STOLEN are a brilliant new tech pop band from China who are working with the legendary berlin based Mark Reeder
Where did you find Stolen?
I was invited to DJ and show my film B-Movie (Lust & Sound) at the Morning House festival in a forest on the outskirts of Chengdu, in Szechuan, as part of a Tresor and Berlin themed art event, which was supported by the Goethe Institute in China.
Through my promoter friend Ni Bing, STOLEN heard that I was coming over and sent me a few demo tracks, really just to give me an impression of their music and get my opinion. When I arrived, I immediately went with them to their rehearsal room to get a brief glimpse of what they do. They ran through a few of the new songs that they wanted me to help them with. They sounded pretty good.
what was your reaction to them
I was really quite impressed, but that was nothing compared to how I would feel later after seeing them perform. The festival was great. It was very local, but had a few bands over from Beijing and Shanghai and even one from Russia. Everyone was so relaxed and hospitable and they made me feel very welcome and the sound was fabulous. It was in such a beautiful setting too, in a forest at the foot of the mountains, on the outskirts of Chengdu, surrounded by traditional small country tea houses and little family-run restaurants, lakes and flower nurseries all around, which scented the air. After watching all the bands perform during the course of the day, STOLEN came on as that evening’s headliner. I honestly had no idea what to expect from STOLEN live, even though I had watched them rehearse a few new songs, but I realised that they obviously had a big enough local following to warrant their peak-time slot on stage. All the previous bands on stage had either been shout-it-out-loud punk, or traditional middle-of-the-road rock, and that all in Chinese too and although people would come and tell me how good this or that band were, musically it wasn’t anything that I hadn’t already seen in the early 1970s… but then came STOLEN. Their whole performance from the moment they walked on stage, just simply overshadowed everything else. The green stage lighting which introduced their performance, reflected on the surrounding trees and together with their intro piece, created an etherical, sci-fi-alien looking world.
The space was packed too.
With the start of their first song, the audience just erupted. It was absolutely thrilling. I had not felt like this for years and you could feel the excitement ripple through the crowd. I immediately realised that I was witnessing something very special. STOLEN transported an energy of hope, which was very positive. I know it might sound a bit cliché, but it was a similar kind of feeling that I had when I first saw Joy Division live and also when I saw New Order for the first time too. Yeah, it was special and exciting. From that moment I guess I was hooked. After their gig, I had to DJ. They were such a hard act to follow. From speaking to people in the crowd afterwards, I realised that these young lads were considered the hope of young China. They are leading a new generation of creative Chinese artists.
where you aware of a music scene in China?
Yes, I was already aware of how their music scene was, as I have been to China quite a few times before, and I produced the album Oracles by all-girl band, Hang On The Box, but the music scene in the past was just bands and artists copying one-to-one the music of the West. It’s understandable though, after decades of hard-line restriction where you were only allowed to hear the music the state wanted you to hear. It reminded me of communist East Germany. Music from the West therefore was something special and always a thing of discovery. Once China started to open up in the mid 90s, there was obviously a huge deficit and so bands were just playing the music they had recently discovered and liked. Chinas first punk band, from Wuhan, appeared in 1996 – that’s 20 years after punk started – and they were immediately imprisoned! So, with this new-found freedom, the kids listened to everything, all together. A mixture of rock, pop, disco, techno and everything in between. My first visit to a club in China, looked more like the set from Blade Runner. You had a collection of 20th century fashions all in one place. Rebels without a cause, Rock & Rollers with leather jackets, quiffs and Petticoats, Sid Vicious Punks in bondage, Drummer-boy Hendrix’s in Flares, Springsteen style Chequered Shirts and jeans, Techno Kids with day-glo hair and rows of long-haired Chinese girls headbanging at the front, all dancing to techno. The desire to hear this new music created a huge demand and the bootleggers made a packet flogging counterfeit cds in the 90s. This was because there was no possibility for established Western artists to officially release their music or go over and play there, mainly due to the expense, so they were forced to make their own versions. I guess it was like reviewing a kind of chart-run-down of the 20th century. In fact, they really had no opportunity before the mid-nineties to openly listen to western music at all and the few things they did know, were very limited. If you recall Wham! played in China in the 80s, but that was a one-off event and today it’s something entirely mythical, especially for young 20-something Chinese kids. The impression I got from Chengdu was that it is entirely different to Beijing or Shanghi. They may be the seats of the Chinese music industry, but the beating musical heart of China is in Chengdu, much like Manchester is to London. It is a backwater of 11 million people on the edge of the country near to Thailand and they have a really vibrant night-life and club scene there. There was a huge palatial high-rise building in the centre of the city which was a former bank. The entrance was covered in gold with a massive chandelier. This was home to 23 stories of clubs, one on each floor, ranging from karaoke on the ground floor to techno on the top and everything imaginable in between.
what is your role in the band STOLEN?
I am not in STOLEN john, I am just their record producer and now I’ve decided to reactivate my MFS label, I am also their record label too. As I was making the album I was thinking, if the band give this album to just anyone, who indeed might like it, but not being fully aware to appreciate what the band represent in the bigger picture, it will fail. I thought if I do it, at least I can present and promote it the way I think it should be done, complete with all the difficulties. I have come to know the lads really well and so I decided to bring my label out of mothballs, just to provide them with what I hope will be seen as a credible platform. As for the actual album, I just helped them to fine-tune their music so that it would be competitive against anything that a band from the West would make.
what is the scene like in China?
It’s not like in the West that’s for sure. They have tons of cover-bands, C-rap, K-pop and Karaoke and a 1-10 chart-rating system which determines if your music is liked or not. The Chinese retro rock music scene is still active, but I guess because people listen to music so much differently these days, listening tastes are all mixed up. Old with new. Naturally, some kids want to adhere to the image of a particular popular music scene, like rap (and fall into its marketing trap and consume all the merch, the base-cap, the trainers, the headphones, they get tattoos and strut about with a bad-boy-gangsta attitude), and that’s especially attractive if it is looked down upon by society, as punk rock initially was. I’m not saying people shouldn’t listen to this music or adopt their life style, but in reality, these kids are promoting the music of someone else’s sub-culture from another country, one that has already been established and one that is only interested in you making them rich. That’s an easy one to latch on to. Anyone can do that. Creating your own scene is much harder, especially as it’s nearly always met with derision at first. That’s probably why the young people of China never thought about actually making their own music scene. How do you do it? There is no download guide on the internet. Their scene was and is, stylistically music that is familiar to everyone. That’s just how it is today I guess, as everything is determined by the technology that is available to make music and fashion. The older, more established Chinese artists are still hanging in there making music, but only a small handful have managed to release records in the West and mostly without any kind of real impact. Techno DJ Chen released a great 12” on Tresor, but it was in reality just another techno record and sadly didn’t cause any tectonic ripples really. Then avant-garde-industrial band Ret-ros managed to play support for Depeche Mode on their recent tour, but even that didn’t create the kind of impact that everyone had hoped for. Which was a sad waste of a good opportunity.
I hope to change all that with STOLEN.
First though, people need to know and understand the background and the difficulties of being in a band in China. This is important. It is not as easy as people think. Sure, you can now buy instruments and equipment and just start a band, which is the legacy of the country slowly opening up, but it is still early days yet and if you want to perform before an audience, you still need to be vetted. Everything a band wishes to release has to be approved by the government censors, from music and song texts, to album cover design. Everything. That is off-putting for many musicians and so for a country of 1.4 billion people, there are surprisingly few bands. That is not entirely a bad thing. I believe once one band is able to establish themselves onto the international stage, then others will follow. I met so many young Chinese musicians all feeling lost. They need something they can attach themselves to. So STOLEN are eager to see that their Sinographic style is recognized in the West as much as it is in China, then the kids will have at least the option of new Chinese idols to follow, with pride. This is not only about music, but also about fashion, film and art also. A lifestyle choice which celebrates black as not something negative.
Today though, new musical ideas struggle for recognition. Most people in China can access all kinds of music through regulated download platforms and streaming services. The cd bootleggers have gone. The kids try and listen to everything they can, more or less like anywhere these days and that rubs off and reflects in the kind of music a band makes.
With STOLEN we are talking about creating an image of modern, young china.
An image that is both fashionable and musically different, and STOLEN use this and mix all kinds of things together, traditional melodies, with psychedelic, rock and techno.
Fact is though, the Chinese have never had their own real self-created music scene like we have had over many decades in the Western world, that is – up until now.
They had the cultural revolution, which purged society of all its artistic creatives. Sure, they had music, but it was either traditional state-controlled pop, or – and only after the mid 90s – you had rock bands copying Western styles, like I mentioned before. The musical scenes Britain created in the 60s, 70s and 80s are established genres these days, but China was not a part of that musical revolution. They missed out. So, there’s a lot of catch up to do.
Now though, after all the copying, there is a definite desire by this generation to at least try something different, and make new music that is not just a 1:1 copy. Of course, we know all bands have been influenced or inspired by others in some way, as we all are, but these 20 somethings are determined to change the image of Chinese music.
can you tell me a bit about the history of the band?
STOLEN have been together since they were 14. All of them are from very working-class backgrounds, which I think connects us somehow. None are rich-kids. They all still have normal jobs. Their parents managed to scrape enough cash together to put them into music school, which is where they all met. They discovered they liked the same styles of music and decided to form a band. Their aim is to transform the musical image of China. One day, after practicing, they heard music coming from a little French bistro next door. The young French guy Formol, introduced them to a whole new world of music, New Order, Joy Division, Portishead, Massive Attack, Aphex Twin, Kraftwerk. Music they had no idea existed. He eventually packed in this café and became their VJ. The band is very balanced, everything is shared equally and they have no ego issues, as that was all sorted years ago, which makes working with them such a delight. They made their first album LOOP in Taiwan, which established the band as a someone to watch. Meanwhile, they have performed all over China and even played a few concerts and festivals in the West, such as Transmediale.
Now Liang Yi the singer, told me something he had never even told his bandmates, because he was much too ashamed. He confessed to me the reason why he called his band STOLEN. He told me that when he was ten, he would sneak off to the local music store to listen to music, and not being able to afford the cassettes, he would steal them. One day he got caught. Instead of calling the police, the owner called his parents, who were obviously very disappointed at the actions of their beloved child. The parents bought the cassette in question and in silence they drove home and never spoke about it again. Liang Yi said he was so ashamed that he had upset his parents, he vowed he would never do anything like that again to them. That night, he sat in his room trying to translate the text on the cassette cover. To his shame and horror, he discovered the text said: Please do not steal this album! He decided then, if he ever formed a band he would call it STOLEN.
when will a Chinese band break out onto the world scene?
Well, we all hope that STOLEN will be the one.
We all know everything we use and wear is made in China these days, so why not music?
There will be one, eventually. That is why the band decided to make their album in English, simply to broaden their audience. If they only sang in Chinese, then it would restrict them only to that territory. So, singing in English opens up different possibilities and opportunities around the world. We have to look at all this with different eyes. Understand what it would mean not only for China, but for everyone really. I didn’t want to just take and not give. I wanted to show these Chinese boys that there is someone out there in the West who cares enough to take the risk and release their record and help to give back something in the way of inspiration.