Born in Beijing, but raised in North America, Feng has been a major shaker in Beijing music circles since moving to China in 2002. In 2004 she started the punk band Ziyo [自游], in 2007 co-founded the electro group Pet Conspiracy, and in 2009 she and her partner, Philip Grefer, founded the Chinese music collective, FakeMusicMedia. Nova Heart is Feng’s long-planned solo project, and has the full force of her energy and professional experience.
Last Saturday I lay on a grassy slope in Bondi Beach, sizzling in the sun, with Feng, her guitarist Zhong Can and bassist Bo Xuan, and various other musicians and organisers who had been involved in the Sydney gig the night before. See below for our conversation. And thanks to Shaun Hemsley of tenzenmen for his contributions.
CC: Nova Heart is a new direction for you. How would you describe it?
HF: I was really inspired by music that was made by Johnny Jewel, an artist from Seattle. He initiated a couple of projects like The Chromatics, Glass Candy. I really liked his minimalism, their sound colours.
We actually got a chance to meet him in Istanbul on a Pet Conspiracy tour – that’s where this project started. It was kinda weird, it was one of those cultural showcase shows and they were totally DIY, you know, selling their own product at their merch booth. So afterwards we went and got talking to them and it turned out that Johnny and I both grew up in Houston. So we talked about stuff, about how we used to go Austin for concerts, because Houston was lame for concerts back then. And how we used to sing Depeche Mode …
I listened to a lot of indie music growing up, a lot of rock music. I went to a couple of raves when I was really young, got in super big trouble, and then was off the party scene for a while because I got shot at at this party and then I was like … I’m not going to go out for a while. [laughs] I’ll just sit around and listen to Radiohead. This is fucking scary. Afterwards I went out anyway. You get over shit pretty quickly when you’re young.
CC: And you started playing your own music while you were still in the States?
HF: I started writing music when I was like five, ten, but I never had the chance to do anything with it.
CC: What gave you the chance to do something with it? Going to Beijing?
HF: Yeah, in a way. I got a job as an MTV VJ in Shanghai in 2002. There was some weird rule that meant I couldn’t officially be called a VJ, so they called me a roaming reporter and gave me a producer’s job. Later I was thinking about leaving, but then they closed the Shanghai office and transferred me to Beijing.
CC: So going to Beijing wasn't originally your idea.
HF: No it wasn't. I was really disillusioned with China at the time because all you see working at MTV are these super-big pop stars from Taiwan, and these really bad pop stars from China. I hated boy bands in the States, but in China they were so much worse – even less talented, and more effeminate. If you could take all the least likable qualities of a boy band and then exaggerate them by twelve – that was basically what we were promoting. [laughs]
So I really didn’t like it. But when I got to Beijing I ended up getting into this really hot thing with this guy – I was recruiting him for a shoot on skateboarding. MTV in China didn’t know what skateboarding was, believe it or not. When I first mentioned ‘skaters’ they thought it was people who put on ice skates and skated. I was like, No – not skaters, skateboarding. You get a board, put wheels on it and ride around. They were like, Oh that sounds strange, I’m not sure that it would ever catch on in China. There’s a huge scene of it now.
Anyway, I’d started dating one of these skaters, and in 2002 he introduced me to the punk scene. I remember the first time I showed up at a punk venue – the old Get Lucky bar, at the time of Reflector, so when things were a lot more hard core. It was right before SARS and they were all wearing these punk versions of those face masks that people were wearing around then. There were about forty or fifty people, and they were all just moshing like crazy. I remember walking into the venue and it was just like: Hallelujah! Finally, I’ve found something cool in China!
I’d been in China for almost a year by then and I’d thought everything was shit. I was really depressed, thinking Man … everything here is like pop music, really commercial, dirty, ugly. Shanghai was just all these bougie people who were into fashion and just wanted to go to expensive bars and talk about how awesome they were, how much money they made, or why their plastic surgery was better than their plastic surgery. Then I stepped into this punk rock scene and I was like: OK. All right. This feels good.
A while later I moved to a new neighbourhood around Dong Cheng area. I moved in 2003, so that area hadn’t picked up yet. There were a couple of old music shops but they were really daggy little shitty places. There were no cafes up and down Dongdajie, there was like, one or two cafes in Nanlouguxiang. When I first moved there the only café around was the Pass By Bar. Then another one opened, and another … It was like watching a scene being born.
Nanlouguxiang used to be hot, but it’s dead now because it’s been taken over by tourism. It’s completely intolerable. Nobody I know really goes there anymore. This happens everywhere in the world, this whole gentrification process - but in China it happens faster. It took thirty years for that to happen to Sunset Junction, where I was living in Los Angeles before I moved to China. But in Beijing it happens in a couple of years.
CC: Where is the music scene in Beijing now, if it’s no longer at Nanlouguxiang?
HF: It’s really spread out now. It’s centred itself in certain ways, but it’s also spread out. There was there was this realisation at one point from the arts people that if they made the space too big, and if too many of them got together, then the rent would go up, so they all tried to hunt different areas down. [laughs] If you keep the rent down you can actually survive.
CC: Is the scene still growing there now?
HF: It’s huge – it’s getting bigger and bigger. And although it is starting to split out into different genres there is still a lot of crossover. There’s kind of a roots punk scene, and a metal scene, but in the end people just hang out with each other. And they all get influenced by each other. I think one of the reasons you have a lot of problems in the West is because the scenes get so introverted and inbred, and people end up saying I only go to these shows where I can see these bands, and I want to be just like them. But this just limits your creativity. You limit your creative vision.
CC: Do you think the indie music scene will eventually imitate the West, in the sense that it might get more popular and eventually genrefy?
HF: I think things will genrefy, and I think things will become more cliquey. That’s probably a natural progression, as the numbers grow and you get to a certain tipping point.
Then again, though, I also think China is different. The difference in China is that Chinese people remain defiant against America and that influence. China was not conquered. I mean, it was two hundred years ago (and the ‘shame’ of that is still being used to manipulate us by the Chinese government to this day) ...
But generally, China is an independent culture, and people get that. It’s not Hong Kong, because Hong Kong was a British colony. And it’s not Taiwan – Taiwan basically became an outpost for the US military, like Korea. And so even though all these cultures supposedly hold onto more traditionalism than China, what they didn’t hold onto was an idea of country and state. I don’t think Taiwanese people feel this mass feeling of country and state. They feel like they got kicked out of their country and now they have the US looking after them! They don’t have this sense of self.
So whenever the Chinese government thumps its chest and everybody in the West goes, Look at how they thump their chest, look at those idiots … I’m like, That’s exactly what you do! You put your gunboats next to other people’s countries. We don’t even have any gunboats.
Thumping the chest is kind of important for governments to do occasionally, because it proves that in one way or another you are able not just to make decisions for your own people, but to make decisions in the world scene. And that’s something that gives a certain overriding confidence to a population. And that overriding confidence is something I think China has, that maybe other place like Korea or Taiwan don’t. Because it has such a huge voting power, whether through finance or population, in the world scene, and it keeps on restating that fact over and over again – sometimes in correct ways, sometimes in incorrect ways.
In part, it also generates this sort of trickle down effect into the population where people do in a way feel like they are part of something that can motivate a massive amount of change. Maybe internally or externally.
I feel like in the US everybody’s talking but nobody’s listening. In China people still listen, and it’s a good time to talk.
Shaun Hemsley: I don’t know if you saw that article in the China Daily about the closing of D-22. The premise of the article was that what Michael Pettis was trying to do in D-22 was develop a scene, but they were saying that it was a failure but this scene was just trying to imitate Western music.
HF: There’s no such thing as a failure. And that whole entire Imitate Western Music thing is bullshit. Art should match the society that is currently occurring. We live in a globalised world, so music should be globalised. If it’s not globalised music then it’s just introverted and out of step. If the kids like the music now, then it has a certain amount of relevance. And if the kids in the audience are Chinese, then it’s Chinese music. That’s all it is.
CC: I guess these kids grew up on the Internet, so they’re pretty ai fait with globalised cultures.
HF: These kids grew up on the Internet – and you want to know why? Because their local culture wasn’t offering enough to them so they wanted more. And this want of more is what’s going to be defining China in the future. And if the government doesn’t believe that then they will not be the government of the future.
It’s like VPNs. The more sites they close the more people get on VPNs. And this flow of information is not going to stop. The more powerful and rich and globalised China becomes, the more it wants a middle class, the more it’s going to have to let go. China cannot be a Singapore. China still kinda looks at the Singapore model and says, Well maybe we can be just as tightly controlled as them. But Singapore is tiny! It’s impossible to control something with 1.5 billion people spread across that much land, and with that many different languages and cultures and ways and internal cliques and situations. This is not a city state. It’s a country. It’s a huge, huge country.
Chinese people are really smart at communicating with each other. And they can organise very quickly and very, very violently if they want to. They can get everybody onto a single purpose with right and wrong being the directive. People will sacrifice their lives very easily if they believe something is so bad that they have to protest. They burn themselves in protest. How many Americans do that, are like: I fucking hate this tax law!
CC: You’ve played a big role in the music scene in China, initiating a bunch of really significant bands, as well as the collective FakeMusic. And then on stage you have this strong, provocative sexual identity. Do you think that a woman like you could have grown out of Mainland China, or is this a product of a childhood in North America?
HF: Yeah, my Mom’s a punk bitch. [laughs] My parents were punk rockers before punk was invented. Just their attitudes. We’re a product of our families more than of just the countries we live in.
CC: So you don’t think you might be a role model for some girls in China, a symbol of female defiance?
HF: Yeah, a lot of lesbians. They’re huge in China and they really like my music. I think guys in China … they didn’t take Chivalry 101, so in the modern day society where you don’t own your wives anymore, a lot of them don’t know what to do. And Chinese girls can be bitches. But Chinese girls can get Chinese girls, and they actually make really good boyfriends. Almost half my friends are like: I’ve got a girlfriend! [laughs]
CC: So what next for Helen Feng?
HF: What next? We’re going to tour a lot; continue our collective, Fake Music; and we’re going to start a new label called Fake Love Music to add to all that.
CC: Enough to keep you busy for now.
HF: Yeah, that should be enough to keep me busy. Someday I might raise some cows, free range, all over Chaoyang Park. I’ve always wanted to get some cows into China. Must be my Texan roots. [laughs]
Images by Liang Du