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In Extremis

Exploring Hong Kong Music: An Interview With Hyponic
Marc Waldburger , November 23rd, 2011 08:46

While spending time exploring the Hong Kong music scene, Marc Waldburger came across Hyponic, who are flying the flag for metal in the city. He spoke to them about the challenges of being a musician in China

It would be fair to state that since relocating back to the land of my childhood and adolescence, there exists an unshakeable feeling of disappointment in terms of my ability to see, hear and be in contact with decent live music. Hong Kong has never been known for having the sort of burgeoning and innovative music scene to could compete with its film industry’s contributions to global cinema.

However, in recent years, Hong Kong has seen a rise in the number of big name bands that do make the effort to stop over. This year alone has seen Bob Dylan, The Flaming Lips and, most recently, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers and The Mars Volta on a double bill. While this is a promising development, I couldn't help but feel forlorn when I went to see the Flaming Lips. Wayne Coyne's imploring the Hong Kong crowd to reciprocate the energy and vim that was being displayed on stage ("Come on, motherfuckers! Let’s go!"), left me feeling a tad embarrassed and wanting to apologise to those wonderful Okies. Come on, motherfuckers.

Coyne articulated what myself, and the twenty other people jumping around, were thinking. I suppose it would be unfair and culturally insensitive to expect a crowd in Hong Kong to react and interact like a London crowd. I could write a whole other article railing against the cultural suppression of individuality and public catharsis. In general, culturally speaking, there is less of a willingness to let one’s hair down in public. But at the same time, I just couldn't understand the majority of the crowd’s reservation, as well as the strange looks that I received for shouting at the top of my lungs. At the end of the gig, all I could think about was what the Lips were saying to each other backstage. I feared that they would decide to just go straight to Japan next time. Although this may seem harsh and overly critical of the local crowd, it's not intended to be. As mentioned before, Hong Kong’s experience of world renowned, big name bands has been limited and has only started to change recently. It is my ardent hope that this will change in time.

Japan was also a constant source of frustration and ire during my adolescent years. I would look longingly across the sea and know that every single night in Tokyo, there would undoubtedly be a gig of a brutal and anarchic nature. Japan. The home of two bands I worshipped (and still worship) – Boris and Boredoms – and doubtless thousands more that I had yet to hear of. But instead I was stuck here, where a common form of gig was seeing your friend’s band play in a bar where the décor consisted of any stereotypical Western cultural symbol stuck to the wall (a New York taxi door here, a British phone box there), and where there were more people in the toilet than at the stage. Believe me, it is a lonely moment when you try and start a mosh pit with three guys. And fail.

Hong Kong’s local and underground music scene, though enthusiastic and intrepid, has never been able to gain enough momentum to really establish itself on an international platform. This may be for any number of reasons – Hong Kong’s relatively small size as a city, little support for underground bands, a lack of live music venues. But, nonetheless, I endeavoured to seek out and find the best of the Hong Kong underground.

So, needless to say, my curiosity was piqued when I came across a poster for the Hong Kong Extreme Metal Festival. The font of much of the large script was reminiscent of an Emperor album. I felt the hope rise inside me. As a rule, fans of the less mainstream forms of music are more fervent, more ardent and more vociferous in their willingness to show support for the music they love and go to see. Perhaps I would encounter an evening where my shoulder would be shoved for reasons other than a rapid need to get to the toilet.

I would love to tell you how it was, but I can’t. I was staring at an outdated advertisement. I shall not deign to list the expletives I reeled off at the time; let’s move from denial and anger, to acceptance and beyond. After conducting further investigation, researching and asking around, one band stood out above the rest - Hyponic, Hong Kong’s very own doom metal torchbearers. Needless to say, I was quick to get in touch with their agent (whose name is Floating Heaven - perfect) and arrange an interview, to find out what their views were on Hong Kong music, Asian metal, and their upcoming album. What I walked away with, after speaking to Roy Chan and Yat Wah Li, was a fresh insight on the socio-political and cultural obstacles that bands have to overcome in Hong Kong - and a lot of respect for the members of Hyponic.

You guys have been in the underground scene for quite a while [Hyponic formed in 1996]. How has it changed since you started out?

Roy Chan: A long time ago, bands used to mainly play cover songs, but due to technology and computers, bands have started recording more CDs. It’s also easier to let people know about your music through the internet. Before, bands could only record when they were with a record label and could only let people in Hong Kong know about their music.

Do you think that there are more people in Hong Kong that want to see live music?

RC: In Hong Kong, I don’t think that’s changing that much. But, you know, around 20 years ago, there would be one or two shows every six months, which everyone wanted to go to. But nowadays, there are one or two shows a week. However, I don’t really find a lot of these bands very interesting [laughs]. Also, years ago, if you wanted to get on a bill, you had to be good since there weren’t many shows. Now, you still have a chance even if you’re not that good. The quality of the bands is going down and that makes a lot of people not want to go.

Comparatively speaking, metal in the West is more popular than it is in Asia. Because of that, is there a lot of help and cooperation amongst Asian bands?

RC: I don’t know about other countries but in Hong Kong, not really.

What do you think it will take for Hong Kong and Chinese metal to really establish itself on the world scene?

RC: This is a really good question. China, I don’t know about, but for Hong Kong, first of all, bands have got to be tough.

Yat Wah Li: There are ways through Facebook groups to get your music out. But first of all, we need more bands and more music.

Why do you think there aren’t more bands in Hong Kong?

RC: What I feel is that Hong Kong people aren’t serious enough about their bands. This is the main problem, like I told you [On the bus ride over to their studio, Roy informed me that a lot of people in bands succumb to the overbearing social and cultural pressure of a secure livelihood and a career, thus not committing to their music]. Many bands are together for three or five years, release one CD, then they break up. If you want to make good music, you’ve got to be serious about it. You’ve got to sacrifice your time, job, money, everything.

And a lot of people in Hong Kong aren’t prepared to do that?

RC: I don’t think they are.

Why do you think they aren’t as passionate about it?

RC: I don’t know. Maybe, because Hong Kong people are so scared. They’ve got a lot of things to worry about.

They don’t want to be old with no money?

RC: Yes. If you want to make music, you have to think of the band as your life. You’ve got to sacrifice a lot and you may not get anything out of it. I think that’s what a lot of people are scared of.

So it comes down to a cultural difference.

RC: Yeah. I’ve talked with friends in Japan and China about this. I had an experience outside Beijing in this really poor town. A friend in a band said 'Hey Roy, you have a job?' I said 'Yes, I have a job.' They all told me that they didn’t have jobs. They just put all their time into their music. I started thinking about that and cut down my work to spend more time on music.

What do you think is unique about Hong Kong and Chinese metal?

YWL: There are some bands in China that use traditional Chinese instruments. There’s one band called Voodoo Kungfu. There are a number of bands that are trying to make a more Chinese style of metal.

Do you think the political situations of Hong Kong and China have an effect on underground music and bands ability to speak out?

RC: People are angry about the government. I met a band in Beijing, they told me they believe in Chinese people but not in the Chinese government. A lot of Chinese bands write a lot of politically-themed stuff.

YWL: I know of some bands in China that have written anti-government songs and now they’re blacklisted. They can’t play anywhere. Even in underground shows.

RC: I know of one band in particular who aren’t allowed to even travel around China.

[Roy also informed me earlier that bands in Hong Kong suffer from soaring property and rent prices, forcing them to relocate their studios and practice areas - a development which in some cases led to the dissolution of some bands. Hyponic’s studio is in one of Hong Kong’s derelict industrial estates, one of the few places that, for now, afford manageable rents for bands.]

What do you think sets you apart from other Hong Kong metal bands?

RC: The first album [Black Sun – an outing that dabbled mainly in death metal, differing largely from the second album, The Noise of Time, which veered into areas of doom and ambience] is not that special. It’s special for me because I have good memories of it. But the second album, I tried to do something different. Hong Kong metal heads aren’t very original, they just copy. I tried to do something different.

Do you write lyrics in Cantonese, Mandarin or English?

RC: For the new album, I’m going to write lyrics in Mandarin. It’ll be easier for me.

Your new album’s coming out, hopefully at the beginning of next year. What’s it going to be like?

RC: I’m going to try and write songs that are going to be different. I’m not sure what it’s going to be like yet. Before, I used a lot of distortion. For the second album, I didn’t do that. So for the new album, it might not sound very metal, but I think people who listen to it will know that the guys that made it were influenced by metal.