On New Year’s Eve, Chinese Football released their new album. A mix of bubbly indie pop and emo built on math-rock foundations, ‘Win&Lose’ was the Wuhan-based band’s first full-length record since 2015 and their first release of any kind in almost four years. It ought to 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 surrounding the LP, the feeling of a line being drawn, the ending of an era.
Perhaps such a feeling was inevitable given ‘Win&Lose’ was the third part of Chinese Football’s ‘Game Trilogy’, which began in 2017 with the ‘Here Comes a New Challenger!’ EP. Plus, a certain amount of melancholy has come to be expected from a band whose name is a nod to midwestern emo kings American Football – even if their music is often characterised by bright, uplifting melodies.
But it was also due to events out of the band’s hands: they dropped the album just as China emerged from three years of strict COVID prevention measures, regular mass testing regimes and the threat of city-wide lockdowns suddenly melting away overnight.
Even with a new album out, few would begrudge a band who hail from a city so closely associated with the coronavirus a desire to move on. “This ‘new album’ is already in the past tense for me, just like the past three years have also come to an end,” says singer and guitarist Xu Bo when NME catches up with him in February.
One of the most powerful songs on ‘Win&Lose’ is ‘Wuhan’, a rousing tribute to the band’s home city and its resilience, but the abrupt shift in circumstances in the last few months has led to other tracks taking on new meanings. Take ‘The World is Splitting in Two’, whose lyrics list unbridgeable contrasts – black and white, hate and love – and culminates in an unanswered question about understanding and empathy.
When Xu wrote it, he says, “I felt that people with different views and beliefs could not understand each other, could not communicate and empathise with each other, and the backdrop of the epidemic accelerated this split. [Yet] at the end of 2022, when I sang this song again, it’s like saying goodbye to the past, and entering a new era full of hope. It’s kind of ironic.”
“On our first album, a lot of the songs were just a pile of abstract rhetoric… Now I’m more in awe of words, and I don’t want to be too deliberate or too casual”
That sense of a ‘new’ album already feeling like a relic of the past is compounded by ‘Win&Lose’ having been heavily delayed. Chinese Football initially went into the studio for the record back in the summer of 2021, confidently expecting the album to materialise in the autumn of that same year. They even booked a nationwide ‘Win&Lose’ tour of China, kicking off in October and with 40 dates on the bill – a decision that was doubly bold given the pandemic controls and related travel restrictions that were then in place. The tour was barely a week old when the first postponements were announced due to COVID outbreaks.
“It’s been really hard,” says Xu. “There were so many uncertainties and continuous tours became essentially impossible.” As touring costs spiralled in the last three years, cancellations became common. “Often you didn’t know whether a gig would be able to start smoothly until the day of the show. There was even a performance that was almost called off halfway through. The spirit was constantly being worn down, and the mentality gradually changed to ‘a show is a show’, but it also meant that I really cherished every time we were able to get together with fans at a livehouse.”
The band eventually played 38 shows in 36 cities, taking 10 months to complete a tour that was meant to be wrapped up in three. But even then, it finished without any sign of the album it was intended to promote.
“The hold-up was mostly to do with me,” admits Xu. “I wasn’t completely satisfied with the lyrics for some of the songs and I couldn’t finish them on time. Maybe there was too much 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 pile of abstract rhetoric, it was pretty casual. Now I’m more in awe of words, and I don’t want to be too deliberate or too casual. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”
At one show in Fuzhou in July last year, Xu addressed the somewhat bizarre situation of touring an album that wasn’t yet out. “We’re not really a band who knows how to promote ourselves,” he said with a shrug. Yet he was standing before a rapturous, sold-out crowd – fortunately for the band, Chinese Football’s refusal to play the game in a conventional manner has only served to endear them further to their fans over the course of their career.
“Among certain groups of music fans such as those who are into emo and math-rock, we seem to have become ‘traitors’ who are rushing to embrace pop music”
While they could have signed with one of China’s main indie labels years ago, the band have remained staunchly DIY since their founding in 2011, releasing material through Xu’s own Wild Records label and building a significant fanbase in the process. That following has spread far beyond their home country too, still something of a rarity for Chinese indie bands, thanks to tours in Japan and Southeast Asia plus the international attention garnered by playing a series of dates in 2019 with American Football.
Nevertheless, when ‘Win&Lose’ did eventually drop, the response in China was decidedly mixed. The diversification of the band’s sound – as heard in the dreamlike indie pop of ‘Human Lost’, which even comes with an accordion solo, and the light, lilting rock of ‘April Story’ – has led to some fierce online debate among their fanbase, something which Xu says initially knocked his confidence.
“Among certain groups of music fans such as those who are into emo and math rock, we seem to have become ‘traitors’ who are rushing to embrace pop music,” he says. “I feel very frustrated and aggrieved that the works that I think are quite sincere are regarded as products that cater to the market, and it gave me some self-doubt. But I know it’s actually people expecting a lot from us and we just didn’t live up to their expectations.”
While those comment section debates continue to rage on Chinese social media, ‘Win&Lose’ leapt to the top of the best-selling albums under Bandcamp’s math rock tag and number two under indie in the first week after its release. This led Xu to post that he’d “recovered some of my self-confidence,” but he insists the band still aren’t going to pander to anyone. Ultimately, he says, “we will continue to make more music according to our own preferences.”
That perseverance and dedication is another key part of the Chinese Football story. And while the last three years have been a tale of severe lockdowns, disruption and delay, the band is still standing. They’re also ready to pick up where they left off, starting with rebooking the tours of Japan and Europe they intended to undertake in 2020.
“We hope to go to more places too,” says Xu, allowing himself a little optimism. “One of the biggest impacts of the pandemic was on our 2020 world tour plans. Our goal in 2023 is to break out of Asia and go to the world. We hope to bring our music and meet people from all over the globe 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 started. “It feels like it’s been too long – if we could’ve completed the trilogy in three years it would’ve been better. Right now I feel very relaxed and I can gradually release that pressure and burden. And begin some new creations.”
So what might Chinese Football’s new era look like? “Because we’re a band that does a lot of live shows, the previous songs were all created with the live impression in mind, so they feel kind of taut. Maybe next we’ll try a more relaxed studio album, but that’s just my personal perspective at the moment.”
Despite having a new, accomplished album to promote, perhaps understandably Xu is keen to focus on fresh beginnings. To look to the future, whatever that may bring, win or lose. “The next chapter for Chinese Football has begun,” he says, “and I don’t know where it will go, which is probably the most exciting part.”
Chinese Football’s ‘Win&Lose’ is out now on Wild Records