Photo by Matthew Niederhauser/INSTITUTE
The morning before my Warped Tour, I woke up to an email titled “Chinese Punk Rock Hits North America” which instantly caught my attention among the floods of press materials from publicists. The “Chinese Punk Rock” refers to China’s most renowned punk band Demerit, the first Chinese band to be part of North America’s legendary “punk rock summer camp” Vans Warped Tour. As a regular Warped Tour attendee and someone with a Chinese background, this automatically intrigued me and I immediately jumped at the chance to cover this for Misunderrated.
Since the band came together in 2004, Demerit has been recognized as China’s best and most influential punk band. Their solid musicianship combines street punk and 1980s metal and is a living commentary on the current sociopolitical climate. Their sophomore album “Bastards of the Nation” has been widely received and was named as 2008’s Record of the Year by China’s top metal magazine, Painkiller. Demerit was featured in the Australian filmmaker Shaun Jeffords’s documentary “Beijing Punk”, which takes a look into Beijing’s rapidly growing underground music scene. They are scheduled to record their third full-length later this year.
Sadly, the band did not join the tour until late July, so I did not have an opportunity to see them perform on Warped Tour’s Toronto stop. Misunderrated is not familiar with the Chinese music scene, we spoke with Demerit’s frontman and vocalist Spike Li over Skype before they left for Warped Tour.
Much thanks to Pete for reaching out and introducing us to some new music, and personal thank you to writer Jaime Chu, who has way better Mandarin skills than I do.
S: Spike Li
Photo by Matthew Niederhauser/INSTITUTE
M: You guys must be in the middle of preparing for Warped Tour. How’s that going?
S: We are pretty ready, including the run-down, set, etc. But…probably…we might still need…but I still have some problems right now.
M: Do you mean technically, or…
S: Everything else is fine, but they might still need to book us, if we have to be signed in person it has to be done next month, but the tour has already started.
M: This is your first time going on tour in America.
S: Yes. Well, the first time preparing to go, haven’t gone yet.
M: So how did you guys end up on Warped Tour?
S: Actually, I’m not quite sure, it should be–should be–a record company who liked us a lot, and then…just like that.
M: What do you guys anticipate about the tour?
S: Lots of anticipation…I’m not very familiar with the U.S. But I know there are a lot of my favorite bands on the road, in California. Besides anticipating our performance, I also look forward to seeing the bands I like.
M: What do you like about touring?
S: I think rock music can’t just stay in one place, especially in China, it would be meaningless to only play in Beijing. But if you go to different places, you could perform every day, see different kinds of people every day, see different bars, and the unique culture of each place. Just to be able to experience the climate and the world right now, and perform my own music, I think it’s a pretty perfect thing.
Photo by Matthew Niederhauser/INSTITUTE
Rock Music in China
M: Demerit has been a group for seven years, has the environment of the rock music industry or your process of making music changed over the year?
S: At the beginning, we just wanted to start a punk band, because we listened to The Ramones from the U.S. in high school, and we began to like punk music, so we wanted to–back in our hometown in Qingdao–we started a punk band for a year. Then we went to Beijing after high school graduation, where the response was better, there were more bands and the vibe was better. We started a new band called Demerit in Beijing, and here we are. [laughs]
M: I remember you mentioned in an interview that you are not very satisfied with the music environment in Beijing, that it’s not quite ideal or there are a lot of competition, does that have to do with the fact that you prefer touring?
S: Not competition. Because I think making music in China, which is different from other countries, especially in rock music, the kind of real rock music in China, the rock music of this generation doesn’t count for competition. To make music, to make good music, is to express myself the best that I can, but there are other things in the circle besides music. Do you know what I mean? Not competition, because music doesn’t have competition, it’s not business, it’s not the economy. But touring is not about that either.
M: I remember you guys had an experience at the beginning where once at a show, no one at the venue actually knew what was going on or who was playing, there wasn’t even a poster. When did this kind of thing stop happening?
S: Not anymore, there was once in 2006, when we were touring in Guangzhou. It was pouring rain when we arrived, afterwards we rode to the bar and discovered there weren’t any posters. We rested a bit before they started putting them up, then they told us they just started promoting [laughs]. At the time I was sure–after all we were a new band–we were sure no one was going to come. But we also thought, we might as well play since we came, I don’t care how many people there are, we have to play and perform well. Even if there’s only one person. In the end no one came, haha. This doesn’t happen anymore. [laughs] It’s better, much better.
M: [laughs] What do you mean by “better”?
S: At least one person would come. Kidding, it’s not like that. Nowadays more people know about us, and venues are more or less more responsible, because there are more bands touring, at the time there weren’t a lot of them.
M: You guys have been in Beijing for so long, has the environment changed?
S: There is change. I particularly remember we recorded our first demo during Chinese New Year in 2005, and our first drummer was an American called Zack. Then in 2006 we played for the first time at Midi Festival–the best festival to experience rock in China–we were very excited to play on that stage, and we were very excited to be invited. A lot of people knew about us through that festival, because at the time, punk, street punk or hardcore, was not popular in China, the scene of this style of music was very small. We performed, toured in about 20 cities, slowly experienced the process of being a musician, we loved being on the road, touring, so we kept doing it. Then there were more and more festivals, and then…I don’t know how to say it…it felt like…something just changed.
M: You mentioned once that a lot of punk bands, a lot of people these days just wanted to become television stars. Is that part of the change?
S: This is what I think: If a band has existed for a long time in China, especially a punk band, it’s very hard to keep growing in China. That’s why a good band, after a while, they might not like the circumstances anymore, and they might want to just become a rock star. Therefore a lot of the meaning in being a punk band has changed. They lost the original belief, even that spirit of resistance was lost. I don’t think this should exist in punk bands, punk bands should say something…um…something meaningful about our society, not just things like love or protecting the environment. We might all need these things in our lives, but as a punk band, the things we embody shouldn’t be these. But a lot of bands these days have changed that attitude in order to fit in the mainstream. I think that’s what has changed.
M: Punk only started rising in China in these ten years.
S: A bit more then ten, during the nineties. [pause] From my understanding punk was considered quite cool at the time, wearing things like a mohawk, leather jacket, studs. Then after a while, many bands probably began to discover other better things, and started doing those, therefore it [punk] didn’t precipitate in China. It wasn’t that this thing–punk music–appeared when it needed to, and then you would keep doing it because it accumulates. But in China we learned about things from the West, through the radio, magazines or the Internet–I’m saying most phenomenons are this way, not absolutely, not everything–we might think something is quite cool, we want to do this, we want to do that, and therefore the music isn’t one that’s developed from the experiences of life.
M: When punk first appeared in the west, it was a brand new form of music, which then you are able to use it too as a form of expression in China. Do you think there is potential, or there already is, for a music form in China that is equivalent to what punk was in the West?
S: I think punk itself is a music form, and it’s also a product of learning from life, this style of living also represents a lifestyle attitude. So even if a person doesn’t understand or doesn’t know punk, he could still have the same attitude. From this sense, the only unique thing about punk is its music form. The result is that everyone is actually related to this music form, and the product will be different through his understanding of other kinds of music, the different cultures of each country, every one’s personality and characteristic. For us, we would try to use Chinese music scales or melodies unique to Chinese music. But this is only about the form. As for content, us in China are experiencing a different era than the U.S., so the content has to be different.
Photo by Matthew Niederhauser/INSTITUTE
M: So is this you guys’ first time playing abroad?
S: If Korea counts as oversea this will be the second.
M: What’s the difference between playing in China and playing in Korea?
S: We went to Korea once in 2008. I feel like Korea is more relaxed, they are not as reserved. China is relatively more held back, they are more direct. Maybe their lifestyle is closer to that of the West, a lot of their views are more open, not as tense.
M: Is it still as tense today?
S: It’s a lot better right now. People used to be restricted by all kinds of rules and social chains. Some friends would come up to us after a show and told us they weren’t able to loosen up as much as they had wanted, that if they come again they would dive, etc. Maybe they already have a small flame in their hearts, but they still wouldn’t directly act on their intuition and still consider other things. This is one aspect of the tension.
M: Have you thought of what could help to change this?
S: I think the media is probably the biggest factor. If the media could have a more positive coverage on this [the punk scene], meaning…just if the whole country could be more open, letting every kinds of culture to come out, no matter good or bad, allowing the people to choose what they want to do.
M: What kind of influence do you think punk has on this or how might it affect?
S: From these few years we’ve been working, I think as a band the change we bring to this environment or to this society might not be big, but to me personally, being in a punk band affects me a lot. First of all, punk changes me; and then I become more clear about what is it that I want to accomplish. This is very important to me.
The interview was periodically interrupted by a thunderstorm from an unknown electronic source, we had to pause our conversation from time to time while waiting for the noises to pass, much thanks to Spike for understanding. As one-fourth of one of the best punk group in China, it was not hard to notice Spike’s sincere and idealist aspirations to punk music throughout the conversation. Warped Tour’s Kevin Says Stage always has bands that bring a fresh and striking presence among the rest of the line-up, having Demerit on the tour is introducing the chemical reaction between old-school British punk and the explosive energy of young China to North America. I am especially looking forward to the band’s concert in San Francisco in late August. “Hopefully there won’t be any thunderstorms then,” Spike said with a laugh. I told him, probably not, California has really nice weather.
Written by Jaime Chu with contribution from Jessie Lau