Exorcising the Pope and other wanton acts

The absurdist, destructive tendencies of LTK, and why that makes them Taiwan's greatest band ever

THIS APRIL at Spring Scream, a strange effigy was brought on stage by Loh Tsui Kweh Commune (濁水溪公社) as part of their set. The life-sized doll, which seemed to be made homemade, of stuffed, stitched canvas and old clothes, was tied or duct-taped to a chair with fireworks taped all over it, almost like a hostage and a suicide bomber had been merged into one. And there was no question that by the end of the show, this figure would be totally destroyed, exploded, torn limb from limb, FUBAR, there was no doubt. It's just because LTK shows, especially big ones, always end like that - in a binge of symbolic violence, a mobbed stage, lots of random destruction. The thing I couldn't figure out this time was: who was the effigy supposed to represent anyway?

Hsiao-ko (小柯), LTK's lead singer of 16 years and founding member, told me earlier this week, when I was interviewing him about the band's new album: "That figure? That was the Pope!"

The Pope?

"You know, the leader of the Catholic church in Rome."

I started laughing, at the simple absurdity of it. And it got more absurd the more he explained.

"At that time, the Pope" - Pope John Paul II - "was really sick. So we wanted to help him get rid of his bad luck and recover. That's what the fireworks were for. You know, in Taiwan, we explode fireworks to get rid of evil spirits."

So, in one sense, it was a simple Taoist exorcism ritual. On numerous festival days (the Yenshui Fireworks Festival being the most famous), Taiwanese parade god-figures on palanquins through the streets and pelt them with fireworks, the idea being the explosions will drive off ghosts, evil spirits, plagues, and misfortune in general. And here it was being applied to, yeah, the Pope.

But after the Pope effigy (I'm so glad I finally found out what it was) had been racked by exploding firecrackers, and bottlerockets, and hive rockets - which not so incidentally got much of the crowd ducking for cover - the figure was still in fairly good shape. There was a groove going the whole while, a spare, driving combo of drums and bass with the odd guitar riff coming in on top. LTK pandemonium, you see, always happens to music; they pound out something like a march, with Hsiao-ko screaming slogans, orders, curses, and platitudes over the top of it like some kind of Hitler in Rayban sunglasses (or on some occasions, even in drag), because for LTK, violence is a kind of vehicle, the destruction is going somewhere. And if LTK shows are known for anything, it's that.

"Sometimes we prepare what we're going to destroy. Sometimes we don't prepare anything and the crowd just gets excited," said Hsiao-ko. But whatever the case, "We always have a theme, it's just that not everybody understands what it is."

No shit. And at the same time, I have to hand it to them. The absurdist logic, often pushed to destruction for its own pointless sake, is one of the things that has made LTK truly great, and also made them one of the enduring legends among Taiwanese rock bands. Few if any other local groups have lasted as long - 16 years - and on top if it kept going in underground venues like pubs and festivals without losing the radical intensity and focus of their early years.

Now, with their fourth album on Taiwan's influential indie label Taiwan Colors Music (角頭音樂), they may be finally fringing on the mainstream. They have a fairly incredible video getting some music channel play time, recently contributed the theme song to the Taiwan release of the recent film Godzilla: Final Wars, and have accrued a sizable, devoted, and young following. But it's fairly certain that they'll ever really enter it.

Hsiao-ko, now 35, said he doesn't plan on quitting his job at the National Tax Administration anytime soon. Indeed, he is a bureaucrat, working, as he put it, "nine to five. Two-day weekends."

Along with the drummer Robert, Hsiao-ko is also LTK's only remaining original member. He is short, has the handsome face of an everyday kind of guy and a huge, troublemakers' grin, and is bouncy with bound-up energy - what explodes on stage as his own brand of high theatre. He was born and raised a world apart from Taipei's mainland-influenced political-intellectual culture in the Taiwan grass-roots stronghold of Kaohsiung. He didn't come to the north until beginning studies at National Taiwan University at the age of 18.

"In 1989, when [the band] started," he recalled, "we were attending student movements and playing at them too. Martial law had just ended and a new order had not established itself yet."

This student activism would eventually become known as the Social Movements, a wave which swept the early 1990s with protests demanding direct presidential elections, ridding the national legislature of ancient, China-born politicians kept in place by the KMT system, and numerous other political and social reforms.

"We were always thinking up things to do at the protests," said Hsiao-ko. "We'd always prepare skits and props."

If LTK parodies had their first outlets in activist movements, their inspiration came from something much more traditional. In the 1980s, before Hsiao-ko entered college, he remembers that the western music he listened to was "mostly keyboard pop," bands like the Smiths, Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, and New Order. The Clash, he said, was the only band he listened to that was even vaguely punk (a surprising admission, considering that LTK's music is almost universally described as punk or post-punk). He cites none of those bands as a major influence. Instead, as "our biggest direct influence," he named a TV variety show called San Li Wang Hu Jiang (三立五虎將). As is still the case with variety shows, the program consisted of hosts interspersing joke routines with music and karaoke, and this is where LTK found its template for comedic musical performance - a template they would go on to pervert and radicalize in the extreme.

The logic of LTK performance art was not always as strange as putting a Pope effigy through a Taoist cleansing ritual. At times in fact it's been much more direct, usually, at least until a few years ago, tending to be very political (as did their music. To wit, they have a long history of advocating Taiwanese independence, a stance that's literally apparent in their 2001-released song, "Taiwan Independence March" 台灣獨立軍進行曲). One early Spring Scream performance had some band members in aborignal outfits of woven straw raping a rich, old, touristy Han lady. The metaphoric device was a fire extinguisher, and at the climax, of course, they sprayed all over the stage.

The yellow-white, fire expunging dust - "it blanketed everything," recalled the concert's organizer Jimi Moe. "All the equipment, monitors, and everything. I was shitting bricks. So that pretty much ended that set. But the sound guys, they loved it. They thought it was the funniest thing they'd ever seen."

Abrupt, chaotic endings to live shows became the LTK norm. I've seen them finale with acts as direct and simple as destroying a wooden chair, not relenting until every piece was ripped free, and even then Hsiao-ko kept pounding nails and dents into the legs.

At another Spring Scream, Moe remembered, "the audience was throwing so many water bottles and so much water up on the stage, the sound crew was scared for their safety. They thought they'd be electrocuted, so they temporarily cut the power." Another year, "they lit a pile of guitars on stage." And for it all, Moe says, "I love those guys. At Spring Scream, they'll always have a prime slot to play."

LTK's most extreme moment, however, probably came offstage in 1992, when the band performed what might be the ultimate act of intransigence against Confucian order, they dug up human bones from a graveyard and placed them in their university office. When they were caught, Hsiao-ko was expelled from NTU. It wasn't until several years later - and stints working at 7-Eleven, Wellcome, and a trading company - that he was album to re-enroll and finish his undergrad degree in tax law.

The music on LTK's new album is a collection of songs from between 2001 and 2003. Hsiao-ko described it as different from earlier works: "In our first three albums, you could listen and immediately know our politics or who we were cursing or whatever. This time, it's more about a revolution in the mind." Themes are less overt, tend towards Taiwan identity and other local concerns. There is even the strangest, extended indie rock jam version of the aboriginal standard "Naluwan" you've ever heard. It's hard, in fact, to call it a version, as nothing of the folk standard's melody is there, just the word (which approximately means "Aloha" in several aboriginal Taiwanese languages).

Hsiao-ko talked about the musical aspects, saying, "this time, we've got some really good musicians in the band and we get really serious about the music." Most notably, the new lineup includes the charismatic, whiz-kid guitarist Zhang Guo-xi (張國璽), formerly of pop rockers To La Ku and Mojo. And he definitely brings some technique to the album. On the whole, the music is fairly classic LTK, though with a little less of a hard, distorted punk edge. The tunes are still far-removed rock interpretations of the southern Taiwan countryside and Taiwanese opera (gezaixi), and the march-like rhythms drive an underlying urgency and the sense of a message.

However, reacting to Taiwan's political and social developments, that message is now less about any specific revolution and more about the pure release of pent-up social pressures in any avatar that comes handy. And that's probably the best interpretation I can give of the destruction of the Pope effigy. Hsiao-ko said that after the firecracker exorcism, fans just started coming up on stage and continuing the destruction. "I had no idea who those people were," he said. "I was just up ther singing, and there was this guy next to me destroying something, just slamming something with a piece of wood." Then, to wind his story to an end, he said, "We performed until about midnight, and then the Pope died at about 2am...." And then he started laughing.

Album: 天涯棄逃人
Band: Loh Tsui Kweh Commune
Label: Taiwan Colors Music