When founding member Suo Wenjun lost his battle with cancer in 2004, it seemed highly unlikely that folk act Wild Children would ever perform again. Co-founder Zhang Quan, unable to face remaining in Beijing where the two had run a live music bar together and established Wild Children as one of the country’s foremost folk bands, took off on a trip that would eventually take in Qinghai, Tibet and Sichuan, before settling in Yunnan. The band’s other mainstays – Zhang Weiwei and Guo Long, both also of Glamorous Pharmacy – pursued their own musical projects in the capital. ‘For a long time, I thought the band was finished,’ says Zhang Quan. ‘We lived in different places, they were working on different things. There were times when we wouldn’t see each other for a whole year.’ Yet this month Wild Children come to Shanghai as part of a tour of southern China, the band’s first series of major shows in a decade.
Having formed Wild Children in Hangzhou in 1995, Gansu singer-songwriters Suo and Zhang spent months traversing China, following the course of the Yellow River and meeting with folk musicians along the way, before eventually settling in Beijing. Wild Children, with their earthy northwestern demeanours and use of traditional Chinese instruments, amassed a loyal following. But following Suo’s death, Zhang took to the road once more. He ultimately wound up in Dali, which with its agreeable climate and hemp fields has often proved a magnet for the country’s musicians.
Four years later, Zhang returned to Beijing for a solo show, where he briefly reunited with Weiwei and Guo for a handful of Wild Children songs. From 2010, the trio began to play together once a year as part of the Big River folk music get together, but Children were careful to refrain from using the Wild Children name. ‘Every time we played, friends and fans would ask us when we were going to reform Wild Children,’ says Zhang. ‘People would tell us that when they saw us playing together again there would be a kind of magical atmosphere on stage; we felt it too.’
In 2012, when Big River included a date in Hangzhou, the friends decided that returning to the city where the band first formed was a sign. Zhang Weiwei and Guo Long moved to Dali that same year, while the addition of Ma Xuesong and Wu Rui completed the new-look outfit.
‘The original members have built up a close understanding over a long period of time and the new members have become used to it too,’ says Zhang, when we ask if it’s been difficult returning to Wild Children. ‘We’ve been rehearsing for four hours every day, and every week we’ve been doing a free performance in a friend’s bar. We’re not nervous [about playing again].’
During our interview, Zhang references Zhou Yunpeng’s line about Dali being ‘a sanatorium for late adolescence’, and surrounded by a community of friends from xibei, the pain of losing Suo seems to have healed somewhat for Wild Children in Yunnan. ‘We all left Gansu when we were about 20 years old and have been away for over 20 years now, but it doesn’t matter where we live, the northwestern spirit is still at our core: we’re dedicated and we show people warmth,’ Zhang says. ‘Now, we’re all looking forward to a new start.’