Rock guitarist who's now pulling the strings

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 May, 2004, 12:00am

Today we launch a weekly column, Changing Faces, which will give insights into how the mainland's ambitious new generation are coping with the country's breakneck pace of change

Xiao Nan, former guitarist and vocalist for Cobra, China's first all-female rock band, from 1989 to 2001, has been a producer at New Bees Records since 1998.

What is your musical background?

I studied accordion for 10 years, two at the Tianjin Music Academy - their teachers were the best in the country. I played piano in the China Central Orchestra and studied at their affiliate school as well, and met [singer/drummer] Wang Xiaofang there. We were all playing in orchestras at the time.

How quickly did Cobra become famous?

We got our first gig after six months of practising. It was at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel's bar in September 1989. We had to do four 40-minute sets - I don't know how we did it. In 1990, we played at the Modern Music Festival. We were still playing covers. We only had 15 minutes because there were so many bands. But people went crazy. And then we started to write our own songs.

Were there a lot of opportunities for playing music? Did you have day jobs?

We actually lived pretty well off of our music - we weren't rich, but we could afford to buy our instruments and whatever we needed. We went abroad a lot - Germany, Switzerland, Holland, the US.

What was the reaction to Cobra like?

There were two basic reactions: Wow! You're women playing rock. You're so brave. The other was to look down on us, thinking there was no way we could make music [like] men. In China, it was always the same questions: 'What do your parents think?' 'Shouldn't you be at home raising a family?' 'Why Cobra? Such a scary word.' I suppose people assumed we were feminists. We just wanted to play music.

How is the current scene different from that of the 1990s?

Musicians today don't have the training that the first generation of rockers had. In Cobra, we were all classically trained. Today, people are focused on playing fast complicated solos, but they can't keep a simple rhythm. Also, it was easier to make a living. We made about as much as bands today make for playing - that's how little the music scene has developed.

Around 1995 things changed - people became focused on making money, and didn't want to listen to rock music any more. Plus, the record industry really opened up and a lot of pop music - from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan - came in. People went for that more than rock.

Do you miss performing?

I guess so, but it's not because I crave the exposure. I love the energy of live music. I often play on other peoples' records - chances are, if there's an accordion in a mainland pop record, I played it. And I do perform every so often. Cobra will be playing in August at a festival in Ningxia. And I've put a band together. All young kids, but not all girls. One girl and four guys.