Social Alienation :: interview > rebuilding the rights of statues

Rebuilding the Rights of Statues
post-punk - Beijing, China

Hua Dong, dark singer & guitarist of the band answer our questions.

Hi Hua Dong. Could you introduce the band Re-TROS?
Hua Dong : Re-TROS (Rebuilding the Rights of Statues) was formed in 2003. At that time, I felt the music scene in Beijing was a bit boring, and I was not interested in any particular band. Besides, those experienced bands did not have much activity and the music scene was just boring. Therefore, I started thinking of doing my own bands. I met Liu Min in Nanjing, and I met Ma Hui, the drummer, through a friend in Beijing. We talked a lot and found that we had the same interests in music, so we started our band.

Re-TROS is an abbreviation for Rebuilding the Rights of Statues, the name that you used in the past. We know you have strong political positions against China nowadays. Do these statues in the name of your band refer to immobile Chinese citizens deprived of freedom, and do you see China as a nation that is bullying and suppressing individuality? Would you say your music is like a distorted, dreamlike mirror of this reality?
Hua Dong : That’s a difficult question to answer. First of all, I think “statues” is a symbol or metaphor representing a kind of tough but also silent attitude that you can feel the strong power from. Any kind of art can be taken as a symbol or metaphor for the real world. Politics is one part of the real world and nobody can get rid of it. Looking for freedom, exploring humanity, creating personality, and so on, these things together forming what we see in the real world. Personally, I think my band is more like a story teller, a calm outsider.

What can you say about your artistic and non-artistic influences?
Hua Dong : I love the post-punk/new wave of the 70s and 80s, say Brian Eno, Gang of Four, Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees and so on. Their way of exploring the possibility in music and experimenting. I am very much affected by their way of making music and their attitudes towards the world. I am also very excited by many new indie/experimental bands, like battles, blonde redhead, animal collective, liars, PVT and so on. They introduced a new kind of expression for rock music. They've led modern music to a new road full of the unknown and very different from the traditional way. I am really interested in them.

We think that a part of the actual Beijing punk/new wave scene belongs to a movement called "No Beijing", in reference to the avant-gardist compilation album No New York, produced by Brian Eno and released in 78. What do you think of this aphorism, and do you think Re-TROS could belong to the movement?
Hua Dong : “No Beijing” is only one of the art movements or new waves. I do not think that Re-TROS belongs to any of those. We only do what we want to do. I have listened to No New York and I love it very much. But I've never listened to No Beijing and I am not really interested in it. I am not interested in any slogan made by people intentionally. For me, I enjoy doing music independently and I do not want to get involved in any movement. Movements should be left to critics.

Do you consider Re-TROS to be a logical and sophisticated evolution of a certain traditional Beijing punk, or more as a new starting point, a new musical movement less dependent on Western influences?
Hua Dong : I tend to regard Re-TROS as a new starting point. We are totally different from traditional Beijing punk and we do not have any relationship with them. Our standpoint, content, techniques, performances and such are all new in China. We are affected by western music but we do not want to be a subordinate to western music. We are standing on the shoulder of western music and try to see it from our own view. It belongs to neither East nor West; it belongs to us.

You lived as a student in Berlin. Did this direct confrontation with the Western scene influence by any means your artistic approach and music?
Hua Dong : I should clarify that I have been to college in Germany, but not in Berlin. It was a little city near Leipzig called Halle in the Eastern part. I learnt German Language and Literature there. My parents both teach German to college students, and I learnt German in language school starting in junior high school. I believe that my music has been affected by my experience very much. When I am making music, I always try to get it more precise, refined and matching, just like the German language. I like music that’s a bit dark and gloomy rather than cheerful. I think this kind of mood is also very German-like.

Chinese rock resides specifically in Beijing. How do you explain this stimulating role of the capital, and what is its particularity compared to other Chinese rock scenes?
Hua Dong : As the political and cultural centre of China, Beijing obviously has advantages. It is a place for information exchange and people come here looking for opportunity. It is a multicultural city where different lifestyles and self-expressions are allowed. There are more and more foreigners coming to Beijing in recent years, and different cultures mix and clash here. The environment is very good for the development of art. In Beijing, since the pace is fast, the competition is tight and the pressure is great, people are very sensitive to the environment and their reactions to changes are great. There are many music labels in Beijing, so that attracts many musicians to come here. Other cities in China are more simple and do not have so much stimulation. I think all of these are the reasons Beijing has become the centre of rock music in China.

The bassist of the band, Liu Min, comes from the punk scene of Nanking, a town with a particularly painful past. Do you think history holds a significant weight for those bands?
Hua Dong : I should clarify again that it is not Liu Min but me, Hua Dong, who is from Nanjing. Liu Min is from Sichuan. Just as you have said, Nanjing has a painful past which is very heavy. The weather in Nanjing is also very hazy and misty, so many gloomy bands are born there. The bands in Nanjing are softer than those in the South but heavier than those in the North, somewhere in the middle. They are trying to express something in a blurred and heavy way. It is hard to tell whether it is history that made Nanjing people like that, or Nanjing people created such heavy history. It’s interesting to think about.

When someone has an interest in the Chinese indies scene, at some point he inevitably hears about the label Modern Sky. What is its role in the development of independent artists?
Hua Dong : As a famous independent label in China, Modern Sky is very energetic and very good at exploring new bands with potential. The music business is going down nowadays and it is not easy to keep your footing and look for more opportunities. Modern Sky puts lots of emphasis on music festivals in China, which is not a bad thing because it provides stages for young people to play their music, and also helps those experienced bands to earn a living. I think many bands are happy with it.

In Hang the Police, Die in 1977..., your lyrics are very caustic towards the government. Will you try to push to its maximum level the mouse-and-cat game you're playing with the board of censors? How far can a band like yours go, and to what extent can it play a role of awareness?
Hua Dong : As I’ve said, we are only the story tellers and we are outsiders telling stories objectively. The story itself only reflects reality. If people catch or feel something from our stories and say that our stories are against certain kinds of issues, that is only their own way of understanding. People read stories in different ways and from different angels, so one story will have many versions. This is the fascinating thing about art. Even the author himself cannot imagine some of those versions. This is why authors can continue their work with great passion.

Brian Eno recorded with you a few tracks on the EP Cut Off! What can you say about the circumstances of this meeting, and about what you were able to learn from each other?
Hua Dong : It was just a coincidence. Brian Eno came to Beijing to record his own project, and came to Modern Sky for final production. At that time, we were also recording our EP. We were confused about the final mixing and felt that we should add something to it. Should it be keyboard notes? Should it be sound effects? We couldn't make any decision and then Brian Eno came. It was just like destiny. After he listened to our recording, he played keyboard in those three songs for us. He was so nice and such a gentleman, and he was just so cool. I remember we were so excited, we couldn’t say a word and just watched him play. Reality was so good at that moment.

Can you talk about the album Watch Out! Climate has Changed, Fat Mum Rises...? What does it mean to you, and how does it evolve from Cut Off!?
Hua Dong : The last EP Cut Off! was three years ago, and Watch out... is our first full length album. We had not imagined that Cut Off! would be so successful. Because of the success, we did not want to repeat the expression that we had done before. I was no longer attracted by those simple, direct post-punk and traditional combinations of guitar, bass and drums. I wanted to do stuff that was more complicated and rich. In three years’ time, I introduced lots of different kinds of expression and at the same time objected to those ways and kept trying other methods. I just wanted to find something that could distinguish my new work from my past. The process was very hard and I felt like my new work might need a hundred years to produce. Finally, in August 2008, we started recording. We invited recording engineer Charles Burst from New York, and my friend Damon Mcmahon as producer to work with us. The whole thing became more and more clear and we could see the whole picture bit by bit. For me, this album represents a kind of change; we have found our own sounds gradually. The album continued the gloomy mood of the EP with a more sophisticated expression. It showed us a broader view of our future and we could see more possibilities from now on.

If you had to choose only one song from Re-TROS, which one would it be and why?
Hua Dong : That’s a tough one too. If I could only choose one song, I would choose Up Next: Bela Lugosi's Back because it has an Honor Guard-like sound which is so different from other songs. Plus, I think it contains huge power which I can only feel but can’t explain in words. Every time I play it, I get very high.

You are now touring in Australia with the legendary band Gang of Four. How did you come across this opportunity to collaborate together and what do you expect from it? Do you think such opportunities are necessary steps to make the Chinese scene more internationally known?
Hua Dong : We asked our friends to pass our CD to Gang of Four and they were interested in our music, so they invited us to tour with them in Australia. When I heard this news, I asked my manager many, many times, “It is true? It is true? Is it true??...”. I just could not believe what I had heard. I think western people will get to know more about the level of Chinese bands through this kind of tour. They may be surprised or they may think it’s no big deal. Either way, I am happy with it because it lets more western people come to see our performances. And I never even dreamt of playing with my idol Gang of Four, I am just so excited.

Do you have a last message for Europeans?
Hua Dong : I started college in Germany when I was nineteen. I have been to many places like France, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland... Europe is full of the memories of my youth. When I came back to China, I always wanted to go to European again, not as a student, but as an artist. I finally got a chance to sell my CD in Europe. I hope it is a good starting point and I hope to come back to the continent of my teenage memories to sing... Thank you.

Interview done in association with Kochipan.
June 2011

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