Interview: 33EMYBW

Interview: 33EMYBW

How prehistoric biota inspired the SVBKVLT artist’s captivating new album, Holes of Sinian.

This feature was originally published in Fact’s F/W 2023 issue, which is available to buy here.

“The failure of evolution is not decisive,” SVBKVLT’s 33EMYBW says, when asked about the concept behind her upcoming album Holes of Sinian. She thinks for a moment longer then says, “I can send you more information over email if this doesn’t make full sense.”

For the past decade or so, China’s underground scene has remained partially elusive to the West. The internet has parted digital curtains to reveal the angsty, industrial, yet cute subcultures that are emerging across the country. But the guise of the internet offers only a glimpse of Chinese society’s relationship to the art and culture that it outwardly acknowledges, around which it still maintains only a semi-porous membrane.

SVBKVLT stepped into the scene in 2013 – a brainchild of the former Shanghai club Shelter, which many credit as having been one of the early diplomats of Western experimental club music in China. It quickly became a central figure in China’s underground, bringing with it a heavy roster of electronic musicians, including the Shanghai-based musician and artist 33EMYBW. A bass player in a math-rock band turned electronic-music junkie and later visual artist, 33’s repertoire of creative pursuits may still be less compelling than her eclectic interests and research that spurred the ideas behind Holes of Sinian.

The album centres around the world of prehistoric biota, namely the Ediacaran biota, which populated the earth around 54 –635 million years ago, leaving their fossilised remains engraved in the bedrock of modern-day stone formations. From there, archeologists and paleontologists were able to craft conclusions on how these ancient organisms lived and died. In a similar though more fantasy-driven gesture, 33 was able to flesh out stories about their existence, serving as an almost perfect follow-up to her 2019 album, Arthropods, which imagined a world ruled by spindly, spider-like creatures. Much in the same realm, this current project is inspired by “extinct creatures [with] fictionalised habitats and entanglements,” during the Sinian period, a geological period in China synonymous with the Ediacaran era.

Within the context of this time, 33 also devised a backdrop around the holed stones of Sinian. These fictitious stones with irregular holes, which have potential “through-ness” between them, represent the mysteries of connectivity between organisms and the universe. Stones have weathered time and hold history within their moulding, a quality 33 uses as a vehicle to propel the narrative of their ability to transcend the linearity of time by containing the echoes and remnants of their past lives. The world she has built for this album is contingent on the suspended belief of alternate realities, which take place in spiritual and surreal realms.

33 took an interest in these biota creatures in the aftermath of the pandemic, when she began considering evolution and the language surrounding and supporting its notion of species advancement. She mused that these prehistoric organisms led a much more peaceful existence than humankind had ever experienced. In spite of technological and social advancements that came as a byproduct of human consciousness and our current rule over the planet, our reign has brought with it war, famine, corruption, as well as a slew of other dirty traits that these long-extinct creatures were untainted by. “It’s hard to say if evolution is progress or regress,” she concludes. Rather, we should turn away from the black-and-white notions of dubbing certain evolutionary patterns “success and others failure.”

33 explains that the Sinian stones are a metaphorical landscape to observe the legacy of evolution and their non-linear representation of time. The holes in the rocks are clues to histories we have never seen and the “ghosts” of the Ediacaran biota wander in these crevices, “drifting between dimensions,” haunting the spaces they occupy. Haunting is a big theme for this collection of work. The album’s sonic eeriness is only enhanced through an understanding of the stories that inspired it, blurring the boundaries between science and emotion. The focus of the album, which is rooted in geology, acts as a bold backdrop for these hauntological and emotionally resonant themes that float around the project. It’s a terrain built upon synthetic emotions and absurdism that, at its core, still harps on the sentimental themes of legacy, mortality, purity, and arguably even the ambiguity of human morality.

The album features collaborations with poet Forrest Gander, electronic artist Marina Herlop, as well as songs with artist Batu and artistic researcher oxi peng. Perhaps some of the most captivating moments interwoven throughout several of the tracks lie in 33’s use of vocal sampling. For this project, she actively used vocals from traditional music/minority music—featuring voices from ethnic minorities around China; those from Ganzi, Tibet, Yunnan, and then Bulgaria, Thailand, Tanzania, and other regions around Africa. The mixing of tribal samples with modern sounds and production adds complexity to the structure of these songs, lending them an ambiguous and timeless quality.

Despite her eclectically electronic pursuits, 33 began playing acoustically. For years before she was 33EMYBW, before SVBKVLT, she started out in the early 2000s playing bass in the band Duck Fight Goose with fellow musician Han Han (also known as Gooooose). 33 states that while all the members are now busy with solo projects, the spirit of their group still remains strong, and they attempt to play together whenever schedules permit. In her own time though, 33’s foray into electronic music has become her preferred medium of making music. She hesitates before mentioning that she feels less “of a connection to her real instrument,” now that her laptop has opened up endless possibilities for her creative output. “I’m clearer about what I like,” she says about writing for herself, rather than writing in a group, or for a band dynamic.

Usually, the process begins with some terse notes about the world she wishes to build for that piece of music. She’ll “do research or draw” to further immerse herself in this world before turning back to her laptop to begin the song-writing process. And for live shows? “The process is much simpler,” she says, as it is more about introducing “what you’ve already created in new ways.” There, she focuses on the continuity in the progression of music and will often design a theme or framework which she will build for club-goers to dance within. Pulling from more niche aesthetics, pushing weirder, more subversive, and visually frenetic art, her progression from rock to electronic music has blossomed colorfully into a beautifully schizophrenic, and more personal, body of work.

WORDS: Merilyn Chang
PICTURES: Furmaan Ahmed

This feature was originally published in Fact’s F/W 2023 issue, which is available to buy here.

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