Sunset Rollercoaster: Taiwanese soft rock crusaders in evolving pursuit of “a deeper feeling”

On new album ‘Soft Storm’, the band embrace the influence of quiet storm R&B – and the unexpected mentorship of Ned Doheny

Listening to music in 2020 can sometimes feel like stepping through time. The internet allows obscurities to be unearthed, and social media platforms send old favourites back to the charts.

Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ is now the soundtrack for a generation of TikTok users. Toto’s ‘Africa’ has been adopted as a meme and a party favourite of millennials. And when Steely Dan performed at Coachella in 2015, they drew their expected audience of boomer-age fans – but also young festival revellers who might only have encountered the band under the internet-spawned label of “yacht rock”.

When Tseng Kuo-Hung formed his band Sunset Rollercoaster in 2009, he wasn’t so much hoping they’d be discovered as he was dreaming of the time they would be rediscovered – by fastidious music nerds rescuing relics from the crates of the internet. “It was kind of a trolling idea,” the Taiwan native admits to NME.

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But you don’t need to know about Kuo’s original intentions for Sunset Rollercoaster to understand the band has always felt out of time. Their 2011 debut ‘Bossa Nova’ frolicks through blues rock, folk and power pop sounds, evoking a laid-back jamming session. Their 2016 EP ‘Jinji Kikko’ is a soft rock reverie, offering silky-smooth guitar lines, summery melodies and impeccable production.

“We were all like music nerds really digging into the ‘correct’ sound of making music”

‘Jinji Kikko’ is such a gorgeous project that you can hardly believe the nerdiness of its title: a reference to soul singer Jon Lucien’s cover of ‘Dindi’ by bossa nova architect Antônio Carlos Jobim, and Lucien’s mispronunciation of the song’s subject ‘Dindi’ as ‘Jinji’. That slip inspired Kuo to craft characters in a blossoming love story that the EP centers on. His penchant for storytelling continued on their 2018 album ‘Cassa Nova’, which embraced the yacht rock label that fans enthusiastically endorsed for ‘Jinji Kikko’, heightening the charm and summer vibes with added percussion and saxophone.

But Sunset Rollercoaster aren’t popular just because of listener nostalgia. Their exquisite arrangements and stellar musicianship make them stand out from the pack. “From the very beginning, it was all friends who supported my music,” Kuo says. But “fans in Taipei grew from 200 to 1,000.”

They then amassed a following outside of Taiwan, and embarked on successful tours of Europe and the United States. While in the US, they played a set for YouTube session series Audiotree Live, which made converts of those who couldn’t witness the magic of a live show.

In October, the band released their new album ‘Soft Storm’ – the album that reflects Kuo’s intention for Sunset Rollercoaster to shift gears. A largely synthesizer-driven work, its songs sound a few notches more downbeat than the rest of their discography. Instead of telling the same story of romance through different characters, ‘Soft Storm’ contains pockets of tales capturing the lives of a town’s dwellers just as a rainstorm begins to descend.

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Yes, ‘Soft Storm’ is about a narrative involving rain – but that’s not the point. As Kuo says, “It’s about a deeper feeling.” The album’s title is an allusion to the once-heralded radio genre known as quiet storm, a label cribbed from the 1975 single by Smokey Robinson of the same name. A ruminative strain of soft rock, jazz and R&B, it digs past the evocative romance that Christopher Cross once sang about in ‘Sailing’ towards ineffable emotion.

That deeper feeling Kuo points to is what he treasures the most about the quiet storm sub-genre. “They tried to shift away from topics like love a little bit,” he explains, “so they can try to find another angle to talk about the story of human relationships.”

The narrative of the album turns the titular ‘Soft Storm’ into a catalyst for ordinary folk working through evolving stages of an intimate relationship. By closing track ‘Candlelight’, all that remains are memories, ending the album on a melancholic note.

For the first time, Kuo focused not on nailing a vintage sound with precision, but working through an unwavering narrative. “Maybe it’s a process of growing up in making music,” he muses. “We were all like music nerds really digging into the ‘correct’ sound of making music. But I’m kind of tired, feeling a bit bored about making the same music over and over again.”

Changes in scenery were crucial in paving the album’s trajectory. The first came when Kuo began writing ‘Candlelight’ in a hotel room in Tokyo mid-tour, drawing from the desolate streets below. “It was really quiet – no cars on the streets, and a lot of neon lights up high in the sky,” he remembers. “I felt a kind of loneliness.”

Kuo wrapped up the lyrics and arrangement, building upon an instrumental jam tucked away in the band’s archives two years prior. Two days later, he shared it with Oh Hyuk, frontman of indie rock band Hyukoh, who crossed paths with the band while on their own tour. After a brief listen, the South Korean musician immediately requested to sing on the track.

Instead of firing up an instrumental solo, as is tradition for most Sunset Rollercoaster songs, Kuo invited Oh Hyuk in to deliver an impassioned bridge. He ignites the song’s emotional core: “All snuffed like candlelights / Left up to broken memories / All snuffed like candlelights / Only a glimmer in me now.”

“To me, that’s the solo part,” Kuo beams. “It’s not an instrumental solo: it’s a vocal solo.”

The next stage came when Sunset Rollercoaster toured the US in 2019. In Los Angeles, Kuo crossed paths with a musician he had long admired: Ned Doheny.

Ned Doheny was a living example of what Kuo had envisioned in his “trolling idea” years back: a musician who breezed through the 1970s crafting one finely tuned soft rock album after the other, finding little success with audiences along the way – but earning a cult-like following decades later, his songs burning up dancefloors commandeered by modern disco DJs. His friend Jackson Browne once described him as a “desert-trekking, guitar-playing, surfing singer-songwriter”, the soft rock dream made flesh.

Kuo was adamant on getting Doheny to produce ‘Soft Storm’, reuniting with him in the city in March to work on ideas for the album. The ensuing pandemic, however, halted their progress. Their time spent together resulted in one album track, ‘Overlove’, and other musical ideas that Kuo is putting aside for now. But working with Doheny was still, for Kuo, a life-changing process.

“I kept asking him all these kinds of [questions],” Kuo says, “and he just looks at me and smiles, saying, ‘You don’t have to worry about it. People already love your music, that means you already have some craft, a treasure. You just don’t worry. Don’t be afraid about expressing yourself’.” Analysing the band’s past works, Doheny had only one simple piece of advice: that Kuo shouldn’t mix his vocals too low.

Kuo’s usual songwriting process, he says, is pretty basic: nailing down vocal harmonies and arrangements by himself in demo form before getting down to the lyrics. A collaborative setting, let alone with someone as venerated as Doheny, was uncharted territory. “Ned helped me to run through what I was thinking, all the concepts I had,” Kuo says, “and just helped me to layer down to a beautiful song structure. I’d say it’s a vintage, old-school way. It’s beautiful.”

Sunset Rollercoaster new album Soft Storm 2020 interview Kuo
Credit: Press

Kuo soon returned to Taipei, where he spent two weeks in quarantine before reconvening with his band. Taiwan’s swift handling of the coronavirus crisis allowed a smooth and unencumbered recording process: “Taipei was all normal, there were no restrictions after quarantine.”

Up till then, every recorded effort by Sunset Rollercoaster had been tracked by their producer and close friend, YuChain Wang. With a bounty of recording knowledge from his time with Doheny, Kuo felt the urgent need to work with someone else at the helm. After two months worth of jamming with his bandmates, in came Jon Du, Kuo’s former bandmate in experimental rock band Forests 森林.

Du’s main project is characterised by the blistering tension of no wave-inspired synths and gigantic free-form drumwork – everything Sunset Rollercoaster is not. So it took a great deal of convincing on Kuo’s part for Du to come onboard; Kuo believed Du’s role would set the right challenge for the band. “We did have several meetings, during clubbing, actually,” Kuo laughs.

In many ways, ‘Soft Storm’ still feels in line within Sunset Rollercoaster’s discography — their arrangements remain as lush as ever, with plenty of guitarwork that should please older fans. A guest feature by burgeoning R&B artist Michael Seyer infuses quiet storm’s soulful DNA directly into ‘Passerby’, with backup vocals endowing the song with a seductiveness you can’t find in any other work of theirs.

‘Soft Storm’ is also sung entirely in English, a practice Kuo intends on continuing. When he sings in the language, “I feel like I have new thoughts about why I keep thinking about the same thing.” He might work on a Mandarin song, though, “probably at the end of the year, or next year.”

What has changed is Kuo’s approach to the craft of songwriting, one that he credits wholeheartedly to Doheny. Though he’s still knee-deep in the production process as ever – tweaking the drum programming, layering synthesizers, scrutinizing mixes, adding flourishes – an unshakeable truth now guides Kuo’s work.

“Now I’m trying to focus on the story, the message that I’m bringing into the song,” he says. “If you have a message, all the technical parts will help the song to fly.”

Sunset Rollercoaster’s ‘Soft Storm’ is out now

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