If you’re familiar with the Chinese independent music scene, then the chances are you don’t need an introduction to who Wu Wei and SMZB are.
Wu Wei, the singer and lyricist of SMZB (生命之饼 – ‘The Bread of Life’), grew up in the Hubei province’s largest city, Wuhan, and is widely regarded as one of the oldest and most influential punks in China. It goes without saying that Wu Wei is largely responsible for helping Wuhan gain the moniker of ‘China’s Punkest City’. “When we (SMZB) got together in 1996, Wuhan had no punk scene. After we played a few times we got to know more and more people in the (music) scene. At that time they were all in university. After we slowly all got to know each other and more and more friends started their own bands.”
Wu Wei’s music and support of the early scene helped to establish a punk scene which began in China in the late 90’s and exploded in the early 00’s. “Around 1997 I had a friend who moved to the states and would send me a lot of the underground punk and hardcore tapes and CD’s from the states. That’s how I managed to listen to more and more different punk bands.” Recollects Wu Wei on how he first got into punk music.
Along with the punk scene in China, SMZB have grown and changed their style over the years. Their earlier songs and records had an edgy and raw old school street punk sound. In recent years the band are more stylistically akin to the Celtic punk rock sound of the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. However, throughout these stylistic changes SMZB have always been best known for their energetic, fast paced brand of punk rock and their confrontational socio-political lyrics. What might seem confrontational lyrics to many, Wu Wei rather sees them as direct and forthright statements about “occurrences that are happening in Chinese society. Things we hear about and see”.
It’s these lyrics that have been the subject to controversy throughout SMZB’s 20 year career. Their songs and critical lyrics have not only attracted a devoted following of punks and indie rockers, but also unwittingly attracted the attention of government authorities. As a result, SMZB have seen themselves banned from many government organized music festivals and shows and similarly have found distribution deals difficult to come by. “I couldn’t care less. It won’t change my style or subject matter”, is Wu Wei’s defiant response to these ‘complications’.
This defiance, along with his tough exterior, somewhat serve an oxymoron to Wu Wei’s honest and extremely kind character. You just have to meet the man once to know as much. And if you go to a SMZB show, you WILL meet him. Wu Wei always hangs around before and after shows to share beers and whisky with friends and fans alike.
He is also a man who wears his moral codes on his sleeve, and keeps his values very close to his heart. “Punk to me is about being a genuine person. Being honest, brave, having honor and being a kind-hearted person.” His definition of the concept of punk is not your typical response to the question, which it should be stated has no concrete answer. But it’s fitting to Wu Wei and SMZB. This bravery and integrity shine through in SMZB’s lyrics, which often have a strong theme of being true to yourself and following your heart, no matter what obstacles you run into. This defiant attitude has been the driving force behind SMZB over their 20 years. This year it will be 21 years. And there will be a 22nd year too as SMZB plan to record new material in 2017 for a 2018 release.
Fresh off the back of their 2016 release “Born in the PRC”, SMZB completed two China tours and a full tour through mainland Europe. Wu Wei was kind enough to agree to an interview during the middle of SMZB’s second China tour.
The full interview can be seen below （中文版在最下面）
Under the Wall: 2016 marked SMZB’s 20 anniversary. 20 years ago, what was it that first appealed to Punk to you? How did you first get into punk? How did the band form?
We Wei: Punk rock in itself is what appealed to me. It’s simple, straight forward and energetic. At that time the only way for us to hear rock n roll and punk was through ‘Punch Hole’ tapes (*). Even at that time it was hard to get your hands on punk music, apart from the more famous bands like The Clash, The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. Around 1997 I had a friend who moved to the states and would send me a lot of the underground punk and hardcore tapes and CD’s from the states. That’s how I managed to listen to more and more different punk bands.
Under the Wall: Who have been your biggest influences?
We Wei: The Clash, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Nirvana, The Pogues, Ranicd, Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys
Under the Wall: Not many foreigners know too much about the Chinese punk scene now. Even less know about what the punk scene was like back when it started. What was the scene like when you first started?
We Wei: When we (SMZB) got together in 1996, Wuhan had no punk scene. After we played a few times we got to know more and more people in the (music) scene. At that time they were all in university. After we slowly all got to know each other and more and more friends started their own bands. But (these bands) didn’t stick around for too long.
Under the Wall: As most Chinese punks say, the golden age of punk was in the late 90’s, early 2000. Of all those bands, SMZB are one of the few Chinese punk bands that are still together and actively creating new music. What keeps you driven to continue making music and playing shows?
We Wei: （My motivation is that）I always have things that I want to express. Because I’m still alive. Still alive and living in this country. I need music to express (these feelings).
Under the Wall: To you, what is punk?
We Wei: To me, it’s about being a genuine person. Being honest, brave, having honor and being a kind-hearted person. I know a lot of people will read this and think that it’s not cool or pathetic. But this is what punk is to me.
Under the Wall: Is there a difference between the Chinese and western concepts of what it means to be a punk? If so, how is it different?
We Wei: Not long after the birth of the western punk scene, many music fans and punk bands started to have their own understanding and interpretation of what punk meant. This is one of the main reasons why Punk branched out in to many different styles. The same thing happened after Punk came to China.
It’s hard to define what punk is. But each fan and band has their own definition and interpretation of what punk is.
Under the Wall: Let’s talk about SMZB’s new album. Your latest record ‘The Chinese are Coming’ has a theme of standing up for yourself and the restrictions of society, in particular Chinese society. What were some of the biggest influences behind this album?
We Wei: Occurrences that are happening in Chinese society. Things we’re hear about and see.
Under the Wall: The Flower of Socialism and Born in the PRC are songs which heavily criticizes society. Can you explain a little more about the songs?
We Wei: These two songs are just my personal opinions on this system and what life is like in this society. I also really like these two songs.
Under the Wall: Two of the tracks that stood out for me on the album were The Chinese are Coming, and Welcome to China (The foreigners are Coming). The former talks about the problems Chinese are causing abroad, and the latter tells of the problems foreigners are causing in China. What drove you to choose this as a subject matter?
We Wei: Yeah, I’ve seen that the behavior and mannerisms of many Chinese living abroad has attracted a lot of negative attention. This has to do with Chinese education and culture and all that. I have seen some foreigners who live in China become influenced by Chinese behavior and mannerisms, (or maybe they initially had bad-manners) and start acting like Chinese people. This also is a product of the treatment that the Chinese government give foreigners who live in China. I feel quite strongly about this, so I wrote these songs.
Under the Wall: How significant to you think these problems will become in the future?
We Wei: These news stories (of ill-mannered Chinese abroad/foreigners in China) are coming out more frequent. No matter if it’s Chinese or foreigners, you should pay attention to how you act abroad. I don’t think this will become a serious societal problem.
Under the Wall: You’ve had run-in’s in the past where you’ve had songs blocked online, and even instances where you were punched by a government official for playing a banned song live onstage. Do these situations make you tone it down a bit, or inspire you to keep going on?
We Wei: I can only refuse to attend government sponsored or state controlled events and performances. It would also be pretty difficult (for SMZB) to attend. I couldn’t care less. It won’t change my style or subject matter.
Under the Wall: What SMZB track do you consider to be the definitive calling card for SMZB? Why?
We Wei: Ah. That’s difficult to say. Our band has had a lot of members come and go. Our style has also changed a lot. Even within our last few records there are some songs which have huge stylistic differences.
Under the Wall: In your eyes, how has Chinese punk progressed over the years?
We Wei: I’ve haven’t really thought about it. There’s not many people listening to punk right now (in China). Punk bands are also few and far between. I can only concentrate on myself, my band, what our plans are and we how we go about them.
Under the Wall: Would you say that your relationship and identification with the punk scene and punk “label” strengthened or dampened over the years?
We Wei: Possibly both. But this is not important to me.
Under the Wall: SMZB just finished a year of heavy touring having toured twice across China and finishing off a huge European tour. Tell us what your favorite thing to do on tour is?
We Wei: Drink the best local beer at each place we tour, and hang out with friends.
Under the Wall: You just got back from Europe on tour. What were some of the best experiences you had while on tour?
We Wei: The best experiences were playing at a few punk festivals and seeing some bands we like.
Under the Wall: Did you notice any difference since the last time you were there?
We Wei: I feel that the European punk scene is getting smaller. It’s the same the whole world over. The one difference is that Europe still has a lot of older people who still listen to punk and play in punk bands. Whereas in China, most people would probably only listen to it for a few years and then stop listening and stop going to see shows.
Under the Wall: What’s on the horizon for SMZB?
We Wei: This year we’ll start to creating and recording tracks for our new album. The goal is to aim for a 2018 release.
Under the Wall: To finish with, lets talk some of your favorite tracks and bands: Whats your favorite Chinese band of all time?
We Wei: Cui Jian
Under the Wall: What’s your favorite band of all time?
We Wei: Too many, impossible to choose only one.
Under the Wall: Can you recommend any Chinese bands, movies or books for people who are looking to learn more about Chinese underground culture?
We Wei: Any Chinese Punk band! Haha.
Books by Lu Xun; Hu Shi; Wang Shuo and Wang Xiao Bo. And any film that Jiang Wen has directed or acted in.
Under the Wall: 二十年前，朋克的什么地方吸引你了，当时你如先接触到朋克文化？ SMZB是如何建立了？
吴维: 就是朋克音乐本身的特点吸引我,简单,直接,有力..那个时候我们只有通过”打口磁带”才能听到摇滚乐和朋克乐,但是能听到的朋克乐队不多,只是一些有名的,像THE CLASH, RAMONES, SEX PISTOL…97年的时候我一个朋友搬到美国后,给我寄了很多那边的地下朋克和硬核乐队的磁带和CD, 这样我能听到更多的不同的朋克音乐...
Under the Wall: 哪一些乐队或者一人对你的影响最大？
吴维: The Clash, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Nirvana, The Pogues, Ranicd, Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys
Under the Wall: 了解中国朋克圈子的外国人不多。了解二十多年前的中国朋克圈子的外国人是更少。 能讲一下SMZB刚建立的时候中国那个时候的朋克圈子是什么样子？