Crannk Interviews Grass Mud Horse, Chris Barry

No Prey No Pay Review and Interview by Mike The Punk

Grass Mud Horse is essentially a solo project for multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter Chris Barry, who writes and records the songs (at times with a little help) but for live shows in their home country China the other musicians are Will Wyld on drums and Rocco Desta on bass. Grass Mud Horse is based in the Northern Chinese city of Qinhuangdao, famous for being the place where the great wall dramatically ends as it plummets into the Bohai Sea, at Lao Long Tou (the Old Dragons Head). 
I heard the band’s second single ‘No Prey No Pay’ and immediately took a liking to it. The intro is made up of sample sounds of birds and the sea which only lasts a few seconds before the music starts, its a well-crafted transition. The music itself at this point is already full of energy with the mandolin and tin whistle giving a fast authentic feel of a sea shanty backed by a solid drum beat and a distorted guitar which is most obvious during the small amount of room that the mandolin leaves. As the vocals start the mandolin and tin whistle drop out leaving a verse part that has more of a hard rock/punk vibe. The lyrics have a very authentic feel as the words and phrases used fit perfectly into the song and the vocal delivery is spot on for a pirate-themed song. A well-timed pause between the verse and chorus and an energy boost as the mandolin and tin whistle return to the music and the lyrical hooks are locked in with gang-style shouty vocals. Although the mandolin and tin whistle drop out again after the chorus the song’s energy does not dissipate. I really like the mandolin solo its got great melody and feels like it’s trying to be a guitar solo, weirdly wonderful. There are a couple of noises I can’t make out in this song and the bass parts feel a little hidden in the mix but I’m sure I heard it a few times. In summary, this song is a well-written pirate punk tune with all the right things added to give it an authentic feel and to top it off its really bloody catchy. 

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Now for the interview … 
Mike – How did you come up with that band name ? What does it mean to you ?
Chris – Grass Mud Horse is the literal translation of 草泥马 cao ni ma, which is the chinese name for a Llama. I wanted a name that reflected the fact that we’re based in China, but also had a punk quality to it as well….and Grass Mud Horse checks both boxes. The reason for that is internet censorship is big business here in china, there’s something like two million people employed by big brother to keep tabs on everything citizens do and say online. Young Chinese and expats too find sneaky ways to talk online to not get caught…if you want to tell someone to go fuck their mother, you say 操你妈 cao ni ma…it’s exactly the same as grass mud horse, except the tones are different….so you got a bunch of chinese kids saying llama to each other instead of go fuck your mother…I thought that’s pretty punk…without the story it can seem a strange name though…

Mike – How would you describe the bands sound ?
Chris – The band is essentially me and my mates playing songs that I write and record. It all started at a weekly bbq and piss up…some of us where musicians and we started coming up with songs and raps about our time here in china. I took some of those ideas away and recorded a few demos. The first was a 30 second one called Shao kao (bbq) shitz…about one night the bbq must’ve been rat meat or some shit cos we all got violently ill on the way home and shat in the street or up a wall. So the first songs where sort of more old school punk, street, skate, ska, horror and all strictly about china, some funny some serious but a real mixed bag of styles. I plan on releasing an album of that early stuff later this year. Anyway I play a lot of instruments guitar, drums, bass, piano, ukulele, mandolin, tin whistle, and I’ve always loved irish folk and Celtic punk…I had some stuff I’d written and I showed it the guys and we sort of preferred it so we started playing more and more of that stuff I’d done. Another thing was that our city doesn’t have many places you can play as a full band, so playing the Celtic punk stuff allows us to strip down to acoustic guitar, cajon drums and still play out. I think of our sound to be pirate punk, paddy punk and maybe folk punk.

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Mike – Where is home?
Chris – Where is home….that’s a tough question. I was born in Liverpool, but I’ve spent me whole life moving around. Scotland, Wales, Germany, Holland, Canada and now China. I think Liverpool and southern Ontario like Niagara and Toronto are the places that most feel like home to me. China is a strange place that doesn’t let newcomers settle, i hold Canadian and UK passports, but I can literally never become a citizen of china…I’d have to be a hero of the revolution like Norman Bethune or a billionaire….no irony lost there.

Mike – I did have a question about what instruments you play but I think we’ve already touched on that. What was your first instrument ? 
Chris – My first instrument was guitar, I started picking up other instruments because as a songwriter it was always frustrating trying to explain to other guys in the band what I want them to play…so I learned their instrument and then I could show them. At one point I was studying guitar performance, but I developed a nerve injury in my wrist and middle finger….it’s still a big issue, causes me a lot of pain when I’m recording, especially solos and mandolin stuff. Anyway, I switched to a songwriting degree, which I graduate from this year…I view myself as a songwriter first, musician second, if that makes sense?

Mike – Do you have a favourite instrument ?
Chris – I think mandolin is my favourite instrument. I love the sound and I love how it can be used in harmony to the melody or how it can double the melody. Actually I now use mandolin to help write and cement melodic ideas and to I use it to learn to sing the top lines properly in tune.
Mike – I am really liking the new single ‘No Prey No Pay’ and I wanted to ask a few questions about it. Did you write it on a guitar or a mandolin ?
Chris – Thanks, it’s done really well it’s only the second single but it’s got over 3000 streams on Spotify and we’ve had a lot of great feedback…it’s much more than I expected. The song was written lyrics first which is rare for me but I wrote it after doing lots of research about old pirate and sailor language and terms, then I put it to music using guitar. I wanted it to have a fast horn pipe like thing going on, so I wrote the tin whistle part and then the mandolin is doubling the chords, as well as doubling the tin whistle part and it has its own little riff over the chorus that I really like.

Mike – How many vocal tracks did you do to get that nice gang vocal sound ?
Chris – The gang vocals where tough….actually the full band songs are tracked in china…I do all the instruments and I program drums. We then send everything to a producer in Paris called Yohann Francois who I’ve worked with for over ten years. He tracks real drums using my programmed ones as a guide and he mixes and masters.  These gang vocals though where a point of contention and delayed the release by about a month. As it happens, I didn’t record enough of them and he was really struggling to compress and fit them in the mix without them sounding weird. Ordinarily I would’ve done more and that’d be it…but I’d gone to my in-laws for Christmas and Chinese New Year, and then the virus hit trapping me here…so Yohann had to be inventive. Anyway I think I did about six tracks and to solve the problem Yohann added another 2..I think anyway

Mike – What’s that percussive sound ?
Chris – I think By percussive sounds you’re referring to the cannon fire? There’s a cannon shot in the first verse after the line ….a shot across the bow. Also, if you listened carefully there’s he sound of a cutlas being drawn in the last verse. After the steel striking bone line. Adding those fx and the intro stuff was a lot of fun, I combined sea noises, various birds and creaky wood to get the intro bit. A song like this is a lot of fun cos you can really go a bit crazy, we have a horror punk one called the hungry ghost which has a lot of crazy stuff going on.

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Mike – Lets talk about the quarantine sessions, you recorded six songs for the EP which is being released soon. Can we expect more songs similar in style to ‘No Prey No Pay’ ?
Chris – Yeah it’ll be out the week before st. Paddy’s.  Basically I was doing some writing while locked down in Inner Mongolia cos of the virus….and one of the demos for the song Absent friends came out really nicely, so I made a lyric video and posted it. The reaction was amazing and its still our most watched video on YouTube. Well I got the idea that maybe I could do an EP and record the songs in the same way and that’s what I did. It’s two original songs and four traditional folk songs. The lockdown continues on and on…so I’m halfway through the follow up to the quarantine sessions! Later his year we’ll release an EP of just Celtic punk stuff…no prey no pay will be included on that.  Most of the songs are finished or nearly finished for that EP and of course we’ll put out the quarantine sessions part two. Our album Beijing Bikini which is all the eclectic punk stuff from before we found our paddy punk niche. There’s some really great songs on that album, so it’d be a shame to just shelve it I think. It has the horror punk one I talked about earlier, and shao koa shitz ….also a ska track that’s completely in mandarin called shen me tan ke

Mike – So are you mixing and mastering the quarantine sessions ?
Chris – The ‘Quarantine sessions’ is almost completely DIY, that was my concept from the start. I used a porta studio, shitty little classical guitar I keep at the in-laws. The drum sounds are actually just the back of that guitar, I take my whistles and mandolin everywhere I go, a couple pairs of studio monitor headphones for comparison and the little 8 track to knock up demos on the quick. I’m mixing it all myself and I’m using an online AI mastering service. Actually the producer in Paris tried to convince me to let him mix it as he really fancied having a go at this more traditional folk stuff…but as I said the concept was as DIY as possible. I’ve been locked down for two months, but I’ll have two EPs I’m quite proud of to show for it, tiny amounts of money are invested in them so it’s all gravy, they’re not part of the grand plan, just a bonus really.

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Mike – Is there anything else you want to mention before we finish ?
Chris – I just want to thank all the Celtic punk and punk blogs and podcasts that have been really supportive also people like yourself who have been a massive help.  We only put out the first song three months ago for Christmas and already achieved much more than I would’ve hoped for by this point. So I’m really grateful for that and as well to all the people who’ve followed shared and streamed and clicked like…supportive comments and all that….have felt the loves!


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