This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of Time Out Shanghai.
If you’re looking for the quintessential Shanghai band, Top Floor Circus are it. At a time when some are worrying that the local tongue is a dying language, the band write songs with lyrics entirely in Shanghainese that at once celebrate and gently mock life in their native city.
The band’s album, 13 Classic Shanghai Pop Rock Songs, is their most fully-realised ode to the city yet, with tracks such as ‘A Love Song for Suzhou Creek’, ‘Shenhua-ah Shenhua’ and ‘Shanghai Childhood’. Released for free over Chinese networking site douban.com, the record also heralds the return of the band to the city’s live circuit – having been absent for over a year due to a performance ban slapped on them in November 2009 after a controversial song went viral.
They have used the time to perfect and record songs for their first full length album since 2006’s 93 Lingling Lu Revisited, Timmy!, a four-year wait that has made 13 Songs a highly-anticipated record. ‘The new album is very local,’ says Mei Er who, together with charismatic frontman Lu Chen, a childhood friend, founded the band in 2001. ‘Every song on it tells a story about Shanghai.’
Such a local focus and the use of Shanghainese isn’t meant to be exclusionary however, according to Mei. ‘We’re a lot more comfortable singing in Shanghainese,’ he says. ‘Every band has their own language – we wouldn’t expect a British or American band to come here and sing in Shanghainese – but we’ve played in cities all over China, and people always welcome and understand our music. Our songs deal with very Shanghai-specific stories, but that doesn’t mean people who don’t speak Shanghainese can’t enjoy them.’
The stories, such as ‘A White Collar Song’ and ‘Kuai-di Workers’, are told with trademark Top Floor Circus wit. ‘If you have a type of music, no matter whether it’s punk, grunge or folk, if you can’t have a laugh with it or accept other people making a joke about it, then I feel like it’s fake punk, fake grunge etcetera,’ says Lu. ‘Humour and criticism will always be around in music.’
Sometimes, however, their humour and criticism can land them in hot water. Despite having written the songs for their latest album well over a year ago, the band have been unable to perform them in Shanghai following their controversial song ‘Shanghai Welcomes You’, a pre-Expo take on the Beijing Olympic anthem that detailed a less-than-harmonious side of the city. One performance of this track was filmed and placed online where it promptly went viral, resulting in the band being called in for a ‘cup of tea’ with local officials.
‘We’re not even certain that we can play live now,’ says Mei, ‘we’re just going to try it and see.’ Such a tentative return has seen them book the Fei Contemporary Art Centre in Zhabei district rather than the usual gig venues, and the show will only comprise of the 13 songs from the new album. Not that the band feel any extra pressure with such a highly-anticipated comeback. ‘If we feel like being in a band becomes a hassle, we need it to make money or we have too much pressure, we won’t do it anymore,’ says Lu. ‘We have our own jobs and our own lives – we just play to make our lives more interesting.’
While Lu may insist that Top Floor Circus’ live shows are ‘not very professional’, they are renowned as being among some of the liveliest – and funniest – in town, frequently leaving the local audience in stitches. It’s part of the band’s appeal that means they are universally adored by Shanghai gig-goers, and Mei hopes releasing the new album for free will bring them to an even wider audience.
‘If you release a CD, someone will rip it and share it online the next day anyway, so we thought we’d do it ourselves – that way we guarantee the quality of the recording. It’s not like we’re in this to make money anyway, we just want as many people to hear the record as possible, especially given the content – there’s a story there for everyone in Shanghai.’