Hsu-nami guitarist Brent Bergholm and electric ehru player Jack Hsu at the Spring Scream Festival Taiwan Tour 2011. Photo courtesy of Hsu-nami.
How does an Asian-fusion rock band from New Jersey become an internationally renowned instrumental rock group touring the US, Taiwan, and China? For Hsu-nami (pronounced like “tsunami” and named after band member Jack Hsu), success was all about being open to a different approach and being in the right place at the right time. The first thing you’ll notice about Hsu-nami is Hsu’s instrument: an electric erhu. The Chinese violin is traditionally played while sitting down, but Hsu definitely does not sit still while playing his modified electric erhu, and neither does anyone in the crowd watching him.
Hsu along with Brent Bergholm (guitar), Dana Goldberg (keyboard), Derril Sellers (bass), and John Manna (drums) started Hsu-nami in 2005, touring college campuses in the tri-state area. The band is now preparing for their second tour in Taiwan, performing at the Spring Scream Festival and in the “Hello! Taiwan” tour this coming April. Ever the DIY-ers, the band created an online fundraising campaign to raise money to offset the costs of travel.
Guitarist Brent Bergholm chatted with BTR about the Jersey band’s international appeal, how their music got picked up at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, and if and when they’ll ever do a cover of “Baby Got Back.” Fingers crossed.
BreakThru Radio: So, what is an erhu and how did you guys come up with the idea to modify it for your band?
Brent Bergholm: The thing that was interesting about the band is Jack originally played classical violin. He played for a philharmonic [orchestra] in north Jersey that’s played at Carnegie Hall before. He’s pretty accomplished that way. Then his father sent him to China to learn the erhu, and he would just play for hours and hours. Then when he got to college, he started playing around with it. The traditional way to play is sitting down, but he modified it so he could move around, adding a mic and an amp, a wawa pedal, loop pedals… That’s at least how Jack made his electric erhu.
BTR: How did the band get started and how does a band from Jersey get signed in Taiwan?
BB: We’d been trying to get an Asian fusion band started for a while. We all were in similar music circles, so we started playing together at Ramapo College. As we got more popular, we started playing Rutgers, Columbia, and we’d play in the city all the time. Mostly we played college and anime conventions, which is where most of our fans were. Then we heard from Universal Records, who have a connection in China, so we went to play a showcase for them. The funny way it ended up was that, while we were there for the Chinese record label, we got asked to join a festival in Taiwan. We booked the festival and a tour in Taiwan, and it really just snowballed from there.
The festival in Taiwan we played was Spring Scream, and we really killed it there. We were only supposed to play one set, but we came out for an encore because people were going nuts. As for the tour, more and more fans showed up to each show as it progressed. Eventually a record label saw us, Big Lucky Entertainment, and they put out an album we had previously released ourselves in the US. From that, we went from playing the shows we did in the US to playing these huge venues in Taiwan.
BTR: Who would you say are your musical influences as a band?
BB: It’s definitely an array of styles. We like to think of our music as progressive rock, so major influences are early Genesis, Yes, King Crimson…Japanese rock bands like B’Z. Chinese traditional music, American Rock, and Japanese Rock, and traditional American music are all genres that we pull from.
BTR: What was it like having your music featured in the Beijing Olympics?
BB: Basically, we had played for a festival in New York and there was someone there from NBA Entertainment, who later became a music director at the Olympics. He liked our song “Rising of the Sun” and played it whenever the Chinese basketball team would enter and exit the stadium.
BTR: Did you guys know he was going to use the song? Or was it one of those moments when you’re watching the Olympics, and you realize, “Oh hey, that’s my song…”
BB: No, no…he came up to us after the show asking for a CD, saying he liked our music and wanted to use it in the future. A lot of people do that, asking for music, but they rarely end up actually using it. He called us up to tell us about the Olympics, and you don’t really say “no” to that kind of thing.
After that, we got offers to tour Canada, all over the United States, and we toured China this past October. The Olympics story was featured in The Bergen Record, and then the AP picked it up. Then it was in every newspaper you could think of. Having that accolade has opened a lot of doors for us.
BTR: What do fans think of your music, and what it’s like being known half way around the world?
BB: It’s interesting because we’re a cross-cultural band, so we get lots of different opinions. Some people tell us, since we’re an instrumental band, that we need lyrics or we should have vocals in our music. Others are more passionate, though, and say things like, it’s fascinating to them, or it’s inspired them to write their own music or paint or write. Like, before we even arrived in Taiwan for our first festival and tour – we had a little bit of exposure before we went over – there was another rock band doing the type of music we did, and they actually cited us as one of their influences.
Playing in other countries is amazing. I started playing when I was 13, and I played for a punk band in Monmouth County. I never thought I’d be playing in China for ten thousand people. I can’t even speak Chinese. I speak in English to the crowd, and the people are just so into it and go nuts when they come to our shows.
BTR: You’ve started a fundraiser to go back to Taiwan and play at Spring Scream for the second time…
BB: Yes, basically our label has agreed to pay for our expenses once we’ve arrived, but we have to come up for the money for air fair. We’re very much a DIY effort as a band, and the last time we went to Asia, we paid out of pocket. This time we’re trying to help the cover flight travel expenses and other internal travel.
The site we’re using is IndieGOGO and the great thing about it is that there are individual perks based on how much money you donate. $5 will give you an mp3 download of an unreleased song from our third album, which is still a work in progress. $15 will get you a signed copy of our second CD. For $200, you can request any song and Hsu-nami will do a cover of that song. I don’t know how we would do something like “Baby Got Back” but it can definitely be done Hsu-nami style. Other perks include a personal thank you video, and we would thank the donor personally from a cool spot in Taiwan when we get there. We wouldn’t be able to do this without our fans’ help, so we wanted to find lots of ways to give back.
BTR: What are you looking forward to the most going back to Taiwan?
BB: Taiwan is this really crazy place, and being there is a real culture shock in the best way possible. The crowds are so accepting and enthusiastic. We’re really looking forward to meeting new bands and solidifying our spot in Asia. We’ve got a niche thing in America, but in Asia is a chance to have a real career.
Hsu-nami perform “Entering the Mandala” at last year’s Spring Scream festival in Taiwan.