By Jonathan Chow
Where: Zhijiang Dream Factory (68 Yuyao Lu, near XikangLu 余姚路68号，同乐坊内)
Starts: Saturday, July 18, 9PM
Cover: 100rmb, 60RMB for students
In a music industry complicated by media censorship, internet piracy, and a mainstream aversion to anything outside of mando-pop, PK14 is refreshingly honest. When asked how the band handles such political and commercial pressures, front man Yang Haisong replied “we just write what we feel like writing.” Yang’s approach to music is not complicated by external pressures but rather by his own motivation to say what he feels needs to be said.
Full of raw post-punk energy coupled with the contemplation of 60’s and 70’s protest folk, PK14’s sound is very different from what you’d expect from Chinese music.
While many of the newer Chinese rock bands choose to sing in English to appeal to wider international audiences, PK14 chooses to sing in mandarin. And while mainstream Chinese artists tend shy away from difficult subjects, PK14 approaches issues close to home with openness and honesty, particularly when touching upon China’s disaffected urban youth.
“We don’t write lyrics worrying about how the government will react,” Yang said, “nor do we write lyrics with the intention of trying to be controversial or against the government. We just write what we feel like writing, and anything else should be the government’s problem, not ours.”
The band formed in Nanjing in 1997, consisting of three Chinese and a Swedish drummer, before relocating to Beijing in 1999. In 2001, they came out with their first album “上楼就往左拐 (shang lou jiu wang zuo guai – turn to the left at the top of the stairs)” and were signed onto Beijing’s Badhead/Modern Sky label soon afterwards. Since their beginnings, P.K.14’s lineup has switched up considerably – the only remaining member from ten years ago is Yang.
With the heavy saturation of mandopop in the Chinese market crowding out the development of alternative genres such as rock and hip-hop, we had assumed that PK14’s attitude toward mainstream Chinese music would be negative. But to our surprise, Yang told me that he doesn’t really have any feelings at all toward mainstream Chinese pop.
“We are two world’s apart,” he said, “they have their audience and we have ours, they do what they do and we do what we do.”
Nor does Yang worry much about the mainstream/underground distinction. “In the end it’s not up to us bands to decide whether we should be underground or whether we should be mainstream. We just make our music, do what we do, and its up to the people who listen to our music. If the majority of people in China start to love rock then it becomes mainstream, if a small group of people love it then it stays underground.”
As for the state of digital distribution, PK14 remains optimistic about file sharing. “It’s more the big music companies that are threatened by free music downloads,” Yang said, “free downloads are actually pretty cool in the sense that they give your music exposure that it might not have gotten otherwise; and if it’s good then people will most-likely pay money to buy your album or go to your concert.
“I think that’s one of the important differences between mainstream pop and independent rock. When someone listens to a pop song they might like it at first, but get sick of it later, and then move on to the next thing. It’s fickle. For people who are into indie rock, they often like the songs the more they listen to it and are able to establish a deeper connection and appreciation for it in the long run, and support the scene by buying the albums and going to the concerts.”
It seems to have worked for them. TIME Magazine named PK14 “one of the 5 Asian bands to watch in 2008” and the Wall Street Journal’s Buzzwatch Blog called them “the most influential Chinese band among China’s young, up-and-coming rockers.”
But more importantly, they’re still playing, and the crowds of wide-eyed Chinese, exposed to the crashing riffs and hootin’ hollerin’ rock grows exponentially each time they hit the stage.
Video is P.K.14 singing “他们 (ta men – them)”