The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

Entries for 'Mark Godfrey'

26

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.

 

 

 


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26

Muma’s World

Written off for dead, art rockers Muma has a new album in the works

 

In spring time

Teachers are all dead

Muma arrives in revelry

Smilingly

In darkness

Continuous dancing steps

Give out decadent looks

In the whole festival

The subsequent thing is up to you

"Dancing Step" by Muma

 

Muma Chinese rock bandJeroen Groenewegen spent six hours at Amsterdam airport convincing uniformed Dutch immigration police to release a band just off the afternoon flight from Beijing. A mix-up about the purchase of air tickets meant that Muma didn’t have time to get their visas right. The military police eventually let them go, after an awful lot of convincing. It was so rock and roll, the way Groenewegen recalls it. “Musicians are not known for their talents for applying for visas or arranging airline tickets. They just want to play their music.”

 

Fresh from the airport, Muma rocked the Melkweg, a club which has hosted a who’s who of international rock acts. “They gave a great show,” says Groenewegen, one of the organizers of Amsterdam’s China Festival in the autumn of 2005. While freeing the second band from the arrivals hall Groenewegen missed the first gig, by Chinese glam rockers Second Hand Rose.

 

A hall full of Dutch rock fans swayed to dark rockers like Dancing Step and Party. But you could hear a pin drop in the roomy Melkweg when Xie Qiang and keyboardist Feng Lei came to the piano for Fei Fei Rong. On the band’s Jelly Empire alblum the song comes across as a crackly love paen to Xie’s wife and baby, proof that Muma could be sweet as well as sour. There’s something about the Muma sound which in its maturity sets it apart from the band’s peers.

 

Maybe some credit is due to the foreign production teams - a previous album was mastered in Australia – but Muma has been more comfortable than most other Chinese bands at integrating, Radiohead-style, electronic and vocal tinkerings that other Chinese bands have use as add-ons to cover something lacking in their own sound.

 

Often compared to those dealers in darkness, Joy Division, Muma is still around because of its songwriting class. Like Xie Tianxiao, with whom they shared the stage at the 2006 Beijing Pop Festival, Muma is an act that stands on the quality of its songwriting. Penning mournful tunes of youthful love, break ups and reunions the band set a high mark with their 1999 debut album, Muma. Existential ponderings like Boggling became underground hits.

 

Nearly ten years together and doing press for their fourth album (it will be released in May) the original members of Muma met in Beijing in the mid-90s, when they studied at Beijing Midi Music School and swapped Doors and Joy Division tapes. Vocalist and guitarist Xie Qiang dropped a chance to follow his father into the railway company in Hunan province, hitching a ride to Beijing instead where, 17 and broke, he swopped slices of Guns & Roses and Iggy Pop with bassist Cao Cao, from Sichuan.

 

There’s Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd guitars and a lot of the lyrical darkness of Nick Cave and Tom Waits in Xie’s lyrics, all written in poetic form. There was religion in the mix too. Zhjiang-born drummer Hu Hu was a devout Buddhist taken to meditating before band practice.

 

After a debut gig in 1998 at the now-defunct Howl Bar the three southerners had a band and gigged in bars across town. “Music was a wall to keep out the more mundane things of life. We didn’t have any money, but we didn’t want to do covers in bars. Playing music is really too profound for that...” says Xie, who got his biggest gig at last year’s Beijing Pop Festival, opening for Placebo. Muma got the gig after after signing to the Rock for China label, a subsidiary of the festival organizer. That meant walking out on Modern Sky, the group’s long-time label, a topic the band is shy to discuss.

 

The third album “Pudding Empire” was the band’s coming of age. Slickly produced and packaged, but for the pointless alternative versions of the ballad FeiFei Run and the remix, the album has become a staple of most Chinese rock collections. It was also the most upbeat work by a band now older and, in Xie Qiang’s case, a father.

 

Whatever about the gloomy lyrics, it’s facile to present Muma as the voice of a new breed of angsty Chinese youth, as many local music writers have done. Well-coiffed and dressed in shades of beige, green and brown with jeans and stripey t-shirts, the band stand amidst urban weeds under a night sky in a poster inserted in the sleeve of Jelly Empire. Muma look like models for one of the cookie-cutter Hong Kong clothing brands beloved of China’s youth who, like many of their Asian peers, pass weekends in shopping centres and karaoke bars rather than reading Kurt Cobain or Nietzche.

 

Confirming the group’s respectability, Muma has also been usurped as the name of a Beijing toymaker supplying learning aids to school children. Literally, Muma in Chinese means wooden horse. The name represents that of a carrousel horse, says Xie. “It symbolizes the joy of one's childhood, as well as the way your mind moves all the time when you’re growing up.”

 

In that very Chinese fondness to put people and phenomena into generations, Chinese rock is three generational. Cui Jian and Tang Dynasty were the first generation. Dou Wei, He Yong were the second generation. Always influential, Muma stand with Second Hand Roses and Brain Failure as most enduring of the third and latest generation of stars. A new crop of bands like Carsick Cars, Retros and Lonely China Day are claiming ground and will likely be boxed off as the fourth generation of a still-nascent rock scene.

 

After that Amsterdam adventure Hu Hu left the band. Back in Amsterdam Jeroen Groenewegen remembers shepherding Muma through the delights and bureaucracies of Amsterdam. “I even had to fish one of the members of the band out of the Vondel Park. He had eaten so many mushrooms he thought he was dead.” Now that’s rock and roll.


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Nuggets from our archive

2000 - 'Rock Criticism: Getting it Right', written by Mark Godfrey. A thought provoking reflection on the art of rock criticism.