Illegal Disco Parties, Snake Soup, and Psychedelic Music: A Chat with Yufu Chen
Upon your first listen to Yufu & The Velvet Impressionism’s debut album Is It Vain To Be Awake?, you’ll feel like you just stepped back in time. Boasting a brash mix of psychedelia, rockabilly and an extra stylish flair, Is It Vain To Be Awake? sounds like a forgotten, dusty classic from an era long gone, far removed from the contemporary Taiwanese independent scene from where it was birthed.
The bandleader of Yufu & The Velvet Impressionism, Yufu Chen, is a Taiwan-born and based guitarist and singer who has been operating tangentially to the scene for years. You may have heard of his other rock outfits like previous bands General Vinyl and CROCODELIA. Yufu’s sound has continuously evolved, but what has stayed the same is his love and commitment to psychedelic rock music. In Taiwan, Yufu is a bit of a black sheep in the indie music scene: just see where he’s placed according to this Indie Music Map of Taiwan. But that hasn’t deterred the dedicated artist from carving out a space for psychedelic music in his home country.
When I got the chance to sit down with Yufu in Taipei’s Congrats Cafe, he was accompanied by his manager Fumie Kikuchi, herself a musician in the three-piece tribal oriental psych band KUUNATIC. He’s down-to-earth, soft-spoken, and kind — a surprising contrast to what you might expect from his bold and in-your-face music style. As we talk more, Yufu’s passion and knowledge of vintage music immediately comes across along with his charismatic personality. He even casually mentions that he’d played a set before in that very cafe — proof of just how interconnected the local music scene was. Later on, we took a visit to Yuchen Studio where Yufu recorded his debut album with producer Andy Baker. Andy’s studio used to be an old movie theatre that’s been redone: a strangely fitting center stage to showcase Yufu & The Velvet Impressionism’s vintage sound.
Can you tell us about yourself?
I’m Yufu. I’m a musician in Taiwan and I’ve been playing for over 25 years (since I was 4). My family has always been big music lovers, especially of Western music. My dad listened to a lot of 70s, 80s classics: stuff like the Bee Gees and ABBA. I think growing up, I got my musical influence from my family and later I picked up the piano and started learning music. In junior high, I started playing guitar and discovered my early inspirations, especially Elvis. I remember walking past a record shop in Taoyuan [city in Taiwan] and hearing “Hound Dog;” after that I knew I wanted to write my own songs. I was really inspired by the rhythm and blues. I started to develop this unconventional path and style, I guess. There are so few people in Taiwan doing this vintage sound, but to me it’s always been classic and I can’t shy away from it because I just love it so much. People ask if I’m trying to replicate the sound of the 60s and 70s, but to me it’s just been a natural influence.
Later on, I formed my first band called General Vinyl (黑膠上將). It was a fun project because my brother and I are really close and he played bass in the band. We formed that band to pay tribute to B-movie music or like soundtracks to Tarantino films. From that band, we really learned how to play and write vintage music. We did it for a few years until we had to serve in the mandatory military service in Taiwan and graduate from university. Everyone had to do that so we had to disband. After that, we explored a new genre – playing psychedelic music in my next band CROCODELIA. That was a really good band! We played music inspired by The Seeds or The Doors – neo-psychedelic and psychedelic vintage sound.
But after CROCODILIA, I wanted to focus more on my solo project. I started working on my own songs, from which became my debut album Is It Vain To Be Awake?.
How has your sound changed from your time in CROCODELIA to your debut?
My psychedelic roots have always been important to me. I wanted that album to be very different from the CROCODELIA music. With the production, I wanted to be more delicate and mature. The psychedelic area for me is cool but can sometimes drift lo-fi, which is cool but I’m trying to play around with this lo-fi/hi-fi feel.
What was your experience of recording your debut album at Yuchen studio with Andy Baker?
We were so relaxed when we recorded that album because the space felt like home to us. I knew Andy a long time ago in Tainan from a festival called LUCfest. Immediately, he asked for us to play at his studio, to do this KEXP live type thing (CINEMAPHONIC Live Session). So CROCODELIA became the first band to play at Yuchen Studio. I recorded my first album with Velvet Impressions there; it’s always good vibes there. Andy was pretty flexible — we took our time and he gave us a lot of space to work some things out within the band. Andy’s place is one of the most important places in Taiwan for music in my opinion. He’s nurtured so many musicians and it’s such a great place.
How does Taiwan compare to other countries you’ve toured?
We’ve played in Taiwan, Japan, and China mostly — I’d say it’s totally different. Playing in Japan, looking at the scene and people — I have to say I’m a little jealous. Its community and the scene in Japan is quite balanced. Whatever kind of music you play there’s always people to listen to who are just as strange as you. It’s harder to find those groups music-wise here — especially with the vintage sound. When we played in Japan [as CROCODELIA], we’d always see people dressed in vintage clothes, dancing groovy, and who generally know about 60s and 70s music. In Tokyo, there’s a live house called the UFO Club which is dedicated to psychedelic garage rock music. As far as I know, we don’t have stuff like that yet.
I think in Taiwan, people appreciate more indie or indie rock. If we want to play music in Taiwan, you want people to come to your show. I think music that’s new to the Taiwan scene is going to need a bit more time.
For example, we are in the surf rock scene here, and there are basically three psychedelic bands: Dope Purple, Mong Tong 夢東, and Los Coronados. It felt like we were brothers; there weren’t many other bands like us. It’s a very small community; we all know each other.
You filmed your video in the famous Huaxi Night Market in Taipei, a famous market with all sorts of interesting stores, like the one with the snake in your video. Why did you choose that location?
I’ve always been there since I was a kid, I’ve had the snake soup. In Taiwan, especially the older generation, they believe if you consume snake soup then your skin will naturally glow and it’s healthy. So my family always went there. As a kid it was pretty exciting but also scary. That experience stuck with me and I wanted to share that with my audience. The older guy in the video is like 80 or 90 but looks 20 years younger than we thought. He’s the owner. I asked him if we could shoot there. We had a director from New York, Kenny Parker Wu, who is one of my friends, help us out. That place is in the Wanhua District where we practice all the time with our band. I feel like Wanhua captures that old school vintage look. There used to be a lot of gangsters in that area and there were so many movies based on real events that happened in Wanhua like “艋舺” and “角頭”.
Is there anything else in Taiwan you’d like to explore in a future music video?
There used to be a disco scene in Taiwan which I heard about from my mom and dad’s time. It used to be super illegal to have these dance parties back in the 70s onward, so they had to be organized secretly. Democracy in Taiwan was relatively new and in the 80s, a lot of music around that time was forbidden. Most of the music that was available was folk music; people would secretly listen to disco and DJ at these forbidden parties. I find that kind of taboo fascinating so it makes me want to bring that era’s forbidden disco scene back to life in a future music video. There are still a lot of shady karaoke places in Taipei and I’d love to shoot a music video there.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m going to release a cassette tape called To My Penpal. We live in a digital world and we don’t get to really connect, especially this and last year. I feel like when my audience and I interact online, I don’t always reply right away and vice-versa so I feel it’s kind of like a pen pal type of relationship. I want to release a cassette tape that’s a little intimate. It’s gonna be some of the demos and music-wise it’s gonna be a little more soulful and different than the first album. As for touring, I hope so probably next year if it’s possible.
My sounds have been changing and progressing every day. The [upcoming] album is more based on Motown and a lot of rock and roll. It’s a mixture of different things, like me.
This interview was conducted in person by Derrek Chow at Congrats Cafe in Taipei, Taiwan in March 2021.
Derrek Chow is an interdisciplinary researcher and designer from Toronto, Canada with a passion for music and film.