Current U.S.-China relations are a tad cool these days, but thanks to a trio of unlikely ambassadors from Beijing's underground punk scene, Spokane and the Northwest are about to get a sizzling refresher course in loud, fast rules -- Mandarin-style. You can almost hear Mao spinning in his tomb.
REFLECTOR is a Chinese guitar-bass-drum, punk rock outfit consisting of guitarist/singer Guo Feng, bassist Tian Jianhua and drummer Ye Jingying. What makes these four-chord rangers so unique? Try this: No Chinese punk band has ever played outside of its homeland. That is, until now.
Last Friday night at the Rocket Coffee House on West Main, a packed house of young punks and old schoolers (like myself) were on hand to bear witness to Reflector's world debut. The band was revved up and tight as a watch spring as they ripped through their set of infectious, irreverent punk anthems (in the vein of NOFX and Japanese punks, Hi-Standard). It was great, sweaty, kinetic fun. They'll be back again at the E Cafe on Friday and at The Rocket on Tuesday. And more shows are on the way.
None of this would be possible without the efforts of Nathan Mauger, a Spokane lad attending WSU in Pullman. Mauger -- who lived in Beijing for three years -- joined the university's entertainment committee for the sole purpose of bringing Reflector to the United States. As familiar as he may have been with the bureaucratic entanglements that accompany any movement within the People's Republic, Mauger was unprepared for the mountain of paperwork, legwork, cajoling and pleading necessary to bring Reflector out of the country.
"It was really, really hard," stresses Mauger. "First, I had to figure out how to get them visas."
That process took nearly a year and a half.
"We applied. Then they had to go through interviews. Tian's girlfriend [an American working for the U.S. embassy in Beijing] wrote a letter that really helped. We waited. There were problems. Every time they would go down there, they would find out they needed just one more thing."
"Everyone says art has no borders," interjects Guo. "But when we tried to come to America, we discovered that isn't true."
Finally, it happened. The visas were granted, and Mauger ponied up the nearly $3,000 for airfare. Aside from being Reflector's official tour manager, Mauger serves another very crucial band function, that of interpreter (Guo, Ye and Tian speak virtually no English).
I met up with them in the back room of The Rocket last Saturday afternoon. We all sat around a table with my trusty recorder pointed strategically at Mauger. They seemed relaxed and playful and were very candid considering the closed society from which they come.
Reflector has been together since 1996. They were first inspired to play rock music -- not by the punk bands they would later emulate (Green Day, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols) -- but by late '80s American hair bands like Guns 'N' Roses.
"At the time, we were only 14 years old," laughs Ye via Mauger.
Finding good punk rock in Beijing wasn't always easy.
"It's not hard to find American music in Beijing," says Tian. "But the bands have to be very famous."
The Chinese punk scene is small, consisting of only a handful of bands (other groups of note include Underbaby, 69, Anarchy Jerks, Brain Failure and Ouch!), and is confined almost exclusively to Beijing. How does the Chinese government -- not generally known to tolerate new ideas -- deal with the emergence of such a cultural phenomenon?
"They don't know about it," says Ye.
"It's not that they don't know," clarifies Tian. "It's that they don't care. If there were a lot of people into it or if one band became really famous, then they would care."
"They'd send people to look at the lyrics," Tian continues. "And they'd say to change some words. There's certain things we can't say."
The band has already dealt with this form of censorship. In a song that appears on the 40-song compilation, Wuliao Contingent (available only in China or from the band), Reflector used a phrase that, loosely translated, means "oh shit." Officials of the People's Republic were not amused. To appease the government, they changed the lyric to a similar-sounding (and more PRC/PC) phrase meaning "very restless."
Though they've only begun to experience life in the U.S., the band is already comparing and contrasting the two countries.
"Everything here is very open," says Tian.
Ye agrees: "People are really polite and there's a lot of freedom."
"The laws here are way better than in China." says Guo.
But they think it's odd you have to be a certain age to buy cigarettes or to drink. They also think America is dangerous. And that there are far too many guns.
Their main focus right now isn't politics, however. Reflector just wants to connect with their punk brethren in the States (the Van's Warped Tour tops their "must-do" list) and take as much advantage of our free market society as they can before their visas expire in July.
"That's one very important reason why we're here," says Tian with a smile. "Capitalism. We want to buy a lot of cool punk things."
Striking a slightly more serious note, Ye adds: "We want everybody here to know there are young people in China that feel the way they do. That like to go crazy."
"We want the punks in China and America to unite," says Tian. "We want to meet American punks to see what's going on in their heads."
Reflector plays at E Cafe on Friday, May 4, with Moral Crux and Seawolf at 8 pm. Cover: $5. Call: 456-3821. Also at the Rocket Coffeehouse on Tuesday, May 9, at 8 pm. Cover: $3. Call: 838-3647.
The first Pixies song I ever heard was "Where is My Mind?" off Surfer Rosa. I remember the experience well. It was a spring afternoon. A friend and I were free from classes at the local university and were now hanging out around my stereo system. We put the needle down into the lead-in groove of what we thought was side one. As soon as we heard guitarist Joey Santiago's simple lead guitar squall over drummer David Lovering's primitive, bone-dry beat, we knew we were onto something. By the end of the album, the Pixies had become our new band to believe in.
It couldn't have come at a better time. This was 1988. In this pre-Nevermind era, punk was still unmarketable, and indie rock was enduring some serious growing pains. Prominent independent labels were biting the dust. All of our '80s heroes were either calling it quits or selling their souls. Husker Du and the Replacements were toast. R.E.M. had signed a deal with Warner. Hell, even Sonic Youth was fast becoming accessible (albeit in a good way). It was time for something inspiring to come out of left field and renew our faith in rock. The Pixies -- led by the enigmatically named Black Francis -- were it.
The Pixies were an invigorating clash of influences and personalities. Francis' truly bent lyrical sensibilities and off kilter melodies were fleshed out by Santiago's jagged guitar and the dynamic rhythm section of Lovering and bassist Kim Deal. They reigned as the last great indie band at the end of the last great era of indie rock. In the wake of Nirvana's success and the subsequent commercialization of alternative rock, the Pixies, who had done much to lay the groundwork for the revolution, were left behind. They succumbed to internal strife and broke up in 1992.
With a tidy name inversion, Black Francis became FRANK BLACK. And without missing a beat, he embarked on a solo career as if he'd been planning it all along. First came the critically acclaimed self-titled debut followed by the similarly gratifying Teenager of the Year. 1996's The Cult of Ray may have been a head-scratcher, but soon Black would get his backup band to stabilize enough to give it a name. With the Catholics, Black would release three more albums (including his most recent, Dog in the Sand), all recorded live to two-track. No fuss. No edits. Just the raw sound of five guys (and sometimes more) playing music together.
Last time Black was in town, the show was terrific (he even pulled out several Pixies numbers, including "Where Is My Mind?" and "Gouge Away"). He remains, after all this time and bad weather, an electrifying, commanding performer and a fascinating voice in rock's outer limits.
Frank Black and the Catholics and House of Large Sizes play Outback Jack's on Tuesday, May 8, at 9 pm. Tickets: $13, advance; $15, at the door. Call: 325-SEAT.