Looking back with the billKillers
The billKillers were a popular band playing around Qingdao from 2005 to 2007, at venues including the Lennon, outdoors at Sunshine Starbucks, MAX 07 and more. Here’s a look back on their time in Qingdao. A version of this interview also appears in the OCT 09 issue of Arteffect.
The billKillers were:
- Jeremy Van Sluytman: bass, vocals
- Alex Roy: drums
- Marc Montebello: guitar, vocals
How did you get involved with the bK’s? How long did you play with them?
Alex: How does anyone get involved in anything? A guy knows a guy, who knows this other dude… Thinking back, I guess it all started with the Cheatles: a Beatles cover band fronted by Ian Burns and his migrant, day-laborer brother Paul. Marc and I held up the George and Ringo end of things, the Shea Stadium outfits were purchased and the gigs quickly followed. A lot of the practice sessions were done at the Club New York. Management was pretty good to us; gave us all the time we needed, but best of all, offered up the equipment to jam on.
But the party soon ended when Paul’s vacation came to a close. Ian return to his magazine, but for the two work-a-days, there was still a lot of music left to play. Fortunately, there were always a few talented people at any one time in Qingdao. Those two were Ezra Voth, another ESLer, and of course the ever charming Jeremy.
How did you feel to be on stage in Qingdao?
Marc: I hope I appreciated those times with the billKillers as much as I miss them now. That would include Shenzhen and Cui Jian, though our very first gig for Porsche as the Cheatles is most probably a close third. Then again, how does one pick when there were so many gigs, jam sessions, offshoots (Alex and I unplugged playing a charity for the Red Cross comes to mind) along with the motley collection of folks sitting in with us at Lennon Bar. Lest we forget our alumni, Ezra was one of the originals, but there was also Thomas Heine (bassist), Angela Wang (vocalist), Peter Burnside (virtuoso guitar/bass) and Preston Roy (drummer extraordinaire) – am I forgetting anyone?
Jeremy: As you know if you ever attended one of our gigs, I’m not a singer. In fact I don’t really like singing very much, but singing was WELL worth it as it meant we could get and keep the bK thing going for as long as we did. I have to admit we did some frustrations along the way, but it was a LOT of fun, and I felt very lucky to have some of the most amazing musical experiences I’ve ever…well..experienced on stage in the Dao with Marc and Alex. Good times, good times.
Alex: Every gig was a good gig, even when it went bad. Every cigarette in between sets and sometimes songs was good, even when it burnt the drum rug. Every PA system did the job, even when it made your head explode from the feedback. Every taxi driver got us there, even if there were bad feelings about 5 drums and a lot of steel messing with his interior. And every crowd was my Castle Donington racetrack even when it was just a handful of weeknight office workers shaking dice at their table.
Did people relate to your music directly or did you feel that there is a culture gap?
Alex: Sure, there was a culture gap when we played for the local crowd. But do you always want experienced concert-goers in your crowd? No way. To be a first impression for some was amazing when I reflect on it. I know there had to be a few people here and there, when we played an outdoor gig, that had just come to the big city and had seen their first foreign rock band play the blues.
It wasn’t always like that, though. By the time we were rolling, university students were well aware of what was out there. I guess the real gap was that we were being compared to the Linkin Park or Metallica video some kid saw last weekend, rather than being seen for what we were, a couple of musicians putting our own spin on a bunch of the classics.
Jeremy: I totally agree with Alex. My wife’s Mom came to a couple of our shows outside Sunshine Plaza. She had never heard that type of music before, much less seeing it played live and loud. She said it looked just like on TV…hmm, that gave me a chuckle. If that’s true, I hope programming improves.
What types of songs did you perform?
Alex: Classic rock. I wish I could make it genuine and say that was all. But we also played a couple top forties here and there and they were fun too. My favorites were Sunshine of Your Love, Whole Lotta Rosie, Angel, and Little Wing.
Marc: We did put together some noteworthy original songs, composed by Jeremy and arranged by the trio. Five of these were included on our one and only cd (recorded outdoors at Sunshine Starbucks). Besides Hendrix (duh), these eventually became my favourite tunes to perform.
Ed. note: billKillers originals available on www.archive.org
Do you listen to any Chinese rock music?
Jeremy: I know this may not seem too cool, but Dike Nuzai’s 1st album was kind of the soundtrack to myself and my wife May dating. She loved that CD, and we listened to it A LOT! I also really like some of Dao Lan’s music, and of course Cui Jian.
Alex: Not as much as I should have. I listened to some of Cui Jian and Hei Bao, but I just couldn’t get into it. Culture Gap. I did, however, love the work of a few indie bands that were pumping out a western sound: Reflector, Recycle, and Ping Pong Party. Still have them on my iTunes.
What is your best memory of playing in the band? Worst, funniest, most embarrassing, proudest?
Alex: Best memory had to be when we traveled to Shenzhen and played at the club part-owner by Leon Durupt. Many remember Leon from his time fronting the Club NY band and the incredible legacy he left in Qingdao. We played three nights, the equipment was awesome, the crowd was into it every step of the way, and the time spent off the stage was one big party. There was even a large group of friends that made the trip south with us. It wouldn’t have been the same without them. Oh ya, and there was that time we played for Cui Jian.
Jeremy: Yup, Shenzhen is way up there. The Halloween bK Beer Bus Magical Mystery Blur was a great night as well.
Marc: Worst gig? None! But if I had to choose (from memory), something bringing up the rear in crowning moments would probably be our ‘Elvis’ show at the Shangri-la. Don’t ask.
Are you playing in a band now?
Alex: I wish. I sit at home and practice. The dude downstairs wishes I would drop dead, I’m sure. Patience. Patience is a virtue.
Jeremy: the bK thing was my first time playing in years, and I’m guessing it will be a while until I’m in a band again.
Marc: I’m still playing, just as Alex and Jeremy would if they were here, but the absolute truth is it ain’t the same since they’ve left. Then again, neither is Qingdao. Our regular fans were friends, an extended family as the cliché goes, and much of that has faded along with the naive sincerity of our modus operandi. Nonetheless, there are some good players here now and I am continually humbled to be able to perform with this town’s finest bunch of rock and rollers.
What would you tell Qingdao musicians about how to have fun and succeed in playing music in QD?
Alex: Here’s a few simple rules:
- Know every club owner, and be prepared to drink with them.
- Get a regular cabbie.
- Play every gig, no matter how small, how remote, uncool, lame, or bogus it is. It’s just more with your bros, and the time goes quick.
- Make music the priority, someone has to. If not you, then you’re just a follower.
- Sometimes you gotta play what they want to hear. You throw a few of the crowd pleasers in there, and the Led Zepplin is a little easier for the mothers to swallow.
- And appreciate the fans, everyone of them. Be prepared to drink with them.
Jeremy: Alex has done his usual concise and absolutely accurate summation. Anyone playing in the Dao now, appreciate it for the unique place and experience it is – bath house gigs and all?? Marc, I’ll let you field that one…
Marc: Whilst I concur with most of what Alex says I would advise foregoing the cabbie and making friends with a dude and a flatbed. Oh, and stay away from playing in bath houses – I’m still trying to shake this image from months ago, playing in front of a bunch of sozzled Korean businessmen in their jammies. though admittedly, the money was good. 🙂