Almost disbanding 10 years ago, Sodagreen are now Mando-pop's biggest indie band

Sodagreen were on the verge of disbanding 10 years ago. Now they're Mando-pop's hottest indie act

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2014, 10:52pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2014, 8:56am

IN 2004, SODAGREEN had been playing around Taiwan's college band scene for three years, and nearing graduation, with no prospects, they were preparing to call it quits. The group had entered a contest, the Taiwan Indie Rock Awards at the Ho-Hai-Yan Music Festival, and looked on it as their final show.

After playing the festival's small stage, Sodagreen ended up winning second prize and - more importantly - caught the eye of producer Will Lin, who signed them to his label a few months later.

Diminutive, effeminate and chatty, Wu has always been a showbiz natural

Lin has since devoted his career to developing Sodagreen into one of the biggest bands in Mando-pop. The group has become so successful that Lin's company, Willlin Music, never even bothered to sign a second artist, devoting all of its energy to the six Taiwanese college kids.

Sodagreen are now celebrating the 10th anniversary of this official "first moment" with their "Air World Tour". The first shows will take place at the Hong Kong Coliseum on April 11-13. Tickets are already sold out, as are tickets for two Shanghai concerts scheduled for July, according to Willlin Music.

As of press time, Lin and all band members were under a media blackout as they prepared for the tour in closed-door rehearsals. Studio recording and stage performances are separate processes, says Willlin Music's Christina Chang. The stage show is produced from intensive rehearsals leading up to the tour, with bands testing various songs to see how they work live, and refining a set list.

Chang is only able to say: "The show will have a different feeling from previous shows. This is the 10th anniversary of their coming out, so there will be some surprises."

Although more than 60 people are at work on the new stage show, Chang warns against expecting grandiose special effects or theatrics. She also says the band members don't spend time with dance coaches, and says fans should not expect the cameos that happen at other pop concerts, where various singers join in for a song or two.

"We have not specially invited any VIP guests," says Chang. "There may be some unexpected guests at the various performances, but at present we have not invited any."

That's in keeping with Sodagreen's indie band ethos, which is rare in the world of Mando-pop. This is a band that started organically as a group of college classmates with a penchant for British rock groups such as Radiohead, Coldplay and Suede. They have since reinterpreted that into the Mandarin vernacular, ranging from tender piano ballads to churning modern rock.

In the process, they helped spark the musical trend called xiao qingxin - which means "little refreshments" - and is one Putonghua translation of the Western genre "indie pop." One mainland music critic described their music as "not deliberately scripted or holding any false appeals, but extremely sincere and generous".

Over the course of nine albums, Sodagreen have written all their own music, and the six members performing at the Hong Kong Coliseum will be the same that performed on the Ho-Hai-Yan band competition stage in 2004. When performing live, the band relies largely on their abilities as songwriters and musicians.

When Sodagreen became the first indie band to perform in the 10,000-seat Taipei Arena in 2007, they played for five hours, relying on the combination of an extensive repertoire and pure energy. Concerts on the current tour are expected to last about 2½ hours.

But their ascent to the entertainment world's A-list has not left Sodagreen unchanged. After signing a deal with Universal Music in 2009, their purview has become regional, and their music has become syrupy. The group used to thrive on playing university campuses, but haven't done so since 2010.

Their first gig outside Taiwan was in 2007. By 2012 they played 13 stadium shows on the mainland, as well as performances in Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, Macau and Hong Kong.

This growing fame has most benefited lead singer Wu Tsing-fong, who has become a television celebrity and go-to songwriter for female singers. Wu has penned more than 100 songs for other artists, including music and lyrics for A-Mei and Jolin Tsai, the reigning divas of Mando-pop.

Last year, he wrote songs for Valen Hsu, variety show host Matilda Tao, Cyndi Wang, Coco Lee, Tanya Chua, American Blue Note recording artist Priscilla Ahn (the only guest artist credited on Sodagreen's recent album, Autumn: Story) and Wayne Lim. For Hong Kong singer Denise Ho, Wu wrote the lyrics to nine of 10 songs on her Coexistence album.

Diminutive, effeminate and chatty, Wu has always been a showbiz natural. Between songs at concerts, he often runs the stage as if it is his own television variety show, joshing band mates ("Hsiang-yi, don't bend over, you'll show everyone your cleavage," was one of his chirps at the group's keyboard player in Malaysia last month) or speaking directly to fans near the stage.

"Tsing-fong likes to come down from the stage and interact with fans directly," says Chang. "But sadly, this will only be possible in Taipei and Kaohsiung. Elsewhere, due to various restrictions, he won't be able to do it."

Offstage, Wu cultivates his following on Weibo, the Chinese micro-blogging site where he has more than nine million followers.

His posts tend to be emotional. There are conversations with singing starlets such as Hebe Tien and Tanya Tsai, and poetic sketches. One recent post began: "At this moment the night is spreading out, as if wakefulness will never return."

It's the kind of thing that keeps his fans happy. And at this point in Wu's career - the ripe old age of 31 - it seems like that is what he is there for.

Sodagreen, April 11-13, 8.15pm, Hong Kong Coliseum, 9 Cheong Wan Road, Hung Hom, sold out. Inquiries: 2323 2811