In Taiwan’s relatively young rock scene, reaching the 12-year mark as a band could be considered a milestone for the indie group 1976. Not that its members are counting the years or fretting about their ages; they continue to attract a loyal following of geek-chic high school and college students, often referred to in Chinese as “the artsy youth” (文藝青年).
The members of 1976 look the part — mod haircuts, skinny jeans, preppy button-down shirts — and sing it, too. Earlier this month the band released its fifth studio album Asteroid 1976 (1976這個星球), a collection of songs sung in Mandarin on topics ranging from youth and dreams to love and baseball — dressed in Brit-pop and rock sounds inspired by bands like New Order and The Smiths.
Just as these two groups shook up the UK rock scene in the 1980s, 1976 created a stir of its own in Taiwan in the late 1990s. “When they first came out, no bands were playing that kind of music,” said Chang Tieh-chih (張鐵志), music critic and author of the local bestseller Sounds and Fury (聲音與憤怒), a book about rock music and social change. “They ignited a fire ... They are still the biggest indie rock band in Taiwan, no doubt.”
But, some fans are asking whether they will be able to keep the “indie” in their rock. Asteroid is issued through Sony BMG, marking the band’s first major label release.
“This is the biggest ‘challenge’ we heard from people before we signed [with Sony BMG]: Will this affect the spirit or the concept of the band. Will there be disappointment? But this won’t happen when people listen to it [the album],” said the band’s vocalist and songwriter Chen Ray-kai (陳瑞凱), who goes by the name Ah-kai (阿凱). He points out that the band was halfway through the recording process before signing with the record label.
Chang agrees. “Even though they signed with a major label, they’re not going to become another May Day (五月天),” he said, referring to the popular Mando-pop rock band that started around the same time as 1976. “Their music is more complicated and sophisticated — it’s harder to sing along with.”
The band’s four members were relaxed but enthusiastic as they talked about their past and new directions in an interview with the Taipei Times at Kafka by the Seashore (海邊的卡夫卡), a coffee shop near National Taiwan University that is part-owned by Ah-kai.
Of all things, heavy metal music brought Ah-kai and guitarist Zac Chang (張崇偉) together — the two played in the same cover band in high school. “At the time, everyone was playing metal,” said Chang, who played guitar in an early incarnation of Taiwan’s renowned black metal group, Chthonic (閃靈).
Toward the end of high school, a friend gave Ah-kai a cassette tape copy of The Smiths’ album The Queen is Dead. He didn’t like it at first, being a thrash metal fan at the time. But after a while he “kept listening to it” and decided he didn’t want to play metal anymore. He convinced Chang to start a new band playing original music.
They had a rough beginning given that Bon Jovi and Guns N’ Roses ruled the hearts and minds of Taiwanese youth then. “When we started writing our own songs, we didn’t know if we were doing it correctly,” said Chang. “At the time, people felt that writing your own songs was a weird thing to do — that was the scene in Taiwan.”
But the scene matured, which encouraged 1976 to come up with songs like Attitude (態度). The lyrics speak to a disaffected youth: If you live too happily you lose your ideals/If you live too freely you won’t have any goals/I don’t want ideals and goals/I just want happiness and freedom (活得太快樂會失去理想/活得太自由會沒有目標/我不要目標和理想/我只要快樂和自由).
This sentiment also seems to resonate with Chang the guitarist, who describes himself as the “one in class whose name nobody remembered.” He says 1976’s music reaches out to “ordinary” kids, those who were neither the top student nor the troublemaker. “Although it’s rock ’n’ roll, we don’t sound so loud — but it’s also not quiet. It’s not overly sentimental ... I don’t need to make a lot of noise to show that I am strong. And I don’t have to go out of my way to sing nice-sounding melodies that everyone will like.”
For Ah-kai, 1976 and their peers owe a partial debt to the lifting of martial law in Taiwan in the late 1980s, which sparked a zeitgeist of creative freedom and encouraged them to start writing their own music. “I think right at the time when things were changing, we were still children,” he said.
“1976, this happened to be when both Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) died ... Our growth is directly related to the [changing situation] in Taiwan,” said Chang. But he is quick to dismiss the idea that history was the inspiration behind the band’s moniker, which is tied to their birthdays. He, Ah-kai, and drummer Warren Lin (林雨霖) were born in 1976; bassist Lin Tzi-chiao (林子喬), who joined the band later, was born in 1982.
And fans probably aren’t dwelling on the band’s past as much as reveling in the sounds of its present: jangling guitars, 1980s rock beats, and Ah-kai’s syrupy, angst-tinged voice, which at times evokes The Cure’s Robert Smith.
Even with the band’s move to a major label, Ah-kai is not interested in the kind of fame that gets one recognized on the street. “I still am very happy to be a ‘nobody.’ I think it’s very helpful for songwriting and helpful for performing ...” Yet he says he enjoys the band’s already strong underground following. “I think it’s really cool having all these people line up for our shows.”
The band members hope the new album will keep them lining up. With Asteroid, they worked in a new way, spending months rehearsing and arranging the new songs, instead of going directly into the studio. “This time we had rough sketch recordings beforehand ... so when we went in, we knew clearly what we wanted to do,” said Lin, the band’s drummer.
This growing sense of craftsmanship and devotion to their music is a source of pride for Chang. “I play guitar. If I put everything into doing this — even if others don’t really know why I’m doing this — then I don’t care.” He rejects the shallow values associated with celebrity and says 1976 has “a tool to oppose these kind of values. We can suggest a new set of values — this is the best part [of what we do].”
1976 plays at the Urban Simple Life Festival (簡單生活節) in Taipei on Saturday. For more information, visit the band’s Web site at www.mod1976.com.
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