Going Underground for talent on the up
When rock musicians Chris Bowers and Mike Peart formed a band almost three years ago, they were frustrated by the lack of suitable venues to showcase their material. 'There was just nowhere,' says Bowers, a veteran of the local music scene.
They decided to do something about it and in 2004 launched a night for local bands called The Underground, at the unlikely venue of notorious pick-up bar Joe Bananas in Wan Chai.
The Underground has gone on to host dozens of bands, with 33 events at different venues. On November 10, it will reach the milestone of presenting its 100th band - an impressive achievement in a city where live music shows tend to bomb. Some of Hong Kong's best up-and-coming acts will be showcased, including shoegazers Elf Fatima and laptop rockers Snoblind.
Now residing at Edge in Central and Les Visages in Wan Chai, The Underground has been the starting point for many bands of different genres, from metal to prog rock and guitar pop. 'Just knowing you can prepare a short set has motivated many bands,' says Bowers.
Emilie Lee, a former member of rock outfit Sarasvati, says The Underground was a revelation after playing pub gigs. 'It's totally different,' says the 27-year-old graphic designer. 'The experience was amazing because people had come to hear different music. The atmosphere is good. People stand up, shake their heads and dance. In a pub, people keep quiet.'
Despite many plaudits, keeping the show on the road has been tough going, consuming the organisers' money as well as time. The first 19 shows were free to encourage attendance, but as debts mounted a HK$40 entrance fee was imposed to cover running costs. 'We approached the Composers and Authors Society of Hong Kong to sponsor us as they're Hong Kong's only songwriting society, but they turned us down,' says Bowers, who spends up to 20 hours a week on The Underground. 'We struggled to have 100 people turn up in the first year. This year's events have seen between 200 and 400 people attending.'
Among the regulars is American Lee Hill, a writer who has worked in the southern California music industry, and who regards the night as more than an evening out. 'I see attendance as more than personal recreation. It's a political statement,' says Hill, who was dismayed when he arrived here three years ago to find a formulaic pop scene.
'The Underground provides a forum for people who are creating original and non-mainstream music. That's rare here. Music shops have compilations by Air Supply and the Mamas and The Papas. You can't easily get those in the US. The local view of western music appears frozen in time and style. What the night reveals is that Hong Kong is in its music industry infancy. But there's some real talent and the night encourages it.'
Some might say Bowers' passion is a form of community service, offering opportunities to youngsters in a stifling creative environment. 'My goal is to improve the live music scene and to encourage songwriting and creativity. I've had people ask me, 'Where is this band from? They're really great', and when I say Hong Kong they keep asking me as if I've made some mistake.'
The Underground 34, with Qiu Hong, Bereavement, Elf Fatima, Snoblind and Kissing on the Dance Floor, Nov 10, 8.30pm, Edge, G/F, 60 Wyndham St, Central, HK$40. Inquiries: 9486 4648, www.undergroundhk.com