Chinese Rock Royalty: Tang Dynasty in New Zealand

Tang Dynasty, 唐朝乐队, are often hailed as China’s first heavy metal band and are a household name to many in a country of more than a billion people. Kiwese met up with these members of Chinese rock royalty while they were in Wellington.

Tang Dynasty came to New Zealand to play at a variety of Chinese cultural events and functions in our three biggest cities, with sponsorship from the Chinese Government’s Ministry of Culture, Asia New Zealand and Cathay Pacific. To be completely honest – I had some reservations. “Wouldn’t Medusa/Valve/Hole in the Wall/whatever the fuck its called now have been a far superior pick?!” I muttered to myself every time I heard the words ‘The Grand’ in the lead up to Tang Dynasty’s Wellington side show, slotted in between their performances at the Auckland and Christchurch Lantern Festivals. WHY were they booked at a steak house in between Burger King and a strip club?

Chen Lei, self proclaimed fan of Van Halen and Megadeth.
Chen Lei, self proclaimed fan of Van Halen and Megadeth.

But it worked. People were there. Throngs of excited, camera-wielding Chinese fans occupying the standing area in front of the low platform stage, big groups of chain smokers utilizing the multiple deck areas, I felt like I was in Beijing. From kiddies, to grandmas, to metal fans to Embassy officials – the eclectic crowd gathered for what would be a once in a lifetime opportunity to see Chinese rock royalty up close and personal. For perspective’s sake, here is a video of Tang Dynasty playing to thousands of people at MIDI Festival in 2010.

Pretty much definitive of the snap happy crowd at The Grand.
Pretty much definitive of the snap happy crowd at The Grand.

I found the band lingering in plumes of cigarette smoke on the sunny balcony of The Grand during their afternoon sound check. “Let’s go out the back,” Ding Wu 丁武, founding member, lead singer and guitarist says alongside Chen Lei 陈磊, the foot stomping lead guitarist, “we can smoke out there.”

The band have been flat out with the performances, but it hasn’t been all work no play. “This afternoon we went down to that beach over there,” says Chen Lei, as he points in the direction of Oriental Bay, “we’ve had time to walk around a bit, it is a beautiful place.” They also managed to visit a friend’s house and check out the Weta Cave in Miramar.  “The first things I noticed about New Zealand is the weather, the air and the seascapes,” adds Ding Wu, “you always overlook the ocean here – in Beijing, there is no ocean.”

Oriental Bay, Wellington. Appreciate.
Oriental Bay, Wellington. Appreciate.

Tang Dynasty was formed back in 1988 – a controversial year in the spectrum of Chinese history – through a passion for music, obsession with cheap imported glam rock cassettes and long locks of warrior like black hair.  “Up until the time of the Asian Games in 1990, people had been repressed for so long by the Cultural Revolution and they were keen to have a new voice,” Ding Wu remarks, carefully thinking over his words, while speaking in a confident and relaxed way. “When we emerged it was to foster a view of Chinese youth for foreigners – yeah, we are middle aged now, but I feel we’ve presented a Chinese understanding of life and music.”

td
Gu Zhong on bass, Ding Wu on guitar and lead vocals, Chen Lei on lead guitar. Photo by Laurel Carmichael.

The lead up to the Asian Games saw Tang Dynasty perform at the Worker’s Stadium in Beijing on 1 May 1990, where they captivated the audience of thousands of previously introverted and unexposed Chinese music fans. This benchmark performance triggered their induction as eternal members of Chinese rock royalty, releasing their first best-selling album, ‘A Dream Return to Tang Dynasty‘ [梦回唐朝]  in 1992, which has sold around two million genuine copies and inspired legions of Chinese teens to ditch the piano and shred some electric guitar instead. Illegal downloads and pirated CDs have long been an issue in China, but Ding Wu says bigger websites like xiami.com are giving artists more control over their content.

“When Tang Dynasty started out, we went down a more traditional metal path, but it has gradually evolved into a type of art or experimental rock,” Ding Wu explains, after graciously receiving my gift of Beastwars’ latest album ‘Blood Becomes Fire’ and Shihad’s ‘Churn,’ Wellington bands chosen to provide a sliver of NZ’s metal scene. “In Auckland, people could sing along with lots of songs, including our latest album ‘Thorn’ which was released just last year. We are really happy about that.”

Cover art for 'Thorn' - Tang Dynasty's fourth album. A subtle commentary on strength and power balance.
Cover art for ‘Thorn’ – Tang Dynasty’s fourth studio album. While China’s censorship rules may prevent any critique of the system, here lies a subtle commentary on strength and the balance of power.

‘Thorn’ [猛刺] is the band’s latest offering – the searing guitar solos, thumping tom-toms and sometimes Peking Opera-like vocal harmonies exuding the sound that has made them so popular, while other songs feature Chinese flutes and traditional strings in natural soundscapes. “This album describes an anti-war sentiment and advocates for environmental protection,” Ding Wu says, “China’s population is so large, environmental awareness still hasn’t reached the level of western countries. There have been efforts for many years but it’s not a problem that can be solved overnight. On the one hand, change needs to come from how we conduct ourselves, like not throwing cigarette butts or spitting everywhere – Chinese people have these bad habits.”

To me, being sponsored by the Chinese Government to play at events that promote Chinese culture doesn’t exactly fit with the rebelliousness of rock music, even though the band take their name from the Tang Dynasty – the Golden Age of China’s artistic history. “There’s a bit of pressure,” Ding Wu admits in a contemplative voice between drags on his cigarette, “but really we just wanna naturally convey who we are through our passion for music, our attitude towards life and our politeness, I feel this is us. I feel a lot of people overseas don’t really have an understanding of Chinese people. Opportunities to emerge from China are few and far between while the majority of them are quite official, with Government performances and so on.” Read the regulations of the Ministry of Culture here.

Tang Dynasty brought a deafening, old-school concoction of hard rock that is not often seen live in Wellington.
Tang Dynasty brought a deafening, old-school concoction of hard rock that is not often seen live in Wellington. Photo by Laurel Carmichael.

Ding Wu and Chen Lei are positive about the music scene in China, noting developments of music circles in cities outside of Beijing. “There are more than 500 music festivals in China now,” says Ding Wu, “MIDI and Strawberry Festivals, we’ve been to all of these bigger ones before – they act as a platform to showcase all different kinds of rock music,” he explains, “the equipment, hardware, stage crews and production are a lot better than how they used to be, and this has helped music in China a lot.” Commercial music festivals are getting more and more popular in China as young people look for ways to discover new music and lifestyles. “It’s a cultural phenomenon that allows people to chill out and relieve themselves of life’s pressures, which is a huge need for many Chinese people.”

Gu Zhong keeping it steady on bass
Gu Zhong 顾忠 on bass. The original bassist, Zhang Ju, died in a tragic motorcycle crash in 1995.

A wall of cameras, iPhones, even iPads burst into the air as the band took the stage, opening with the title track of their first album, the predominantly Chinese audience were gleeful at being able to get so close to a band of ultimate stadium status. “We will be giving out photographs and copies of our new album to friends that we like,” smiles Ding Wu from centre-stage, a place where he seems to be extremely comfortable and at ease, rousing the audience into an excited frenzy as he spoke in Mandarin. “You guys must really like it here eh,” he observes, “these blue skies and white clouds [蓝蓝的天, 白白的云 / lán lán de tiān, bái bái de yún.”]

Patrick, a big metal fan from Wellington, came to the show after a friend posted it on his Facebook. “I haven’t seen a Chinese band before – and I saw these guys in a documentary called Headbangers Journey, by a Canadian dude from Global Metal.” A familiar face around town, DJ Shan was also in attendance, repping his Singaporean Chinese roots while doing sound for the opening act JGeeks, a taiaha wielding, bass infused Maori dance crew, who contributed the ‘New Zealand culture’ for the evening.

Me fan-girling at the front. Photo by Elizabeth Coulton.
Me fan-girling at the front. Photo by Elizabeth Coulton.

The whole performance was delivered with enthusiasm and precision, Zhao Nian 赵年, skillfully driving the rhythm from behind the drums. Whether you could understand the lyrics and the banter or not, Ding Wu had the crowd hanging on his every word as he oozed friendliness, gratitude and even some zodiac animal noise impressions. The gig (or function, you could say) was carefully curated to provide a sense of cultural exchange between China and New Zealand. The band closing with a rousing version of Internationale, which had the crowd chanting along with nationalistic pride, karaoke style cameos from Embassy staff and collective on stage headbanging. Ding Wu summed up the general vibe with his last comment for the night – “你们是最牛逼!” which loosely translates to “you guys are freakin’ awesome.”

Ding Wu rocking out with an enthused dude on stage
Ding Wu rocking out with an enthused Wellington fan on stage. Photo by Laurel Carmichael.

So what kind of advice does the lead singer from one of China’s most famous bands have for aspiring Kiwi musicians?  “I welcome them to China,” he laughs, “if they get the opportunity to come to China they should come check it out, right?” Chur, Ding Wu.

Special thanks to Sudong for his amazing help with transcribing and translation and Laurel Carmichael for coming down and taking photos! Also thanks to Daniel from DMV Media, Yuan Yuan from the Chinese Embassy, Rebecca from Asia New Zealand, Patrick and Vaughan who I met at the show, Ding Wu, Chen Lei, Gu Zhong and Zhao Nian – the awesome dudes from Tang Dynasty.

Read the full interview below:

KN:      有一些问题,首先我的中文没有那么好
DW:  没问题
KN:   不好意思。你们觉得你们在新西兰怎么样,在奥克兰的表演怎么样?
DW:     那么第一次来新西兰,在奥克兰的表演其实还是真不错,我们没有想到在奥克兰在新西兰还有很多人喜欢听唐朝的音乐。那么这里的华人也确实比较多,整个演了四场都很成功,很多歌呢,大家都会跟着唱,包括我们这张<芒刺>的新专辑,去年才发的,这边也有人会唱,特别开心。
K:      啊!真的。在奥克兰你们的群众大部分是华裔,中国人还是…
DW:  中国人多
K:      中国人多?
DW:  对中国人多
K:      你们去新西兰的时候有去见,有没有去旅游,或者就是太忙表演….
CL:    表演还挺多的,也在附近逛了逛,很美很漂亮,
K:      啊,好。你觉得惠灵顿怎么样,我是惠灵顿人,所以
DW:     哦,惠灵顿也很漂亮啊,对了,今天咱们还去了哪里?
CL:    咱们上午去了那个周边的海边儿
DW:     海边呀,还去了那个港湾,那个
CL:       还去了一个朋友家里面儿
DW:  还去了个电影制作那个,指环王,阿凡达,制作电影那部分,特别好
K:      你们知道如何的新西兰乐队吗?
DW:  不好意思。。
CL:    咱们在那个奥克兰的时候还见着几支
DW:  奥克兰,见着几支,对
CL:    华人的那个乐队
K:      我要给你们这个小的礼物,我希望你们喜欢!
DW:     哟,谢谢,metal 乐队的
K:      这是Beastwars去年的专辑,他们是惠灵顿人
DW:  好的,谢谢,回去听一听
K:      这是Shihad,他们是新西兰最有名的乐队之一,这是1993年的转机。
DW:  噢,没那么久的,好的,明白,谢谢
K:      没事儿,你们觉着中国新西兰最大的差别是什么
DW:我觉着这边临海吧,北京没有海,因为我住在北京嘛,
K:      你是北京人对吧?
DW:  对,新西兰我感觉第一直觉好的是天气吧,这是非常好的,(K在插话),空气很好,(K继续插话)海景啦
CL:    生活没那么紧张
DW:  哎,对,好像看着生活没那么紧张
K:      对,人口比较少
DW:  对,人口比较少
K:      88年的时候,在中国的摇滚乐队多不多?
DW:  88年的时候,摇滚不算多,那么现在应该是比较多了,
K:      现在比较多了
DW:  对,现在比较多了,那么其实各个省各个地区都有乐队。那么后来来北京发展的比较多,大部分都应该集中在北京吧,应该是
K:      中国人88年时候习惯不习惯听摇滚?
DW:应该还是习惯吧,因为我们88年出来演出的时候,也是很多人喜欢吧,我觉着。一直到90年亚运会的时候,88年,89年,90年,这几年其实,因为是文革之后嘛,人们压抑了那么久,人们对新的声音还是很渴望的,我们看到那时候西方摇滚音乐已经开始在中国蔓延了。我们也是之前听了很多,我觉着还是有这个土壤的
K:      你们音乐有什么传统特色?
DW:  其实我们唐朝最初创立的时候还是比较遵循传统的***metal的路线,那么后期慢慢演变,慢慢过渡到一个实验型的或者艺术型的摇滚,并不拘泥与重金属啦已经,各种风格也比较多一点
K:      年轻人对古代文化感兴趣吗?
DW:  中国吗?古代的文化?传统文化这几年,文革十年其实是个断层吧,中国传统文化。那么这后几年吧,随着中国的开放,随着教训和经验,其实也在有所提升,我觉着。比如说一些历史故事啦,包括<三字经>呀,包括<弟子规>呀,包括中国道教啦,比如老子,像我们这一辈接触的可能不是太多,但是像我们的子女这一代接触的就相对多一些。传统文化其实也没有断吧,只是在那个文革十年之内有个断层
K:      我听说你们喜欢Rush乐队,什么别的乐队给你们大的有影响?
DW:     我觉得我们乐队四个人都不太一样,有一样都喜欢它,也有一样都不喜欢它,
CL:    这就是造成这个乐队多元化的一个原因,
DW:  但是总得说大部分不喜欢它流行摇滚,听的少一些,流行音乐听的少些,流行摇滚听的少一些,就是自己认为比较入耳的,还是像重金属,艺术摇滚,包括国外的一些经典的乐队,还是听的比较多,大部分都听过。像比较软一点的像backstreet这样的音乐,我们也有听过,还有像重一点的,metal也听,陈磊呢个人更喜欢Van Halen啦,Megadeth
K          你喜欢Metallica 吗?
DW:     还可以吧,也听,但近几年听的不多了
K:      他们最近的专辑没有以前那么好)
DW:  但是他们录音还是不错的,整个制作还是相当不错的
K:      芒刺歌词内容和以前有什么不同?
DW:芒刺这个专辑总的来说是一张有些概念性的专辑,主题呢其实是在描写反战,反战,往后这个环保,基本上是以动物和植物为虚拟的这么一张专辑,比如大象不抱怨,芒刺,麋鹿的眼泪,睡莲,然后等等都是以动物植物名字命名的吧,想倡导的其实是个环保意识,人们更珍惜自己身边的生活
K:      在中国保护环境怎么样?
DW:  近几年好了很多,但是中国人口众多,然后环保意识相对来说还没有西方国家那么好,我觉着有待于提高,从自身做起吧,倡导了很多年了,但是这个环境也不是一天两天能够办到的,我觉着。需要一方面从我们自己做起吧,从自身做起吧,比如说不乱扔烟头啦,是吧
,然后不到处吐痰啦,中国人有这些不好的习惯,还有就是说,用东西的时候尽量节约的用
K:   你们的一个转机《梦回唐朝》卖出了两百万,太厉害,但现在很多人喜欢用百度和别的网战下载音乐,并不买CD,你们自己遇到音乐盗版的问题呢?
DW:     目前还没有办法解决,全世界…
CL:    全世界都面临这个问题
DW:  可能西方好一些吧
K:      我也认为是比较严重
DW:  也是很严重?
K:      很多人不常买,就下载免费的
DW:  因为论坛,论坛你不太好控制,但是一些官网啦,大的网站你还是比较好控制的,是吧?
CL:    但是我们这张销量还是挺好的
DW:  还是可以的,我觉着就是把音乐质量做的好一些,并且啊把封面啦设计拉做的精到一些,有的人人还是比较喜欢收藏的吧,从这个角度去看,做的精干一些,有人还是喜欢去买的
K: 在中国有iTunes吗?
DW:  有,但是就是说,一般在家里听的都是老作品,老歌,新的听的没有那么多
K:  用什么网站买音乐?
DW: 苹果的也有,虾米网也有,中国那个虾米网,你可以花钱买那个它那个豆
K:  买还是听?
DW: 可以买,可以听,你花钱可以下载。它免费的是质量不好的,你喜欢的可以花钱下载
K  你们常常参加外国的音乐会代表中国文化,这样就给你们什么样的感觉?
DW: 压力还是有一些吧,但是我觉着吧,我们只要自自然然表现我们的状态就行,对音乐的热情,然后对生活的态度,然后干净的礼节礼貌,我觉得这是我们,因为我们出来养成让外国人看对中国年青人,也就是我们这一代中年人,怎么样的生活,对音乐有怎么样的理解,因为还是有很多外国人可能对中国人了解的并不是那么多。因为出来的机会少嘛,是吧?!大部分出来的可能是比较官方的,比较政府的这种演出啦什么的
K    在中国,喜欢摇滚乐的年轻人越来越多,音乐平台并不多,妳们的看法是什么?
DW:  近几年好多了,
CL: 我觉得比有些国家还要好一些
DW: 因为现在音乐节好多,中国有500多个节日,每个节日都会有演出,基本每个节日都会请到摇滚乐队,大部分的,大部分的。而且设备比原来好了,硬件比原来好了,那么后备的团队跟上了,制作跟上了,这样对音乐的帮助是非常大的,还盈利了,过度了,原来的演出都是赔钱,没人办,不规范。现在技术人员也跟上了,比如音响师,灯光师,整个这个唯一跟不上的是后续的附带的产品,跟不上,一个音乐节完了就走了,就是它产生的文化附带产品还是有待于提高吧,比如文化衫,它的画册,能够产生的一些附带产品,国外这个早就做的比较好,它是一个良性循环反正是
K    北京音乐气氛好,其他城市没有那么好?
CL: 别的城市也有,海边城市啦
DW: 青岛呀,啤酒节,每年都有,然后,深圳,也有音乐节,
K:  最近你们有去深圳的MIDI?
DW: MIDI和草莓,我们都去过,比较大的 , 我觉得是个平台吧,各类型的摇滚音乐,包括什么样的音乐都在那个平台上展示,人们还可以通过这个假期聚集在一起,有一个放松,排压的这么一种文化现象,这个很需要对很多中国人
K    我的新西兰朋友在成都开始一个音乐重酬网战,要支持本地的乐队,因为商业化的音乐节常常只要赚钱,登广告什么的。你们对商业化的音乐节有什么看法?
DW: 我觉得我不反对商业化的运作,只要音乐不变就行。我觉着是我们也不排斥其他的音乐,什么的音乐我都觉得不错,都有存在的必要,
K:  这个音乐没有什么问题,
DW: 对,商业运作应该慢慢的规范化,合法化,这个最重要,比如版权,既然它是商业运作,版权方面如果要是有一个标准的话就会更规范一些吧,因为只有你商业的运作你这样的音乐节音乐文化才能延续下去,才能良性循环,这个是很重要的
K    对新西兰中国的年轻乐队有什么建议?
DW: 我们应该是没什么特别的建议
K 哈哈应该有
DW: 我觉着欢迎他们来中国,有机会来中国看看呗。是吧?!因为我听的不多新西兰的乐队,应该不错,我听这边的好多华人朋友都听过,觉着不错,因为就是说他跟西方的整个衔接是比较巩固,我觉着音乐形式也巩固..他们可以来中国看看,
CL: 欢迎他们到中国演出
K    谢谢
DW & CL:   没关系!

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