Interview: Helen Feng

The following interview with Helen Feng of Free the Birds (performing January 15 at Redstar in Creative 100) will appear in part in the January issue of Redstar. Check out what the singer/songwriter has to say about the band’s name change, personnel shuffle, the Beijing music scene, sex and love, leaving Pet Conspiracy, and more. For more info on Redstar and the upcoming concert: 135.8320.6332 or 8388.2269

I guess, first, what’s with the name change? Polish band with same name? And why Free The Birds?
Yeah, we just wanted a new start.  Almost like starting from scratch.  I used to watch an old man from my six floor apartment who raised pigeons fly his pigeons three times a day, no matter winter snow or summer heat.  The Birds used to sing when they flew past my window.  I thought it was really beautiful.  A lot of people don’t like the name, and it was a difficult decision, but everyone in the band thinks that it’s important that we do something like this so I guess we stuck to it. 

I feel like China is still a good place to work for a musician because despite all the problems, there’s still a lot of creative space to work.

Musically what has changed since your last visit? I understand the set has been cut down to a few oldies, new material has new influences? Such as who? Are your lyrics these days more English or Chinese? How is the new music being received?
New music is more atmospheric and we want to concentrate on harmonies and melodies delivered in an interesting way.  I think we want to do something more cinematic, influenced from the 70’s rock which built beautiful soundscapes with really nice melodies.  Or a bit of shoegazing 90’s stuff but with more interesting rhythms, through not straight shoe-gazer.  The new direction hasn’t been firmed down yet, I’m not sure how much new material you’ll hear this time because we changed our drummer recently.  This is a transitional period for us, but I think we’re taking steps in some interesting musical directions. 

Helen Feng Free The Birds Live Music

Thoughts on the development of the Chinese music scene? Spoke with a Swedish indie musician relocated to Beijing recently whose major gripes with Beijing scene were: 

a. Lack of decent songwriters
Songwriting has been put aside in recent years because of trend chasing.  Everyone is more concerned with building a sound that follows the trends, as opposed to creating a song that stands on its own.  As a result, the songs are often incomplete and lacking in melodic elements and hooks.  

b. Little heed paid to recordings, too much heed to live show
Records don’t make money and shows do.   One band was willing to spend more money on the show production for just three shows than on the recording process for an entire album.  When I argued that it was silly, the response given to me was “but records don’t make money”.  (Hmmm, does that mean the only judge of musical quality these days is cash income?)  In China, there’s too many opportunities to play for just average bands.  So they play, and they make money, but with a fashionable look and bad music instead of strong songwriting and hot album.  That just encourages more young bands to not care about songwriting and music production and concentrate on dressing cool and having an “attitude”.  

The record companies also invest too little money. . . for instance an unnamed already very successful band only got 30,000 RMB to producer from studio to master their entire album.  This was lower than their performance fee for one show.  That’s a stupidly small amount considering a good master will cost them likely more than a quarter of that, and the standard studio fee is something like 1500 per/ day without counting producer fees.  That means they only have just 10 days to do ten songs. . . thus the quality is already limited by the investment.  

On top of that,  there are just not enough good recording engineers and producers in China that know how to tweak a band’s sound to make it good enough for a world audiences.  A lot of bands are thus self-produced without knowing anything about the complex technical stuff behind recording.  It’s easier to get a fuzzy lo-fi indie sound than a strong radio friendly sound.  Lo-fi also helps cover up the skills of the musicians as well, but it’s hard to make that sound really stand out from the other tens of thousands of fuzzy lo-fi indie bands around the world. Especially without great song writing.  (For instance, the Moldy Peaches were all over the Juno soundtrack because they were lo-fi but had great songs).  

c. not enough fun poppy indie bands.
I thought, he should see Ziyo/Free the Birds because they are proficient in all of what he says is lacking. The Beatles were pop, so were the Stones.  Guns and Roses, Chuck Berry, Depeche Mode, and even on some level the Clash all had a healthy healthy dose of pop if pop means to have a memorable hook.  There is a deep aversion to musical hooks in China, which means that we have endless songs of unmemorable soundscapes without hooks.  If you can remember the song, it doesn’t make it uncool!

For Free the Birds, it’s a new era, of rethinking and rewriting music but from a more mature perspective and a more collaborative perspective. I’m excited for everything that’s going to happen.

Are you frustrated to be back in it? Or buoyed with a renewed sense of homecoming enthusiasm? Did you ever leave?
I left for Europe for a month and half on tour, and I am enthusiastic to come back.  I feel like China is still a good place to work for a musician because despite all the problems, there’s still a lot of creative space to work.  The kids are confused but not hopeless.  There’s a lot of people searching for music and I think the past trends like over-commercialization, hipsterism, pure copying of western styles, stealing music, and greed that infiltrated the music scene are being questioned and slowly rejected by the bands and the audiences.  It’s a good point, a possible turning point for music in China.  Hopefully this will spark a creative and confident new generation. . . I already see hope in bands like Omnipotent Youth Hotel, and Nan Wu.  They’re uniquely Chinese yet modern with good songwriting and with something to say.  The Chinese bloggers’ rejection of certain over-hyped over-commercialized music festivals are also a welcoming sign.  The energy here makes me want to keep doing music.  

Interview Helen Feng Free the Birds

You’ve been working with several different musicians/groups in the interim, such as Pet Conspiracy, and it seems everytime I’ve spoken to you or your Free the Birds band mates in the last year, you were either on, going to or coming back from a European tour with this group. What is your situation now with other bands? Are Free The Birds the priority (again)? 
I’ve completely left Pet Conspiracy because of strong creative and personal differences, and will be focusing on Free the Birds and my own project.  I’m starting a company that wants to help build infrastructure that’s hopefully healthier than the twisted workings of the old music industry here, and a solo project for all the creative stuff that doesn’t work within a band context.  For Free the Birds, it’s a new era, of rethinking and rewriting music but from a more mature perspective and a more collaborative perspective.  I’m excited for everything that’s going to happen.  

You’re a sexually charged band, one can certainly tell from the on stage antics and press photos. Pet Conspiracy were occasionally found naked in the woods too. Is that your fault? 
No, it was the idea of a friend of ours and I didn’t participate in the photo shoot.  I love sex. . . and I think there’s nothing wrong with sexual expression if its used to liberate oneself and to forward interesting ideas.  I’m also a feminist and I think that sexuality can be either empowering or degrading depending on context.  I think more often than not in younger generations in China, sexuality is either rejected or embraced in a degrading unhealthy manner because it is made a taboo or turned too much into a prize.  I think kids should stop watching Japanese porn and start dating people they respect.  And learn that sex is natural, sex is healthy, sex ultimately is the reason for 80% of what humanity does, and that sex is better with the person you love.

There is a deep aversion to musical hooks in China, which means that we have endless songs of unmemorable soundscapes without hooks. If you can remember the song, it doesn’t make it uncool!

You’ve a new drummer. Who’s the new guy? What happened to Mao Mao? Last we saw he was an Amazing Insurance Salesman. 
Mao Mao is moving on with his creative choices and life choices.  We’re sad to see him go as he’s very talented and an important contributor to the band, and we will go in a different direction without him.  He’s in several other bands right now, top of the list, the Amazing Insurance Salesmen.  Every member was important to who we were, so now we are something new.  With Wubuli, he’s one of the most talented hand percussionist that we knew for years. He’s also friends with Mao Mao.  He’s Uygar and has a very different sense of rhythm, not based on 4/4 but 5/8 and with more middle eastern beat structures.  We want to incorporate more of that into our music but I think it will take some time.  His sense for music is so different from ours. . . and I can’t help but think that he has a lot to contribute to our future sound.  I’m excited to see what that will be.  Give us a few months.  

How are you affiliated these days? You have a label? Are you recording now? Can we have a few sneaky demos?
No label, but I am seriously thinking about starting my own for my projects and coming projects of friends and family.  And as a way to introduce some really strong foreign artists into circulation in China.  Maybe I’m old school but I both believe strongly in the power of the internet and in physical CDs and Vinyl still.  It’s something about holding a Vinyl of your own music in your hand and smelling it.  I want to do that, and I think maybe others will want to do that too.  Just smell it.  I think right now, I can’t think of a domestic label that would be a good fit for us. . . maybe that will change.  Starting a label is a painful experience I’m sure, but I guess I’m masochistic that way.  

Helen Feng Free the Birds Live in Qingdao January 15, 2011

What else do you guys do besides Free The Birds? How’s the promotion company? You are no longer on the radio right? 
No more radio, sadly.  I actually loved that program and my co-workers, but I’m going to revive that program on the internet.  We are launching a website January 2011, and it will have pod casts of the Rock Show along with blogs, photos, music, etc.  We doing a party for it at School Bar on the 27th so it’s a lot of work leading up to that date.  

The company I have (Fake Music Media) is not really a promotions company.  We call ourselves an artists services company because we want to work more closely with the bands than just promote one or two shows for them in China.  We want to leave them a strong internet presence in China, perhaps get them a record release, make videos, basically do everything they need to affect audiences in China.  It’s also an engine for managing my own career and these two projects I’m working on, along with hopefully interesting bands we find along the way.  Like an A&R/Manager/Bookings Agent/Promotions company all rolled into one.  It’s like DIY but with a bigger and more effective team.  All we need now is investment . . . know any?  = )

Are you (Free The Brids/Ziyo) leaving China regularly for gigs? To where? How are you received abroad?
We’ve only been to Hong Kong once which went really well.  We didn’t travel so much the last two years partly because I spent too much time on the other band.   Now we want to go overseas. . . so who knows.  We will be honing our sound and looking for opportunities.  The other guys in the band haven’t left the country before.  Everyone except for me comes from working class families and were living off of performance fees, so unlike Pet Conspiracy who could pay out of pocket themselves for their first 2 European tours overseas and had few visa issues, Free the Birds needs to find sponsorship and visas can be difficult because they mostly come from the provinces.  It might be difficult but we are determined to do it hopefully in 2011, because it would be so much fun to travel together.  It would be like going on the road with my brothers.

Helen Feng Live Free the Birds

Relevant Links:
Free the Birds on Douban
Free the Birds (formerly Ziyo) on Myspace
Free the Birds on Rock in China Wiki
Interview with Helen Feng on Beijing Daze
Interview with Helen Feng on Layabozi

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1 Comment

  1. Marcus

    Awesome interview, and look forward to an even more awesome show on the 15th!

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