The band onstage on this wet February night sticks out from the parade of earnest singer-songwriters who normally grace Rockwood Music Hall on New York's Lower East Side. The loose-knit four-piece lays down laid-back soul grooves that sound like Curtis Mayfield demos from 1972, and though they're endearing, they might be forgettable if it weren't for that voice. An impossibly soulful croon that envelops the room in its warm embrace, it unexpectedly emanates from the guy plunking away at a rhythm guitar while sporting a mane of blond hair that would make Robert Plant blush, and thick-rimmed glasses so enormous they practically hide his face. The normally chatty crowd at the Rockwood is rapt, with folks' eyes locking randomly around the room as if to say, "Are you hearing this?"
That voice belongs to Quinn Luke, aka Bing Ji Ling, who is better known to San Francisco as the guy in an outrageous white suit who sang electro-soul with a couple dudes from No Doubt and had girls spooning out ice cream for the crowd at every show. Bing, the story went, was born in the back of an ice cream truck and grew up to compose jingles for his family's business, eventually crafting dance music about girls, love, and the frozen dessert. The music, on 2004's Doodle Loot Doodle a Doo and 2006's Fire and Ice Cream, was as over the top as the backstory, an electrified grab bag of Prince, Stevie Wonder, Hall and Oates, and porn soundtracks that would have faltered under the weight of its own hubris if it weren't actually pretty good. Nowadays Luke, who moved to New York a few years back, is still Bing Ji Ling, but his brand-new EP, June Degrees in December, shows a new stripped-down direction.
"This is the departure point for me, the first kind of stepping-off point," Luke says before the show, relaxing in his cramped basement studio a few blocks away. We're huddled among mountains of analog music gear; the room feels a bit like the first two Bing Ji Ling albums — packed to the rim with everything but the kitchen sink (although that's here too somewhere). But the music on June Degrees is spacious, leaving room for a warm wash of congas and a nimble bass line to come to the forefront on the sunny "Kathalina" and the title track's intimate vocal hook. It's no accident that this new style should poke through just when Luke has struck out on his own without Merkley, the San Francisco producer who was the other half of Bing Ji Ling for the first two albums. "It's much more organic, it's much more stripped down, and it's much more mellow. I mean, honestly, everything on the first two records that was upbeat and crazy, that was him," Luke says of the role Merkley played. "I don't naturally just start making zany wild music."
Bing Ji Ling's sound isn't the only thing that's new. Like Kiss taking off the makeup, gone is the cartoonish stage persona that defined him as a larger-than-life rock star no matter the venue. Bing Ji Ling — which means ice cream in Mandarin — was a nickname Luke acquired while living in Shanghai when the locals mistook "Quinn" for "cream" and subsequently named him Bing Ji Ling. When he began Bing Ji Ling with Merkley after moving back to San Francisco in 2000, it was the latter's idea to dress the new project in outrageous colors. "He said, 'You got to be this guy, you got to be Bing Ji Ling, you got to be this persona,'" Luke explains, recalling his stage suit, the band's ice-cream-man outfits, and the girls serving ice cream. "It served me well, it was great, it set me aside from a lot of people, but you know, it was a lot of work! By the time I got offstage I was tired!"
The shift in direction won't stop at just the five songs on June Degrees. We listen to some raw versions of new songs from the next Bing Ji Ling full-length, unplugged-sounding demos with just guitar, vocals, and generous washes of reverb ("I'm obsessed with the Space Echo," Luke says sheepishly about his vintage analog delay pedal that works with a tape loop in the middle). His voice and bluesy guitar drip through the speakers, sounding like someone pouring his heart out at a Philly soul club when no one is listening. But fans of Bing's flamboyant act shouldn't despair. Yes, he's grown up a bit, but the new songs, as always, are about meeting girls, wanting to meet girls, breaking up with girls, and having fun (with girls). Indeed, for all his desire to strike out on his own, Luke is resolute that he is inseparable from his alter ego. "Some people might say, why don't you stop calling it Bing Ji Ling? Well, because I'm Bing Ji Ling, I want to be Bing Ji Ling. Bing Ji Ling doesn't have to wear the suit.
"And anyway, who knows?" he adds, a slightly mischievous grin spreading on his face. "Bing Ji Ling might just put the suit back on."