Sunday, August 31, 2008

Public Enemy Interview


Public Enemy bassist Brian Hardgroove provided key insights to the music scene in China. Public Enemy not only performed at the Beijing Pop Festival last year, but Hardgroove then returned to help nurture the nascent punk rock scene, producing two up-and-coming bands. In our interview, he also discussed how badly Bjork fucked up matters, how the guy from Pigface is trying to turn Chinese bands into the next a-ha, how Tibet will get free, and just why the government of the PRC likes them some PE.

When did you Public Enemy go over to China?

August of last year. Public Enemy played the Beijing Pop Festival.

When I went out there, a few expats told me you had to play as “PE” rather than “Public Enemy.” Was that the only sort of censorship you bumped against?

It was the most obvious thing. Everything else was kind of minor. A lot of people were surprised that Public Enemy was able to go, considering the political nature of the lyrics. I said to everyone that asked me that question is that Public Enemy was never critical of the Chinese government. PE was critical of western governments and abuse of power, so naturally the Chinese government would love Public Enemy coming.

They didn’t fear the critiquing of government in pop music?

They don’t see it that way. The Chinese government tends to view things a little old-fashioned and also, those that are responsible to translate may be translating it in a very one-dimensional way to get a certain result so you never know how that plays out. The point is, Public Enemy is clearly critical of the US government, so naturally China’s gonna roll with that. That took the mystery out of that for a lot of folks. In regards to changing the name, that’s not the first time it happened to me. I was in a band called “The Ancestors” and we had to change that name because that was “offense to the general culture of China because of how they viewed their ancestors. Those were the two things we had to deal with regarding government influence.

So what is your take with the recent developments, with Bjork saying “Tibet!” onstage and the fallout from that.

Bjork made a big mistake. That was a big mistake for Bjork to make. I don’t think the position that Kid Rock took regarding Pres. Bush --I’m paraphrasing now-- but his general sentiment was: “Musicians should stay out of politics; I support George Bush.” Well, he just made a political statement. To relegate musicians to be western citizens that was ridiculous on his part.

That said, Bjork wasn’t talking to an American audience, an Icelandic audience, she was talking to an audience that she clearly didn’t understand. There’s a process in place…let me not say she didn’t understand, maybe she just didn’t care. But what she did was damaging, not only to herself, but to people who can influence and make a change in a more gradual (and gradual may be too slow for some people) and effective way. Her statement was ineffective.

It was inflammatory.

She offended people who were into her music. When I was in Beijing, the Beijing version of Rolling Stone and magazines put out this big section about the show. You have to understand the cat and mouse game going on, you have to know what you know and don’t know about the circumstances. A woman from the magazine asked me what I thought about Tibet. I knew that was a loaded question. So what I said was ‘Well, if people anywhere in the world are restricted from moving about, most people have that problem. Not that I know if the people in Tibet are or not.' And then I said ‘But, regardless of my answer to you, are you allowed to print my response?’ and they started giggling and went onto the next thing. That was just a loaded question and they know they can’t talk about it publicly.

Bjork didn’t utilize her time wisely. She offended the very people that would fight possibly to change what’s going on in Tibet. Why? First of all, they’re even open enough to go see an artist from the West. They might be open enough to look at their government’s control over that region as not necessarily the best thing to do. That didn’t happen overnight and it’s not going to change overnight. Bjork was irresponsible. She made it harder for guys like me who are actually over there working inside the community. She’s not working inside the Chinese community.

She just played and left.

She wasn’t smart. I hope you print that.

I hope so too. It’s an important thing to bring up. I read about the government canceling a music festival, tightening tourist visas, scrutinizing westerners who live there at present.

You can rest assured that her actions were cited as one of the reasons for doing that. for sure. She gave them an excuse and she shouldn’t have.

I feel just communicating over there is watched anyway. I have this paranoia at not getting through to people.

That’s always been a problem. It’s a problem inside the country, to get anything out. I had difficulty checking my bank statements.

I couldn’t see beta blog.

The reasons are obvious. They’re trying to keep a lid on things. But back to Bjork, if she’d done a little bit of research (which I don’t think she did) or whatever, she would realize that the Chinese government is loosening the screws on that society ever so slightly every once in awhile. And there’s progress being made, but you only see it if you know what you’re looking at. She didn’t know what she was looking at. She didn’t realize that the Chinese people will free Tibet. Not Tibetans nor the Tibetan government. The Chinese people will free Tibet.

And no rich artist from the West is going to free Tibet either.

The Chinese people, that’s who you have to influence. Civil rights movements anywhere in the world, it’s the people that are in the position of dominance that eventually lift the yolk of the people who are suffering. Because the people in the position of dominance realize they shouldn’t do it. You have to influence those people in a different way. You can’t say “You’re wrong you’re wrong, go to Hell!” It doesn’t work like that. they just hide behind their own government and perceive you as a threat. The Chinese people will free Tibet, that’s what it’s going to take.

Right. Well, let’s talk about when you went over there to record Chinese punk band Demerit.

The timing was good for me to come over and work with Demerit (via Michael Pettis). I was producing the record in a quick time frame, but because of the lack of technological…all the technology is there, but the expertise and the understanding (still lags) and the culture of differences we didn’t finish in the time frame I had. I had to go back. I was asked to do another band, Brain Failure. I went back and recorded a single and stayed over to finish the Demerit record. My experience in a nutshell was those two bands.

Considering they call themselves punk bands, which they are, they’re level of expertise far exceeds the average punk band from anywhere in the world. Their level of expertise far exceeded the average punk band here. I was curious as to why that was. As I got to know them and got to know the culture, what the musicians had to deal with, then it made a lot of sense.

If you choose to do music as a career as a young person in China, you pretty much seal your fate regarding doing anything else. There’s no part-time jobs. You can’t work part-time and then rehearse at night. You’re working 12 hours a day. Here, you work your day job then do your band. Your day job might be your career, but you do your band and hope you get lucky. Those kids don’t have that option. A lot of expats have that option but the Chinese nationals don’t have that option. They either do it or they don’t. They spend their time getting good. The one child law means musicians have no siblings and are spoiled by their parents. Their parents support their musical decision. So these kids really have to hussle to make it work. So they get very very good. The musicians in Demerit are fine players. Brain Failure are fine players.

I didn’t know that at all. Another topic that has come up is their view on mimicry in their art. Did you see perceive that? I saw some bands that were dead-on in what they copied. An adherence to genre, a specific way of doing things.

No more so with them than with anyone else. How many bands in the states sound like something unusual?

Obviously, I’m coming as a westerner. I see more blends and recasting of ideas. But the bands I saw in China hadn’t quite synthesized things in a way.

There’s truth to that, yes. I think, for the most part we were looking for something to be different. We expect everything they do to be different because they’re “different people.” They are influenced by western art and music. You’ll hear that one band’s influence.

With Demerit sounded like three bands clearly; They sounded like AC/DC, Metallica, The Clash. They have chord changes that had classic 1960s rock’n’roll harmonies. I don’t hear that in American music. They clearly embraced the best parts of rock. Brain Failure on the other hand, sounds just like the Clash and nothing else. It will either serve them or it’ll be the reason no one ever hears of them.

I don’t have any more questions. Any last thoughts?

Just that music scene is very very rich and (the question becomes) would it explode? In a good way? There will be a very strong tendency to exploit that scene very quickly and they’re very vulnerable to be exploited, simply because of cultural differences. The young musicians are very much “What’s in it for me?” kinda thing. And when you’re that way, you can be divided and exploited.

Take Martin Atkins. Martin signed up a lot of bands and a band I wanted to produce: Subs. The lead vocalist is really powerful. They’re one of the older bands. When Martin went in, he signed bands to agreements he’s yet to fulfill. When I was there last, I had a sit-down with those groups, all staunch competitors. I said: “Look, you‘re in good position to be prominent bands. You have to help your scene. It doesn’t do you any good to have one band come out of China. That’s already happened.

I can cite two instances. The first one is called Loudness, a band in Japan from the 80s. Loudness was produced by my friend Eddie Kramer, Jimi Hendrix’s producer, he did Led Zeppelin’s engineer, Kiss, and Eddie produced Loudness. They came out of Japan, made a little bit of noise, they were always viewed as a Japanese band and no other band followed them. They were always viewed as a novelty.

Another band was a-ha, and no other band came out of Norway with any power because they were a novelty. I said: “If you guys have one band come out of here, you’re not going to last. You’ll always be viewed as a Chinese band in the West and then when you don’t have a hit, they’ll forget about you. If you help your scene and put out a successive flow of music from multiple band, you won’t be looked at as a ‘Chinese band,' it’ll just be great music.

This way when your band doesn’t have a hit this year, it’s not viewed as ‘that’s not happening anymore.’ My thing was to get them to really unite and work together, because they will be exploited. And they will be separated. And Martin attempted it. There’s a couple bands are trying to get out of that situation.

I went over (to China) because of why I started playing music to begin with. I play music because I’m more of a social/ political individual and music is the best tool. For Americans, we need to look outside of America. We’re very isolated here. It’s not necessary, it’s terrible, tragic, it’s shameful, we should be ashamed of ourselves. So we need to look outside of here, not with shame for our homeland, cuz I would never go outside of America and criticize it, this is my home.

But I’m a citizen of the world and we have to start behaving as such. China might be a great example of what should’ve happened in America. One thing is for sure: when the screws are loosened enough, you’re going to have tens of millions of Chinese nationals marching across Europe. That primarily is what Europe doesn’t want. When a repressive country changes, people tend to leave, they want to be somewhere else. You’re going to have millions leaving in the next ten years for sure. It depends what our western governments do, Europe is very concerned. It’s more than just music, my friend.