Wang Zi tips his fedora forward, until his hawkish eyes barely peek out from under the brim. Sporting such a vintage hat makes the indie rocker look more like a silent movie era villain. But Wang is hardly silent, his mouth instead running at the rat-a-tat clip of a blazing Tommy gun. Mere seconds after our introduction he rapidly explains that, although his shady headgear may make him look like a gangster, it was his father that was the true criminal.
“My father was a gangster. Because for Chinese people, the most important fucking thing is ‘relationships.’ He had more ‘relationships’ than anyone in our neighborhood, and that meant he spent a lot of time in jail,” Wang says, adding that his father bonded with those associates while swapping luxury merchandise during a revolution that banned decadence. Wang decided to finally unlock that memory of his father in handcuffs while penning lyrics for the band’s 2012, eponymous EP.
That troupe is called Casino Demon. The Beijing bred trio consists of Wang on guitar and vocals, Guen Zheng on drums, and Liu Hao on base. Their brand of dirty rock has all the grit and sleaze of Queens of the Stone Age, mixed with the harmonies of more whimsical troupes like Wilco. This month they released a follow up EP called Do You Still Love…? and their subsequent cross country tour includes a Shanghai stop at MAO Live on Saturday, Nov. 2.
Those gigs and CD releases have cemented Casino Demon’s position in Beijing’s underground music scene. But that success was hard earned, because their career was stifled before it even began. Wang’s father disapproved of a rock and roll lifestyle back when Wang only daydreamed of joining a band. Neither police or prison could intimidate the elder Wang- but rockstars were a different story entirely.
“Dad thought rock was bad. Drugs, STD’s, blah blah blah,” Wang says, in his typically rushed cadence, before explaining why an onstage guitarist could seem more formidable than Beijing’s Finest: “Back then cops were retarded. They only had bikes, and hardly any training or weapons. So it was easy for guys like my father to cross the line. But he was more freaked out by musicians. He knew some of China’s first punks, first rockers. He saw how hard they partied. So he told me not to ever play rock and roll.”
Wang adds that, above all, his father cringed at the notion of rock’s defiant lyrics and image, which seemed to taunt China’s upper officials to crack down.
This wasn’t the case for Liu Hao. The portly Casino Demon bassist was the son of one of those Maoist era top tier officers- the kind that left two bit crooks, like Wang senior, feeling anxious and paranoid.
“My dad was an army officer for the Communist Party- the big gangsters,” Liu says, with a croaking laugh that gives him an adorably toadish grin. He adds that his father’s regimented past didn’t turn him into too strict of a parent. Instead, he told his son that, “It would not be fit for any situation, that rock and roll was useless. But now he sees me making money with it, and with my store Underground Kidz. He sees I can make money by myself, so he says ‘Okay. Do it.'”
The shop that Liu refers to is a tiny boutique in Beijing’s trendy Gulou neighborhood. From there, he sells vintage leather jackets fit for any young punk. His business model carries over to his onstage wardrobe, which is often comprised of faded plaid, springy suspenders, and an assortment of fedoras that together form a spectrum of colors. Wang may occasionally wear one of those aged hats, but Liu’s entire getup is thoroughly retro.
Selling such merchandize at Underground Kidz gives Liu the financial freedom to pour money into Casino Demon’s equipment, branding, and other expenses. The investment is now starting to pay off, as the band snags regular gigs across Beijing’s top venues, and at similar caliber livehouses across China. But Wang says most Chinese indie acts aren’t so fortunate. Their commitment to touring is often hampered by a dayjob that helps them break even. Or they have to rely on their parents charity, if those elders are more approving and supportive than Wang’s, that is.
Then there’s Guen, Casino Demon’s lithe drummer.
“My father doesn’t give a shit,” he says of his construction laborer elder, who has offered little input into his son’s career choice.
Most Chinese youngsters are met with similar dismissiveness, if not outright hostility, by dismayed parents. That older generation dreams of banking, engineering, and other lucrative fields for their children. And who could blame them, considering their nation’s breakneck economic pace, and its lack of state sponsored elderly care? If those parents grow older, and realize they can never depend on their musician children’s menial wages, they are bound to be disheartened.
But Wang says he’s much more averse to the alternative- a yuppie lifestyle in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Or, at least, the almighty quai. He says such superficiality is flourishing in China, and he sees it as the country’s biggest problem.
“Most people just want Korean Pop. They want to stay at home, and watch a beautiful guy or a beautiful girl, then masturbate to the fucking screen,” he nearly sneers.
But he doesn’t chalk such superficial escapism up to typical, academic excuses- the lingering turmoil of the cultural revolution, the constraints of government censorship, or the instant gratification of consumerism. Wang thinks China favors fluffy pop for a far simpler reason.
“Chinese has four tones. But music melodies have seven,” he says, before rhyming off do, re, mi and so on. “So rock melodies are difficult to sing in Chinese. Simple pop melodies are fucking perfect for it, though.”
Liu disagrees. He feels China’s indie rock subculture is thriving, unlike Wang, who believes it is stifled. But Liu says the far stronger strain of Chinese rock is heavy metal, which draws exponentially more fans, mainly because those bands mimic their western counterparts.
“Some people think our music is not so powerful. So many young people think rock and roll is just Metallica,” Liu says, adding that subtler sounds often bore such fans. “They don’t know that maybe our C chords, or our lyrics, are more powerful than the gong gong ga-gong ga-gong of heavy metal.”
But such modern concerns are mere gripes, compared to the musical constraints that Wang’s father grew up with. He can recall being seven years old, and watching a friend of his father, who was a globe trotting photographer, pass on LP’s by the likes of Michael Jackson and The Beatles to the elder Wang.
“I think Dad didn’t like it that much. But, at the same time, he thought we should try to listen to it, because everyone said it was this great music from the U.S. and the U.K.,” Wang says before adding that, unlike his father, he couldn’t get enough of those exotic sounds.
But Liu’s father didn’t share their curiosity.
“My dad doesn’t care about music, maybe just military songs or old revolution songs,” the bassist says, adding that his mother’s tastes were slightly more eclectic. “She liked Deng Lijun, the pop singer from Taiwan. But I didn’t know for a long time, but because when I was a kid it was illegal to play her songs.”
Wang concurs, saying: “If you listened to Deng Lijun, you’d die. If you listened to The Beatles? You’d definetly die. Only revlutionary songs were okay.”
Wang says that old rigidity still affects China today- sometimes in even more restrictive ways.
“When my father was young, he could fight with someone on the street and then run, and the cops would never catch him. There were no cameras or CCTVs, no fingerprints, nothing. Now the Rolling Stones can play in Shanghai, and everything seems so much more open. But they have to show all their lyrics to the government, and they can only sing what’s been approved.”
Liu says local bands are subject to even greater scrutiny, adding that groups can’t even release an album unless all the lyrics are approved. He says that the issue isn’t hampering- it just forces artists to be more creative.
“We don’t write political things in our lyrics, we’d rather use other things,” he says, adding that metaphors can be far more fun. “We can sing about a cat and its ‘problems,’ and everyone can know we mean the government. That’s more interesting anyway.”
Wang agrees, adding that government officers won’t be able to sustain such restrictions forever.
“It’s okay for me to sing ‘my father is a gangster,’ in English. Because they’ll just go, ‘what is a gangster? what does he mean?’ Besides, they already know the real gangsters are the cops.”
Casino Demon will perform at MAO Live (308 Chongqing Nan Lu 重庆南路308号) tonight at 8:30pm. Advance tickets can be purchased here. For more information, call the venue at 6445 0086.