After becoming the first Chinese band to play Coachella, can New Pants make it in the West? Frontman Peng Lei talks cross-cultural connotations with Wang Ge
It’s been a year full of milestones for Beijing’s disco-synth-punk heroes New Pants. A mere 15 years into their rock’n’roll journey, the band that officially launched our humble little mag has finally made their mark on the global stage, becoming the first Chinese band to play California’s massive Coachella festival, taking the capital sound to New York and launching their seventh studio album Sex Drugs Internet. In the aftermath of all of that, frontman Peng Lei (and, we should mention, film director, designer and toy store owner) chatted to us about rock in China and the West – and the differences in between.
You’ve said that ‘rock music doesn’t have anything to do with Chinese people’s lives; even if it does, it’s all copying the West’. Can you elaborate on that statement?
Rock’n’roll has been in China for about 20 years but we haven’t seen any real achievement. People still hold on to their old beliefs about certain types of music that they’ve been listening to for ages. Most of the time, Chinese people don’t need rock music at all. They need something smooth, something without conflicts or personalities. Cantopop and Mandapop from Hong Kong and Taiwan, on the other hand, despite the fact they were also imitating Western rock music in the first place, has managed to be soft so Chinese people can feel comfortable with it.
In the West, disco usually has certain gay connotations that people might be drawn to or back away from…
See what I just said? You’ve just made another reference to the West! These concepts don’t really belong to China. This is a really funny question, especially for us. Because we always feel that we lack something in our music, maybe because we are not gay. Like many Western bands, New Pants makes music inspired by youth and popular culture, but we’ve altered the sound and the ideas so Chinese people can identify with them. I think that really separates us from those Western copycats in China.
You played a big arena show in Beijing last year, something Chinese rock bands rarely get to do. Did you worry about audience reaction or losing money?
Last August, we put on a musical, I Am Happy to be so Lonely (我就樂意這样寂寞了), at the Beijing Exhibition Theatre. The tickets sold out a week before the show and it was really well received. So, with that experience, we felt confident about the concert.
Image is a big thing in rock. Are you guys ever worried about having to be cool all the time?
When we started the band, we were worried about not being hardcore; then after Pang Kuan (the other founding member) and I both turned 30 years old, we started to think about whether we were cool enough. As far as I understand, the coolest thing is dealing with people as infrequently as possible.
Tell us about your most recent album Sex Drugs Internet. Does it imply rock’n’roll is dead or something? You can get sex and drugs from the internet anyway…
To start with, rock’n’roll has never been alive in China. Then, if you look at the rest of the world, rock’n’roll has been defeated by the internet. The whole concept is about how empty young people’s lives are around the world.
Parties are rather boring these days. Everyone stands against the DJ booth, dancing to themselves. Then they go home and post party photos on Facebook or Weibo. So even if you didn’t go to that party, you can talk about it as if you did because you’ve seen everything about it online. Thinking about that and listening to you guys scream ‘let’s go wild’ in the title song Sex Drugs Internet – it feels pretty sad…
It’d be more pathetic if you spent hours downloading porn and masturbating to your imaginary girlfriend. The thing is you don’t have to be out partying to go wild. Yes, it is sad – but also marvellous.
Go see New Pants at the Hang Out on Sat Jul 7; Tickets: 92834922, firstname.lastname@example.org