Why play South by Southwest? Especially if your band's from Taiwan?



Jon Du of Taiwanese band Forests
  • Steve Leggat
  • Jon Du of Taiwanese band Forests
I had my midlife crisis about 20 years early. After interning at the Reader in 2009 and 2010, I moved in spring 2011 to Taipei, Taiwan, to work for Groupon—and after realizing that the Taiwanese work ethic was somewhat less humane than the Free Beer Friday style of good ol' Groupon USA, I quit and joined two bands.

Brash? Reckless? Yes and yes. But that's what happens when you live in a tropical, earthquake-ridden island in the center of Asia that's full of expats living the dream. (And by "dream" I mean earning triple what you do in half the time—some people pay $50 an hour for private English tutoring.) Getting involved in music is easy over there, friends. I'm not saying you should all quit your jobs and move to Asia, but also, you should all quit your jobs and move to Asia.

The Republic of China, Taiwan (ROC), lies off the southeast coast of China. It's a place that seems to attract transients, and in the six months I was there half the people I met moved on to other countries. (Some never leave, though, and you can usually tell what year they came over by the size of their pant leg.) The music scene is small, incestuous, and enthusiastic—and when I told people I was from Chicago, they'd say, "Oh, like Cap'n Jazz and CSTVT!"

Karaoke bars touting Elvis and Bob Dylan songs line the streets, and at DJ nights you can find Asian hipster girls sorta singing along to "Bastards of Young." Compulsory military service for men, only now being phased out, has made it difficult for many bands to keep stable lineups together. Lofts and other DIY show spaces simply don't exist, because apartments don't run that big. And venues still get shut down due to noise complaints. But musicians gather in places such as Shida Park to play, drink beer (legally), and munch on street food (usually chicken hearts on a stick or this sort of sausage-stuffed-into-another-sausage-with-rice thing); usually they have to worry less about getting robbed than about the number of mosquitoes out that night. And at least when I was there, a friendly homeless man lived in the park who was like the Rain Man of American baseball trivia—it was the only English he knew, but he was incredible. (The only team he couldn't remember was the Cincinnati Reds. Sorry, Ohio.)

Jon Du and Ben Ben play music in Shida Park
I used to hang out in Shida with Jon Du, currently guitarist for Taipei indie darlings Forests. (They describe their sound as "Sweater punk? Psychedelic surf rock? Garage Woo Woo Woo.") We met at a Looking Glass show, and I'd later fill in as that group's Moog player because the girl who'd been doing it moved back to San Francisco; together Du and I also formed a Beat Happening cover band called the Bad Seeds. Du was born in Boston and moved to Taiwan due to "unsustainable hedonism, also known as credit-card debt." All of his bands have been successful—my favorite is Boyz & Girl, copiloted by Ben Ben from Skip Skip Ben Ben, formerly of Carsick Cars.

Forests were invited to play SXSW this year, but chose not to—airfare alone would've cost them as much as releasing two albums. However, another Taiwanese band, Manic Sheep, ended up receiving government assistance for their trip to Austin—they play Friday at the Brass House. I e-mailed to ask them what they were expecting the American crowd to be like, and vocalist-bassist Chris Lo replied, "I hope they like it, we didn't performance overseas before, a little bit nervous with a big excited."

Taipei band Manic Sheep, who play SXSW on Friday
  • Taipei band Manic Sheep, who play SXSW on Friday

Manic Sheep have been making their adorable dream-poppy, shoegazey indie rock for three years. Why bother with South by Southwest? "Know what foreign band are doing right now, want to listen more different things to have some external stimulus," writes Lo. "Maybe these can make our music more progressive. Also this is a great opportunity to increase international awareness, we always expect to be more international, so this is one of our hopes too."

"External stimulus" is hard to come by in Taiwan—things like Spotify don't exist there (yet), and Taiwan's "sound" tends to be behind the times, given that influences are carried in mainly by expats rather than the Internet. If you ask musicians where they discover new stuff, you'll likely hear about GigGuide, run by expat New Zealander Steve Leggat—I'd like to give a big shout-out to Steve for helping keep the scene alive.

But since K-pop, Psy, and the Wonder Girls are breaking big in the West, but why not J-pop? Or C-pop? According to Cas Kaplan, a McGill student writing a thesis on the Asian music scene, "I think we're moving forward but I'm not yet ready to admit that the U.S. is willing to accept Asian pop music on its own terms. And of course China/Taiwan/Hong Kong never had a chance in the West, because their music is both 1) very cheesy-sounding to American ears in terms of production and 2) has an appeal centered around poeticism and identity that simply would not translate outside of that area (in the mainstream, that is)."

Last time I counted, though, seven bands from Taiwan were playing SXSW this year—almost as many as China or Korea were sending over. (None of them can compete with Japan.) To talk about Taiwan's music scene, I got in touch with six people:

Chris Lo, 24: Vocalist-bassist for Manic Sheep (his bandmates are guitarist Hung-yu Hsieh, 29, and drummer Yi-ta Tsai, 28, but due to the language barrier Lo provided the responses)

Jon Du, 27: Vocalist-guitarist for Forests

Lars Berry, 38: Originally from St. Thomas, Ontario, has been in Taiwan for nine years and plays in two bands, the Okay Cars and Dronetonics

Gregory Russell, 35: Music promoter for Tranquility Bass Productions, originally from New Zealand, plays in a bunch of groups (including a Ween cover band called Skycruiser), has been in Taiwan for more than ten years

Craig Howe, 29: New Yorker who toured Taiwan with his band the Golden Age of Radio in summer 2011

Cas Kaplan, 22: Bostonian McGill student who went to Taiwan in summer 2011 to teach English and conduct thesis research

And here we go!

Manic Sheep's SXSW promo video

Do you think Taiwan has a distinct "sound"?

Chris: Of course Taiwan music has its distinct sound, we listen to a lot of bands from Western and Japan. Especially the new generation bands, some blend elements of both sides cleverly, this is a pretty interesting thing.

Craig: If it does, I don't know what it is. I played shows with bands that ran from 90s screamo to folk to (terrible) Dave Matthews-style jamming. I'd say that, at least in my experience, it was all pretty Western sounding and that sort of surprised me. I didn't hear a whole lot of Eastern musical influence in any of the bands I played with.

Lars: Postrock. But I would also say that this is not distinctive. It is unfortunately more blandifying than anything else. Postrock, not taken to its absolute extreme, as perhaps the big hitters do, like Explosions in the Sky, Mogwai, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, becomes a sort of sappy, heartless exploration of soft rock without any lyrical resolution. For me, at the moment, the bands with the most skill and that seem most real to me here are the psych bands and the grunge revival outfits.

Ben Ben of Taiwanese band Skip Skip Ben Ben with Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher of My Bloody Valentine
  • Ben Ben of Taiwanese band Skip Skip Ben Ben with Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher of My Bloody Valentine
Greg: I have noticed a definite leaning towards a more postrock/shoegaze sound in the indie market here. Sigur Ros, My Bloody Valentine, and a slew of other similar bands have trekked over here to big and responsive crowds.

Cas: I don't think any one sound dominates, and the bands pull from a pretty eclectic set of influences, although 90s alternative sounds definitely seem to be the most popular. I also think there's a lyrical poeticism (probably Mandopop-derived) that sets it apart from other grungy rock scenes. And all this is to say nothing of the bands who cite traditional Taiwanese or aboriginal influences.

How would you describe the Taiwan music scene?

Lars: To me Taiwan's music scene is very much centered around Taipei. By virtue of its location, population, and abundance (relative to the rest of Taiwan) of live music houses, the scene here flourishes and is sort of competitive in a way that isn't really possible in much of the rest of Taiwan. It is my experience that bands that are mixtures of either born-abroad Taiwanese and local Taiwanese, or "other country people" (foreigners) and local Taiwanese, are more open to playing gigs with bands composed exclusively of foreigners.

Greg: I would describe things here as rapidly improving on all fronts. The local market is still saturated with Mandarin pop acts that litter the TV and airwaves. The indie scene has been getting stronger year by year, and we now see a bunch of festivals put on annually by promoters who are starting to feel a little more confident about spending all the money it takes to put these things on.

Craig: It was great—it reminded me of the DIY scene on Long Island/New Jersey before the Internet blew everything up.

Cas: The musicians and fans both made me feel immediately like I was welcome in their community and were all very excited to talk to me. The impression I got was of a very diverse and supportive scene, if generally a small one—it wasn't one that seemed divided by genre or look, but just bands supporting each other and kids seeking a peaceful (if boisterous) good time, and bands of very different stripes could comfortably share the stage together like few other places I've seen. There was a sense that everybody in the scene is very loyal to one another because being a band in Taipei can be quite an arduous task without much chance of a career or payoff of any kind. Very passionate and earnest. Very punk.

Did you know anything about the music scene before going to Taiwan?

Craig: I didn't know anything! I only even included Taiwan on the tour because of a friend's offer of a free place to stay. The shows I played in Taipei were the best ones of the whole tour. So much support, energy, and great bands. I came there from mainland China and the China shows were weird and depressing—it was like night and day. Taipei kids were hip but enthusiastic.

Greg: I knew nothing about the scene here before I got here. I had no idea what to expect. I discovered that there have been a lot of somewhat quirky bands who had come here during the 90s (Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, Yo La Tengo), to my delight.

Cas: I knew that where there was a city as dense and hypermodern as Taipei there had to be a scene somewhere. I found it first in a used record store called Molly, and had my first true taste of it when I stumbled upon Orangegrass's first album in the music section of a local nonprofit headquarters that I don't think is still there. When I finally had my chance to delve into the scene two years later, I discovered a really interesting and welcoming group of characters that seemed sort of proud of the outside world's lack of expectations for it. There was a band for misfits of every stripe, and everyone was dancing together. The first band I saw in Taipei was AAN at Underworld, and it gave me shivers.

Jon Du's band Forests playing "Bichii" live in 2011

How does this scene differ from the one you grew up in?

Jon: Everyone speaks in Chinese.

Craig: It actually wasn't all that different! I grew up on Long Island at a time when the music scene there was about to blow up and gain national recognition—bands like Glassjaw, Taking Back Sunday, Brand New, the Ataris, Bayside, et cetera came up playing the same small clubs and bars that I was playing. There was a real feeling like we had something special that was just ours—this was before MySpace and Facebook and Bandcamp, so for a while the scene was sort of a local secret. I felt that way in Taiwan too. Most Westerners can't even find Taiwan on a map, let alone tell you about the music scene there, and it's a shame because some of the bands are so good. But it's great, you know, because it just makes it that much more special when you do know.

Lars: Taipei is a mixed bag. There are a shit-ton of postrockers here, and sometimes this fact is much to the dismay of people who are relatively alone in their genre. Trying to organize a show that doesn't include some form of instrumental, melodramatic music (aka, sorry, postrock) is actually more difficult than you'd think. All of this said, there is a pretty healthy 90s revival grunge scene, there's an eight-bit glitch scene, there are people doing all-girl punk-rock things, there are more and more live electronic acts. There is a very well-established psychedelic-rock scene, also with honorary subshoots that reach into the doom-psych territory. There are also a surprising number of hardcore and metal bands here. My theory is that postrock outfits are ideal in a society where claiming the coveted (or perhaps mistakenly important) front-man position is a bit frowned upon. Taiwanese people are very communal by nature, which is one aspect I admire about postrock. You don't have a guy screaming lyrics into your eye sockets. Just maybe this predilection to rocking in the "post" world has something to do with a band making something that is a little bit more representative of each members' musical skills, rather than one member's ability to be more egocentric than the rest of the band.

Skip Skip Ben Ben, "Last Light"

Greg: The scene here differs here considerably from the one back at home mainly due to the lack of media outlets playing underground/indie music. People's definition of Western music usually revolves around the same ten or so artists they have been subjected too from popular TV and radio stations. At home we could tune into university stations, which would play any style of music, which in turn breeds creative and interesting musical directions, which is what music should encompass. The alternative scene in NZ is a big one and can sustain a lot of growth, which is positive for future generations of youthful musicians.

The biggest difference between our respective scenes is the general lack of musical ability. I put that down to Taiwan still being in its early evolving years on the musical map. They have not had a musical history of rock 'n' roll, which we all had as Westerners. The gap is closing, though. We now are seeing bands taking Taiwan seriously as a destination on their Asian tours.

Cas: The scene in Boston is very aware of itself; there aren't very many clubs and it's generally so expensive that trying to go out and see who's playing on a given night quickly becomes an untenable hobby. The real scene in Boston is at the all-ages DIY venues, mostly in people's apartments on the quasi-suburban outer edges of the city. In Taipei, on the other hand, it's all sprawl and a pretty massive urban clusterfuck, so anything DIY has to be done pretty much all on the city's terms. No one calls them "live houses" in Boston; in Taipei venues exist for bands to play, not for promoters to sell drinks.

Do different scenes tend to be separate from one another?

Chris: Yes, when the amount of bands increased, the scenes tend to separate right now, but still not that clear. This phenomenon is evident in various performance venues in Taipei, such as "Riverside," pop and jazz bands play there majority, "Underworld," the band there is more fresh and experimental, they have lots of great party at midnight, so many bands love to hang out at there. "Revolver," there is more and more foreigners live in Taipei now, so foreigners' band which are based in Taiwan loves to play here. And I know many great punk bands all from Taichung. But these venues won't reject other genres' band to play in their venue, so you still can see different things there.

How would you say Taiwan views musicians who are seeking careers in music?

Chris: Running an independent band or making music in Taiwan is much more difficult than in Western area; making music as a career is quite possible, but do creative independent band is almost impossible to live. Especially some of the newer or unsigned band, and most of band have no label support. We just have small number of labels here.

Some aggressive band will handle their own performances; even someone will invite foreign groups to perform in Taiwan with them by themselves. Or like us choose to develop abroad, but still very less. It's not easy to even have a little achievement; we all work very hard here.

Jon: Definitely looked down upon. Wait, does community mean "society"? Society definitely does not look at indie music as a viable "career." I view anyone that does what they want and what feels right regardless of how it'd be received as kindred spirits. I could give a bag of beans as to how someone would view me.

This is what I think of drawing comparisons between U.S. music and TW music. I don't really think that there is a difference when people are creating and interacting with each other. It ends up in the same place. People make, and it brings them together when it is required. But if anything, it's that Taiwan (Taipei) is so small that it is nigh impossible to not know what is going on. And yet somehow I don't. Onwards!

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