Music is about relationships, inside and outside the band. It’s about the way the members of a group navigate the hellscape of modern society and the way they interact with one another in the musical sanctuary they create.
At times it’s primal conflict sewn between musicians that gives birth to incendiary creations made to ignite and quickly burn out. At others, it’s the deep connection born of friendship and respect that leads to something more timeless, ageless, ethereal.
More often than not, it’s some unquantifiable combination of both that people like me try (and mostly fail) to pin down with frail words that fail to do the music any kind of justice at all. Still, we try.
I Mean Us is a band hard to pin down. Theirs is a sound that is equal parts dream pop, post-rock, shoegaze and psychedelic. Theirs seem to be relationships born first in friendship and possessed of a deep respect and strong emotional bonds.
But they have also known conflict amongst themselves, and hardship, most recently manifesting in the departure of a core member, one who was side-by-side with them on some of the biggest stages they ever played, and who accepted with them the praise and the awards that have been heaped upon them since their full-length debut, OST, just three years go.
So, how do you go about trying to understand music—and people—who are, by their very nature, cautious, creative, elusive? Do you try at all, or do you simply let them, and their music, speak for itself?
In other words, should you just get the hell out of the way, and let them do the talking? After all, that’s why they make art in the first place. That’s why they make music—so it can be heard, so that they can, on some level, be understood. And so that the listener can, in some way, know more about themselves and the world around them, with its never-ending onslaught of beauty and grief.
I Mean Us formed in 2015, when the members were all in their mid-twenties or thereabouts. Guitarist Vitz Yang was already well-known as part of Taipei post-rock poster children Triple Deer, joining up with musicians she had heard of, though never worked with before, through the scene (Hank Chen—bass, Pam Liu—drums, Mandark Ravel—vocals, and then-vocalist/guitarist Chun Zhang) to try something different.
“In the beginning, everybody was friends of friends, so we didn’t know each other directly,” says Yang via Zoom. “We just had friends in common. We were amazed we could already understand each other well, and we know how to read each other’s minds.”
They also had certain musical tastes in common, chief among them Scottish noise rock pioneers My Bloody Valentine. Jamming over the jangled chords of their musical forebearers brought them together and gave them a certain bedrock on which to build their own foundation. The next three years were spent writing and gigging around Taiwan, building up a fanbase who could relate to the band’s viscerally emotive and dark-tinged songwriting. The lyrics are in English, they say, because the language lends itself well to their chosen musical style—one with its roots firmly planted in the English-speaking world.
It was a process of getting to know one another while at the same time discovering their own sound, Yang, Chen, Liu, Mandark and Chun quickly finding out that while they may have meshed well musically from the outset, they couldn’t have been much different in terms of personality.
“We love each other and we love this band,” says Liu of how they navigated those early days. “And the most important part is we know each other and we can gauge each other’s opinions. We can respect everyone’s emotions. Even if we don’t agree, we always think about what’s best for the band.”
The result of those three years of work and getting to know one another both on stage and off was OST, an album that, in their own description, is a soundtrack for a road movie that was never made. The album release party was held at YuChen Cinema Studio, then at Legacy, the Taipei live house reserved for the crème de la crème of the city’s indie and pop music scenes—a place where new artists announce their arrival in earnest.
The show sold out, with over a thousand fans in attendance, and from there the invites to major international festivals such as SXSW in America and Zandari Festa in Seoul came rolling in. It was time for I Mean Us to hit the road and see how they measure up against other local scene darlings, venturing beyond the comforts of home for the first time. It was an experience equal parts nerve-wracking and eye-opening.
“For Zandari and SXSW, whole city was like a carnival of musicians. Wow, we were really nervous. But you just have to do it,” says Chen.
Also adding to the sense of apprehension was the fact that at SXSW, the band was, for the first time, showcasing their lyrical content in front of native speakers.
“That made us really nervous,” says Liu. “Luckily, afterward, the feedback was quite positive. So, a lot of things happened suddenly, but it brought out the best in us.”
The band found, for the most part, that they enjoyed touring, aside from lugging their gear on foot in places where taxis weren’t affordable (“We felt like we were hiking in Korea and Japan,” says current lead vocalist Mandark).
For Yang, the best part was getting to meet other musicians from around the world—people with whom she already shared a large swath of common ground, even if they would only know each other for a day or two, or even a few hours. Touring makes for fast and lasting friendships.
“They can be from America, Britain, Japan, Korea,” says the guitarist, “and they’re not just drinking buddies. We can talk about life, music, anything.”
Coming back to Taiwan after making their overseas debut, the band got to work on what would become their sophomore album, Into Innoverse, with each member demoing ideas at home to bring later to the rehearsal studio, where they would hash out everyone’s contributions and hone structure and melody.
Some of the writing took place during the onset of the Corona virus pandemic—a global catastrophe that, at first, Taiwan seemed to avoid the worst of. But then, around April of 2021, the virus announced its arrival on the country’s doorstep, all live shows and indoor gatherings of anything more than a moderate size put on an indefinite hiatus.
“The pandemic actually had a big mental influence on everything,” says Yang. “It could be negative, but at the same time, you have more time to get to know yourself.”
It was a time of introspection, to examine what it was exactly that the band wanted to say on their second offering, and to mine their collective memories for material. It was also a time to turn their eyes on themselves, and the dynamic that had grown between them.
“We felt it was a good thing for us,” Yang continues. “Pam and Hank had more time to experience new things for themselves, and find the connection between their hearts and real world. Of course, the whole schedule was delayed, and everything was a mess, but it gave us more time to fix the details.
“We had more time to discover our sorrow, or other emotions we usually try to hide,” Chen adds.
In order to delve into that sense of sorrow, I Mean Us had only to look back to what was also one of the most joyous occasions of their collective experience—the launch party for OST at Legacy. There was, they remember, an absence conspicuously felt between them—a friend who was at nearly all of their shows before, who was not there that night.
“A few days later, we found out they passed away,” says Yang. “It seems it was due to depression.”
Confronting the loss of a dear friend resulted in the opening track on Into Innerverse, “Museum,” a song that comes on like a funeral dirge, rolling into something melancholic and ghostly, mining tragedy and memory, both good and bad, in such a way that the great songwriters and seekers of generations past and present do. It announces I Mean Us as a true songwriting force, a band unafraid of confronting emotions that might make them uncomfortable, letting listeners know they are not alone in their own dark nights of the soul.
Then there is “UNICODE,” another song in which the band confronts the heady subject of death. This time, it was Mandark Ravel, now on lead vocals after Chun Zhang’s sudden departure earlier this year, who explored her feelings following the sudden passing on of a beloved family member, her pet bird.
“It was quite difficult to record,” she says via email, not able to join the other band members on our Zoom call. “I had to stop from time to time because I was crying. If you read the lyrics, it’s written from the perspective of the deceased, saying that those who live on might not know how much pain or sorrow the deceased had been through. It’s to comfort the living, saying the pain might have just been for a short while. It’s like saying ‘It’s OK.’”
Now, on to the elephant in the room, the aforementioned departure of Chun Zhang earlier this year. As was reported in the media, Chun was arrested for possession of a small amount of marijuana in early 2021, and he and the band announced he would be leaving the band soon after. It’s a touchy subject for the band, something they tend to dance around, not something they wish to dwell on for any length of time longer than absolutely necessary.
“The reason we don’t want to talk about it is we don’t really have an answer,” says Yang. “What we hope is to bring attention back to the music. We can’t change some things, but we can keep the quality of our music, our shows, and I think that’s all.”
Enough said. I Mean Us aren’t the first band to lose a core member, nor will they be the last to emerge triumphant from such a thing. And indeed, they have returned triumphant. In November of 2020, a lead single for Into Innerverse, “24 years Old of You,” released well ahead of the album itself, took home a Golden Indie Music Award for Best Alternative Pop Song. Despite the win, Yang demurs.
“We don’t think we can call ourselves one of the big bands,” she says. “We’re still trying hard.”
Since the win, and Chun’s subsequent departure, what those who remain—all of whom have been there from the beginning—are focused on is getting tighter as a group, each settled into roles that, prior to recording and touring together, by their own admission, were vague. Now, everyone knows what their place is, and where everyone else in the band is coming from.
A band only gets to this place if they’re willing to take on the hard questions, and tackle every emotion, head on. That’s exactly what I Mean Us has done, exploring the good, the bad, and the ugly, not just of being in a band—something like a multi-way marriage, a platonic or polyamorous relationship of sorts—but of navigating life itself.
Going forward, I Mean Us has some shows planned for early 2022 in Taiwan, still tight-lipped on dates and venues. For now, they continue writing, continue looking within and without for inspiration.
“Usually, I think I can never write a better song,” says Mandark of the place her mind goes every time she finishes a track. “Later, “I manage to top it. But it comes naturally.”
“We got feedback that our first album was close to dream pop, or a fusion of styles,” Yang adds, speaking on the band’s past and future direction. “On the second album, we got more positive feedback about the diversity of the sound. We’re not restricted to certain genres, though. Exotic, electric, whatever, we just write what sounds good to us.”
Know thyself, says the old Delphic maxim. It takes courage. It takes heart. It takes time. I Mean Us has never been afraid of peering into the dark corners to find those missing pieces, to confront the monsters lying there in wait. Having ventured there time and again, they carry on.
They might be hard to pin down, difficult to know. But they know themselves, they know their sound, and they know where they’re headed. And in the parts of the globe where they’ve performed so far, fans wait and hope that I Mean Us is headed squarely back in their direction.