【Taiwan Review】Underground Overtones

Byline: Oscar Chung
Publication Date: 04/01/2000
Taiwan Review: http://taiwanreview.nat.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=498&CtNode=1373

Taiwan's alternative music scene may be getting better or worse, bigger or smaller, depending on who you talk to. One thing's for sure, however--it's getting louder.
"It's drizzling and the sparrows are singing, but all I can do in the middle of the night is jack off. The teacher tells me to study hard and the principal calls for us to revive our national spirit, but all I can do is hide in the corner and jack off," sings lead singer Ko Ren-chien, 30, with his band L.T.K. Commune in a small basement bar near Taipei's National Taiwan Normal University. Despite lyrics that trumpet the attitude of a societal outcast, the student audience slams around in delight. Songs such as Cartoon Pistol don't cause this crowd to flinch in disgust at all, although the Mandarin tune would probably cause the rest of the island to drop its jaws.

But if you don't think Cartoon Pistol is shocking enough, try the group's Taiwanese-penned Black Cat Guy, where foul language weaves a tale about organized crime and politics on the island. "We just sing and never consider how vulgar the lyrics might be," co-vocalist Tsai Hai-en says nonchalantly. The band's handle L.T.K. Commune is a play on the Taiwanese name for the Choshui River in southern Taiwan. "We chose the name just because it sounds tacky. The tackier, the better," Tsai explains.

The band, which pens most of its songs in Taiwanese, claims to be Taiwan's "foremost violent force" in expressing its dissatisfaction with society. Skits that featured the smashing of various objects to protest the social and political environment were a regular part of L.T.K. Commune's gigs. "We've already gotten tired of doing that," says Tsai. "We're trying to come up with something more interesting." This may be a tough act to follow, especially after hearing Tsai talk about getting expelled from National Taiwan University (NTU) for digging up human bones in a graveyard. "We were never interested in attending classes. Every day we'd try to think of something to challenge the school's authority," laughs Tsai, who met Ko nearly ten years ago at NTU.

While L.T.K. Commune indulges the audience with lurid language and violent gestures, it's only one of the many forms of musical expression the island's alternative scene offers its fans. According to Ren Chiang-ta, a sociology major at NTU and now the head of alternative-music label Crystal Records, there are over 100 such groups in Taiwan. Most of them are comprised of students who perform around campuses as a hobby. Only thirty of these bands are currently capable of earning any kind of income through concerts and albums.

Tsai's band, with two albums out in stores, is one of the lucky few. Another successful alternative band is Chthonic, a name meaning "of or pertaining to the spirits of the underworld." Established in 1996 and known for its heavy-metal sway and lyrics based on aboriginal mythology, the five-person band released its first album last year. "Actually, the alternative -music scene has been around here for a while, but it hasn't drawn much attention until the last two years," says Freddy Lin, 24, Chthonic's lead singer and er-hu (double-stringed Chinese fiddle) player.

Spring Scream, an annual three-day music festival similar to Woodstock, gave alternative music its initial commercial push. Held near the beaches of Kenting, southern Taiwan, and organized by Western expatriates, the April event was first staged in 1995. The first year saw a group of around ten bands playing in a loose schedule. Last year saw an overflow of bands come and vie for peak concert times in front of thousands.

Thanks to publicity that began with Spring Scream and similar events, alternative music is now slowly beginning to spread outside the island's borders. Chthonic's first album, which was partly produced in Denmark, was released through Lin's own record company here and in a few other Asian countries such as Japan and Singapore. The group's foreign sales have reached a modest two-to-three-thousand copies. Lin claims that locally, however, Chthonic's debut has sold around ten thousand copies, better than most alternative bands.

The all-woman group Ladybug seems closer to international success. Marked by a fun, psychedelic style reminiscent of Japan's Shonen Knife, they're known for being the first local alternative band to perform in the United States. The group's debut album, released on Crystal, led to a performance at a Hong Kong exhibition. Australian record scouts found them appealing and released their first album in Australia and the United States. In 1998, the Australian firm sent the four women (the group is now a trio) on a bar tour around both US coasts. It was during the same year that one of Ladybug's singles began receiving rotation on campus radio stations, entering the College Music Journal's Top 200.

While the more pluralistic society of millennium Taiwan may be fertile soil for alternative music, Ren Chiang-ta of Crystal Records says the seeds were sown when American soldiers began to be stationed here in 1950. Live bands would often play at expatriate bars along a section of Taipei's Chungshan North Road known as the "Combat Zone." The counter -culture musical style that blared out of those bars up until the 1970s would serve to inspire many future local record execu tives and bands.

Younger musicians like Tsai, Lin, and Chthonic bassist Doris Yeh mention Bon Jovi when talking about American influences, although they have mixed feelings about the group. "I found Bon Jovi enlightening, but today I think their songs are too mellow," says Yeh. Tsai says he recognizes but wasn't moved by the group's widespread fame on the island, some thing that can probably be traced to its radio friendliness. "I've never thought Bon Jovi was inspiring," he says.

"Influences from the States on alternative music here are great," says Hsiao Pao, Ladybug's bassist. But is the popularity of American music just another "McDonaldization" of the local culture? Ren disagrees. "When rock 'n' roll is combined with local culture, something unique happens," he says. "Local people hear music from abroad and begin to think 'Is it really so difficult to sing this in Mandarin or Taiwanese?'"

While the seeds of rebellion through music were planted in the 1960s and 1970s, they wouldn't begin to sprout until the island's major transformations that started around 1987, the year martial law was lifted. The process of change went like this: the government called for localization in all aspects of society, an influx of information swept over the island, and the public was given more freedom than ever before. All this set the tone for the creation of alternative music. "Rock 'n' roll is usually the first form of protest. You know, it was once used by US auto workers to vent their dissatisfaction with management," says Ren.

The inevitable growing pains that occurred after 1987 often took the shape of political protests. The members of L.T.K. Commune took to the streets to join demonstrations staged by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Chthonic's Lin and Yeh also feel close to the DPP. To show their opposition to mainland China's attempts to annex the island, the two groups joined three other pro-Taiwan identity bands in a protest concert at Zeitgeist, a Taipei pub, in late February. Not all bands have the same political views, however, and Chthonic was split in two during the last Taipei mayoral election. "Like all other circles of society, we also have different views in terms of politics," says Yeh.

Ladybug has decided to stay out of politics and instead touches on women's issues, although they don't want to be pigeonholed. "Some say our lyrics suggest feminism," says Ladybug's Hsiao Pao. "I don't know about that. We don't really move in that direction deliberately. We just sing what we like." Feminism is a call to reflect on the impact of male chauvin ism, and this is one respect in which Ladybug stands out from Taiwan's cookie-cutter girl groups.
But just as alternative music in the United States crossed over so well in the early 1990s that it is now considered mainstream, what is considered alternative here could be threatened with familiarity. The dyed golden locks of Ladybug's drummer Ah Li would hardly attract a quizzical glance in downtown Taipei. Likewise, Chthonic's ghost-like performance make-up or Ko Ren-chien of L.T.K. Commune changing from pants to a girdle on stage have probably lost their shock appeal.

Hsiao Pao thinks music cable channels and local bands' websites have taught the public all it needs to know about the alternative sound. Even the vulgar lyrics are beginning to become a bit mundane. "That doesn't bother me," says Ren Po -chang, a 22-year-old college student and rock fan when asked about the explicit lyrics found in some bands' songs. "I've only recently started to listen to local bands, but I've been listening to the foreign ones for a long time, so I'm used to that style. It's really just a performance."

Chthonic's Lin, who also hosts a radio program about local bands, likes to refer to his music as rock instead of alternative or non-mainstream. "I don't use the word 'underground,' either, because it makes people think we're illegal."

Proof that alternative music is moving off the sidelines can be seen in its first rock supergroup, Wu Bai and China Blue. Since the group's initial album, also released by Crystal, it has grown from obscurity to become one of the island's most recognized groups. More evidence of the acceptance of alternative sounds can be found at Zeitgeist. Opened at the end of 1999, the pub was the first venue exclusively for alternative bands and their audience, according to manager Ellis Lee, 23, himself a former guitarist. "There are about four other bars where these bands can perform, but they're really discos where customers start dancing after the bands finish their set." He proudly adds that his bar's "Millennium Riot" concert, which lasted four consecutive nights, attracted long lines of people wanting to watch the thirty-five bands that took part in the musical relay.

Lee observes that rock concert audiences are getting younger, indicating that alternative music in Taiwan is more popu lar than ever. The performers themselves are also becoming more diverse. "Today, artists dare to strut their stuff more, no matter how unpolished they may sound," says L.T.K. Commune's Tsai. "An all-girl band was once a special attraction, but today it's no big deal," Lee adds.

Better concert pay is one possible reason for the rise in the number of rockers, but with a minimum show fee of NT$4,000 (US$130) an hour, most are in it for the sound of the chords, not the cash register. Some alternative bands are also forced to compromise their creativity when dealing with record companies.

"That would be impossible for us to do," Tsai says of having to make creativity changes for record companies. The group found two companies willing to press and market its CDs. "They just ask us to watch our foul language at interviews. Otherwise, they leave us alone and that's acceptable," he says. Ladybug's Hsiao Pao finds it inevitable that record companies will want some control over an act's style. "Mainstream companies exist to make money, so it's likely that they'll ask you to change your style to appeal better to the public," she says.

Chthonic was able to get around the record company dilemma by founding its own label. "So they're very independent. I think we all should move in that direction," Tsai says. "It's not necessarily a good thing to enter the mainstream, because that doesn't leave much that can be controlled by the band."

Another interesting phenomenon is the gap between fast-paced Taipei and the rest of the island. Lin estimates that bands and fans in Taipei outnumber those elsewhere ten times. Tsai Wen-chan, who joined a band in college in Taichung, central Taiwan, gave up his dream of forming a new group after graduation, because he couldn't find any other interested musicians locally. "There's only a few venues that alternative musicians can play at outside of Taipei," he says. He travels up to Taipei to see concerts at Zeitgeist, although he calls some of the more obscene lyrics he hears "nothing but garbage."

Taipei, a pocket of variety and acceptance on the island, is usually the center of new musical trends. "The sounder the social structure is, the wider the selection you have when choosing things," says Crystal's Ren Chiang-ta. "I see it as a good thing that Taiwan is developing a musical market that can meet the demands of different types of people."

The underground aurora of alternative music is now an irremovable part of the island's musical culture. It makes a legitimate entertainment contribution and offers a distinctive voice in an often syrup-filled, radio-friendly world. A diversity of music is inevitable for a pluralistic society, and the line between the island's pop and alternative scene is swiftly blurring.