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Interview: John Nevada Lundemo

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It's generally not nice to summarize people in a word or two, but we're going to do it anyway: John Nevada Lundemo is a phenomenon. For most of the last three decades he has been an energetic and passionate teacher by day and a blues-infused rock musician by night. And for the last six smoky and beer-soaked years he's been showing the kids how it's done here in Kunming.

Lundemo moved to Kunming in 2005 from the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou, where he taught for two years and met his wife-to-be, Cas. The two married in Dali's old town in July 2007 and have been active supporters of the Kunming music scene ever since. Nevada is the lone remaining founding member of Kunming-based band The Tribal Moons, which was formed in 2007 and has toured extensively throughout Yunnan and China.

We met up with Lundemo on a sunny Tuesday afternoon and hung out for a while in Green Lake Park, where Lundemo's relentless greetings of 'Ni hao' and 'Xiawu hao' drew countless smiles and hellos from parkgoers of all ages. After finding a nice shady spot near some giant bamboo, we chatted with the 63-year-old dynamo about living the rock-and-roll lifestyle in China:

GoKunming: Do you always say hi to strangers this much?

John Nevada Lundemo: Yeah, there's something nice about saying hi to people and their faces lighting up with a smile in return. It's like two souls recognizing each other.

GK: When did you start playing music?

Lundemo: I started playing piano when I was in second grade. My father was a trumpet player so I started playing trumpet when I was in seventh grade. You could say I've been playing music since the second grade, but I didn't start playing in bands until I was in high school in the '60s. I actually had two bands back then, we were playing some Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and Kinks shit.

I learned to play guitar when I was 21. I'm a bit ambidextrous so when I play hockey or shoot a rifle it's lefty, when I initially tried to play guitar I was playing it like Paul McCartney, up high and the wrong way with the strings upside down so it was a real mess. When I was 21 I went to Morocco for what ended up being a five-month stay. I moved into a room and some people had left a small German guitar there and over those five months I taught myself to play guitar the right way.

GK: What led to you switching from teaching high school in the US to teaching here in China?

Lundemo: By the 1990s it had become really difficult to teach in US high schools. I had done it for 23 years and there had once existed the freedom to teach in your own style and be creative with it, but eventually curriculum became more and more standardized.

By 2003 I was ready to leave. I had a line on a job in Ecuador, but switched to a job in China at the last minute. It's great, my wife Cas and I have the perfect jobs now, we like what we do and we get to travel during the summer and chunjie [Chinese New Year] holidays.

GK: What's your take on life here?

Lundemo: The Chinese aren't jaded toward laowai, maybe because we're still a relatively new phenomenon in most places here. When Cas and I travel around Yunnan, people are just as curious about us as we are about them. I love China and I never get tired of it. It's all so interesting to me, it's fucking amazing.

Rocking out in Dali
Rocking out in Dali

GK: When did you start performing in China?

Lundemo: I didn't play so much in Zhengzhou... the live music scene in China didn't really start evolving into something until 2003. Before then there were no places to play. I did some acting and was in a few commercials when I was in Zhengzhou, but I didn't really start playing in China until I moved to Kunming.

GK: How did you get going as a musician in Kunming?

Lundemo: In 2005 I Am Living was one of the few places that was suitable for solo shows. I played a little bit there and at the Speakeasy too.

By 2007 I already knew Mark [Corry, former Tribal Moons member and Hump Bar manager], who I had met at the dance party after my wedding, and we had landed a gig at the Snow Mountain Music Festival in Lijiang with Cui Jian and a bunch of other bands. Problem with the gig was we didn't have a band, so we put one together with [drummer] Ma Tu and [guitarist] James. Over time, James left and was replaced by JP and then Chuck joined... later Ma Tu left and Philippe took over drums for us.

The Tribal Moons, circa 2009: (from left) Mark Corry, JP Tremblay, John Nevada Lundemo and Ma Tu
The Tribal Moons, circa 2009: (from left) Mark Corry, JP Tremblay, John Nevada Lundemo and Ma Tu

The Tribal Moons had a good run for four years. Since last New Year's Eve, time has made it difficult to get the band in one place. JP and Chuck are on tour in Quebec and Philippe is in several bands here.

I'm just gonna kick it and do the solo thing for a while. But I like being in a band, I like the camaraderie. I can do the solo thing but I like spontaneity, I like interplay and roughhousing and all that shit.

GK: Who are the most inspiring or important musicians you've ever opened for?

Lundemo: I played with a band in the states back in the day named Johnny & The Shades. We opened for bluesman Elvin Bishop and harmonica great Norton Buffalo... Yeah, that was a highlight of my career.

GK: What's different about playing your music here as opposed to the US?

Lundemo: I think playing blues or rock back in the states is easy because people everywhere – whether you're talking about New Orleans, New York or San Francisco – they know the music and where it came from.

But it's new in China – it's different. There are a lot of metal bands here with guys who are technically good but they don't know about rock coming from the blues. They don't know about Muddy Waters and BB King – but when they do find out, they're interested.

As far as the language barrier goes, I don't need to know what the words to a song mean, because I can get the feeling. It's the same with Chinese audiences. They don't need to know everything I'm saying – they can feel what's coming from inside me, from my heart.

GK: Have you found any music here that moves you?

Lundemo: I can listen to Wa music and dig it, even if I don't understand it. Wa drinking songs are great. The thing about the Wa, they don't go for sheer quantity of drinking – they're more about frequency. It's little thimble-sized cups of booze – constantly. And their performances are ribald – they have lots of sexuality to them and plenty of double entendres. They're more special to me than any of the other tribal groups I've encountered.

GK: What's a typical day in your life here in Kunming like?

Lundemo: I love my life here in Kunming. I wake up early and teach from eight until noon and then have some beers. I go to sleep early, unless I have to do the rock and roll thing. Young guys don't understand that if you wake up early you can have great energy all day.

GK: You've been in China long enough to see and experience a lot of change, how has it affected you?

Lundemo: I'm afraid that what's happening in China will happen all over the planet – high rises, megalopolises, no neighborhoods and everything becoming the same. I fear the ring roads and all the construction happening out in west Kunming.

I see this as the future – eventually there will be no neighborhoods anywhere. It's like all this around us is an experiment that will be rolled out to the rest of the planet. It's kind of like living in the future before I die. Maybe it's more like living in the future and the past at the same time.

GK: How do you find being two or three times older than your bandmates and most of the people in your audiences?

Lundemo: That's a good question. Instead of 'How do you do it', I think 'How do you find it?' to make more sense. I've always been doing this. It's all about feeling, not so much about technique. Performing is something I've always done and will always do. I'm still learning... I find it refreshing.

I've been a teacher for a while now, so I'm used to being around young people and watching them discover for themselves who they are. Some of my friends back home do seem to be getting old... I guess if you spend all of your time around young people it keeps you young. Young people don't want to hear about your hip problems or 'Hey, can you carry my guitar to the fucking Wuhan train station?'

It's particularly natural with musicians. They don't put age before heart and experience, that would be ludicrous. But some people in the audience might see me up there as an anomaly, like their grandfather up on stage. It always feels natural for me up there but they probably see me as a bit of a freak.

GK: How much touring have you done in China?

Lundemo: I've done three separate tours in China with the Tribal Moons and have played solo gigs all over Yunnan, Guizhou and Henan. I kinda had my own summer tour last year, that was cool. The hardest I've hit it in China was in 2009 with the Moons. That year we played 91 gigs... maybe only half of what BB King would play in a year, but for us that was a lot. We were exhausted.

GK: What are your favorite places to play?

Lundemo: The Bad Monkey has always been good to me. Scott and Carl are the best people in the world. They're like my cousins. If they see you putting your heart and soul into it, they give you so much in return. When I play there I get free drinks and breakfast, lunch and dinner... it's great.

Changsha is cool, I like playing the Freedom House... we've had some good crowds there. I love playing Shuhe.

In Kunming, it's hard to say... I loved the old Uprock. I really like Laowo Bar but the punk scene here has really split into separate Chinese and foreigner scenes since we parted ways with Ma Tu. [Raises arms above his head] I'm for everybody!

GK: How would you describe your approach to life?

Lundemo: For some reason I'm a super curious person. That leads to taking chances and risks, and to looking around corners. It's led me into some deep, dark fucking holes, but also some amazing experiences.

As for the rest of my life, I'm not goin' out easy... I'm going out kicking and screaming. I'm gonna kick out the jams! [Laughs.] I'm not going to settle for some kind of bland, mediocre and safe existence.

GK: If the 21-year-old you who was teaching himself guitar could see you now, what would he think?

Lundemo: I never thought about it in that sense... I can say I never had any doubts that I'd make it to my sixties. I'm not surprised that my life has turned out the way it has. There have been a lot of near-misses in which I've narrowly escaped death, some of which I didn't even realize at the time they happened. But it doesn't surprise me that I've survived.

I look back on my career, my kids, my wife and I can only think 'I've had a great fucking time.'

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Comments

john you rock,keep on playing those great shows

This man is an inspiration, a great musician and good friend. Rock on John!

Thanks for sharing this wonderful story on my Pops! He is a truly wonderful person and I am thankful that I have him as a Father. I may be a few thousand miles away, but I can clearly picture him in this interview. It means a lot to me. And I totally agree: you SHOULD go out rocking, kicking, and screaming!!!!

Nevada rocks!!!!SmegmaRiot love and respect you!!!!

Has a great outlook on life! Keep it up and live long!

You ganna respect yourself man! this is what you've being told me in the Box.

viva la lundemo revolucion

Keep on keep'n it real, John. Alex

John is a shining light in Kunming, He has brought so much energy and positivity to Kunming and when he is on stage and doing his thing he rocks!! Hes also one of the sweetest and genuine souls around! Keep er lit Mr Nevada!

Jahnny, the indefatigable one! John is a man of many words and notes, so ready for anything awesome that comes his way including wicked riffs and wild lyrics and genuine friendship. Depth and levity, pleasure and pain, this is the stuff that fills up his music, his love and his wild rides.

Lundemo, the everlasting gobstopper.

I miss you.

Keep on rockin', John. Looking forward to the next gig!

Hurricane Lundemo!

Has given us some great memories, as a musician and a friend, many more to come i hope!

"John Nevada Lundemo is a phenomenon." Couldn't have possibly said it any better myself!

John, you're the man ;-)
Un beso!

John, when you're on stage the earth starts moving. Keep on rocking! :)

I have known John almost 40 years. We lived about a mile apart in the shadow of Peavine Mt outside of Reno, Nevada. When he was thinking about having children he borrowed my twin boys for a couple of days to
see if he wanted any. Well we know he has two kids now so I guess that worked out OK. Jon took a class from me at TMCC in video production to help with his creative writing class at Sparks High. The kids loved him and his style of teaching. He also wrote a column at a local newspaper and cover my trip to Guatemala for a documentary about salt mining. His energy level has always been high and the word "NO" isn't in his vocabulary. I saw him build his rock house and studio with help from friends and neighbors and it still sits in the shadow of Peavine. Seeing him in many bands through the years it is no surprise that he is still playing in China. Music is in his soul and I have taken photos of the many bands he was in. He played many a party at my house and is still a close friend. He lives in China and I live in Hawaii and that is about as far as you can get from Nevada but you can't escape the sounds of John Nevada Lundemo !

so cool, man!

Way to go John!Looking forward to doing more reviews of your shows.'Keep taking the high road.'

Such a wonderful guy and a fantastically talented musician. A real gem in the Kunming community. You deserve all the plaudits you get on here, John. He brings an energy to his performances that musicians half his age struggle to match. Keep on rockin'. John

Kick out the jams John!!

More Shows, More Jams, More Songs, More JOHNS!!!!!!!!!

Four strings are not enough to follow you, Man.

And don't do that thing on your knees so often, my bones are hurting, i'm getting old! Cheeky Kid!
Love

P.

You go, Lundemo!

John is a wonderful lively character and a great performer on stage!

Thanks for everything brother. We have a load of fucked up stories together. Here's to lots more! Rock and fucking Roll!

It says a lot when I ask JP - how many songs about Nevada you got? - he goes - just two I think. I have probably, three songs about John. Cocksucker blues - being completely inspired by the desert man - also - Rubber Bullet and a few more besides.

www.myspace.com/thetribalmoons

John is an amazing man, first time i met you i remeber we were in wu ding for a crappy festival and you were singing something like "in the moonlight..." i still remember that song haha... thanks john, keep on rocking, reading and being inspired by everything!

Great interview John..passion plus.!!! You are on great journey. Just reading the comments on this site I am really overwhelmed with your positive influence on music in China. Isn't it great t havea fantastic women by your side!

Most definitely Kunming's best expat entertainer, on and off the stage. To say John is a Kunming institution does not do him or our memories of him justice. He is a legend.

been a fan of the man for nearly 10 years, the musician just recently. Zhengzhou shouldnt have let you go.. :)

John is the show you wanna see on friday and if you are lucky, i'll probably be playing until saturday night!! Rock on Nevada!!!

John and Caz have been mates since they came to Kunming. Apart from being dedicated teachers and John a passionate musician, they are good friends and are always willing to helpout a fellow Kunming ren when needed.

John is a really good bloke and we wish them all the best for the future.

Great writing Chris:

John Nevada Lundemo is indeed a phenomenon!

Watching him write lyrics and create his music is nothing short of fascinating.

As a roadie and a groupie, I follow my man everywhere, never tiring of his enigmatic performances.

I miss waking the youngins up on tour, even if they usually just tell me politely to go away, or impolitely.

Nevada's constant curiosity for everything in life and his warm love of people are traits that inspire all who come across him.

Eddie Steeples, once said, "No one wants to be screamed at in music, they want to go out and be happy, have someone entertain them," and John is just this; someone who brings a smile to any situation.

I watched my Hurricane Nevada do 42 sets in 6 days, in Shu He in 2010 and he blew people away!

He will never go quietly!

As DaMaKe once said, "He is a force of nature."

His mother told him "Someday you will be a man,
And you will be the leader of a big old band.
Many people coming from miles around
To hear you play your music when the sun go down
Maybe someday your name will be in lights
Saying Johnny B. Goode tonight."

Go go
Go Johnny go
Go go go Johnny go
Go Johnny Lundemo go!!!

The energy of a teenager mixed with the soulfulness of an old blues man...Keep rocking John! Your friend and fellow musician. Steve

Fantastic interview John. Keep it country aye! Hoping to see you perform on this side of the world some day soon!

DaMarKe say's John is a force of nature, but I think he also defies it. John has a wonderful mind and you'll often be amazed at the enthusiasm and knowledge with which he tackles almost any topic of conversation. It's well documented that when in attendance at the chapter one weekly table quiz, he is consistently one of the best performers. But, I don't think his mind is the rudder in his life, the lure that draws so many people to him or leave so many in awe of him; it is his heart, soul, and determination to enjoy every fucking minute of his existence!

Sometimes in the heat of a good night-out you may have to switch on the windshield wipers, but I'm honoured to be within firing range. That's my kind of baptism!

John and Cas are living legends!

Hey John - Legend! i was only there for a few of your rocking years but i can imagine what the rest were like. Deep Respect (Speakeasy Sam)

John and I were crazy old stoned hippies together in the '70's, from the same little town in Nevada. I've loved his music, his energy and his soul for over 40 years. We've won and lost some battles, and some awesome friends. rock on buddy.

Kunming without Nevada would be like the U.S. without Doc Watson, like England without Pink Floyd, like Thailand without PadThai, like Russia without Vodka, like sex without light, like a kite without a rope, like a guitar without strings... well, it would be a fucking disaster... thanks to exist Nevada and bring so much everywhere you are... "the king's not dead yet"!!!

I have been hanging out in San Francisco lately- when I can afford it. I am grateful that jazz is having a huge renaissance in the music scene all over the city. Thank God!! Filmore, North Beach, Suasalito...
I love the quality of John's intense love for the language of music- at par with this incredible jazz I love so much.
I have known John since forever ago- Monterey Jazz Fesival 1970?? I think so. Front row- hang'n with Jimmy Jones...staying warm in sleeping bags. VW squareback. And on and on...
John is a real cowboy, a real musician and a real human being. A spirit as big as the Event Horizon that Nassim Harimein speaks of.
Congrats on such fine and well deserved success!
Keep on play'n on. I wish I was there to hear you play and clap and yell and beg for oncores!
Namaste,Nona

hope we gonna see u in yunnan for a long time~

keep it rockin~

See you tonight at MammaMia in Shuhe!!!

Great interview, John! Brings back memories of things I haven't thought about in a long time; such as, our family living in Tonopah when I was in grade school. My friends and I were watching you and your band perform and I was so proud to have my brother on stage and playing this great music. When I would visit you at your house on Peavine Mtn. it was always fun to listen to the latest songs you had written. Whether it be learning a new instrument, composing songs or performing, music has always been a part of your life and my memories of you, beginning all those years ago. You have a creative gift and have continued to pursue your dream all the way to China! Through it you have touched many people's lives, made great friends and filled your heart. Your family is proud of you, John, and admire what you have accomplished.
Your sis, Jeannine

Wow! John, you are such an inspiration to all of us, your family, us Boomers. As your big sis' I have watched you following your dreams and making your dreams come true! You were blessed with so many talents and to think that you have found the true gift and expression of your true, creative self, and happiness and fullfillment gives us all hope. I remember you always as a ball of creative energy, projects, sports, always tons of friends. If you wanted something you would make it happen, come hell or high water! So I have no doubt that you will continue to write and perform music, cause it isn't over 'til it's over, right!?!
Love you, miss you, Judi

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