OOn New Year’s Eve, Chinese football released its new album. A mix of bubbly indie pop and emo built on a foundation of math and rock, “Win&Lose” was the Wuhan group’s first full-length since 2015, and their first release of any kind in nearly four years. It should have been a moment of excitement and celebration, the beginning of a new chapter. Yet in many ways there was a pervading sense of finality around the LP, the sense of a line being drawn, the end of an era.
Perhaps such a feeling was inevitable, considering that “Win&Lose” was the third part of the “Game Trilogy” of Chinese football, which began in 2017 with the “Here Comes a New Challenger!” EP. Also, a certain amount of melancholy is to be expected from a band whose name is a nod to the emo kings of American football from the Midwest – even if their music is often characterized by bright, uplifting melodies.
But it’s also due to events out of the band’s hands: they scrapped the album just as China emerged from three years of strict COVID prevention measures, regular mass testing regimes and the threat of a city-wide lockdown suddenly melting into one night.
Even with a new album out, few would begrudge a band coming from a city so closely associated with the coronavirus that it wants to move on. “This ‘new album’ is already in the past for me, just like the last three years have also ended,” says singer and guitarist Xu Bo when NME catch up with him in February.
One of the most powerful songs on “Win&Lose” is “Wuhan,” an evocative tribute to the band’s hometown and its resilience, but the drastic change in circumstances over the past few months has seen other songs take on new meanings. Take “The World Splits in Two,” whose lyrics list irreconcilable contrasts—black and white, hate and love—and culminate in an unanswered question about understanding and empathy.
When Sue wrote it, he says, “I felt that people of different views and beliefs could not understand each other, could not communicate and empathize with each other, and the background of the epidemic accelerated this division. [Yet] at the end of 2022, when I sing this song again, it’s like saying goodbye to the past and entering a new era filled with hope. It’s kind of ironic.”
“On our first album, a lot of the songs were just a bunch of abstract rhetoric…Now I have a greater awe of the words and I don’t want to be too deliberate or too casual”
The feel of a ‘new’ album that already feels like a relic from the past is compounded by ‘Win&Lose’ which was a lot of fun. Chinese Football originally went into the recording studio in the summer of 2021, confidently expecting the album to materialize in the fall of that year. They even booked a national “Win&Lose” tour in China, kicking off in October and with 40 dates on the bill – a decision that was doubly brave given the pandemic controls and related travel restrictions then in place. The tour was barely a week old when the first postponements were announced due to outbreaks of COVID.
“It was really hard,” says Sue. “There were so many uncertainties and continuous touring became essentially impossible.” As the cost of touring has risen over the past three years, cancellations have become frequent. “You often don’t know if a concert will be able to start smoothly until the day of the show. There was even a performance that was almost canceled midway through. The spirit kept draining and the mentality gradually changed to ‘a show’s a show’, but it also meant that I really appreciated every time we were able to get together with fans in a live venue.”
The band ended up playing 38 shows in 36 cities, taking 10 months to complete the tour that was supposed to end in three. But even then it ended without any sign of the album it was meant to promote.
“The detention was mostly about me,” admits Sue. “I wasn’t completely happy with the lyrics of some of the songs and I wasn’t able to finish them in time. Maybe I had too many things I wanted to express. I needed time to go and make some decisions. On our first album, a lot of the songs were just a bunch of abstract rhetoric, it was pretty casual. I’m more afraid of words now and I don’t want to be too deliberate or too careless. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”
At a show in Fuzhou last July, Xu addressed the somewhat strange situation of touring an album that has yet to be released. “We’re not really a band that knows how to advertise,” he said with a shrug. Yet he stood in front of rapturous, sell-out crowds – luckily for the group, Chinese football’s refusal to play the game conventionally only endeared them to their fans throughout their career.
“Among certain groups of music fans, such as those who like emo and mat-rock, we seem to have become ‘traitors’ who are quick to embrace pop music”
Although they could have signed to one of China’s major indie labels years ago, the band has remained staunchly DIY since forming in 2011, releasing material through Xu’s own label Wild Records and building a sizeable fanbase in the process. That following has spread far beyond their home country, still something of a rarity for Chinese indie bands, thanks to tours in Japan and Southeast Asia plus international attention garnered from playing a string of dates in 2019 with American Football.
Nevertheless, when “Win&Lose” eventually dropped, the reaction in China was decidedly mixed. The diversification of the band’s sound – as heard in the dreamy indie pop of ‘Human Lost’, which even comes with an accordion solo, and the light, screaming rock of ‘April Story’ – has led to heated online debate among their fanbase, something that Xu says it initially knocked his confidence.
“Among certain groups of music fans, such as those who love emo and math rock, we seem to have become ‘traitors’ who are quick to embrace pop music,” he says. “I feel very disappointed and bitter that works that I think are completely sincere are considered products that serve the market, and it has made me doubt myself. But I know that actually people expect a lot from us and we just didn’t live up to their expectations.”
Uwhile these comment section debates continue to rage on Chinese social media, “Win&Lose” jumped to the top of Bandcamp’s math rock label’s best-selling albums and number two for indie in its first week of release. This prompted Xu to post that he had “restored some of my self-esteem”, but he insists that the group is still not going to please anyone. Ultimately, he says, “we’ll continue to make more music according to our own preferences.”
This persistence and dedication is another key part of Chinese football history. And while the last three years have been a story of heavy gridlock, disruption and delays, the group is still standing. They’re also set to pick up where they left off, starting with re-booking the Japan and Europe tours they’ve been meaning to undertake in 2020.
“We hope to go to more places,” Sue says, allowing herself a little optimism. “One of the biggest impacts of the pandemic has been on our 2020 world tour plans. Our goal in 2023 is to get out of Asia and into the world. We hope to bring our music and meet people from all over the world in the live arena.”
For now, Xu seems almost relieved that it’s game over for the band’s “Game Trilogy,” nearly six years after it first began. “We feel it’s been too long – if we could have completed the trilogy in three years, it would have been better.” I feel very relaxed now and can gradually release this pressure and burden. And start some new creations.
So what might the new era of Chinese football look like? “Because we’re a band that does a lot of live shows, all the previous songs were created with the live impression in mind, so they feel kind of stretched. Maybe next time we’ll try a more relaxed studio album, but that’s just my personal point of view at the moment.”
Although he has a new, finished album to promote, perhaps understandably Xu wants to focus on the new beginning. To look to the future, whatever it may bring, profit or loss. “The next chapter of Chinese football has begun,” he says, “and I don’t know where it’s going to go, which is probably the most exciting part.”
Chinese Football’s ‘Win&Lose’ is out now on Wild Records