Throwaway Style is a monthly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, every month on KEXP.org.
On this month’s edition, Martin Douglas speaks with the married Seattle pop duo Chinese American Bear about theirlong journey as both musicians and partners and how their lighthearted musical style is paired with staunch DIY ethos.
You know what they say: The couple who rides into their interview on a moped together…
In the fading moments of office hours, Anne Tong and Bryce Barsten — the married duo who write and perform songs as Chinese American Bear — meet me in the courtyard of KEXP, helmets in hand. It’s the first warm day of the year (a little late to the party, given this day reveals itself in late April) and in spite of temperatures being somewhere in the 70s, folks wearing hockey jerseys have descended upon Seattle Center in support of the Kraken’s home game in the NHL Playoffs, making themselves eligible for the tournament for the Stanley Cup in only their second season.
Plenty of people have abandoned the skin-crawling notion of wearing baggy polyester outerwear meant for its resistance to being in such close proximity to an ice floor. In the surrounding areas, there are lots of shorts creeping below the seven-inch inseam standard; a plethora of t-shirts and short-sleeved button-downs and sundresses and those black spandex shorts that college volleyball players wear.
Obviously, if you had the choice to ride any manner of two-wheeled vehicle after an extended late-winter which brought months of gray skies, rain, and sub-50-degree temperatures, you’d be a fool to not take it on a day like this. And Anne and Bryce are nobody’s fool. (At the risk of sounding too informal, I will be referring to both musicians by their first names. It feels weird to refer to a married couple by their last names, even though said last names are different.)
The first time I saw Chinese American Bear or heard a note of their music, they were playing their first show as a band; a gig at Sunset Tavern wedged between Throwaway Style all-stars Rachaels Children and psych-leaning post-punks Spirit Award. The spectacle of Chinese American Bear’s set belied their lack of tandem experience as a live band. It felt like a dance party in an alternate dimension or a borderline overdose of MDMA; the bright colors of both stage and music, people dancing in toy bear heads and dumpling costumes, the charge of serotonin rush of truly overstimulating fun.
As the three of us got settled, Anne and Bryce found a bathroom where they could change for photos. When they returned, they were adorned in the wigs that have become an integral part of their stage presence. About the wigs, Anne later says in our interview, “[They] make us feel less self-conscious and able to be our quirky selves onstage. When we put a wig on, it removes us from our day-to-day.”
For someone with Anne’s background as a classically trained pianist, her experience learning how to become a live performer in the context of pop music has been fun for her. Bryce says, “She turned out to be a natural performer. We got lucky.”
Bryce’s life in music started with piano lessons when he was six years old. “I was begging my parents to play because my sister played before me,” he says. “She’s older and would cry at the piano every single time, and so [my parents] wouldn’t let me play, but I begged them.”
Anne also has a background in classical music, taking violin lessons at age five (he hated it). “My mom said it was extremely painful to hear me practice, so I quit violin after a year,” he says with a laugh. Eventually, he gravitated toward piano, playing the instrument throughout his childhood and “pretty competitively” as a teenager, making his way to minoring in piano performance while attending college.
About what has drawn Bryce to classical music for the majority of his life, he speaks to how the form has taught him both discipline and how to use a different part of his brain. Musically, he speaks about how classical compositions have survived hundreds of years for good reason, and the range of possibilities in its style.
“I think we had very different childhoods,” Anne says with a chuckle. She met Bryce in the eighth grade while living in Spokane, but before her and her family landed in Eastern Washington, they lived in a variety of locales after leaving China when she was six or seven years old. Anne and her family lived in Michigan, Arizona, and West Virginia before venturing to Washington State. She recalls having attended seven different public schools before her family found a permanent home in Spokane, due to the nature of her father’s work and “getting settled in the country as immigrants.”
Concurrently, Bryce grew up on a llama farm in Spokane, being taught the value of hard work by his parents. “In the ‘90s, there was what we called a ‘llama boom,’” he says. “In the U.S., it was only in the Pacific Northwest. My dad caught a whiff [of inspiration] from someone that was like, ‘You’ve got to invest in llamas, llamas are where it’s at.’ My dad was really into side hustles, so he bought a herd of 30 and some land; dragged my mom into it.”
The llamas were sold and bred for show, but eventually, the llama boom went bust. Bryce says, “It was lucrative for a handful of years, but it was short-lived. Classic llama investment bubble.”
About her early years in Spokane, Anne says, “For those who haven’t been there, it’s not a very diverse city; it’s predominantly white working-class backgrounds. And so in our high school of about 2000 [students], there’s probably a handful of Asians and minority kids; I can count on my fingers.”
Anne notes the experience of having strict immigrant parents and how their disciplined nature affected her limited social life in high school. “I didn’t go to my first dance until senior year,” she says. “I was a bit of a quiet recluse, just staying at home, practicing piano, and studying.”
Bryce grew up in a conservative Christian household, and he says, “Even though [my parents] weren’t strict with academics, they did push me to make sure when I was doing something, I was hustling and putting in a lot of effort.” He describes his parents’ rules as “loosey-goosey,” but he had duties on the llama farm which greatly influenced his work ethic.
Anne and Bryce met through their mutual friend Bryan, who is now the drummer for Chinese American Bear. “He was my neighbor in high school and I would get rides to school from him,” Anne says. “And because Bryan was Bryce’s childhood best friend, that’s how we met.”
“He was like, ‘Yeah man, I’ve been giving this girl a ride to jazz band in the morning,” Bryce recalls. “‘I think you’ll like her.’ So I kind of snuck my way in. We started flirting, and then—”
Anne interjects. “He was definitely not as smooth as he’s making it sound!” A burst of laughter fills the room.
Part and parcel to the charm of Chinese American Bear — every bit as much as the “Daiso on an acid trip” aesthetic or the bright sounds or their infectiously enjoyable live shows — is the fact that the group’s creative nucleus is a married couple who has spent nearly half of their lives in a romantic partnership. Anne and Bryce engage in the standard practices of many happily married couples; finishing each other’s sentences (it is difficult to properly convey how often this happens in a written feature, sadly), sharing similar (nay, near-identical) comedic sensibilities, stealing glances and engaging the sort of unspoken language only decipherable to each other. They clearly relished reminiscing over the early days of their relationship and recalling the spark that remains blinding after so much time together.
This long-running spate of martial acceptance and bliss was not without its early challenges. When Anne and Bryce first started dating, they kept it a secret from Anne’s parents for a while. First by nature of Anne not being allowed to date at all, and later because of an implication inferred by Anne that her parents wanted their children to partner up with a suitor who was enormously well-educated and had a job with lots of financial security.
I’m certain this path of thinking is very familiar to many first-generation Americans reading this feature.
Anne remarks, “And then, of course, I go and meet someone who is not Chinese American. Bryce is very much white — part Mexican [by way of his paternal grandmother] — goes to art school, is a musician, doesn’t check any [of their] boxes.”
“With a B-minus average,” Bryce adds to the tune of more uproarious laughter.
Soon enough, Anne and Bryce both graduated from high school and chose the colleges they would attend. She mentioned thinking that her parents were secretly hoping her and Bryce’s high school romance would fade, but she would take the train from Princeton (where she was studying for her MBA in Economics) to New York (where Bryce attended art school).
By the time they made it to college, the secret was out as far as Bryce and Anne being in love. “When you’re a teenager, you think you’re so good at hiding things from your parents,” Anne says. Bryce spoke of being invited to Anne’s senior recital and her mom knowing he was the guy Anne had feelings for. He said her mom refused to make eye contact with him.
Bryce described his first encounter with Anne’s mother “the scariest, coldest experience I’ve ever had with someone. She just did not want to acknowledge my existence, which hurt a bit.”
As for Bryce’s parents, Anne says they were warm and welcoming from day one. But over the course of a long period — about six or seven years by the couple’s estimation — Bryce won Anne’s parents over. His worth ethic and desire to make something of himself began to impress them. He worked through school and continued making music. He learned Chinese and has gained conversational fluency in the language, being able to talk to Anne’s parents in their primary language. Bryce proved he loved Anne and would take care of her, and also reversed the negative stereotypes Anne speculated they may have had of artists. (“That they’re lazy,” she says. “Or drug dealers,” Bryce adds.)
This line of conversation brought forth some understanding as to why Anne’s parents — and perhaps many more immigrant parents — do what they feel they need to do to protect their children. They come to an entirely new country with maybe some preconceptions about Americans and American culture. (A well-traveled musician friend of mine once told me about non-Americans, “They think we’re all cowboys.”) They want the best for their children because they’ve more often than not worked their asses off to provide good lives for them. So they don’t want their kids to succumb to bad influences who poison the values they’ve instilled in their offspring.
As it relates specifically to Bryce and Anne’s love story, Bryce acknowledges that understanding Anne’s parents came with getting to know them better. “All those reasons of them not liking me became understandable, therefore they didn’t hurt as much. And I also feel like I could understand their culture a little more. If I was a terrible person, like they [previously] assumed, I could have messed it up for her. People fall for the wrong people and they can drag them down.”
Anne noted that her parents worked so hard just to survive for so long that they wanted more than just survival for her. And now, she says, “My parents very much see him as one of their own children. They’re extremely loving towards Bryce. My mom tells me all the time, ‘Are you being mean to your husband? Don’t bully him.’”
The earliest iteration of Chinese American Bear stemmed from Bryce learning Chinese. Being a natural (and, at that point, already longtime) musician, the fact that Mandarin is a tonal language appealed to him. A brief, introductory lesson in the tonality of the Chinese dialect of Mandarin proved fascinating as Anne explained it to me, so I certainly understand the appeal of having a workable facility with all its intricacies.
This was a period when Bryce and Anne knew they would be moving away from New York and to Chicago for the next stage of their lives. While in New York, Bryce played in a few bands and tried to make a real go of establishing a career as an indie musician. The experience of trying to “make it” as a working musician — and especially the time, money, and soul drain felt after dumping his heart into his main band, Noble Kids — left him depressed.
Bryce says, “The last six months I was in New York, I wasn’t writing music for this band anymore, and I was looking to write new music and simultaneously was starting to learn Chinese. And so we wrote this song called ‘Xiao Xiong.’” Anne notes the phrase translates to “little bear,” which stemmed from pet names Bryce and Anne called each other.
“And for the first time,” Anne says, speaking directly to Bryce, “you wrote music just for fun, rather than taking it so serious.”
Bryce adds, “Yeah, I feel like my whole life writing music was… it had to be serious.”
“You used to overthink the music you wrote, work [the songs] to death almost. And with Chinese American Bear, you started writing music where you definitely didn’t overthink it.”
Upon arriving in Chicago, Bryce and Anne released the first Chinese American Bear songs and started to find an unexpectedly enthusiastic audience. (“Not a big burst,” Bryce says, “but a little splash.”) The duo started noticing that they had legitimate fans of their art.
“And that’s when we were like, ‘Maybe we should…’”
“Write more music!” Anne finishes the thought.
Chinese American Bear, the group’s debut full-length, is warm, kaleidoscopic, and compulsively addictive; it’s a sugar rush of an album akin to wolfing down two handfuls of penny candy as soon as you escape the grocery with your receipt. Its songs are sung in both Mandarin and English, but it’s safe to say you need not be fluent in either language to enjoy the songs. “爱的大巴 (Love Bus)” is one of the catchiest songs you’ll hear this decade, “爱是 (Love Is)” should go on your next romantic playlist immediately, and “珍珠奶茶 (Boba Tea),” with its enjoyably dirty chorus, proves the group is willing to sneak a little adult humor into the Trojan horse of its childlike whimsy, with Anne and Bryce referencing Pixar movies and Spongebob Squarepants as a clear through-line for its wink toward grown-up audiences.
A fascinating wrinkle to this story — and, in a roundabout way, an aspect about careerism I try to impart to younger musicians in the Seattle music scene — is how Bryce jettisoned the industry striver mentality and decided to have fun playing music with the person he loves. And because of that, he has seen some fantastic early success. There is an authenticity to what Chinese American Bear are doing with their work, from writing songs they enjoy playing to producing their own recordings and music videos themselves. It’s almost like being true to yourself makes a smoother pathway to quote-unquote “success” (talking about the monetary/career security aspects of the word) than trying so hard to play the industry’s game.
Bryce says, “It’s about us trying to retain this ethos of not trying. Because the harder you try, the harder it is.” Anne adds the idea that it’s important for them to be themselves in the face of more people being involved in their career: “We want to preserve that initial feeling we had, [where this] was just fun and authentic and lighthearted.”
That lightheartedness naturally extends to their performances, part of the world-building Anne and Bryce strive to create with Chinese American Bear; rife with their creative comforts and self-described lack of boundaries/”quirky,” “wacky,” “weird” shared sense of humor. Their stage show was inspired in part by the Flaming Lips and they spoke glowingly about the importance of entertaining the crowds who happen to be party to their performances; throwing dumpling plushies out to audience members and encouraging them to dance.
But all that ties very much into the sense of autonomy Bryce and Anne feel over the business of being a band. Along with the digital and CD copies of Chinese American Bear, they have also taken the radical position of making their master recordings available for free. Bryce mentions being a big King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard fan and was inspired by the fact that the Australian psych band made the masters for their album Polygondwanaland accessible through free downloads. (“I mean, it was like seven albums ago,” Bryce says when I told him I hadn’t heard the band did this.)
It’s an egalitarian move, making your album available to press or sell or give away to whomever; it’s a gleeful way to flout the capitalistic endeavor of being a band. Bryce says it was another way to not be wrapped up in the system and be more childlike, and the results have manifested themselves in the form of fans in countries as far-flung as the Philippines and Japan producing cassettes and CDs.
For all the notions of whimsy and lightheartedness, there is an importance to what Anne Tong and Bryce Barsten are doing with this Chinese American Bear project. We’re in the poison bubble days of late-stage capitalism and it has infected the global music community to where even the most localized artists are compelled to cleverly brand and sell themselves like corporations.
Chinese American Bear is here to remind us that without the mom-and-pop stores, all we have is one big fucking strip mall. Which makes for a boring music scene.
It has been a minute since we’ve last heard from the duo of Kristin Henry and Brad Boettger, the braintrust behind Seattle’s most sleek and stylish electronic duo. As the saying goes, life comes at you fast. After the ever-present global health crisis known as COVID prevented Henry and Boettger from properly touring their 2019 opus 25O4 and impending motherhood came while the duo was conceptualizing new music, NAVVI ended up writing and producing the bulk of V remotely, resulting in a piece of music that is no less intimate than their past classics. The downtempo warmth of songs like “Blue Murcielago” and “IV” thaws some of the (mostly perceived) icy cool NAVVI previously exhibited, and “Love,” Henry’s ode to motherhood is striking in its gorgeous vulnerability.
The rapping, painting, Tacoma-reared, Las Vegas-based superstar in the making has dubbed his fourth full-length “a summer album for Tacoma.” And if you’ve ever spent a full day at the Taste or cruising down the Ruston Way Waterfront in spite of the signs posted discouraging such behavior, it’s definitely the album you’ll want to throw on when someone passes you the aux. Produced entirely by Tacoma’s own BALOOGZ — skating through immaculately summery bounce with ease — Perry enlists a who’s who of Puget Sound’s top talents (Stas THEE Boss, Bruce Leroy, LIVt, Blake Anthony, and Bear Bro, just to name a few) to join the rooftop party. If you need a break from high-concept listening material and just want to vibe out and soak up some sun, Chariot is the optimal record for that sort of activity.
When Eleanor Dumouchel moved to Seattle in 2018, there was probably very little recognition that Rat Paws would become the latest in a long lineage of the Pacific Northwest’s storied history of indie-pop music. While the band is largely referred to as “unironic post-punk,” I hear a lot of Beat Happening-style love rock in their sound, but maybe that’s because Dumouchel has a singing voice and lyrical stylings that are favorably comparable to Heather Lewis, especially on the EP highlights “Shelf” and “Bad Arcade (Seattle Version).” I’m going to venture to guess that if your tastes are similar to the sort of stuff favored on Throwaway Style and my deep dives on Pacific Northwest music, you have officially found your new favorite not-new band.
Known primarily for his work with Porter Ray — an artist I have gone on record to say is among the very best rappers Seattle has ever produced — the Renton-based beatmaker put out a small handful of instrumental summer jams about six months too early. Mirage strikes a balance between funk, ambient bounce, cloudy boom-bap, and Just Blaze-style lighters-up anthems in the span of under ten minutes. If you’ve been banging Porter’s recent single “Baggin’ Glory,” don’t sleep on the heavy vibrations of BRoc’s instrumental productions.
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