If you have never thought about or heard music from mainland China before you may be in for a surprise. As you might expect from a country with as long a history as China there are many forms of traditional music. Recent years of reform and openness have made a door for all sorts of different genres of music. Many western styles of music have already arrived in China, sometimes note for note, with the only difference being the words are sung in Chinese. The latest generation of musicians grew up listening to as much blues and rock from the west as they did traditional forms of music from home. It was only a matter of time before bands started to meld the new western influences with the deeper Chinese roots to create something different.
One such band is the Beijing band Evening News (wan jian xin wen in Chinese.) Last year they released their first album which is home to several different genres of music. The ten songs finely mix blues, rock and folk with a touch of traditional Chinese music. The sound, as you might expect, is all their own.
In a recent interview Xiao Yiping and Leng Jie told me about making music in China, their approach to songwriting and how traditional Chinese instruments fit into their songs.
Guitar Noise: Most of our readers are from outside of China. Could you say something about putting out an album in China? How does a band get signed to a record company in China and what are some of the ins and outs of working with a label?
Evening News: In China, it’s very hard to and get an album out, unless you’re signed to a record company, and then the company will pay the expenses for the recording. Evening News got together with a friend, Tutu, who has a recording studio, so we were able to use the studio for free to record our album, then we sold it to a music production company.
GN: How did the band meet and come together?
EN: We were all friends years ago, and got together to play music and mess around, then we started practicing more seriously and began writing songs.
GN: How did you make your first steps as professional musicians?
EN: After we finished high school, we all got involved with various bands and also played with our own band. We were professionals, earning our bread (rice) from music at an early age.
GN: What would be your advice to someone who is just starting out?
EN: Music is your life and your “heart” — you should really live life to the fullest, then your music will be “full” too
GN: What are your main sources of inspiration?
EN: Our inspiration comes from the pains and struggles and joys of life (mostly pain and struggle – you tend to remember it more clearly)
GN: How do you deal with lack of inspiration?
EN: We just hang out, don’t write anything, read, mess around…
GN: Are there any songwriting techniques or methods you would like to share with our readers?
EN: (Xiao Yi Ping) Sometimes I get a strong feeling about something and within that feeling there’s music – I try to catch hold of the sounds and feelings. I sometimes write the melody first, sometimes the words.
GN: How old were you when you started playing guitar?
EN: (Xiao Yi Ping & Leng Jie) We started playing guitar at age 15/16.
GN: Do you have any musical influences, for the guitar and songwriting?
EN: Western rock and blues, as well as traditional Chinese music.
GN: Did you take lessons or did you learn by yourself?
EN: Nobody learns entirely on their own – we learned from other people, watched how they played and listened to a lot of guitar, then practiced like crazy all day for years.
GN: Do you spend a lot of hours practicing the guitar?
EN: No, now we just write songs all day.
GN: In mainland China there is a lot of interest in pop and punk, but not a lot of support for “guitar bands.” Is there a place in the developing Chinese market for bands that want to go ahead and make their own style of music regardless of whether it fits into a genre or not?
EN: The market for different kinds of bands is changing and there are more chances for bands like ours.
GN: How do you describe your own music? How do you feel about the songs you write?
EN: Our music doesn’t really fit into a particular category, but it’s mainly rock/folk/ with trad Chinese mixed in… At the moment, the songs we write are very “real” – written from the heart, but we lack maturity – that has a lot to do with the fact that we don’t get together for practice very often. But our songs are pretty good anyway, they’re not rubbish.
GN: Some of the most interesting songs on your album are the ones that use some traditional Chinese instruments, the “suona” and the “ma tou qin” (Horse Head Violin). How do these instruments fit into your songs from a songwriting point of view?
EN: (Xiao Yi Ping) When I write the songs, when they’re forming in my head, some of the songs have a very strong “Chinese” feeling, so we add in the traditional instruments where they feel right.
GN: Can you say something about the “ma tou qin” violin and the way it is played?
EN: The matouqin is an ancient traditional Mongolian instrument that is usually played by old men; using the matouqin in our music, we hope to go beyond Mongolian tradition and break through with new melodies — but then again, sometimes that seems irrelevant, because those old guys have perfected the art of matouqin playing already.
GN: Can you say something about the “suona”?
EN: The sounds produced by the suona immediately make us think of “Yellow Earth” – the colour of Chinese soil, representing our nation, our culture and traditions…..but to most foreigners, it probably just sounds like cats in heat.
Special thanks to Rick Curnutt for the photos.