What do Guillaume Brière, one half of French electro duo The Shoes, and Sam Duckworth, an earnest politico-punk troubadour have in common? Despite their wildly different musical backgrounds, they’ve both donned their production hats and are helping to craft the twilight pop of their close pals, London newbies San Zhi, a duo formed by two long-time friends, Bournemouth-born Peter Howarth-Brown and the Egyptian Suraya. To date they’ve only played a handful of shows, but their soon-to-be-released debut EP Ice Light unfurls with gauzy atmospherics and a seductive sonic minimalism.
I caught with Howarth-Brown and Suraya to talk about eating competitions and the derelict Taiwanese seaside resort from which they take their name. Check out this FADER premiere of a track from their EP.
Stream: San Zhi, "Blackholes"
You guys met studying music at college, but it’s taken you years to make this happen. What took so long? SURAYA: I went off to France as soon as we finished our course, and I went for a week’s holiday and totally fell in love with snowboarding. The mountains are so beautiful. When we were at uni we messed around and made a track together—I found it when I was in France and I was like, right, time to move back to London and do this.
Did you have an immediate connection when you first met? SURAYA: It was an instant best friend feeling to the point of we just had a messy eating competition at a fast food restaurant, just sitting at the window so everyone could see. I don’t remember who won but it’s safe to say we both looked like idiots. It felt like we’d known each other for a long time.
What’s the story behind “Ice light”? HOWARTH-BROWN: It’s kind of about thinking you need to stay with somebody and forcing things and trying to work through things because you have that love for somebody. But there’s always another option. There’s always a way out, you just need to get out and move on. SURAYA: It was inspired a bit by a book we read called Ice by Anna Kavan. HOWARTH-BROWN: It’s very trippy, about relationships and death, the apocalypse and mortality. Just brilliant, emotive writing that triggered some ideas.
Whereabouts in Egypt are you from? I was born in Alexandria. I’m not fully Egyptian. I’m a bit Swiss-German and Syrian, but it’s mostly Egyptian. I was a kid when we moved over to England because of my dad’s work and schooling. There was more opportunity here. I go back twice a year. Alexandria is amazing, although now it’s all a bit crazy now. HOWARTH-BROWN: Suraya’s mum blogs about Egypt. SURAYA: She’s been blogging on since the first day of the revolution. It’s completely taken her over. She’s so into it. I go back home and she learnt how to use a computer to start, learnt about the internet and Twitter and Facebook! She’s getting really savvy. She’s quite spiritual and she she’s got this perspective from living in England, but she’s very close to Egypt with lots of friends and family there.
Is Bournemouth really just full of old people? HOWARTH-BROWN: There’s no middle ground. It’s old people or young people, stag dos and hen nights and crap bars. And the rest is old people.
Not much of a music scene there then? HOWARTH-BROWN: No. I used to go to Southampton. There’s always been stuff going on there. Bournemouth is beautiful and I grew up going to the beach all summer and hanging out there. I love going back, but I don’t want to be in a Red Hot Chili Peppers cover band. Although I’ll probably move back when I’m old and ready to die!
The abandoned Taiwanese resort you’re named after looks insane and amazing. I love the ’70s vision of the future. How did you even come across it? SURAYA: We started looking at old abandoned amusement parks and haunted derelict villages and found it. There’s websites and forums that tell you where you can visit these abandoned spaces…
Like the creepy children’s hospital across the street on Hackney Road. People have broken in there and posted pictures online. I love shit like that. HOWARTH-BROWN: Yeah exactly! Or the billiards room that’s under a lake. I tried to get in there once but it’s all locked up now. The story behind this resort in Taiwan is they built it to be futuristic and they never finished it because of lack of funds. SURAYA: And it was said that they chopped down this dragon statue and after that there were loads of mysterious deaths and people just abandoned the project. We’ve started to wonder if we’ve picked the curse by calling ourselves San Zhi. We’ve had some bad luck. We had to cancel our fourth show because our drummer Matty was rushed to hospital the night before with ruptured stomach ulcer and nearly died, then on the next show Matt our guitarist broke his foot and phoned us from hospital. Then our producer Guillaume was supposed to come over from France today and he’s sick with pneumonia. I had two bouts of tonsillitis, which is nothing comparatively, but it’s normally really serious. We’re just like, why does this stuff keep happening? Then we were like, Oh my God, it’s San Zhi the cursed village! If anything bad else bad happens we might have to change our name!