Hong Kong indie band My Little Airport's five sold-out gigs at Kitec show they've struck a chord
Twee-pop duo's bittersweet pop musings have become anthems for a disaffected generation
One of the cruellest things local indie pop darlings My Little Airport have done to their followers was to name their upcoming concert series "Why Don't We Stay the Night?"
Because as much as fans of the popular duo - made up of guitarist Lam Pang (better known as Ah P) and singer Nicole Au Kin-ying - would like to wallow in the warm embrace of their gentle melodies all night, the reality is that after the shows, they will have to return to the problems of Hong Kong society that the duo have touched on over the years in their irony-laced vignettes.
However, this bittersweet sentiment has not deterred fans seeking some fleeting emotional relief. With little fanfare or promotion, tickets for their five upcoming performances at Kitec in Kowloon Bay quickly sold out, leaving many fans mourning in their tiny flats.
But if Au is excited about the response to ticket sales, she is not showing it, although she does have some harsh words for the scalpers who are reselling them at a 60 per cent mark-up. "I'm actually very anxious about it since we've never done five shows in a row before. I'm not sure if I can handle that physically. But if that's what is coming at us, I'll give it a try to test myself," says Au.
Such is the can-do spirit of one the city's most influential indie bands, who have been the local standard bearers of the twee-pop sound popularised by acts such as Belle & Sebastian. The duo met at Shue Yan College as journalism students in 2001, and became inseparable music partners after a singing contest. "I've been making music all my life. I don't know what else I could do," Lam says. "And although I can't sing, I found Nicole."
They started hanging out together at a friend's store in Mong Kok after school, writing simple tunes on a guitar. Eventually they had enough songs for an album, which they recorded at home and sold for HK$18 each to their schoolmates.
But their real break came in 2004 when they released their first official album, The OK Thing to do on Sunday Afternoon is to Toddle in the Zoo. They were as surprised as anyone when the album's title track hit the Commercial Radio charts and since then they have released six more albums and attracted a loyal fan base in Hong Kong and overseas (including more than 80,000 followers on Facebook).
And it's the unpretentious way they incorporate their keen observations of life in Hong Kong into playful tunes that make them so captivating. Their music has struck a chord with many by commenting on the struggles of life in this city, from work pressure (such as the viral track Who Invented Work?) to unrequited love and the ubiquitous housing issue.
Songs with a political bent, such as Donald Tsang, Please Die, Divvying Up Stephen Lam's HK$300,000 Salary and I Love the Country But Not the Party have become anthems for those frustrated by Hong Kong's political system.
Lam is the man behind these colloquial, sarcastic and often humorous lyrics, and when combined with Au's serene, sweet voice, the chemistry they create is unique and poetic. "Without Nicole, my songs would be nothing but irksome grumblings," says Lam. "Her voice elevates everything. She has a knack for soft-pedalling the great sufferings of life - which is basically what my lyrics are always about - and sings them like she is whispering in your ear."
Sitting cross-legged in their cosy To Kwa Wan studio, Au eating a cucumber and Lam strumming his guitar, the duo don't want to speculate on why a show in Guangzhou last December was cancelled shortly after the release of the track, Tonight We Sleep on Connaught Road Central, recorded in support of the "umbrella movement". "There may or may not have been a [political] reason behind this and I try not to guess," says Au. "But we have learned more about which organisers we can and cannot work with."
They also choose not to say much about the reaction to their appearance at this year's Hong Kong Film Awards, where they performed Brand New Hong Kong, the theme song they wrote for the film Golden Chickensss. The live broadcast on TVB was abruptly cut short when Lam, on the piano, managed to slip in a few bars of the British national anthem.
"I was quite upset," Lam says. "Simply because I had never told my dad I was going to be on TV before and I had asked him to watch that night. He might have been a bit disappointed."
Regardless of whether they have been censored or not, the duo have not changed their bold and outspoken attitude when it comes to their music. The band's biggest change over the years - and one perhaps for the better, they say - is that they have stopped writing English lyrics.
"I was quite clueless about songwriting and I used to follow this routine of melody first, lyrics second," says Lam. "It was much easier to write in English back when I first started. But after a while I got the hang of writing both lyrics and melodies simultaneously, which has allowed me to express myself much better. Eventually, I stopped writing English lyrics altogether."
"People couldn't understand my English lyrics anyways," he adds with a chuckle.
Lam says all the songs he has written are inspired by his own experiences, although he is quick to add: "Except that one about patronising prostitutes, which was my friend's story."
Many of their songs are created in a spontaneous manner. "Sometimes I write a song to tell Nicole about something terrible that has happened to me," Lam says, referring to Let's Leave Together from 2012's Lonely Friday. "And Nicole will console me by changing my lyrics into her own comforting words and record a new version, resulting in Re: Confusing Life from the same album."
At the upcoming concerts, their first in almost a year, the duo will be debuting several new songs they've been working on, including one in which Lam will rap about the smoking habit he has recently picked up. But apart from that, with the exception of some rearranged old songs with the addition of guitarist and friend Summer Romance to their backing band, they are keeping the set list to themselves.
"We don't want to disclose too much just yet," says Lam.
The Mellifluent Seven: My Little Airport discography
The OK Thing to do on Sunday Afternoon is to Toddle in the Zoo (2004)
The band’s charming debut sold out in two weeks and contains the timeless You Don’t Wanna be My Girlfriend, Phoebe, which was subsequently covered by Scottish band BMX Bandits in 2008.
Becoz I Was Too Nervous at That Time (2005)
The duo’s second album touches on romance and was the first to feature more instrumentation than simply just a mini piano keyboard.
We Can’t Stop Smoking in the Vicious and Blue Summer (2007)
Released the same year the band were signed to Spanish label Elefant Records and issued the compilation titled Zoo is Sad, People Are Cruel, it mainly contains tracks from their first two albums.
Poetics – Something Between Montparnasse and Mongkok (2009)
Includes the gentle slacker anthem, Who Invented Work?, as well as a number of more socially and politically charged tracks such as Donald Tsang, Please Die and Divvying Up Stephen Lam’s HK$300,000 Salary.
Hong Kong is One Big Shopping Mall (2011)
The duo start singing more in Cantonese instead of English, and tell stories of sensitive souls trying to survive in a city obsessed with materialism.
Lonely Friday (2012)
While the duo continued to fly the flag for whimsical twee pop in Hong Kong, here they broaden their subject matter to include more serious topics such as prostitution.
The Right Age to Get Married (2014)
Contains the rueful Brand New Hong Kong, written for Sandra Ng comedy Golden Chickensss and nominated for best original song at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards.
My Little Airport, Oct 10-13, 8pm; Oct 11, 3.30pm, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, sold out. Inquiries: 2111 5333