Re-TROS: 'We don’t always want to be on the same road'

Acclaimed post-punks on their first album in 8 years

Photos by Cui Kewang
Hua Dong and Liu Min, the power couple at the creative heart of Rebuilding the Rights of Statues (Re-TROS), both give a wry smile when we ask the inevitable question. It’s been eight years since the band – widely acknowledged as one of China’s best – released their last album and undertook a proper tour. Back on the road and with a new LP on its way, Hua and Liu are getting used to hearing the words ‘what took so long?’ ‘We’re a slow band,’ says Hua unapologetically. ‘We never want to be a band who release an album just for the sake of putting something out.’


Even so, eight years is a lengthy break. Hua notes that Re-TROS have form in making their fans wait, pointing to the near five-year interval between their previous records – 2005’s Cut Off! and 2009’s Watch Out! Climate has Changed, Fat Mum Rises....


The first, a Brian Eno-featuring, Gang of Four-indebted debut EP, achieved seminal status as one of the most accomplished records to emerge amidst the mid-’00s boom in Beijing underground rock. The second built on its predecessor’s dark-edged post-punk to cement Re-TROS’s reputation as one of the country’s finest bands.




It’s been a long wait for a new record since then, but the Beijing-based trio (Hua and Liu play along with drummer Huang Jin) have been far from mute in the intervening period – playing festivals in Shanghai, New York, Helsinki; touring Australia with their heroes Gang of Four; appearing across Europe and the US.


‘It’s not like we’ve stopped for eight years, we’ve still been doing new things,’ says Hua in his distinctive croak, over a cup of tea in Nanjing. ‘We just wanted to make sure we had a reason to do another tour here. I don’t want our tours to become like homework - every year or two we have to do one. For me, that's boring. We wanted to tour for a purpose.'


Before the Applause, the band’s forthcoming LP is now that purpose, but the current run of dates – which brings them to Shanghai this month – isn’t a conventional album tour. Despite the release of lead single ‘ATMOS PHERE’ just after Chinese New Year, follow up ‘Pigs in the River’ in early March, and a tour poster that features the album cover art with the words ‘coming soon’, the band’s third record isn’t quite as imminent as we’ve been led to believe.


‘Usually when you do this kind of tour, you bring the album with you and have stacks of CDs at the door, but we didn’t want to do that,’ says Hua. ‘It’s like McDonald’s – always the same and just kind of okay, nothing special. We thought we’d try something else and do it differently: a pre-release tour. We’ll still play all the songs from the new album, so if you want to hear the album – this is kind of like an advert! – you can come to the live shows and hear it.’


Re-TROS


So when is the album actually going to be released? ‘I’m not sure I can say, can I say?’ Hua asks the Modern Sky representative sat beside us, before settling on ‘Probably autumn’ as a response. And having not undertaken a proper China tour since the turn of the decade, Hua hints that they might do two this year. ‘We only played two indoor shows here last year and perhaps because we’ve done so few in recent years I’m now really enjoying them. Maybe we’ll do another tour for the album release in the second half of the year, we’ll see.’


The band certainly appear to be revelling in their return to the (indoor) stage in China. Later that night they deliver a powerhouse performance at Nanjing’s Ola Art Space, a homecoming of sorts given that Hua is from the city and it’s also where he first met Sichuan-born Liu in 2001.


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Hua – wearing his influences on his chest courtesy of a Bauhaus T-shirt – imparts his distinct, sultry English vocals while alternating between bursts of static and melodic noise on the guitar, swinging the instrument onto his back to add synths or deliver arcing hand movements that simultaneously seem to channel Ian Curtis and Mei Lanfang.


Liu, quiet and reserved during our interview, unleashes startlingly powerful, beautifully executed vocals on stage while driving the songs with her infectious basslines and percussion. The pair’s natural understanding and melding of sounds is underpinned by the precise drumming of Huang, who joined in 2015 but contributed to the majority of the new album’s tracks.


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Their 90-minute set offers old favourites such as ‘TV Show (Hang the Police)’ alongside newer, electronic-influenced songs such as ‘Viva Murder’. They swing between moments of straight-up post-punk and all-out trance, sending the crowd into equal states of rapture along the way, with the area in front of the stage a mix of mosh pit and dance floor.


A 15-minute version of the new album’s pulsing lead single ‘AT MOS PHERE’ is the penultimate song of the night, and one of the band’s most out-and-out electronic numbers. It’s been a Re-TROS live staple for the past five years and John Lydon enthusiastically played a version of it on his BBC 6 Music show back in 2013, but when it was released as an album appetiser in February this year, it led some to declare that the band had jettisoned their post-punk moorings.


Re-TROS


‘We knew people would react like that,’ smiles Hua. ‘Liu Min said, “let’s put out ‘AT MOS PHERE’ and let people talk about us going electronic. Then we’ll put out ‘Pigs’ and everyone will say, ‘Oh wait, now they’re like this.’” We like it when it’s not so easy for people to really know us, to judge us. We’ve got two songs that we’re weighing up to be the next track that we release; they’re both very different to each other and completely different to the first two you’ve heard.’


‘Pigs in the River’ certainly sounds more like the Re-TROS of old. ‘I don’t think of what we’re doing now as electronic music,’ says Hua. ‘We’re using electronic methods, but the feeling, the sound is still rock – it’s more like electrified rather than electronic. The thing we’ve been working with a lot and which has had the biggest impact on us in the last few years is electronic music’s idea of loops; so we have a basic loop and then we overdub, we build on it.




'After Cut Off! we felt we didn’t want to make pure post-punk any more; we wanted to bring our sound from the ’70s and ’80s into the 2000s. Of course there’ll be some people who think “Re-TROS have changed, they’re just chasing what’s fashionable” and I can understand them feeling that way. But we don’t always want to be on the same road.’


Clearly delighting in confounding expectations, the band are already plotting what Hua calls ‘the next stage’ of Re-TROS. ‘We’re thinking about what our direction will be after this; we like each album to be different. Usually I come up with the crude bones of a song and then we work out what kind of clothes will go on this part, what colour trousers will go on that part, what kind of shoes, until it’s a beautiful person,’ he says. 'We haven’t entirely decided yet, but right now we have a lot of sounds and quite complicated structures; I think it’ll be a simpler approach after this.’


Though of course, this being Re-TROS, fans know not to hold their breath. ‘Maybe it’ll be another eight years until the next record,’ says Hua with a mischievous smirk. ‘Maybe.’

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