VIEW THIS PAGE “I was terrified,” said singer and pianist Chen Hui-ting (陳惠婷) of one of her first experiences on stage with her band Tizzy Bac.
The venue was Spring Scream, Taiwan’s first alternative music festival and college party haven, and for Chen and two fellow classmates at National Central University (國立中央大學), putting together a band and a set of songs back in 2000 almost seemed like an excuse.
“We weren’t thinking of anything big, we just wanted to go to Spring Scream. So we wrote songs, sent a demo and then got in,” she said.
The rest is history for indie rock in Taiwan. Tizzy Bac immediately stood out in a scene full of punks and metal heads — here was a band with a female vocalist and pianist that wrote all original songs, and decidedly did not have a guitarist. And they still rocked.
Since then, the trio’s quirky mixture of synthpop and jazzy rock earned them awards, accolades and prominent gigs: they won Ho-Hai-Yan’s battle of the bands in 2002, opened up for the Beastie Boys at the Tibet Freedom Concert in 2003, and landed a spot at Japan’s Fuji Rock Festival in 2005.
Tizzy Bac also appears to be one of the indie scene’s more successful groups, regularly selling out at venues like Taipei’s The Wall (這牆). Their label, Wonder Music (彎的音樂), declined to share the band’s record sales figures, but a representative said that Tizzy Bac is a full-time job for the trio.
Chen overcame her stage fright long ago, but fear has returned as a prominent theme for the band. Last week, the group released its third studio album, I’m Not Afraid of Demons If I’d Seen Hell (如果看見地獄，我就不怕魔鬼).
The album title comes from the grammar homework of a 10-year-old girl who was the student of a schoolteacher-friend of bassist Hsu Che-yu (許哲毓). Hsu’s friend thought the sentence was so “cool” that he told the band.
The fact that the girl wrote it on her own — the teacher had asked her to make up her own “If …” statements — stirred the band’s imagination.
“For [her] to have written a sentence like this, she must have a lot of personality, a lot of spirit,” said Chen, during an interview with the Taipei Times at the band’s studio in Taipei’s East District.
To the band, the innocent bravery expressed in the title resonates with the album’s themes. (Although the student didn’t seem to care when told her homework would grace an album cover, according to Hsu).
“We hope to convey that if you have big problems in life, you can’t run away from them,” said Chen. “Perhaps you can learn to accept them. But don’t be afraid because you’ll definitely run into bad situations you can’t hide from — this is the concept behind the album.”
Many of Tizzy Bac’s songs are vignettes on loneliness, alienation and love, and Chen says they draw inspiration from cartoons and films from pop culture. They named a song after a character from The Simpsons (Sideshow Bob, from their 2006 album It’s All My Fault [我想你會變成這樣都是我害的]). Chen wrote the new album’s title track after seeing a Korean horror movie and Shall We Dance after watching the 2006 film Paris Je T’aime.
Chen sings mostly in Mandarin, but often sprinkles English phrases and verses into many of the band’s songs. But she denies aiming for a sense of exotica.
“I think it’s strange — when I write melodies, I feel that I can only use English — it doesn’t necessarily have a meaning — but I’ll [naturally] use English words to sing a melody out. Then I use Chinese to complete it,” she said. “It’s not that I’m great at languages, it’s just that they have a useful function.”