Interview with Cantopop bassist John von Seggern

John von Seggern, 28, is an American bassist who grew up in Grand Island, Nebraska, and received a B.A. in Music at Carleton College. After graduating in 1990, John spent a year in New York City, dabbling in both jazz and pop music while taking part in the New School for Social Research Jazz Program. In addition to playing in several prestigious Manhattan night clubs, he studied under Gary Peacock and the bassist for jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.

However, the Far East beckoned, and John stretched his talent through more eclectic gigs, such as playing backup for recordings, doing a TV commercial, and exploring the techno/ambient in fashion shows. He also tried his hand at acid jazz, performing in numerous funky Tokyo discos, and was featured in the Yokohama Jazz Festival.

The credentials are definitely impressive, but by now you’re probably wondering why he’s being featured. Well, John currently resides in Hong Kong, and he’s the bassist for Jacky Cheung and Andy Lau, two of the Sei Tai Tien Wang. Nuff said.

Yuan-Kwan: So what brought you over to Asia in the first place?

John: I married my girlfriend from college, who was studying Japanese at the time and wanted to go to Japan to continue learning the language. I didn’t have any firm plans in the US after finishing my year of jazz school in New York, so I figured I’d give Japan a try. Why not?

YK: When you were in Tokyo, did you get to play for any Japanese pop artists?

J: I did some minor pop things, but I really did more jazz and experimental music in Tokyo; see my Web page for details.

YK: Have you ever met Pizzicato Five?

J: No.

YK: What about Ryuchi Sakamoto? The boredoms? Shonen Knife?

J: No, no and no. I was more involved in the avant-jazz scene in Tokyo.

YK: You’ve spent a year in Hong Kong now after four years in Tokyo. Were you asked right off the bat to play backup in Jacky Cheung’s band, or were there other gigs first? How did the deal come along?

J: Jacky’s musical director, Alan Tsui Yat-kun, decided to get a new bassist from outside of HK to do the 95/96 tour, and thought that Tokyo would be a good place to look, so he started calling around town through his connections there. I heard about the job through an American guitarist friend of mine, and ended up getting hired on the strengtlt of my playing on a video I sent of me playing with some Brazilian guys in Tokyo, as well as the Mamabu Sato J-pop CD listed above.

YK: Jacky’s world tour totalled a whopping 100 shows. A lot is said about Cantopop being “homogenous,” i.e. the same style of music over and over again. Does the band have a lot of room for improv?

J: In a word, no. However, the lead guitarist (So Tak Wah) and I, in particular, managed to find a lot of room to interpret the music in our own personal ways. As opposed to, say, the keyboardists and the rhythm guitarist, who had little choice but to play their parts more or less the same every night. After I had learned all the songs and gotten 20-30 shows under my belt, I felt quite a bit of creative freedom on this job, actually. I was able to take pretty substantial liberties with the bass parts of the songs, as long as what I played was tasteful and didn’t interfere with what anyone else was doing.

YK: Does Jacky have any superstitions or rituals before heading off on stage?

J: Not that I know of. Although before each of the 34 shows in HK, he got together with us and we all shouted ‘Ashei! three times in a circle. This got started because of Meia Noite, an amazing Brazilian percussionist who works in LA with Sergio Mendes; Jacky’s people had Meia brought over to open the HK shows with a big percussion solo every night.

YK: Enlighten me, what does “ashei” mean?

J: That’s just it; nobody knows. It’s some kind of Brazilian exclamation, I suppose.

YK: When he’s not performing, what does Jacky like to do in his leisure time? Play golf?

J: He seems to play a lot of tennis when we’re on tour; other than that, I couldn’t say.

YK: Have you challenged Jacky to a match?

J: I don’t play, but a few of the musicians and dancers play with him sometimes.

YK: With all those concerts, I’m surprised that Jacky hasn’t lost his voice. What’s his secret?

J: I’m not a singer, so I couldn’t say for sure; if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that Jacky’s vocal technique seems pretty good, in the sense that he doesn’t unduly strain his vocal cords when he’s singing (unlike a lot of rock singers), and this allows him to keep singing night after night without damaging his voice.

YK: How’s Jacky’s English?

J: Very good. We did perform one show where all of Jacky’s talking between songs was in English, in the Philippines. Our show in Manila had a high proportion of non-Chinese Filipinos in the audience, and so it seemed that speaking in English was the best way to communicate. That was the first time (after more than 50 shows already) that we foreigners in the band could finally understand what he’d been talking about all that time!

YK: And how about *your* Cantonese?

J: My Cantonese is nonexistent, for two reasons: it’s a really difficult language for one, and it’s hardly ever necessary to speak Cantonese in HK for another, as almost everyone speaks English. About the only Cantonese phrases I know are to give directions to taxi drivers. I can speak Japanese well enough to get by, BTW, but it seems a very simple language in comparison. It’s the tones that I can’t pick up very well in Cantonese – I really made an effort to learn while we were on tour, but I don’t know how many times I spent an hour or more just trying to learn the pronunciation of a single word; in the end I just gave up, more or less. There are only so many hours in a day, after all, and it seems a lot more constructive to use my time practicing the bass guitar.

YK: Now that you’ll be in Andy Lau’s tour, how would you compare working for one Sky King vs. another? Do Andy and Jacky have a lot of control over their bands, or are they there strictly to sing?

J: Well, I don’t want to say too much about this, I will say that Andy seems a bit more interested in the overall production, getting personally involved in the details of the choreography, the stage design, the arrangements, etc.

YK: And now to clarify two rumors: When was Andy born, and does he have a girlfriend?

J: I don’t know.

YK: Aside from Jacky and Andy, are there any other artists with whom you would want to work?

J: Well…Sandy Lam’s music seems quite interesting, and a different than a lot of other HK stuff, I missed my chance with her for awhile; she went to Taiwan yesterday to kick off her ’96 tour. I know quite a few of the band members (including ‘Wink’ Pettis, saxophonist, the other American from Jacky’s band) and it should be quite good. Basically, I’d like a chance to work with anyone here who is creative and trying to do something a bit different. For example, Peter Kam, the sequencer/programmer for Andy’s show, has written some really interesting arrangements and used some wild sounds for the songs we are rehearsing now. He also wrote a very cool, rather cinematic overture that we’ll play at the beginning of the show. (I’ll be playing the Indian bamboo flute on the first part of that, as the bass doesn’t come in until near the end.) He’s definitely the kind of person that I want to work with more here. Andy’s musical director, Chiu Tsang Hei, is also somebody I consider to be very creative and willing to try things a different way.

YK: I noticed that you’ll be playing on the upcoming releases for Vivian Chow and Tony Leung Chiu-Wei. Have you met up with them yet? Do you plan on playing in some of their concerts as well?

J: Getting hired to do a recording session is completely different than getting hired for a live concert job, so the fact that I recorded for them doesn’t necessarily have any connection with backing them up live. And no, I never met either of them. The singers in HK don’t have much to do with the process of creating the music on their records, to be honest, except in certain unusual cases. Neither Vivian nor Tony was anywhere near the studio while we were recording the music for their CDs.

YK: I heard that Tony Leung Kar-Fai *also* has plans to come out with a recording.

J: Yes, I’m on one track of this, and it should be out this week [8/5/96] in HK, I believe. That session was by far the most creative stuff I’ve been able to record here in HK, though I think I’ll be able get some good stuff in when we record live for Andy soon. BTW, the arranger I worked for on Tony’s album was Chiu Tsang Hei, Andy’s musical director.

YK: Let’s say that an American-born Chinese girl wanted to break into the Cantopop industry with her own album. How easy/difficult would that be? It seems like there are so many singers and actors from North America (Kelly Chan, L.A. Boyz, Christy  Chung, David Wu) that are migrating over to Hong Kong.

J: I really couldn’t tell.

YK: Okay then, here’s a hypothetical situation: an 18-year-old American female college student desperately wants to be the keyboardist for Jacky’s World Tour. How impossible an endeavor would that be to realize?

J: That would be pretty impossible, unless she were already an experienced professional/touring musician at that age. The fact that she were 18, female, and American wouldn’t have much bearing on the situation other than that. The industry in HK doesn’t seem nearly as racist or xenophobic as what I experienced in Japan – now that I’ve been here for awhile, I feel totally accepted by the music community here, treated no better or worse for being a white American.

YK: Do the band members have regular powwows with the stars? Have you met any interesting personalities (i.e. singers/actors) other than the singers you’ve worked with?

J: Well, the stars seem to inhabit a different world than the rest of the musicians, for the most part. We do interact and talk with them when we’re working, but don’t tend to see much of them otherwise. I don’t have a problem with that, anyway. Although we didn’t hang out with Jacky that much on tour, I did think that he enjoyed just socializing with the band at times, simply because it’s one of the few social situations he can be in where he’s treated as just another guy, and not be swarmed by hordes of fanatical admirers.

YK: With July 1, 1997 approaching soon, where do you think Cantopop will go? Will it expand into a huge global market or slowly deteriorate?

J: I look at it this way: there is already a huge global market of Cantonese-speaking people all over the world who are interested in HK music, are buying Cantopop CDs, and are coming to concerts by singers like Jacky and Andy when they tour. If the people in the HK music business are smart and look towards promoting their music more internationally, I think it will just get bigger and bigger. Most people in the industry are figuring on making more and more inroads into the mainland as well after ’97.

Mami Sekiya, Heartily, OLP Records, 1993.
Manabu Sato, In The Floating Time, Polygram, 1994.

Jacky Cheung, In Concert 95, Polygram, 1996.
Jacky Cheung, Concert In Taiwan 1995, Polygram, 1996.
Jacky Cheung With The Hong Kong Philharmonic, LOVE AND SYMPHONY, Polygram, 1996.
Vivian Chow, Upcoming Release.
Tony Leung Chiu-Wei, Upcoming Release.
Andy Lau, Upcoming Release.

John played bass for Jacky on his 100-City world tour, which included stops at Madison Square Garden in New York and Amsterdam. He’s now touring with Andy Lau!