Unknown pleasures

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am

When people say 'punk is dead', they aren't always talking about the music. It's often an attitude that they're referring to. The Sex Pistols weren't particularly good musicians, but what they had over the rest was insolence, power, energy and ferocity.

So when indie promoters Songs for Children - made up of the married duo who prefer to be known as Mike Mystery and Jane Blondel - say that Hong Kong's music scene is lacking 'punk attitude', it's the kind of thing that makes a fan sit up and take notice.

'We're more punk than the others,' says Mystery. Indeed, they are. Since arriving in 2008, the Scottish couple have spent the past four years injecting some of that damn-the-man spirit into the city's music scene. By day, Mystery is a creative director in advertising, but by night he and his wife - who focuses full time on Songs for Children - channel a moonlit passion to offer their kind of music to the masses.

The club nights came first. Like the events they staged in Edinburgh, these were small, fun, DJ-heavy events that focused exclusively on indie tunes. 'We just wanted somewhere to dance to indie music,' says Blondel. '[Central bar] Philia let us do the night for free, set up our projectors and jump on the sofas. So we printed some flyers and 200 people turned up.'

The surprising success of the initial events made them realise there were indie fans willing to crawl out of the woodwork.

When Philia closed last year, they decided to go a stage further and fly in the very same acts that indie club-goers loved to dance to.

Things started small with British singer-songwriter Theoretical Girl at the also now-defunct Rock School in Wan Chai - and again the crowd turned out in force. Although each show was planned as a one-off, Songs for Children soon gained a positive reputation and the momentum started to build.

Blondel used her musical taste and managerial skills to bring in her favourite bands while Mystery harnessed his creative talents to make the nights stand out. 'Clubs we went to in the UK had bands playing, and Jane wanted to do the same here, so she brought over Theoretical Girl, and then [Scottish act] The Bobby McGees, and kept that going,' says Mystery.

'I wanted to make the shows more of an experience. At The Bobby McGees, we did a vintage fashion show for [sustainable label] Dig for Victory,' he adds.

They staged their dream project last month when 1980s noise-pop merchants The Jesus and Mary Chain played to an appreciative crowd at Kitec in Kowloon Bay. For most promoters, a good gig means a healthy payday. For Mystery and Blondel, it's more a matter of breaking even. Money is not the prime motive for this pair, who seem to thrive on an obsessive combination of hard work and sticking it to the cynics.

'We try to make our nights free, or as cheap as we can. We never use corporate sponsors. We have a DIY ethic, work hard and make it fun,' says Blondel. 'There were so many people saying you can't do an indie night in Hong Kong, or that you can't bring in indie bands. That was like a red rag to a bull to us.'

That pessimism is not unjustified. Anyone who has ever dealt with the government in regard to cultural events knows there's little or no support. Or at least, not in the way an independent music promoter would like.

'Hong Kong is a financial capital and doesn't yet value the creative economy,' says Mystery. 'We've brought UK and US bands, but there's been no support from the cultural organisations.

'They could learn from Le French May, which seems to have a real commitment to promoting arts and music, as well as collaborating with Hong Kong organisations to make it happen.'

Yet things are happening regardless, the couple say. And with promoters such as The Underground and the Bauhinia Collective, venues such as Hidden Agenda, and music stores White Noise and Zoo Records all fighting to liven up the scene, Songs for Children feel they're a small part of what will hopefully develop into a bigger picture.

'The scene would carry on regardless of us,' says Blondel. 'It's getting better, but people have to do more of what they believe in and not be caught up in sponsorship. There has to be more creative freedom and punk attitude.'

There's that word again. But this is punk as an attitude, not as aesthetics. It does make you wonder exactly what they're referring to and how it fits into Hong Kong. 'The punk attitude to releasing music is that you polish your music all you want, but if it's not out there, it's worthless,' says Mystery.

'If we had a dollar for every local band we asked to support an international name, and turned us down because they 'needed to practise more', we'd have five dollars. You don't get good by not playing live.'

With the coup that was The Jesus and Mary Chain still fresh in music-lovers' minds, what can we expect next from Songs for Children?

'Every event we do is risky, so we can't really plan ahead too much,' says Blondel. 'But we've usually got something up our sleeves. We don't take ourselves too seriously. It's music, it's fun.'

Mystery is equally sketchy. 'Our goals don't really reach any further than doing the next event. But there are more bands than a couple of years ago, and it's great to see that DIY culture really growing,' he says.

'There are still plenty of problems: a lack of decent legal venues, noise regulations, too much 'worship music'. And, of course, not enough punk attitude.'


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