The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011


"When we started out we wanted to be the Clash, we wanted to be an international band, not a Chinese band or a UK band." Joe Strummer is an icon to Xiao Rong, lead singer and guitarist with Brain Failure. His trademark leopard-spot haircut features in the artwork of the band's latest album, Coming Down to Beijing. The CD "may be our London Calling," says Xiao Rong. 

Brain Failure started with the Eagles. “I was 15, both my parents were working so my father sent me to guitar class. We learnt Eagles and folk songs. Then I started listening to [Chinese rock pioneers] Cui Jian and Tang Dynasty and Hei Bao.” Away from guitar class Xiao Rong was developing a preference for punk. “It’s easy and straightforward to play, at that time you are no one and you probably don’t have a lot. You can feel very full personally. If you go towards heavy metal it’s very serious and macho. I wanted a bit of humour.”

He found it in Green Day, Nirvana, The Clash and the Sex Pistols. “When I Come Around” by Green Day was the first punk song he learned to play on guitar. But when Xiao Rong started a high school band the group played Sonic Youth covers. Out of school and into Brain Failure, Xiao started writing in English after the band’s first album. In the mid 1990s punk in China was a real novelty pounced and Brain Failure found themselves in Time magazine.  “Foreign journalists were coming to us and asking us ‘oh you have punk rock in China?’”

Seeing talent perhaps, a German journalist advised the band they could take their music beyond China if they performed in English. “The idea is to make music international." And the writing process? “We won’t go really deep, we just want something that is cool. If people enjoy it that’s enough. We didn’t grow up in California so we won’t use smart English."

After two years playing around China a friend working at Jingwen, a large state-owned distribution company, landed the band a deal. “But they were lazy on promoting the album.” Three years later, in 2002, he wanted to do another album but I said ‘hey you can’t give us sales figures or give us money regularly and you have no plan to promote the album.’ He wanted to make a deal that would give him control of copyright.”

By lucky coincidence the A&R manager of Japan-based punk label Bad News happened to be in town when Xiao Rong was having his row with Jingwen. On seeing the band play he offered a deal. ‘Wow you guys are as good as when I saw Bob Marley play’ Xiao Rong remembers and cherishes the rather bizarre comparison. A USA tour and a recording session in Tokyo ensued. “Even though I had no money in the hand from them I agreed for the chance to go outside of China with the band.”

Bad News landed Brain Failure a 2003 date at legendary industry showcase South By Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, flying the group out with a couple of Japanese bands. The band played US rock showcase CMJ in 2004. But Xiao Rong was disappointed that many of the fans were coming expecting a Peking opera. "...They were coming to show expecting Chinese traditional, I wanted real punk fans." So he contacted the Dropkick Murphys. A New York show was followed by a next-morning run to California to play with the Pogues-sounding Celtic rockers.

Brain Failure spent the summer of 2006 opening for Dropkick Murphys' 20 show US tour. Dropkick frontman Casey liked the band's sound so much he offered to produce their next album. It was after September 11 and the new album, coming out in the US before it hit China, was titled American Dream. “It meant we are Chinese and we look at USA and we still want them to have an American dream, not just the car and house. If we are Chinese and go to USA we want to see the Elvis generation, the real steak hash burger and Coca Cola bottles."

Touring in the USA is not like touring in China. "In America you will take a van and trailer, in China we take our guitars and get on a train. You have to be a car owner in the USA. We spent US$100 a day on gas when touring. To pay the bills the band supplemented their pay by selling as many t-shirts as possible at shows. The crowds loved them. And Brain Failure learnt a lot. “We learned to keep our performance tight, you have to live like a musician. Biggest point is there to play music, not to hang out. If you party too hard you can’t play well."

The band played in front of 20,000 at the Palm Spring punk festival in Japan. Back in Beijing their regular haunt Mao Live is 400 capacity - they have also played Star Live, which fits 800. Graphic designer and band friend Li Chi opened Mao Live in Beijing's old quarter after a trip to Japan courtesy of Bad News to see how venues there are managed. “A live house rather than another Get Lucky or 13 Club.” The club rents the venue at a set price rather than negotiating door deals. The theory being that bands will improve their music and stage show to guarantee a crowd.

Xiao Rong reckons the reason Chinese fans are unwilling to pay for tickets and merchandise is not so much down to saving money as being cheesed off by the paucity of local acts. "Many Chinese musicians don’t know how to communicate with the audience. Entertainment has to be attractive." Sponsorships have lately helped to bring in foreign acts - Bacardi brought over Maximo Park and the Infadels. But if they want to support quality local acts Chinese punters "have to appreciate that the show will cost more than a bowl of noodles." A new album is set for the end of 2007 and the band will be back on the road in the USA in 2008. They’ve looked at touring Europe “but we’re pretty busy now in China.” The European scene suits better than Asia. “You need to fly everywhere, whereas in Europe you just need to buy a return ticket.”

Oh, and the haircut? The Offspring's guitarist Noodle gave him the idea. "And my wife is a hairdresser knew there was a hairdressers convention that needed models so they kind of played around with it. I like the effect."



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Nuggets from our archive

2003 - Witnness 2003, a comprehensive review by Brian Kelly of the 2 days of what transpired to be the last ever Witnness festival (in 2004 it was rebranded as Oxegen when Heineken stepped into the sponsor shoes).