20 years on, SMZB are still China’s most dangerous punk rock band. Time Out talk to them about their controversial new album
The great myth of punk rock, especially in China, is that it exists in opposition to unjust authorities, as a lone voice speaking truth to power. But the truth is – all the wide-eyed documentaries and articles to the contrary – Chinese punk has been on the decline over the past decade or more, and the voices protesting widespread injustice have grown steadily weaker. No one knows this better than Wu Wei, frontman of Wuhan punk pioneers SMZB. ‘Wuhan is known as a famous punk city, but that was ten years ago,’ says Wu. ‘These days we barely have any punk bands, and it’s the same all over the country – there’s a very small audience for punk music.’
Tall and lean with tattooed arms and weary eyes, 39-year-old Wei has become a symbol for punk in China. The country’s punk bands first drew international attention when they burst onto the scene in the mid-’90s, but despite its outsized influence the genre has mostly given way to hipper, more easily digested fare. All of which makes SMZB something of a relic in China’s fast-moving rock scene; though the 18-year veterans maintain their status as founders of the movement, they’ve never seen the same level of success as their indie rock peers.
Not that any of that should matter; punk has never been aimed at the mainstream. The reason that the question of punk’s survival remains relevant in this country is because of how it first started out: as an organic, even populist intersection of art and social consciousness; a voice of rebellion in an age when politics has become an embarrassing – or worse, dangerous – topic of conversation.
‘It’s not just the punk scene. Almost all of China’s entire rock scene is no longer political,’ says Wei. ‘Of course I’m not saying that everyone needs to be political; it depends on the band. A lot of Chinese people aren’t willing to think or talk about these things. This has a long history and institutional reasons behind it. It’s a really big problem.’
But while most artists are content to sweep political issues under the rug, SMZB have continued to carry the flag. Nowhere is that more true than in their latest album, A Letter From China, in which the band make their intentions obvious from the outset: the cover features a red tank with the caption ‘1989-2014 25th Anniversary’.
‘This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen incident, so I chose to use this photo as a means of commemoration, to keep myself and other people from forgetting this part of history,’ says Wu. ‘It’s still very close to us and something that had such a deep influence on our country.’
As a result, the record, SMZB’s eighth, will only be available online and at shows. Still, it’s a bold move for a band that’s already had its share of problems with the authorities. There are the typical hiccups you’d expect for anyone playing songs with titles such as ‘Tour for Freedom’ and ‘Where is My Vote?’ And then there are the more fearsome consequences that have resulted since Wei signed Charter 08, the human rights manifesto that earned one of its authors, Liu Xiaobo, an indefinite term in prison along with the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. That, in conjunction with SMZB’s other political activities, has put them on the Government’s watch list.
It’s a precarious position that’s nevertheless lent infinitely more depth to SMZB’s anthems. Despite the occasionally despairing attitude that seems to drive SMZB’s songwriting, their music is shot through with a scrappy strain of optimism, betrayed by its sense of purpose. A Letter from China contains some of their sharpest criticisms yet – against violence, breakneck development, a corrupt Government and even Mao himself – all set to cheery Celtic-influenced punk rock tunes.
While their early lyrics were occupied with poetically squalid ruminations on sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, SMZB’s more recent work has honed in on the political and social problems facing China. Their sound, meanwhile, has transformed from a raw fusion of early British punk, ska, and ’80s hardcore into Pogues-style Celtic punk punctuated by bagpipes, flutes and violins. It’s a brighter, even celebratory sound that’s transformed their defiant songs into something more soulful and sustaining.
It’s in that context that Wei’s lyrics take on the spirit of a kind of rallying cry, though he says that’s never been his intention. ‘I just think of the music as a way of expressing myself. I’ve never thought of it as a way to inspire anyone else.’
It has inspired one person though – him. ‘It wasn’t until I started making music that I began thinking about society and its relationship to institutions,’ he says. ‘I think it was my destiny to choose punk – or maybe it was punk that chose me.’