Being a writer for a music magazine may seem like a lot of fun—which it can be—but it also means being constantly hit on by publicists, managers and band members seeking publicity for their project. Each day I probably get requests from up to ten bands or their representatives. Much as I’d like, there’s just not enough hours in the day to listen to everything. Sometimes it takes a twist or unusual angle to attract attention. Such as “We are Riven, an alternative rock band of four different nationalities located in Guangzhou, China.” How’s that for an attention grabber?
It is safe to say that Screamer has never featured a band from China. Not necessarily because there aren’t any good bands from China; there may well be lots of them–we just don’t know. In the world of rock music, China is the great unknown.
Rene Laforge, the bassist and group spokesman tells the story. “Christian [von Heland, vocals and rhythm guitar] originally came to Guangzhou eight years ago to be the CEO of his family company here in China and to supervise the manufacturing process. They make balls that bounce on water.” Sounds interesting…balls that bounce on water. Something lost in translation, perhaps?
“Gunnar [Thorsteinsson, drums] needed a break from music and originally came to China five years ago to sell Icelandic fish here. As for me, I came out of university with a bachelor degree in international studies, but without real options. I knew a guy who I heard was making good money teaching English here. I left everything behind eight years ago and did the same.” As for Jakk Sludge, the guitar player and lone Chinese in the band, (safe bet to assume that’s not the name he was born with) “he now has a doctorate degree in waste management. Years ago, he discovered Western music through Nirvana’s Unplugged album. That album changed his life. That’s when he decided he wanted to be a musician.”
Living in Los Angeles where Screamer magazine was born means that on any given night someone wanting to see live music might have a choice of a hundred clubs and bars to see an almost unlimited amount of bands, both cover and original. Although Guangzhou is China’s third largest city with a population of 13 million people, the music scene is quite limited, at least by Western standards. Laforge explains: “The Guangzhou music scene (or China, for that matter) is young and inexperienced. There is a lack of qualified people and infrastructure. There are some venues that have live bands, but it’s all covers, mostly top 40 and classic rock. Many of the live bands are from the Philippines. Some have Westerners. Overall, rock music is an underground thing here. What predominates is Mandarin pop and Cantonese pop.”
“There is an enormous gap between generations here. It’s similar to what happened in the U.S. in the late 60’s with the generation of the 50’s and the hippies. The previous generation here is completely hooked on Chinese pop. Traditional Chinese style is mostly incorporated in Chinese folk music, often an acoustic guitar setting with bongos and traditional Chinese instruments. Yes, the younger generation from main urban areas knows about Western rock music, but only a very few actually compose their own songs and incorporate Western elements in them. Metal music is a big hit among the youth here, though. Many original Chinese bands do metal music.”
Riven is one of those exceptions to Chinese bands that Laforge talks about. They have recently released an album of original music entitled Postnationalism. It’s a record of varying musical styles that reflects the band member’s influences, described by Laforge as “Jeff Buckley, Muse, Radiohead, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Pink Floyd.”
Since the beginning of rock ‘n roll in the 1950’s and continuing to the present day, there is a long and proud tradition of going against the establishment. From Elvis to punk to glam to death metal, being hated by parents and the older generation only makes the music more attractive to young people. However, being a rock band in China definitely adds a new wrinkle to this. It’s no secret that creative types (artists, writers and musicians) are constantly under government scrutiny. Say or do the wrong thing and your career may be over—or worse.
There is some hesitation asking Laforge about this subject. The perception here in the West is that all communication in China is monitored, and even bringing up the issue may raise red flags (no pun intended). Somewhat surprisingly, Laforge doesn’t hesitate in answering. “Well, it depends how big a band is. There will come a point, when a band grows here, that the government will start caring about what they say. So yeah, censorship is unavoidable, come a certain point in time. We never felt that restriction yet, as we are probably tolerated so far, but it can change any time.”
It’s been an interesting and enlightening conversation; a glimpse into a world most of us didn’t know existed.