From after-show beers and bowls of jiaozi in Beijing to budget hotel rooms, stuffy tour buses and MTV appearances in America, Brain Failure have come a long way. After ten years of swinging their way up the greasy pole of Chinese rock, Brain Failure are international rock stars, complete with lyrics worthy of parental advisory stickers and exhaustion-induced tour cancellations.
Now singing in English, they’ve been on MTV, ABC and numerous Japanese TV stations. They’ve even been on Chinese national TV. The Brain Failure boys took some time of from their China Tour to do a fashion shoot for Trends Magazine, a local glossy lifestyle magazine promoting the gentrification of China. Looking cool, hair-gelled and, well, rock stars, the Trends-endorsed Brain Failure also feature posters given away to early buyers of the band’s Beijing To Boston DVD produced by American label Interpunk.
Despite their poster-boy status Brain Failure haven’t given up entirely on the anarchaic spirit of punk as represented by the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. There’s a line “Won’t you see my daddy in the KTV” sung to sound suspiciously like a request for late night oral fooling about. Naughty but nice. The Clash it ain’t but the band does address deeper issues: like the alienation and stigma of being a Chinese punk rocker, in ‘No Dirty Punx’ and the excitement and bewilderment of pre-Olympics Beijing: ‘2008.’
Now touring abroad as often as they’re at home in China, Brain Failure have the look of confidence and self-satisfaction about them. True, the band knows better than most other Chinese bands how to put on a show. A cloud of steam rose from a heaving, roaring crowd at the Club 13 recently as the band blasted through a 90 minute set of mostly new songs. It was part homecoming, part launch party for the band’s new CD, Coming Down to Beijing.
It seemed strange to hear lead singer Xiao Rong ‘s between-song banter in Chinese. Everything else about this outfit – and its songs – was American, including the lyrics, staccato blasts of cheeky, hoary English sung in a laboriously American twang by vocalist Xiao, whose trademark cropped and died leopard skin hairdo forms the cover art for the new CD.
The crowd loved it. Outside the merchandising stall did a brisk trade in band t-shirts, arm bands and CDs, all bearing the disctinctive bi-lingual Brain Failure logo in neatly chiseled script hanging over a diamond shape. Inside a group of Chinese and foreign girls at a table above the mosh pit wore their pink Brain Failure t-shirts tight, dangling cigarettes and arching forward to take photos.
On stage, the band looked cocky enough to deserve the attention of groupies. Bassist Ma Jilang goaded the crowd surfers near the stage to do their worst. Guitarist Dee Dee Wang Jian – the name appendage is a mark of respect to the Ramones – poses and drummer Xu Lin bangs his drums like a sledge hammer on bricks. Talking between post-show bottles of beer Xu explains how he soaked up plenty of sticks tricks from drummers and drum technicians – “I didn’t know what that term meant before” - during long stints playing and recording in the US and Japan.
Xu had the services of several drum technicians, credited in the album sleeve notes, when the band recorded at The Outpost, the producer being Ken Casey of Dropkick Murphys, a Pogues-inspired Irish-American punk outfit with a growing fan base in North America and Europe. That’s good company to be keeping for an ambitious punk band. Brain Failure is one. "Coming Down To Beijing” features a guest appearance from Dicky Barrett of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, a cult favourite on American college radio.
Dropkick Murphys’ Mark Orell plays organ on "Fall In Love 2008" while horns were added by good friends and tourmates Big D & The Kids Table, with whom Brain Failure co-released a CD of both bands’ songs. Similarly, when Brain Failure played the Punk Spring 07' Festival, one of the biggest punk rock festivals in Japan it was with international names, and friends, the Dropkick Murphys, NOFX and Jimmy Eat World. A Japanese manager and record label, Bad News Records, have yielded the band plenty of gigs in Tokyo.
But how Chinese is Brain Failure anymore? Not very. And maybe that’s the point. After a decade playing Beijing’s limited circuit of rock bars, the band sees its future in more lucrative territories. Aside from singing in a language most of their compatriots don’t speak, the band recently hosted a show from legendary punk club CBGB's in New York which aired on MTV China, a show accessible to only a minority of fee-paying Chinese TV viewers. The band recorded new versions of two of their most successful songs for Turn on the Distortion, a CD only available in Japan.
The band has even succumbed to the classic proof of cock-rock stardom: burn – out. Some of the upcoming China tour dates were cancelled due to health reasons. “The band is resting and will be on the road in no time,” explained the group’s American press officer, Josh Smith to excuse a string of concert cancellations in late 2006. The group could be excused. After five months recording and busing around America with the likes of legendary carousers like the Dropkick Murphys, Against All Authority and Rat City Riot, the group deserved a rest.