Interview: Omnipotent Youth Society

Talking to one of China's best bands at home in Shijiazhuang

After 16 years, alt-rock quartet Omnipotent Youth Society (万能青年旅店) have hit the big time by singing tales of third-tier China. As they launch their self-title album, Time Out meet them on their home turf in Shijiazhuang, Hebei

When Omnipotent Youth Society (OYS) released their magnificent self-titled debut album at Yuyintang in November 2010, a packed crowd sang nearly every word with the band. Yet the band’s trumpet and string-laced folk-rock songs, with lyrics rooted in their home town of Shijiazhuang, felt a world away from the shiny modernism of Shanghai. Stepping off the train in Hebei’s gloomy, industrial capital, you realise just how far removed life is here from that in China’s first-tier cities.

‘This life played out for 30 years until the tower collapsed,’ sings guitarist Dong Yaqian on the anthemic ‘Kill the One From Shijiazhuang’ (listen below), an eloquent portrayal of the band’s home town. Not since Cui Jian’s ‘Nothing To My Name’ has any rock song tackled the social realities of third-tier China with such heartfelt bluntness.

Omnipotent Youth Society - 'Kill the One From Shijiazhuang' 

Perhaps it comes with the territory – Shijiazhuang is also the home of So Rock!, the PRC’s most iconic and long-running independent rock mag. It’s a theory we later put to OYS’s chief lyricist and bassist, Ji Geng.

‘That’s bullshit,’ he grumbles, between betel nuts and swigs of beer. ‘So Rock! just happened to be here, there’s no greater connection with the city. There are barely any shows here and bands break up before they go anywhere. It’s just one of those cities where everyone ends up in the same depressing routine and eventually convinces themselves to get used to it.’

Yet OYS have broken free of that routine, and in spectacular fashion. Released after the band had already been together for 16 years, their eponymous debut album had both critics and the mainstream fawning at the powerful, poetic lyrics and infectious hooks. The record even won them the title of ‘Band of the Year’ at last year’s Chinese Music Media Awards – an honour normally reserved for big-name pop acts.

Omnipotent Youth Society - 'One Hundred Thousand Hippies'

But for 31-year-old Dong, the band’s lead singer and guitarist (pictured right), success has proved almost a burden. When we meet at a local grocery store, he looks sleepy and sports a ‘David Bowie Changed My Life’ T-shirt and a pair of flip-flops. ‘Right now, this,’ he says pointing to his self-modified motorbike, ‘is my biggest passion besides music. I’m going to take a two-month vacation from all these damn shows. I’ve always wanted to safari across China on my bike, bringing only my guitar and playing it whenever I want.’

We continue our chat while strolling through an old-fashioned residential community, full of retired factory workers and librarians. The band’s practice room and recording studio is situated here in a two-bedroom flat – a haven of activity compared with the lethargic cityscape. Inside, bandmates Yang Yougeng (drums), Shi Li (trumpet/flute) and Ji Geng lounge expectantly.

‘I came from Qinhuangdao, a seaside city by Bohai Bay,’ says 23-year-old Yang as he pours out a cup of coffee. ‘I moved to Beijing for university, played in a few bands there and ended up as a lighting engineer. Then I met Dong during a return to Qinhuangdao and he asked me if I would join the band.’

‘He’s younger than the rest of us,’ adds Dong, as he picks up his guitar and starts to play a Django Reinhardt cover. ‘I don’t think he should be wasting time doing lights [Yang’s day job]; he’s a talented drummer.’ 

Shijiazhuang, with its oversized plazas swept with dusty air, mining trucks dashing down high streets and palace-like ‘bathhouses’ erected in the middle of nowhere, feels like it’s desperately trying to catch up with the world as fast as it possibly can. Yet in the midst of all this urgency, OYS have been taking their time.

Omnipotent Youth Society - 'Not Omnipotent Comedy'

‘We spent nearly two years recording our debut, right here in this room,’ says Dong. ‘I know all my neighbours, so they were okay with it, plus a nearby construction site was making more noise than we were. They started to build a modern housing complex at the same time as we started; we had to record after midnight to avoid the din. Now that the album is out, their fancy complex is done, too.’

After two hours of chain smoking and drinking, Dong asks – out of the blue – if we could put a photo of a camel in the article. ‘It belongs to a beggar,’ he explains, strumming a Led Zeppelin cover on his guitar. ‘He used to hang out in our neighbourhood but no one gave a fuck. One day he showed up with a camel and none of us knew where he’d got it from – I mean, did he steal it from a zoo? How else would you get a camel in this city? He got richer because people would give him money for it.’ He pauses: ‘I think we’re a lot like that camel.’

It’s an odd analogy, but maybe Dong’s right; they are a bit like that camel: laidback, confused and patient. He suddenly switches to playing Neil Young, singing, ‘old man, look at my life, I’m a lot like you were...’ It sounds sad, fragile and glorious, just like an OYS song. Sitting in the simple flat listening to Dong play his way through ‘Old Man’, it’s clear that fame hasn’t changed anything for the band, perhaps because they never really cared about it in the first place. It may seem like a fairly miserable city on the surface, but you get the feeling that OYS will be quite happy if their lives play out in Shijiazhuang for another 30 years.

By Wang Ge