About three years ago, a certain amount of buzz sprung up around the band Macbeth (馬克白), a four-piece of local college kids that was a bit of a throwback to the cool sounds of late ’70s synth rock. Though a bunch of songs included an overlay of postrock guitar fuzz, a major element of the sound was channeling bands like Joy Division, the Doors and British new wave, and they succeeded because they managed to bring back driving, danceable rhythms within rock music as well as urgent lyrics sung from the diaphragm and at the audience. The singers still protected their stony faces behind black sunglasses, but the music was not afraid to be engaging. It was a very different species from the bedroom pop and shoegaze soundtrack music favored in the main Taipei livehouses, but somehow Macbeth managed to appeal to those crowds too. The band played several of the bigger festivals and showcases in 2010 (Megaport, a big Free Tibet concert thrown by The Wall, and a “Next Big Thing” show at Legacy), contributed a song to The Golden Horse film festival as a theme for the rock ‘n roll film program, and were nominated Best New Band in a competition by the now-defunct Government Information Office.
Last year, half of Macbeth’s members were stolen away by compulsory military service, so the other two guys needed a new band. The military is one reason that Taipei’s young band scene is a swirling soup of free-floating musicians, where it is not strange for decent players to have two or three groups at the same time. The other reason is that there is almost no way to make money at music in a small market where no one buys CDs and a typical gig nets a band only two or three thousand New Taiwan dollars. So band members all have parallel lives in school or working jobs in bars, shops and sometimes even offices. This is a music scene constantly diced up by the twin cuisinarts of military service and Real Life. Things stay pretty fluid.
So within this mix, somewhere between a year and a year and a half ago, the group Formosa Romance (寶島羅曼斯) began to coalesce. Coming from Macbeth, drummer Ian Chen (陳奕安) and Howie Yu (余昊益), who moved from guitar to bass, began jamming with two other guitarists, Eason Feng (方奕勝) from the band Vampire Watching Television, and Huang Qin-zhong (黃勁鐘) from Flux. Early on, they had a lead singer who gave them the band name Formosa Romance, but he quickly moved on, leaving behind little more than the name, which sounds like a forgotten black-and-white movie title.
“In Chinese, the band name sounds really awesome,” said Yu, who was genuinely enthusiastic about the cool-soundingness of Baodao Luomansi.
In English however, Formosa Romance is just cheesy, especially as a band name. I did actually mention this, though suggesting they change their name change was a tad awkward given the upcoming CD release and September-long tour of Taipei.
The name aside, Formosa Romance is a good band. Go out and see them. Expect the same good instincts from Macbeth, but in a different package. Where Macbeth is cool, Formosa Romance is hot. They are a little more free with their energy, a little more rowdy. The music is riff driven but still built on the framework of the three-chord, three-minute rock song. It revs a little louder, like a motor scooter with a trick muffler.
“We wanted to start a band with a double guitar sound like the Strokes or Black Rebel Motorcycle Club,” said Yu. And that worked as a starter, but then things went in a slightly different direction. To fill the lead singer’s role, Yu asked his boss at the Cat’s Pajamas hostel, Bix Song (宋正一), an androgynous scenester who has been hanging around both rock shows and alternative dance parties for years. Bix starts telling me that for singers, he likes Christina Aguilera and blues legend Etta James, before he remembers he is supposed to be fronting a rock band and ditches the line of gay-crush divas. He moderates with Patty Smith, then finally reiterates a common interest in Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. But as a frontman, he knows how to make a show of himself and fills the slot well, even though in many ways he is still learning to sing.
“With me, we become like ’90s gay rock,” jokes Bix. “We are four and a half men.” For their homemade black-and-white publicity photo, the group stands rather woodenly, with each band member reaching towards the crotches of the guys beside him.
It’s a bit of sophomoric horseplay. Refreshingly, sexuality is a non-issue in Formosa Romance, and Yu says they didn’t even really bother to try to understand Bix’s English song lyrics until they were in the studio recording the album. Mostly, they are just five guys who want to play rock, and they are doing it simply because that is what they want to do.
“No band in Taiwan has a future,” says Yu.
“We hope we have a future, but I can’t see any for now. So we are just playing one day at a time.”
■ Formosa Romance album release with The White Eyes (白目), Forests (森林合唱樂團) and Tut tomorrow at 7:30pm at The Wall, (台北市羅斯福路四段200號B1). Tickets are NT$350 in advance, or NT$450 at the door.
■ On Saturday, Sept. 14, at 9:30pm, Formosa Romance will play at Bobwundaye, 77 Hoping E Rd Sec 3 (台北市和平東路三段77號). Ticket prices to be announced.
■ On Thursday, Sept. 19, Formosa Romance will be at the Ximen Red House. The show starts at 4:30pm. Free entry.
■ On Friday, Sept. 27 at 10pm, Formosa Romance will be at Revolver, 1-2, Roosevelt Rd Sec 1, (台北市羅斯福路一段1-2號). Ticket prices to be announced.