"Culture Bureau" is an ongoing SmartBeijing interview series in which we take long, meandering strolls down memory lane with pillars of the Beijing cultural community.
Hua Dong is the lead singer/guitarist/keyboardist of Rebuilding the Rights of Statues (Re-TROS for the sake of brevity), one of the first bands to start the whole dark post-punk thing in China. Now this style of music is decidedly in vogue city- and nation-wide. Half of the 25-and-under guitar-wielding demographic in Beijing today will lackadaisically namecheck Bauhaus, Joy Division, etc. without a clue of what it was like in the dark days of the '90s, when you had to rely on PRINT magazines and crate dig black market CDs to find the gold, with only a handful of tired hair bands on the domestic front to offer a local paradigm of rock'n'roll success.
From this crucible emerged Hua Dong, originally from Nanjing. He moved to the capital with Re-TROS bassist Liu Min in the early 2000s and started the band in the bleak wasteland of SARS-frozen 2003 Beijing. They honed their craft in relative solitude on the fringes of the city, waiting like a coiled snake for their opportunity to come.
And it did. Re-TROS is now one of the most internationally accomplished Chinese rock bands, having toured extensively around the United States and Europe and worked with some of the biggest names in the field, including Gang of Four and Brian Eno. Read on for our Culture Bureau segment with Hua Dong, in which he discusses his initial rock'n'roll revelation, what post-punk means to him as a medium and as a cultural force, and how Beijing shaped his personal and professional development. He does not discuss working with Eno, because he's pretty damn sick of answering that question.
SmartBeijing.com: You're originally from Nanjing, and you studied abroad in Germany. How did you first get exposed to 'alternative' music (rock, post-punk, etc)? Was it in Nanjing, or abroad?
Hua Dong: Actually I got into rock music before I went to Germany, around the time when I was 16 or 17 years old. At the time there were a few local music magazines introducing alternative music. They included compilation CDs with songs from very genre. Through these magazines I discovered Pink Floyd, The Cure, etc. It was so different. It was as if they were using some special, elegant language to express their own ideas. This feeling really inspired me, and left me full of energy and passion to find more of this kind of music.
SmBj: You were the first drummer of P.K.14, right? Were you involved in any other bands in Nanjing?
HD: No, I wasn't the first drummer, their lineup changed a lot back then. Actually, back then I played with a lot of Nanjing bands as a drummer and keyboardist, all different styles of music. At the time it was more like playing just for the fun of it. There wasn't a really serious or established direction to the scene. I was just really excited to play in any band.
SmBj: What Chinese bands influenced you early on? When you were in Nanjing, how did you discover what was happening musically in Beijing or in other places in China?
HD: When I was about 18 years old I really liked Dou Wei's album, Black Dream. I feel like compared to other Chinese bands at the time, what Dou Wei was doing was really different. His music was darker and more introspective. He stood out from the really affected longhair rock bands of the time. Actually, at the time I didn't really understand the circumstances of the Beijing rock scene, what was really happening there. Every once in a while I'd hear things from people coming back to Nanjing from Beijing, but it all felt very far from me personally. It felt like it was happening on another planet.
Dou Wei - "Black Dream"
SmBj: When did you move to Beijing? Did you and Liu Min move together? Was it your ideas to start Re-TROS from the beginning?
HD: I came to Beijing for the first time around 1999. I stayed for about a year. I thought it was really boring. I felt pretty disenchanted, like life in Beijing really wasn't that romantic, and the bands in Beijing really weren't that special. I think the second time I came to Beijing was in 2002, I don't really remember. Me, Liu Min and some other friends went together. In 2003, our friends started leaving Beijing one after another. Me and Liu Min decided to stay, and that's when we started Re-TROS. Our idea at the time was really simple: we wanted to make a serious post-punk band. Because at the time I was really captivated by Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Gang of Four, bands like that. I wanted to try to make that kind of music myself. Also, at the time I felt Beijing's music scene to be rather monotonous, there were no really fresh or shocking new bands. So we started Re-TROS.
SmBj: So Re-TROS officially formed in the spring of 2003. This is interesting, because this is exactly when the SARS pandemic was at its worst in China, and much nightlife and music activity was frozen. I talked with Yan Jun about this before, and he mentioned that around that time, the Beijing rock scene of the time (bands like Tongue, No, Yaksa, etc) started to fall apart. What was it like starting a new band in this environment?
HD: Like I was just saying, in 2003 Beijing had a really bleak and desolate vibe. It seemed like everyone was suddenly anxious about something, and all the passion from the previous years had gradually vanished. The music scene seemed suddenly empty, like everyone had moved on to do something else. There were no bands or new sounds to stir people up. At the time Re-TROS lived in a hutong apartment outside the fifth ring road. No one knew or understood what we were doing. So we didn't have any pressure, because we had nothing to lose. It was like we were coiled up with energy waiting for something to happen. I knew we'd soon have an opportunity to amaze the world.
SmBj: When you first started Re-TROS, what other bands did you play with, or what other bands did you feel a close connection with?
HD: At the time we were connected to very few other bands. We didn't even have many friends (actually it's the same way now). We'd occasionally play with Subs and a band that was around at the time called The Camel. But when we first started we barely had any opportunities to play shows. I remember we'd play random shows at Nameless Highland and the new Get Lucky, but the audience would be really small. It was that way for about half a year.
SmBj: You worked with Brian Eno on your debut EP, who was in Beijing recording at the time. How did this collaboration come about? I know Eno also spent time with FM3, who had just put out the first Buddha Machine. What other Chinese artists did Eno exchange ideas with at the time?
HD: We worked with Eno eight years ago and I've been asked about it a thousand times since then. In a word, it was a lucky coincidence, we basically just won the lottery. I don't know what other Chinese artists he might have worked with.
SmBj: You also worked with American musician Damon McMahon on producing your second album. How did this collaboration happen?
HD: First of all, we are really good friends with Damon. He introduced us to a lot of great music. We had a lot of good times together. At the same time, I knew he was a special musician, so when we were preparing to record our second album, we asked him to help produce it. Since we were so close we knew we'd have a really casual and close working relationship. We didn't have to worry about any miscommunication. Afterwards, he introduced us to his friend Charles Burst from New York, who helped with the recording. The whole experience was very comfortable, smooth, and happy.
Re-TROS - "TV Show (Hang the Police)"
SmBj: What do you think Re-TROS has gained by working with foreign musicians and producers? Does it add a unique element to your sound, or do you view it as a learning experience?
HD: Personally I believe that China's current level of record production is still relatively low. There's still a big disparity between China and other countries in terms of both technical expertise and conceptual approaches. Also, I think our music is particularly Western in style, so working with foreign musicians and producers has helped us to get the result we're looking for.
SmBj: Re-TROS was one of the first bands in China to draw influences from UK and US post-punk bands like Gang of Four, Joy Division, Bauhaus, Pere Ubu, etc. Now this style is a huge influence on entire generations of younger Chinese bands, to the point where some music critics consider "Chinese Post-Punk" to be its own genre. Why do you think this style of music has resonated so much with contemporary Chinese youth?
HD: I personally think that the resonant or influential aspect isn't the musical style, it's the music in itself. I don't know why other bands choose to play post-punk, I just know that this kind of music especially suits me personally. It's simple enough, but also artistic enough, and it has the potential to mix with many other styles. When performing live I can completely submerse myself in this music. In 2004, when we had just started playing live shows, we got a lot of bad reviews. We didn't play solos, we didn't have fancy stage moves, we didn't jump around, we didn't do funny stage banter. We just played our music honestly and straightforwardly, nothing more and nothing less.
SmBj: How do you think this style of rock music has evolved in China since you've been active as a musician? Do you think younger post-punk bands are making music with the same ideas or goals as you are?
HD: Sorry, I really don't know, and I don't care. I only pay attention to my own music.
SmBj: Last year Re-TROS focused mostly on international shows, including an appearance at the Austin, TX South by Southwest festival and an extensive European tour. Do you think it's more important to tour internationally as a representative of Chinese music abroad, or to spend more time in China and develop the local scene?
HD: The foreign market is where we're putting most of our energy in the near future. The international arena is comparable to how we viewed Beijing when we first started out. It's like a new beginning. We've already achieved success in the Chinese market. This is where we've established a solid base and it has enabled us to move steadfastly forward, step by step.
Hua Dong featured in US music mag Fader
SmBj: What are your plans for 2013 and beyond? More tours, new record, etc?
HD: First we're focusing on getting a new record out in the middle of the year. Then we're doing another round of touring in Europe and the US, and of course we're going to tour more in China. Another really important step for us is to move in some new directions musically, not just post-punk and new wave. We hope we can put out more and more interesting music and move further and further along.
Re-TROS plays a homecoming show on Sunday, February 24th at Yugong Yishan. You can also check Hua Dong DJ with the Black Eyeliner crew on Friday, February 22nd at Dada. Find more band info on their douban page.