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Chinadoll: The Nam Behind the Man
By Ben Ohmart
(more articles from this author)
2000-05-24
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JAMRAG (Detroit) called them "techno pop masquerading as art." I know because I stole a look at their web page. This could be Webster's definition of this group/guy, if Webster were indeed alive and at all cared. As it stands, I had a vague chance of scoring an e-conflab with such a weird commodity, and I jumped at it. If you want to know what I think - read my review (I'm giving nothing away), or, join all eyes on these Questions For Our Youth Of Today.

[Ben Ohmart] First of all, I notice you do most everything yourself music-wise, so I've got to ask: being so heavily reliant on yourself, what's the good, the bad, and the ugly about being your own music all the time? How do you stay inspired and awake?

[Robin] Staying awake is sometimes a problem, but staying inspired rarely is. I've got a notebook full of ideas, and dozens of cassette tapes with bits and pieces of melodies and rhythms. But usually I don' t have to go back to those tapes, 'cause I've almost always got a tune in my head to work with. I've been in bands before, and it was fun and I had a great time, but I just didn't feel that it was creatively fulfilling. I think maybe I have the temperament of a writer or a painter, since I usually do my best work when I'm on my own.

[BO] I rooted around the bio page of your very hip looking chinadoll.net but couldn't find much on Robin the person. For instance, what Robin were you named after? Hood, or the kid who had a Pooh Bear? Tell me about life untouched by tunes.

[Robin] Well, the thing is, I think that Robin the musician is far more interesting than Robin the person! And I'd rather people focused on the music, anyways. I've never included a photo of myself on any of the Chinadoll CDs, 'cuz I don't want "Robin" to be the product, I want the music to be the product. But if you *really* want to know what I'm up to when I'm not busy being the Chinadoll, I'm usually spending time with friends, drinking coffee, reading as much as I can and listening to as much music as I can. Oh yeah, and I was named after Christopher Robin!

[BO] But you live for music, I assume. Or is that an evil thought?

[Robin] Ahhh, no, not evil! But it's not always constructive, either. It's very easy to get caught up in the lifestyle of being a musician, and too much of that lifestyle revolves around narcissism and ego, and I really don't think that's helpful to a creative artist. I mean, musicians who spend their life on the road tend to write songs about life on the road, and I think we've all had enough of that, haven't we? I think it's important for every artist to maintain some sort of connection with the outside world, 'cuz that's where the audience lives. Unless you want to make art for other artists, or make music for other musicians, but that doesn't interest me.

[BO] You're getting airplay by the mini-van load, and racking up reviews by the review. Are there A People who dig you more than most? To what degree, if any, have fans played a part in what goes down in your performances and compositions?

[Robin] A lot of Chinadoll fans wear black lipstick! And a lot are in Australia, for some reason. Chinadoll has kind of been adopted by the goth community, which I find very flattering. I'm not one of those musicians who doesn't care what anyone thinks. It's really important to me to know that my work is appreciated, even if it's only a small number of people. Chinadoll doesn't make a lot of money for me, so it's really the fan mail and reviews and college radio play that determine whether I stop or go. Almost everyone who's heard my music seems to appreciate the fact that I'm doing something different, that there's something unique about the Chinadoll that they can't get anywhere else. I'm not sure what that is, 'cuz I'm really just trying to write a bunch of artsy pop songs. The Chinadoll is just Velvet Underground with a sampler. But maybe that is kind of unique...

[BO] You're signed up with MP3.com (hey, isn't everyone?), so I was curious how that and the web has helped you as an artist. Are you anything like the poor, pathetic, interviewing poets of the world (like me) who spend 90% of their time promoting, and the other 10% inspiration/performing/recording?

[Robin] The greatest thing about the web is that it makes communication a lot easier and a *lot* cheaper. With my last CD I was spending almost $300 each month on phone calls, trying to stay in touch with all the radio stations and record stores and magazines. Now I can just send an email and most of the time that's enough. Last time I checked MP3.com I've had over two hundred downloads, so that's extra exposure. But outside of that, I'm not sure what kind of effect the MP3's have had. I've never met anyone who has bought my CD 'cuz they heard it over the web. Everyone I've asked has either heard the Chinadoll on college radio or heard it from a friend.

I do spend a lot of time on promotion, but I keep it low-key. I don't do a hard sell, I try to work with people who are already enthusiastic about my music. If I talk with someone who doesn't like the Chinadoll, I just thank them for listening, put down the phone and call someone else. I don't want to get so caught up in the business that I can't separate it from the music, 'cause then it just turns into another lousy job and I've had enough of those!

[BO] If you could change something(s) about the music biz you have Personally touched, what would it be? And why the hell..?!?

[Robin] Jeez, I'm almost completely out of touch with "the music industry." Occasionally I'll meet someone from a major-league record label or radio station, but it's like, they're from Mars and I'm from Venus. We're speaking two different languages. I guess for them it's all about hype and promotion, but I can't relate to any of that. That's why I like dealing with college radio, 'cuz for them it's all about the music, and Internet radio has been really supportive of the new release. I guess it's kind of pointless to talk about changing "the music industry," 'cuz they're just going to follow the money, regardless of what artists have to say about it. But hopefully artists can find other outlets for their work, like the Internet and college radio and hopefully soon we'll have low-power FM radio as well.

[BO] Okay, let's dream for a moment. What's your ambition? Staying away from Mariah Carey's pants, what is your ultimate goal in this wavy world of vibrations and pitches?

[Robin] Um, Mariah Carey's pants wouldn't fit me anyways! Someday I'd like to make a CD with a string quartet, something orchestral... Or maybe something like Roxy Music's "Avalon"... But really, I don't plan far ahead, and I don't seem to have much of a goal or a focus. It just seems that I see the world a little differently than most people and the only way to express that is through words and music. So every couple of years I'll put out a new CD and that's a snapshot of what I'm seeing at that particular moment. Right now I feel that I've got enough energy and ideas to put out at least two more Chinadoll CDs. I've no idea what I'll be doing after that.

[BO] You've produced several CDs - good stuff. Would you consider yourself prolific? Does that mean if you had the cash and patience you'd put out as many CDs as Zappa? Or are you a performer at heart who'd rather play for The 3 Tenors audiences?

[Robin] Nah, I'm much more Zappa than the Three Tenors! Write me a check and I'll make a ten-disc box set... Heck, if I had enough cash I'd make a movie! I'm not sure if it would be any good, but I'd have fun trying. I'd do the soundtrack of course...

[BO] I too like soundtracks (I always write to them) and Prince. Can you describe a future interview in which someone names you as a major influence? Don't have the vanity for that? I'm amazed to find Julie London as a favorite of yours. Care to comment why I'm amazed?

[Robin] Me? A major influence? Wow, weird... But I guess it's possible, I once stumbled onto a website that had a quote from a song of mine, it said "even shadows dream of life and color," which is from the song "Ever Even Touch" on the Tango CD. And I wrote to the girl who did the website, and she said she'd never heard of the Chinadoll, but that a friend of hers had sent her the line in an email. So I guess the Chinadoll is already having a small effect on the culture.

Ahh, Julie London... well about two years ago a friend made me a tape of Julie London, and I just loved the orchestral arrangements, and her voice, of course. Wow, I haven't listened to that one in a long time, thanks for reminding me!

[BO] Vas ist das?

[Robin] Das ist ein Volkswagen!

[BO] Any parting shots to all your competition out there?

[Robin] Get a phaser. I've got a cheap Roland phaser effect pedal, and I can guarantee that everything sounds good with a phaser. No matter how rotten of a musician you are, no matter what you play, you'll sound cool with a phaser. I think they come free with every box of Crunch Berries.

Visit Chinadoll's Website @ www.chinadoll.net


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