By Kyle Mullin
The future is here, and it’s far from friendly. Our cities? Dystopian. Our neighbors? Paranoid. Our only option: squirm under the scrutiny of an all-seeing State.
At least that’s the narration Yang Haisong is inclined to give. The front man of P.K.14, a pioneering Nanjing post-punk troupe, says the current events inspiring his latest lyrics seem less like real life, and more akin to science fiction. So he and his band mates decided to dub their new LP 1984.
“Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book about the layers of the power system, and how people are trying to find out the truth through all that. That’s a reality in China now,” Haisong says of George Orwell’s seminal take on an autocratic tomorrow.
The novel’s influence is apparent on P.K.14’s latest disc. “You and Me,” a throbbing, slow burning number, features lyrics that would seamlessly fit in the oppressive, doublespeak era that Orwell forewarned his readers about:
“You and me once heard their jeering laughs / They welcomed us to the world of being controlled.”
Yet, Haisong says the tune’s primary muse was another beloved writer: T.S. Eliot.
“The song is very simple. It’s about two guys walking down the street, thinking about when they were young and ready to take on the world together,” Haisong says of “You and Me,” which was inspired by Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
For “Crazed Woman,” – a 1984 tune which sports a far more boisterous guitar riff – Haisong drew on yet another esteemed wordsmith: Milan Kundera, who was exiled from his homeland of Czechoslovakia in the mid 70’s by its hardline communist regime. The tune features imagery worthy of a paperback. On it, Haisong sings about a deranged lady selling flowers on the street, who cries out:
“I’ve already forgotten everything that’s happened /I live in a world without truth.”
“When some people say they want to forget history, forget the past, others will think they are crazy,” Haisong says of his song’s protagonist, whom he based on the free spirited, hedonistic character Sabina in Milan’s classic novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (which was coincidentally published in, you guessed it, the year 1984). “I stole the image from Milan’s book, about that crazy woman with the flowers in her hair. But, in real life, that girl could be anyone.”
While he may have drawn on a list of authors that could rival a dissertation, each of Haisong’s lyrics seem to hark back more to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The futuristic constraints that the British writer imagined were, in a way, familiar to Haisong long before he ever laid eyes on the famed novel’s first page.
When Haisong was a boy, reading such literary classics was far from encouraged. He says most Chinese parents and educators instead pushed children to study English grammar, quadratic equations, and the periodic table of elements, in order to better prepare for the nation’s harrowingly strident Gaokao exam. That grim reality drove Haisong to fiction, and he devoured every foreign book he could find. It was an offbeat path that led him from bookshelves to thrift shops, and then second hand record stores. The purchases he made then still affect his music today.
“These guys would reuse old cassette tapes to make copies of albums by Joy Division, The Cure, and others,” Haisong says of his initial mid-90’s forays into alternative rock. “Even though we didn’t have any idea about where these bands were from, we’d just listen. Then we decided to do something similar.”
At the time, China was so closed off that most musicians were only able to absorb, and then mimic, the pop hits, grunge riffs and hair metal that dominated mainstream radio dials.
“Everyone wanted to sound like Nirvana,” Haisong says. “I felt like three chord punk was just not my thing. I liked slower, deeper and darker sounds.”
By 2001, after a few years of dabbling in the local music scene, Haisong formed a line up of his own and the troupe relocated from Nanjing to Beijing. They called themselves P.K.14, which was an abbreviation of “public kingdom for teens.”
“When we were young, we tried to create a community for all of us. That’s what our earliest shows felt like, a community and a kingdom for kids,” he says of the early gigs that inspired the troupe’s moniker.
Their first albums- 2001’s Upstairs, Turn Left, 2004’s Whoever and Whoever, and 2005’s White Paper- were lean, straightforward alt rock efforts. The troupe’s breakthrough came in 2008, when they released City Weather Sailing. The latter disc’s expansive production, featuring brawny brass instrumentation and freewheeling jazzy improv, drew rave reviews. Tenzenmen.com compared the band to seminal art-punk pioneers like Television, and Spin Magazine listed P.K.14 as one of the 50 Must-Hear Bands at SXSW after they were booked for that celebrated music fest in 2010.
P.K.14’s breakthrough disc was 2008’s City Weather Sailing. Their follow up, 1984, is more direct and less experimental.
But not everyone was so enthused. Haisong’s parents, who still eked out a modest living back in Nanjing, couldn’t understand their son’s rock and roll inclinations.
“In the beginning they were not very supportive, in fact it was really bad news for them,” Haisong says of his family’s reaction to his band. “But now they understand that it’s my choice. They understand that I’m not like normal people, who just want to get a job, buy a car and a house.”
Haisong says that freedom of choice is essential for all youth. And, in the same way that he decided to spend his childhood listening to alt-rock and reading classic works of fiction, he can’t begrudge today’s youngsters for dodging literacy altogether.
“It was different when I was young. We didn’t have the internet and video games. So I don’t feel bad for them,” he says of China’s current teens, who are often habitually glued to digital screens. “It’s their choice. It’s not my life.”
The hours that those teens devote to their online lives, instead of the “public kingdom” from which Haisong’s band takes its namesake, may indeed have troubled Orwell. The author would no doubt be more appalled by the strangle hold that the Chinese government has over its media. But Haisong says the issue runs far deeper than that, and much further past China’s borders.
“Censorship is so terrible, but what’s more important is what young people will do about the censorship,” he says of the infamous Chinese firewalls that block references to the Dalai Lama, the Tiananmen massacre, and a host of free form social networks like Twitter and Facebook. “The censorship is awful. But even if there’s no censorship, there’s so much garbage on the internet that most kids cannot find a useful message. There’s a lot of people on there just talking about the foods they love, and reading gossip about superstars.”
He adds that superficiality was more than apparent during his visits to America, when he surfed the net between festival gigs and the Chicago recording sessions for 1984. And in that sense, he fears Big Brother may be more a creature of our own making, rather than the omnipotent dictator that Orwell wrote about. His novel’s pages feature descriptions of computer screens that are placed on every apartment wall, so that the State can peer in on its people, and ensure they abide by the rules. But Haisong says citizens of the real world are far more submissive to their own handheld computer monitors.
But the “public kingdom,” that Haisong and his bandmates founded hasn’t been completely overthrown by wifi connections and fire walls. In fact, he says those offbeat followers are thriving all the more.
“Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing have always been great places to play. But lately, I’ve been amazed by cities like Xiamen,” Haisong says of one of the many budding locales on the southeast China leg of P.K.14’s current tour. “We were there five years ago, and only 50 people came to see us play in a creepy little bar. This time 300 people came, and it was in a very professional live house. I was very surprised—in only a few years the scene has developed a lot. It’s totally changed.”
P.K.14’s latest album, 1984, is now available. To purchase the disc, visit http://shop70868788.taobao.com/ or http://downloads.maybemars.org/album/1984. The band will hold a release party for the disc at Beijing’s Yugong Yishan on Oct. 1 at 9:00pm. For more information visit http://www.yugongyishan.com/2013/09/a-dangerous-journey-p-k-14-new-album-1984-release-tour-beijing-showguest-the-dyne/?lang=en.
All photos by Shi Xiaofan for Maybe Mars Records.