One of the challenges of writing about musicians from another country is that you have feel each other out a little, figure out how much you know, or don’t know, about each other.
For example, they don’t understand that you haven’t experienced them, that you can’t just Google.tw their names and have lived every nook and cranny their 10+ year career through the power of the internet. They don’t know that you haven’t grown up with their music, that you haven’t marched down a protest in step with their songs, that you haven’t huddled with friends on blacktop wet with the spray from riot police water cannons, or been serenaded to sleep on those same streets, the tender lullaby of their words substitute for a warm berth. They don’t know that you were half a world away in the wilderness of Los Angeles, isolated by language and time zone from Taiwan.
The issue is even more complicated when you look and speak like them, and especially when you’re basically in their target market — liberal minded youth with an interest in Taiwanese identity.
They don’t understand you only began to discover them recently, like a half year ago, when they played at the inauguration of the first female president in Taiwan. (Yeah, they’re kind of a big deal.)
They’re kind of like Cake, if Cake were major enough to have filled the Staples Center with fans and graced the White House lawns in an alternate universe. Also, if Cake had written the theme song for Occupy Wall Street, if the Occupy movement had actually resulted in some kind of political change.
But then again, they’re not like anyone else. They are FireEX (滅火器), an indie band that has become a symbol for youth empowerment and activism in Taiwan.
I skipped lunch to ensure I could make it to their studio in eastern Taipei without getting lost. Ken, the band’s contact, shows me into an eclectic studio that could have been a messy college friend’s garage. Instruments in cases are packed into IKEA-style cubby furniture, and memorabilia fill the walls: what appears to be a cut up shirt, signed posters from Japanese bands, and flyers and graphic material from previous concerts.
“We will probably be in here,” he says, opening a door into a sitting area. The couches are covered in black fabric, and plastic-wrapped CD’s line the shelves, occasionally accompanied by bottles of shochu Japanese liquor. I spot tracks produced by CJ Kao, Chthonic’s keyboardist, and several other artists in the region. It’s got a chill, almost homely vibe.
Two guys show up, whom I later find out are the long-haired bassist Pipi (皮皮) and drummer Wu Ti (吳迪). We are still several members short. “It’s okay,” says Ken, “they’re on their way.”
“Will there be video recording?” WuTi asks.
“It’d be nice to get some pictures,” I reply.
“Okay give me a few.” He disappears into the bathroom, and several minutes later he emerges looking more or less the same degree of slightly unkempt as before.
“Please don’t publish the band member pictures,” says Ken, apologetically, “We really didn’t get put together for this one.”
Indie music is a big deal in Taiwan these days. Music in Taiwan has always had a fraught relationship with society; decades of martial law do that. Despite this, in the 1970’s Taiwanese music was the epitome of the Chinese-speaking world. And in recent years the music entertainment industry has taken off, ushering in international acts like Coldplay, Britney Spears, and Rob Zombie, while exporting superstars like Jay Chou, Mayday, A-Mei, and Chthonic.
For FireEX, their rise to fame took a slightly more different route. Their song “Island’s Sunrise” was written as the anthem for the Sunflower Movement after Mayday’s “Rise Up” was withdrawn, citing backlash from their fans in China. In an interview with Vancouver-based entertainment website The Georgia Straight, Sam, the vocalist, explains “The song was actually written in very little time.” It was a request from their fans, who were already among the student protesters occupying Taiwan’s parliament, sleeping on the floor as they listened to the band’s “Goodnight, Taiwan.”
Still, the ability to fill stadiums is a major feat, and FireEX did just that with their recent 10,000 attendance during On Fire Day, the largest indie music concert in recent memory, comparable only with Chthonic’s 20th Anniversary concert at Freedom Plaza right before the 2016 elections.
FireEX’s music has been described as punk rock, pop punk, and a host of other genres, but they don’t see themselves as really belonging to any one category. “Our style is influenced by a lot of other bands, like Green Day, Hi-Standard, Husking Bee, Brahman, Sum 41, and Blink 182.”
They have also worked with Japanese bands like Monoeyes. “We started working with them because the band’s founder Hosomi Takeshi came to Taiwan to perform at MegaPort, and we became friends after hanging out together. We became like family, the two bands.”
I also asked FireEX’s about singing in Taiwanese. Even though Taiwan’s current lingua franca is Mandarin as a result of harsh language policies during the martial law period, Taiwanese is the mother tongue of the majority of people in Taiwan.
“When we write a song we feel that it is in its best form the way we made it, which is in Taiwanese. Of course, there are special edition songs, so some songs we may make it in Japanese, or even in English one of these days.
“We don’t think that language is really a barrier. When you’re at a live show, there’s a particular energy that surpasses all that. Even as kids when we were listening to songs in English and Japanese, it didn’t matter to us that we didn’t understand the lyrics; we were still moved by the music.”
But in Taiwan, the stereotype of Taiwanese is still that of a rural “dialect” spoken by uncouth and uneducated characters, again due to suppression during martial law. But FireEX says,
“We don’t think that Taiwanese is as low as that. There are many highly regarded musicians singing in Taiwanese such as Dwagie (the only rapper in the world to have the Dalai Lama on a track), Wu Bai (伍佰), and others. The perception of Taiwanese language is already changing. We just need to keep doing what we are doing, which is to produce more works in Taiwanese.”
As for the future, FireEX is now focused on their upcoming music festival Fireball Fest in Kaohsiung and their new release, Reborn. “Fireball Fest will be a giant music festival in Kaohsiung. We are bringing in many different bands that we have met while on tour like Mangol800 and Brahman from Japan. We hope in the future that as we go out and meet even more bands to bring them to Taiwan as well.”
But wait—they are coming to the US next week! “We arrive on the 17th and we are playing in San Francisco on the 19th, then Los Angeles on the 21st, and Boston on the 23rd followed by New York on the 29th (FireEX will have a Q&A hosted by Ketagalan Media and The Asia Society of Northern California in San Francisco; see full schedule and ticket info at the end of article).”
We are all gathered in the room with the black sofas. Pipi is on an unplugged bass across from me, strumming away quietly. Sam, the vocalist, sits adjacent and does most of the talking. Orio, the guitarist is beside him, while WuTi is on my other side.
Even though I’m just worried to death I’ll sound dumb asking basic questions, it was really more like just hanging out with family. Speaking about Takeshi Hosomi of Monoeyes: “we call him aniki (‘older brother’ in Japanese). We are like family. And we want to do that with music—to make friends and share positive energy around the world.”
“In the 90’s I feel that in the Mandarin language world, Taiwan definitely had the best music scene. It was very important from a historical perspective. However, now, because of the availability of information, country of origin is not that important. I think that music from every country is really amazing.”
As a Taiwanese person born and raised in America who is just getting to know the ins and outs of society in Taiwan, FireEX was surprisingly relatable. Sure, I didn’t grow up with them, nor was I in the middle of all protests in formation with like-minded activists singing along to their songs.
But I think FireEX is telling me: that’s ok. Their music should be something everyone can relate to. “Our music is about real life, about reality.”
FireEX US Tour July 2017:
(Feature photo of FireEX, provided by FireEX)
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