Take 5 Interview: Helen Feng from Chinese Band Nova Heart

Take Away Show _ NOVA HEART from Vincent Moon / Petites Planètes on Vimeo.

Shot in Adelaide, 2012


1. Nova Heart was one of the 3 bands (the others being AV Okubo and Xiao He) at the Sound Kapital program at Carriageworks in Sydney early last year (2013), could you tell us how that project evolved and what your experience of Australia was like?

Nova Heart started as a personal project that came out of an earlier project I had called Pet Conspiracy.  I left the band when I did a bad stage dive that ended with a severed ligament in my knee and a ligament replacement surgery.  I had personal and creative differences with a member in the band before, and it all came to head during my hospital stay and I decided to leave the band for good.  Bedridden for 2 months recovering, I started using Garageband to write more music, and as a result, made quite a few very rough tracks.  I still had one outstanding obligation with PC which was doing our last European tour together.  After the tour, I had a week off in Istanbul before I came back to Beijing.  That’s where I met Rodion, an Italo Disco producer based in Rome who had a DJ gig in Istanbul at the time.  We clicked, I asked him to produce the tracks, he listened to my super rough demo, and the next 6 months we bounced stuff back and forth via the internet between Rome and Beijing.  Bo Xuan, and Zong Can joined the group in June 2011 as bassist and guitarist respectively and we had our first show around that time.  Since then, the sound has evolved with the band.  Shi Lu, the drummer for Hedgehog came on-board just last summer, and now, we’ve adapted a more rock vibe to what was more of a Italo Disco influenced sound before, and it’s evolving into something different.  To tell you the truth, I think we’re just taking real form just now, and before was more training wheels.

We had a chance to drive through Australia for parts of the tour, and my favourite time was actually in between cities.  Australia just is so friggin’ beautiful.  For people who spends most of their time in overdeveloped cities, all that nature nearly brought us all to tears.  Definitely a landscape that makes you wanna believe in God.  Then when we’d been driving for nearly 3 hours without seeing a single soul, we suddenly ran into a Storm Trooper on the side of the road!  Turns out he was someone walking a few thousand km across Australia in Storm Trooper outfit to raise money for a Children’s charity. Man Australian humor’s pretty darn strange! We had a great time.


2. Both your parents were finishing their PhDs in the United States which precipitated your move there when you were a child. How did your family cope with the cultural transition?

Not quite finished.  They were getting their PHD’s but my dad quit right before his dissertation because he started his own business and wanted to do that instead.  His excuse to my mother was always “I don’t want to be a PH Dork.”  Haha, kind of a bad excuse. My mother suffered from some post cancer related problems that stopped her from finishing her graduate school in the US.  Actually, I don’t think my family is that “intellectual” really.  School was more a way to get us out of China at the time.

We coped, like everyone copes.  We went to US because my father stopped believing in the society he lived in and wanted more opportunities in life.  Everything in China made you feel like your fate was controlled by outside forces.  To leave was like holding onto your own life for once.  But when we got there, we were poor, we lived on the meager income you can earn from student jobs sanctioned by the university because we had no Green card.  Occasionally my parents got some work as illegal labour here or there to make ends meet or buy things like food or a winter coat which the salaries you could earn from your university jobs couldn’t even provide you.  They really treated the international students like slaves back then cause they could pay them beneath minimum wage according to the law.   It was strange, in China in the early 80’s materialism was still just a small thing.  Everyone had nothing so it wasn’t a big deal to have nothing.  In the US, we were living just above the poverty line, but barely above it.  You could feel the way that society treated those at the bottom, immigrants, people who were different.  We talk about a society of tolerance, but I certainly didn’t feel a large amount of tolerance there growing up.

But what was good about the US, despite the bullying in schools, or the feeling of yourself being part of an underclass was this real feeling of empowerment.  Like okay, I’m poor now, kids on the playground might ignore or harass me now, but one day I could be someone important.  That was what my father believed and that was how he lifted us up to middle class standards of living.  It was also the education system.  I grew on college campuses and my parents always made a real effort to live in areas with good school districts and provide me with a good education.  I know that many in the US didn’t have my education going up in the public system.  The thing that I appreciate most about growing up is learning to question, to think and to form my own opinions about things based on logic.  To question institutions, groups, and even myself on occasion and analyse my beliefs.


3. You moved back to Beijing in 2002 to become an MTV VJ, which makes it just over a decade this year in the Beijing music scene. What have been the highlights and lowlights for you musically speaking in the last 10 years?

Highlights, man there are so many.  I can’t believe how much things have changed since 2002.   Everything was the pits then, all but a few venues had shut down, and the ones still open were surviving on something else to keep the electricity on.  The most famous one was doubling as a whore house in the back rooms.   Few audiences, crap equipment, and outside of a few misfit Chinese and foreigners everyone was listening to mando-pop artists from Taiwan, sugary testosterone free pretty boy bands and talentless cutesy girl groups that couldn’t sing, that were known for their bad acting in serial soap operas than any music related abilities.  Everyone struggled.  At the time, there was maybe 1 or 2 thousand total audience members in the city to go around for all the bands.  For a city of 20 million you can imagine how that feels. Since then, to have more and more festivals in this city each year, with 10,000 or more attendance each day, it’s changed so much.

The first time I saw an audience crowd surf at one of my shows.   The first time I performed at that shitty now defunct whorehouse venue when the electricity completely went out in the middle of our 1st track and didn’t go back on for another hour while all thirteen bands on the bill that night waited for the power to turn back on.  The first time I went to a concert for Ziyue, a chinese band that just blew my mind when they performed a great set in front of 1000 people with the Tiananmen Tank Video playing on the megascreen behind them.  There are so many times, where I felt, this stuff is really changing our world.

Musical lows for me, was 2008.  Everything was growing so rapidly up to that point, lots of great bands started around 2004-2008, it was like boom period of bands growing, music festivals growing, different genre’s growing everything growing until in 2008 for the Olympics it just felt like they pulled the plug.  It came back the next year, but I always felt like something changed after that.  Everyone continued to get bigger, to get more famous, make more money, get bigger audiences, but the flood of new talent that was really worth noticing started to become a trickle, and the energy changed.  From something on the verge of a revolution to something that became more or less a cultural wave, fashion, etc that is like any other trend, toothless and temporary.   Perhaps every underground movement as it bridges that gap to mainstream loses a bit of its teeth, but yeah I think the low was 2008.  If I could pin point an exact moment, it was when the Midi Festival got cancelled.  It too came back, and there are many Midi Festivals all around China these days, but the nature of the movement changed.  We can’t blame the government maybe more ourselves.  When people have nothing they struggle to have more, when they have just enough then they struggle to keep what they have.  Perhaps 2008 was the exact point where it became more about personal gain then about a rock revolution.  The year when being the best dressed hipster was enough, or making money was enough, or being on a cover of a magazine was enough.  When narcissism replaced thoughtful rebellion.

Not to say it’s hopeless.  Maybe after we’ve all settled down a bit, the next wave will come, or the older ones will find new drive. Who knows, maybe this too is just a phase, like the 2002 poverty days.  After all nobody can really say this is a mature scene, we are at best just starting to get there.  Or maybe it’s the same way of thinking for people living in New York, Berlin, or Paris part of the cynicism that comes with success.   Regardless, I’m still looking forward toward the future.


4. Today I read an article on De Spiegel saying that an entire 3 tower complex by the architect Zaha Hadid is being pirated in Chongqing and it will almost be a competition to see which project finishes first – the copy or the original. China seems to have a very strong culture of piracy that is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. In some ways that kind of anarchy is funny and appealing for being so brazen. The mistranslations both intended and unintended in the case of “Shanzhai” can also be very interesting.  It makes one wonder why there seems to be a marked preference for imitation over innovation in the current culture though. Is this something that concerns you? I mention this because you’ve called your music collective/artist management company Fake Music Media. Can you tell us more about your choice of name?

All the way up to the 19th century Europe was pirating China.  There were many pirated Chinese porcelains, basic “Fakes” that were made to look more or less like a Chinese goods from overseas.  But because the process was cheaper, and the technology was not as strong, they were far inferior in quality but could be sold to a rising middle class clientele who could not afford imported luxury goods.  Does this sound familiar?  Before the industrial revolution, China was this mysterious and wonderful place that occasionally came up with some invention that would change the world.  Europe would copy the technology helping its own technological development.  Things like the compass, paper, the printing press, moveable type, gunpowder, each of these inventions are basically pirated technologies if you consider basic things like patents did not exist at that time.  In fact, an early form of industrial espionage was when a European monk managed to smuggle silk worms out of China because up until that point the technology of making silk was a national secret and silk was the most prized fabric in all of the world netting huge trade revenues for China.

In those days China believed that its tradition was the greatest in the world because it was the last surviving and thriving ancient empire.  China was filthy stinking rich after much of the European wealth, pilfered from the colonized Americas and Africa, were used to purchase luxury goods from China. China felt its culture and tradition had made it successful, so it strongly enforced a system wholly bent on preserving that tradition.  Preserving it so well in fact, that it left very little room for imitating others or being inventive within its own borders.  We call that complacency.  After all, what did a bunch of war mongering hairy Europeans that didn’t even know basic sanitation practices, yes China also invented the toilet paper, could possibly offer such a great culture?  Because of tradition, China closed its doors to the outside world right before industrial revolution.  Thus its downfall.

So why “Shanzhai”.  Because somewhere along the lines, like the Americans copied from Europe (huge Shanzhai cultured in the 19th Century US)  and Europe copied from China pre-industrial revolution, China figured out if you want to get ahead, first you figure out how the other made it and then do it yourself.  Why imitate? Because other people’s stuff is frankly just better.  Once they caught up, then they have to start inventing or else they fall behind again.  In the technology sector China is already starting to venture into more creative products and has started new software firms developing a host of new products.  In consumer goods, specifically toward Chinese consumers, basic things like kitchen wares are being invented all the time to deal with a different set of cooking styles.  The invention process is raw and at its early beginnings, but it is happening now more and more.

As education catches up, as people’s leisure time increases, as labor costs rise and China leaves the low cost manufacturing sector, creativity will be prized above the ability to imitate.  If you ever live in China, you know that Chinese people have a lot of creativity and are hugely entrepreneurial.  Like the guy who rigs his bicycle Rickshaw with a huge Boom Box pumping Hip Hop to attract club crowds after a night for a ride, to the guy who invented Fake Eggs (not necessarily beneficial for society but damn it, he faked eggs!!!)

I started the motto FAKE is better than real, because it’s hard for me to believe that anyone is so wholly original. At one time, in the process of faking it, something goes slightly askew in manufacturing process or just in the thought process that becomes the spark of invention.  If that invention is supported not suppressed, and that creativity is rewarded and allowed to mature, then there will be more and more creativity.   Often times we’re told that Real is better.  So much of our way of viewing our world, the price of things, the value of things, is so jaded by marketing, elitism, and a moral code that only serves to preserve the power of few at the costs of many.  Are real Nike’s that cost $100 and manufactured by low cost labour paid less than 60 cents to assemble each shoe SO MUCH BETTER than a Fake Nike’s that cost $10 and can be purchased by a kid whose parents only make $3000 a year assembling Nike shoes?  Instead of spending all your time protecting worthless technology, fakes force further technological development.  Imagine if European ships had to order all their compasses from China at a high expense for centuries and therefore had to limit their exploration.  Imagine instead of being able to manufacture their own gunpowder, countries had to pay a licensing fee for each ounce produced or was just denied the technology for making gunpowder based on their relationship with China  (for instance the United States with their Arms Technology).  Imagine if every bible or newspaper printed on a printing press had to pay an additional tax to use that print technology and were charged high prices for paper so Luther couldn’t spread the protestant faith cause he ran out funding.   Yes some protection should happen to help the inventor or creator benefit from the art, the product, the technology. But Patents are not always good for society (like many cases of drug patents), and real is not necessarily better.  Faking it is just one more step in the evolution of invention.

Without pirated music, China’s music would not have had so many diverse influences. Without pirated films, China would not have received so many political ideas from around the world.  Without pirated technology from China, Europe would have never reached the industrial revolution.  I don’t worry, it’s all part of the cycle.  The next chapter for China will be invention and creativity and when it’s at the apex, it will be the first to talk about protecting technology patents, and anti-piracy.  All the naysayers never studied history.


5. What’s in constant rotation on your iPod right now?


The National


6. What’s in store for the future? Are you guys working on any new material or projects at the moment?

Yes, we’re touring China in March, releasing our first album in April, doing another European tour in June, and trying to go to Africa at one point next year.  2013 is looking pretty cool.