Then we’ll eventually start thinking about an album closer to the end of the year.
So, will there be an album released later this year?
R: It’s kind of up-in-the-air at the moment. It’s ready to finish recording wise, so… we’ll just see what happens!
M: We need to find a home for it.
A: Yeah, definitely.
R: We don’t have a label, so we’re doing everything ourselves. We did our first single with Transgressive, and now we’re just looking for someone really supportive to record the album with.
Aside from a hopeful album, what about festivals, more gigs and another tour for this year?
R: Yeah, I hope we’ll be doing a few festivals, we’ve got our eye on a few we’d like to play.
R: Erm, End Of The Road and Green Man.
M: Oh yeah, we really like Green Man. That’s the best festival, my favourite festival.
A: You reckon?
M: Yeah, they’ve just got amazing bands and it’s a great size.
R: I guess the smaller, independent festivals would be fantastic for us.
A: We’re hoping for a longer tour as well.
R: Yeah, at some point, a longer tour at the end of the year or something…
And you had a tour last year?
R: Yeah, we supported Dry The River on tour. The tables have turned now, because they’re supporting us tonight!
[All round reserved chuckles.]
M: Time has not been kind to Dry The River [now very unreserved laughter.] Yeah, supporting us now, so take from that what you will!
And on that note…