Lanzhou’s Low Wormwood write socially conscious folk songs (courtesy of Maybe Mars).
It may not be easy to trace the ties between Western China’s finest folk troupe, and Eastern China’s newest martyr. That link, however, is true and lasting, despite being knotted with political, cultural, and moral twists.
But before he unravels that tangled tale, the singer must first contend with another scalding strand. It sizzles between Liu’s chopsticks as he draws it near, pulling it taught with the same deftness he uses to tune his guitar strings.
Those lamian noodles may seem like a simple snack, trivial compared to the binds between Liu and an executed dissident. But that tasty recipe nourishes his neighbors, in the same way that his lyrics sustain their souls. And whether he’s slurping up a mouthful of his hometown’s most beloved dish, or strumming a steaming hot guitar lick onstage with his band, the flavor remains the same. It’s the taste of Lanzhou.
Liu Kun and his bandmates in the indie folk outfit Low Wormwood hail from that second tier city in the western province of Gansu. Despite the band’s nationwide critical acclaim, their hometown’s music scene has yet to have its due. Instead, Lanzhou is famous for the aforementioned lamian noodles, and infamous in nearly every other regard. In 2012 it was named China’s most polluted municipality by the Annual Report on Environment Development of China, a staggering feat considering Beijing’s infamous PM2.5 smog levels. Last year, The Guardian ran a story about the government’s “Lanzhou New Area,” project, an effort that aimed to level several nearby mountains for the sake of further urban development, wreaking untold damage in the process. Aside from these ecological debacles, the Gansu capital is also stricken with the same population shift that plagues the rest of the nation, something that Low Wormwood captured on the title track of its 2011 album Lanzhou Lanzhou. One of the song’s key lyrics is:
“Lanzhou/ always run away in the morning/ warm intoxication in the night/ endless water from yellow river runs to the east/ the end of the east is the root of the ocean.”
“Lanzhou is a city that people run away from, it’s a typical migration phenomena,” Liu, Low Wormwood’s acoustic guitarist and singer, says of the swaths of Chinese youth who abandon midsize towns, like Lanzhou, in favor of Beijing, Shanghai and other prospect rich metropolises. But he adds that those first tier cities lack the special charms abounding in his hometown: “We are always so unwilling to leave Lanzhou. We can get drunk with friends at night here, then go eat in the night market, and get to bed only when the morning breaks. And whenever we leave Lanzhou, it’s like running to an unknown future, with a bit of confusion. This is always the place that makes us feel more real. Our family is here, and it’s a place where we can go wild.”
That hometown muse served the band well on Lanzhou Lanzhou. A review from Time Out magazine read:
“Low Wormwood couple string-soaked flourishes of folk-rock with mundane lyrics about day-to-day living in Lanzhou. Lanzhou Lanzhou borders on being a concept album, but the catchy rhythms manage to dilute the anthropological solemnity and make this something special.”
Rock review site expose.org featured another Lanzhou Lanzhou review that praised one of the album’s key tracks, “Gone with the Wind” saying: “… it has an ominous chromatic chord progression that keeps threatening to move to another key, but holds off for two full minutes — a brilliant arrangement choice.”
Such restraint, and a razor lyrical focus on local themes, made Lanzhou Lanzhou a beloved album not only in the band’s hometown, but across the nation’s indie rock community. Liu says he and his band mates want to better address that broader audience on The Watcher.
“Compared with Lanzhou Lanzhou, this album pays more attention to the melody,” he says, before adding that isn’t the only change on the new disc. “The expression in the lyrics is closer to the ‘real China.’ Now we are focusing on the living status of average Chinese people, their spiritual demands, their self-esteem and self-respect.”
That same theme is also evident in The Watcher‘s artwork. That adorning image is in fact a painting by Xia Jianqiang, and those colored lines connect Low Wormwood to eastern China’s unrest.
Low Wormwood’s new disc, The Watcher, features cover art painted by Xia Jianqiang
Xia the painter is by no means a master artist- in fact, he is only 13 years old. Low Wormwood was drawn to him and his budding work after the recent death of the young boy’s father, Xia Junfeng.
The elder Xia was executed on Sept. 25. That sentence followed his murder conviction, for fatally stabbing two security officials in the northeastern town of Shenyang in 2009. Xia Junfeng, a street peddler, said he was only defending himself from the security officers. He said they attacked him because he was selling his street side lamb chuanr kebabs without a license.
A vicious uproar quickly ensued on Chinese social networks like Weibo, as common people decried the lenient sentences given to wealthier prisoners convicted of murder, such as Bu Kailai, the wife of politician Bo Xilai, who infamously murdered a British businessman last year only to have her death sentence softened to a prison term. For most Chinese netizens, Xia Junfeng’s execution meant so much more than the death of one man. According to the BBC, one Weibo post read: “Justice dies in front of our eyes.”
Liu remembers sifting through those blogs until his heart broke. But his mind was set on action. Several months ago he came across a post that featured Xia Jianqiang’s vividly colorful paintings. Liu decided to contact the boy’s mother, Zhang Jing.
“I offered to buy one of the paintings to console her and the boy,” Liu says of his transaction with the would be widow. “My band and I have public lives, so I felt a sense of responsibility to help. I want to try and make society pay more attention to this problem, because this is just one example of the oppression and corruption throughout China.”
Liu was so taken by Xia Jianqiang’s painting that he decided to use it as the album’s cover. He adds that the new disc’s title is also a dedication to the grieving boy and his mother.
“We called our album The Watcher because they are watchers for the dead. We also wanted to help Jianqiang because he is very gifted,” Liu says of the young artist.
The painting that Low Wormwood purchased from Xia Jianqiang is a colorful landscape with a sun stained sky, the shades of which seemed to be streaked by the boy’s fingerprints. Its foreground features a child facing that expanse from atop a mountain, his arms stretched wide enough to wholly embrace a new day.
The budding artist named his painting “Sun Come Out Soon.” Liu says that title aptly fits his new album’s theme: “It describes this desire for a happy life. It’s a simple hope, just like the hope held by millions of Chinese people. We want our music to express this same idea, from the album’s cover to its lyrical content. We are trying to express the need to be on a peaceful land.”
Liu not only relates to the Xia family’s plight, but also to its work ethic. Xia Junfeng, a street hustler who fought and eventually died for simply trying to sell his wares, isn’t so different from the street side vendors who sell the beloved lamian noodles in Lanzhou. The songwriter has spent endless hours with those peddlers at the local Zhengning Road night market.
“It has lot of tasty food, you can’t miss it when you are in Lanzhou,” he says, before recounting some of the vendors who could have shared Xia Junfeng’s grim fate, given similar circumstances. “There is one stand selling a sweet food called Laozhao milk soup, it’s very tasty. The owner of the stand is an old guy with a white bread. He is a Bai minority person, and each of his bowls are hand made. He places them on a little coal stove, one pot after another. His Laozhao milk soup has filled countless stomachs, and comforted many broken hearts.”
Low Wormwood, unlike countless other Mainland bands, have not moved from their meager hometown to the thriving music scenes in Beijing and Shanghai. Liu says he is wrought with homesickness on even the shortest of tours. He won’t consider relocating there.
“In cities like Beijing and Shanghai, we will be rolled into their vortex, and get lost in the city’s desires. That is not the status we want,” he says.
“The greatest thing about Lanzhou is its cool summer nights, when we sit on the top of the white pagoda mountain, drinking yellow river beer with friends, while the yellow river runs under our feet. Nothing can compare with this, I love here.”
But he’s quick to point out the numerous new flaws that are encroaching on all that natural beauty. He says the city’s economic push leaves it ravaged by constant construction.
“Lots of time is wasted on the road, we are always very cranky when driving, always late for rehearsal or recording,” he says, before adding that the biggest disruption of all comes courtesy of the mountain leveling Lanzhou New Area project. “When spring and summer comes, the wind blows the dirt created by mountain cutting toward the city, threatening people’s health.”
These reasons and more may compel most of Lanzhou’s youngsters to flee for upper tier cities laden with shopping complexes. But Liu prefers the Lanzhou night market, his neighbors that peddle street food, and the handmade bowls brimming with noodle soup that never threatens to boil over.
“In Lanzhou we stay with family and feel more peace inside,” he says. “We write songs about Lanzhou because we are our true selves there.”
Low Wormwood will perform launch their new album, The Watcher, at Beijing’s Mako Livehouse tonight at 9p.m.. Their cross China tour includes a stop at Shanghai’s On Stage Livehouse on Oct. 26. For more information, or to hear their songs, go here.
By Kyle Mullin