Coming straight out of Ulaanbaatar, The Lemons are the in-sound from Mongolia and the country’s finest rock band. Having earned comparisons to Oasis and The Strokes, they tell Jake Newby how they’re changing perceptions of their country’s music.
As hyperbole goes, ‘The Strokes of Mongolia’ is one of the more intriguing lines used to sell a band. Yet while the contrast between Ulaanbaatar and New York’s music scenes may be stark, The Lemons may well just have the style - and the music - to carry off such an epithet. From frontman Odno’s requisite dark glasses and indie rock swagger to the rhythmic riffs that characterise their first two albums, The Lemons are one of Mongolia’s biggest bands. This month, they make their debut in Shanghai keen to show that there’s more to the country’s music scene than horse head fiddles and throat singing.
It’s an important shift in perceptions, given that, for the average music fan in Shanghai, Mongolian music begins and ends with one band: Hanggai. The Beijing-based ethnically Mongolian outfit have built a reputation for raucous shows in the city, with their traditional Mongolian instrumentation and costumes. ‘We only know their music a little,’ confesses Odno, before carefully distinguishing his band from the Beijing act. ‘They spread traditional Mongolian music to a foreign audience, but we play rock music, pure and simple.’
Odno says that the band’s members – he’s joined by Tulgaa on guitar, Anar on bass and Uugii on drums – all started getting into rock music in the mid-1990s after the opening-up that followed Mongolia’s democratic revolution and move from Soviet rule towards a market economy. The members played in a number of rock bands before forming The Lemons in 2004. Two years later, they released their debut LP, The Red Album, the first rock record to achieve nationwide commercial success in Mongolia. It was the catchy rock hooks of this record that earned the comparisons to The Strokes, but their music has enough diversity to make casting them as rip-offs unfair.
'We were thinking about our music style when we established this band and we really wanted to play a new rock music style,’ says Odno. ‘We love The Strokes, and we tried to include some aspects of The Strokes in our music.’ The frontman is keen to point out that The Lemons are more than just a Strokes cover band, though. ‘People can only play music that comes from their hearts and minds.
We play our own music, The Strokes play their own. They are important to us, but we play something new.’ It’s a sound that strikes a chord in their native Mongolia, where Odno, with his trademark shades and fedora, is a style icon. ‘He can make a cameo in a commercial and it’s expected that the audience know who he is,’ says Brian Offenther, the man responsible for bringing The Lemons to Shanghai, who also lived in Mongolia for three years before moving here in 2010. ‘The Lemons were the first band in the post-Communist era to reach a pop audience and legitimately rock.’
Despite The Lemons’ popularity, Offenther says that their rock star status is still relative in a country whose population is roughly a tenth the size of Shanghai’s. ‘Bands like The Lemons might play twice-weekly at restaurants and bars around town, and maybe only a few dozen people will hear them, and they’ll mostly be busy eating. At those shows they’re pressured to play more poppy material. They also play a lot of weddings and other private events which everyone usually looks down upon.’ Such humble shows mean that the band have their feet firmly on the ground, says Odno. ‘We do not think of ourselves as stars. The stars are seen by people all over the world in the sky; we are not. It is shameful if we think we are stars.’
Yet despite such modesty, when the band play a proper gig their appeal is undimmed. ‘Every six months or so their label Hi-Fi will announce a show and everyone will get very excited and buy up lots of tickets,’ says Offenther.
'They’re also known for their performances at the annual Playtime Festival, Mongolia’s biggest rock fest. Their performances there tend to be epic and very passionate, with huge mosh pits during their heavy material. Many Mongolian music fans point to their performances there as the highlight of the year in terms of music in Mongolia.’ Such performances and the quality of The Lemons’ music mean that their debut in Shanghai will show a different side of Mongolian music, and hold much more than just novelty value.
The Lemons play at MAO Livehouse as part of the Rock Naadam tour on Saturday 20 August. See the full event listing here