Interview: Li Yang of Demerit

By Morgan Short, Jan 15th, 2009 | In Nightlife



Originally formed in Qingdao in 2004, Beijing-based Demerit are at the top of the heap when it comes to Chinese punk rock, and play new school "street punk" in the vein of The Casualties, Choking Victim, and The Unseen, but fuse it with the metal guitar pyrotechnics of Iron Maiden.

Their last album Bastards of a Nation was produced by Public Enemy's Brian Hardgroove and was one of the best releases by a Chinese band last year (read a review of that sucker here). Demerit are also known for putting on one of the best live shows, so -- disaffected youth -- don't miss them at the Dream Factory this Friday.

SmartShanghai got on the horn with lead singer Li Yang to talk about le punk rock, touring, coming down to Beijing, and stuff like that.

This interview was originally done in Chinese by Ciga Zhou, kicking it old school for SmartShangahi. Thanks Ciga.

***

How is it going? What are you guys up to for Chinese New Year?

Li Yang: Lately, we've been preparing for the upcoming show. But we'll all go back to our home towns for CNY.

You guys just capped off a national tour of the "Bastards of a Nation" album. Can you talk about the tour? Tour stories?

Li Yang: There's so many stories. Some cities we went to are really small and underdeveloped, and fans had traveled a long way trip to even come.

In Nanjing, for instance, when we arrived at the railway station, there were fans waiting for us who had come from the other cities just to see the show. They came to meet us at the station, helped us carry stuff, and they were wearing the "Demerit" t-shirt with our logo on it.

What was the best place to play and why?

Li Yang: Outside of China, Korea is a good place to go. Lots of fun. But there's more exciting places in China, like Chengdu and Nanning. Speaking of Nanning, before we went, we though it was a place where punk had not really caught on and there wasn't much of a scene. But when we got there, people were already wearing our shirts and stuff. That feels great no matter what musical background or tastes you have.

Were the kids doing the mohawks?

Li Yang: Some of them. But mostly that's in Beijing.

What do you think of Shanghai?

Li Yang: Oh, I forgot to mention Shanghai. We did two shows -- one at Yuyintang and one at LOgO. Great shows. Most of the people at them were foreigners.

What's it like when you go back and play Qingdao?

Li Yang: It feels like going back home. Everyone at the shows can sing all our songs and the bar is packed. Qingdao was one of the best shows during the tour.

Do you prefer larger concerts -- more people the better -- or smaller?

Li Yang: More people the better! Actually, lots of people are into rock now, and more and more people should be understanding the music, but it doesn't crop up in mainstream media. We've played concerts where we show up and there is no poster at the venue and people are there that don't even know what's going on.



The mainstream media ignores punk music?

Li Yang: It's there but not enough. And it's not viewed in the right way. In this society, punk is a fashion accessory. If punk music was considered as important and valid as mainstream music, I think rock in China could be very influential.

Looking at the lyric content from "Bastards of a Nation" it seems Demerit is one of the few punk bands in China that embraces political punk rock. Where does the political aspect of the band come from?

Li Yang: Our music comes from daily life, and is not necessarily political. Our music is how we feel about daily life. When something happens in the media, we, as a band, will think how it happened and why, trying to find some answers and incorporating that into our music.

Do you find the politics of the band alienates people? Do people get pissed?

Li Yang: I don't think too much about if people are alienated or pissed off by our music. I do what I like...

So you recorded your latest album "Bastards of the Nation" with Public Enemy's bassist and producer Brian Hardgroove. What was that like?

Li Yang: Brian and Public Enemy came to China for a show, and Brian found that he was very interested in the music here. Then he found our stuff on the internet, and that's how we started to work together.

He's our producer and helps us a lot musically -- the way we compose music, the way how we understand music, and how we develop it. He gives us lots of suggestions, and makes us realize things about what we were doing that we hadn't noticed before.

Recording plans for the future?

Li Yang: We going to make the EP first and put together a video with footage from the tour. Brian is back working with us for the next album. We're starting after CNY.

What's living in Beijing like?

Li Yang: Most of the time, we're in rehearsal, and then we tour. Otherwise we'll write songs at home. We don't have a full time jobs apart from making music.

Beijing has gotten increased attention in international media over the past few years due to the perception that the rock scene is thriving? Do you feel it's warranted?

Li Yang: I don't really know what their attention is on. I don't know if they're focusing on the real rock music. I don't think they are really paying attention to the real music, so our music hasn't been on a bigger stage. People abroad don't really know the music.

How do you guys feel about living in Beijing? What's the best and worst thing about living, playing and making music in Beijing?

Li Yang: At beginning, when we first moved here, it felt like other cities' culture wasn't as developed as Beijing's. But after living here a while you can see things for how they really are and not just buy into the hype. Since we are all from different cities, choosing Beijing as a place to stay together and make music is good.

But, for myself, I don't think Beijing is a suitable city for me to live in. If I wasn't here for the music, I wouldn't choose Beijing to live in.

Where would you live?

Li Yang: Southern cities. I'd prefer somewhere with a slower pace of life. I don't really like crowds of people, ignoring each other, and not paying attention to people around them. Beijing is like that. It's all gray and not much passion.

Is there lots of competition between bands in Beijing? Or is it more people co-operating with each other?

Li Yang: The music networking in Beijing is very complicated. Because there are opportunities for bands to succeed, it's brought conflict and competition. In the city, there's offshoot scenes, different groups with different groups, different genres... the situation now is not so good for the development of the music. On the face, it looks like 'WOW, there's so many different kinds of bands,' but behind the surface of it, bad things happen due to the competition.

Compared to other cities, Beijing is not simple any more -- everyone wants to reach the top in a very short period of time.

You recently just played a show with DOA. What was that like?

Li Yang: In terms of bands coming to China, DOA is the best punk band I've ever seen live. They have a spontaneous explosive force that can't be planned or faked. It's something that comes from their spirit. I'm still excited about that show.

Do you consider them influential in your music?

Li Yang: Very! Watching music live is so different from listening to CD. When you see them live, it's is a revelation: 'wow, music can be performed like this.' The old school punk mentality comes from inside and the way they control the show and express the music is not decorated.

That barely happens in China. Maybe, technically, we can copy the music, but you can't copy the spirit.

If you could play a show with any other band alive or dead who would it be?

Li Yang: Iron Maiden. Judas Priest. Motorhead.

What are some of the Chinese bands that you guys like and listen to?

Li Yang: I'm into older Chinese artists: Lo Ta Yu and Zheng Zhi Hua.
I remember when I was young at home and my parents were out, Zheng Hi Hua's song "Shui Shou" was on TV, and I cranked it up and jumped around, singing along. I think his lyrics are really accomplished and capture the true sentiments of society.

Lately, I like Geson from Dalian.

What can people expect when they come see you play this weekend?

Li Yang: We've never played at Dream Factory before. We planned to include Chinese drums, but due to the equipment problems, we had to cancel it. So during the show we'll also play songs we haven't played in Shanghai before. Also, we'll do some stuff unplugged.

***

Demerit plays the Zhijiang Dream Factory this Friday with Pinkberry and DJ Sacco in support. Tickets are 60rmb. Starts 9pm.

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