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.
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?
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 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.'© Copyright 2005-2020 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.