By Matt Taylor
London is no stranger to being a pit stop for some of the biggest stars of the Mandopop world on their world tours. With a thriving Chinese language community built of people living there for generations to students studying abroad, there has long been a market for live mandopop concerts in the UK’s capital. Last year alone, the city welcomed Jay Chou 周杰倫, A-Mei 張惠妹, and Fire E.X 滅火器. This March, Mayday 五月天 even managed to sell out the o2 Arena – a 20,000 capacity venue and the busiest live music venue in the world.
The Troubadour, despite being a small venue, has had a mighty role in the UK’s music scene. Whilst the basement of a bar may not seem like an overly impressive spot, legends of the music world such as Elton John, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Jimi Hendrix have previously graced the stage as newcomers to the music world, only to later go on and fundamentally alter the pop music landscape forever.
It’s an intimidating venue, but the perfect place to introduce two fledgling Taiwanese indie bands to the international live music scene. They were brought to the UK as part of LUCfest – a festival originating in Tainan that aims to promote Taiwanese underground and indie music to a larger audience. By bringing this to the UK, it shows that Taiwanese bands and their promoters understand that music is the true global language, and that Taiwanese indie has something to offer music markets far beyond its own shores.
At an event where two Taiwanese indie bands are performing, it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to imagine the majority – if not all – of the audience to be Taiwanese. Of course, the percentage of the audience that was from Taiwan was naturally the majority. What was a delightful sight however was that the gig managed to attract a sizeable local audience as well. This potentially had two different positive implications – one, that Taiwanese music has an audience outside of native communities, and two, that non-Taiwanese audiences are increasingly accepting (or at least curious) about non-Western music, with local bands and promoters willing to indulge their curiosity.
The first band to take to the stage tonight, The Fur, only formed in late 2016. Despite this, they’re already in the midst of their own European Tour. Just three days prior to this concert, they performed a full set at the Focus Wales Festival in North Wales.
On disc, their music is a dreamy 1980s inspired hazy synth-pop ideally suited for hot summer days, and at times reminiscent of bands such as The Cranberries. Sung entirely in English, it’s a perfect pop package designed to connect with an international audience, and gives them a unique selling point as compared with the vast majority of Taiwanese indie bands.
The set itself was a collection of well crafted, easily accessible indie-pop friendly to the ears of a UK audience, who in turn lapped up song after song, giving the band a rupturous round of applause each time, cheering them on when they appeared slightly nervous. The band bopped in unison as lead singer Savannah 柚子sang as perfectly as on record, with guitarists Zero中凌 and Ren唯任 keeping pace; providing the vibrant melodies from which she could springboard. What really elevated the live performance was synth player Wen Wen 溫溫, whose keyboard skills added a layer of sheen to the concert lost naturally through live guitars.
Sometimes in a live setting bands which have such a shiny finish to them run the risk of coming across lacklusture, or accused of being better suited to disc than to stage. Whilst it’s true that live, the band does lose some of the glamour and distance which makes their records so addictive, their live performance instead adds new depth, and shows the listener not just a passion for the music they make, but for music and instrumentation in general.
It’s a rarity for newly formed bands to be able to encapsulate and portray their musical aesthetic visions as well as The Fur did on Tuesday night, and it’s a testament to how well the band work together, how well the songs are crafted, and ultimately, how well they understand themselves as an entity.
Although armed with only a two track EP at the moment, their performance set the stage for their debut album due in August this year. Judging from this performance, we not only can’t wait to get our hands on the album, but neither can we wait to catch them live again, to both see how they grow as live performers and how they incorporate new songs into their set.
The second band to perform, Outlet Drift 漂流出口, who hail from Taitung and have been making music since 2010, exist on the entirely opposite end of the spectrum to The Fur. Rather than producing aesthetically clean images and radio-friendly pop, they snarl over heavy guitars reminiscent of grunge with a hint of psychedelica, and are heavily influenced by their Amis Aboriginal heritage, which comes through in all aspects of both their recorded songs and live performances.
From the moment they came on stage, they caught the attention of the audience, perhaps none more so than vocalist and bassist Putad Pihay 布妲菈.碧海. Her personality beamed across the basement venue, as she tells us she didn’t expect London to be so cold (it was actually one of the warmest days of 2018 so far), then proclaims that “didn’t you know Aboriginals have a drinking problem?” before drinking half a glass of wine in a single gulp.
The most enchanting thing however was the scope of her voice, which, inspired and influenced by her Amis roots, is entirely non-comformist to typical pop or rock standards, and instead pays homage to the traditional singing style of her ancestors. It is emotional, sophisticated and intruiging. Rather than be constrained by how the original record sounds, or attempt to create the same performance continuously over multiple tour days, she instead lets her voice dictate what it wants to do, a refreshing concept.
That said, the band as a whole provided the audience with a fierce and invigorating set, with a set list focused predominantly on their 2015 debut album ‘Drowning’ which won them Best Rock Album award at Taiwan’s Golden Indie Music Awards. The band were loud in the best possible way, and often played themselves into a fervour. Lead guitarist Wusang Pihay 巫尚.碧海 was visibly passionate throughout, at one point being brought down onto his knees by a prolonged guitar solo. Drummer Kurt Ken 林肯 was almost unnervingly intense, playing with a speed, rhythm and intensity that made him mesmerising to watch.
Their on-stage aesthetic also seemed to embody the music and personalities on display tonight. Tattoos, bare feet and T-shirts with Aboriginal style patterns were the outfits of choice, but felt entirely organically chosen as opposed to a deliberate decision, adding yet another layer of authenticity to this enigmatic group.
So engaging were the band and their music that by the end of their set, they had the audience on their feet, jumping around and headbanging until they were sweating. The energy in the room was palpable. So enamoured was the crowd that they demanded an encore, and the band were more than happy to comply.
Their songs were enchanting, angry and fascinating; able to simultaneously transport the listener to another world whilst also reminding you of the cruelties of reality, perfect encapsulations of the yearning of Aboriginal youth to find a better life for themselves, yet desperate to hold on to what makes them unique, and this was something that Outlet Drift managed to convey to a room of Londoners on Tuesday night – no easy feat, but a testament to their capabilities both as musicians and live performers. Outlet Drift didn’t just provide a concert, they provided an experience.
It was evident that both bands struck a positive chord with the audience tonight, not just in the different but welcoming receptions that both bands received, but also in their ability to sell their merchandise. The bands had to hurriedly restock their merchandise of T-shirts, CDs and pins as the vast majority of the audience wanted not just one, but several mementos to take home with them to remember the night they had just experienced.
It was a powerful end to the night, and a hopeful reminder that regardless of location, ethnicity or language, music is the one thing that can bring anyone together. When the audience left The Troubadour on a late Tuesday evening, they came away not only having two new favourite indie bands; they left comforted by the knowledge that Taiwan not only has a vibrant underground music scene; but have one that is ready to take over the world.
It's been my dream since I started getting to know more about Chinese music to be able to live in Taipei, and now I'm finally going to be able to! Starting from the 11th of February, I will be staying in Taipei for 139 days and hope to share parts of my experiences that may be helpful with readers everywhere! (Feb 2014)