New Pants a fine fit
A one-time group of misfits has matured into one of China's biggest and most successful alternative bands, writes Alan Warboys
Peng Lei bought his first western bootleg cassette tape on the way home from school in Beijing one day in 1990. It was Bon Jovi. 'It was great to hear foreign music,' he says. 'But I didn't really like it.'
Next was Nirvana. 'I wasn't keen on that, either.' Then he bought the Ramones. 'Now that was more like it,' he says, excitedly. 'Punk tapes were also cheaper, only 5 yuan (HK$5.58) compared with 50 or 60 for heavy metal.'
Fast forward 18 years and Peng helms one of China's biggest and most successful alternative bands, New Pants, with which he has won a garage full of awards, released four albums and recently took on a 45-stop tour of Australia.
He formed the group in the mid-1990s with three misfit schoolmates who bonded by bucking the mainland musical trend for heavy metal and grunge that dominated the Chinese capital in the 90s as its culture began to be pervaded by overseas sounds.
After some lineup changes, the trio - Peng, keyboardist-bassist Pang Kuan and drummer De Heng - have evolved a more electro sound reminiscent of 80s British synth-pop bands and nu-rave than that of the anarchic 70s punk pioneers, yet their birth was typical of the original 'can-do' punk ethos.
'There was nothing to do but hang around,' the singer-guitarist says of his teenage years. 'That's how we met.' At the time Peng was being fed a diet of Canto-pop and commercial western music such as Michael Jackson and Prince by mainland radio.
'We didn't know anything about playing music. We just knew that's what we wanted to do,' says Peng, who brings the band to Hong Kong this week for a gig at Grappa's in Central on Saturday and to play the launch party of new entertainment magazine Time Out last night.
'We taught ourselves to play. All the instructors taught heavy metal so we didn't want to learn from them,' says Peng, whose wacky on-stage charisma has become one of the band's key pulling factors.
Live music clubs were also packed with heavy metal acts, then grunge imitators, meaning New Pants had nowhere to play initially. But by the end of the decade things started to change and western punk revival acts such as Green Day, electronic music and hip hop filtered into the mainland through the internet and altered the cultural landscape.
'Heavy metal vanished,' says Peng, triumphantly. Increasingly, New Pants were influenced by new wave music and 80s disco and electro, while winning over fans with high-octane stage shows and a snappy dress sense that made them stand out from the crowd in Beijing's cluttered music scene.
Never wanting to merely ape their western heroes, Peng and his bandmates wrote their own material, releasing their first album in 1998. The lyrics were about life as young men in modern China, more preoccupied with not having a girlfriend than politics.
'Young people don't care about [politics]. For them life is not so bad,' says Peng.
'They are growing up with more wealth. They're concerned about their own cities, their friends and their families. They don't think really deeply, they're not moaning. Many people are complaining already, the older generation, there's no need for us to join in.'
Peng has no grumbles with the government, nor is he likely to join the stampede to protest outside Carrefour, though he believes the Olympics are good for Chinese people because they can show the reality of life inside the purportedly communist country to outsiders. Not that he'll be among them. 'I plan to leave Beijing and travel when the Games are on,' says Peng. 'It will be messy and chaotic.'
Their debut album sold so well that their label, Modern Sky Records, released three more, the last entitled Dragon Tiger Panacea, which was also released last year in Australia where they have established a loyal following. Australian rockers Regurgitator spotted them at the first Beijing Explosion showcase held in Hong Kong and took them on tour across their native Australia, where their image and sound have gone down a storm.
In June New Pants will make their British debut at the 'China Now' event in London. Despite their global appeal, Peng says the band have no plans to write songs in English so they differentiate themselves from other Chinese bands seeking to find fame overseas.
Most satisfying is success at home, where New Pants have sold more than 100,000 records and won multiple awards from Channel V, Rolling Stone China and Pepsi. They have, Peng modestly admits, become fully fledged rock stars at home, albeit it in a country where rock remains a marginal genre.
'We don't really need a day job any more,' says Peng, who studied at Beijing Art University and until recently worked as a filmmaker.
The rocker is also a clay cartoonist - think an offbeat Chinese version of Wallace and Gromit - producing short animated films such as Peking Monster and Panda Candy that have fallen foul of the mainland's censors.
Peng's artistic influence can be seen in their camp but cool videos available on video-sharing websites such as YouTube, while the wacky acrobatic antics of keyboardist Pang - who is inclined to play the instrument with his tongue or hands behind his back - adds to the infectious energy of live shows. Shang Xiao left in 2002, leaving a trio still making a big sound.
Humour is a major part of the band, so if you don't understand the lyrics, there's still plenty of fun to be had. The cheesy 80s pastiche video to Love Brings Me Home is deliciously tongue-in-cheek, while the translations of other song titles Bye Bye Disco and You Are My Superstar confirm they don't take themselves too seriously, for all the fame and minor fortune.
'Music gives us enough to live on,' says Peng. 'We're very boring. We don't drink [alcohol] and we don't even go to karaoke bars. We just love music.'
Time Out Hong Kong Presents: New Pants, Sat, 9.30pm, Grappa's Cellar, B/F Jardine House, Central, HK$200 (HK$350 for package including ticket to tomorrow night's You Say Party! We Say Die! show). Inquiries: 2521 2322