Taiwanese Indie Bands Rock SXSW

Date: March 18, 2011
Time -Cocktail Mixer: 12:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Time -Show: 8:00 pm
Location: Lambert’s
Address: 401 W 2nd St, Austin, TX

Going to the hugely popular South by Southwest Music Festival? Check out a rockin’ night of Taiwanese indie bands!


Tizzy Bac is one of Taiwan’s first truly indie bands to vie with the Mando-pop stars produced by the music factory of Taiwan’s major record labels, and its music is already starting to spread much farther afield than the Chinese speaking world. The trio, led by the mesmerizing voice and talented fingers of female vocalist and keyboarist Chen Hui-ting, has sold out a premium 3,000 seat Taipei arena for solo performances, a feat not even every music factory idols can manage, and the band has also played top international music festivals, including Fuji Rock (Japan, 2005), Liverpool Sound City Music Festival (UK, 2009) and SXSW (US, 2010), to which it will return in 2011. Tizzy Bac was founded in 1999 while all three members were still in college, and it was a conscious decision to form a rock band around the piano. In place of electric guitars, Hsu Che-yu applied various grades of distortion to his bass, and Lin Yuan completed the outfit with an economic precision on the drums. The sound was truly eclectic, mixing alternative rock, Chen’s effortless, siren-like voice, jazz flourishes, and even the occasional trip-hop beat. Even before their first album, they won top prize at Taiwan’s Indie Music Awards in 2002, and the first full-length album followed a year later, Anything Can Tempt Me (2003). Comparisons were quickly made to the Ben Folds Five, but Tizzy Bac has less ragtime and boogie woogie (and also less improv), while managing to sound much more modern. Tizzy Bac’s later albums moved to a slightly stronger but still highly idiosyncratic rock sound, and a 2007 EP, La Rose de Victor, experimented with a collection of French-style chanson compositions. Chen’s lyrics, mostly Chinese with smatterings of English, are the stuff of clever pop, tending towards postmodern ballads of relationships gone wrong and life’s trials. (And here we mean “ballads” in the good sense – Billy Joel or Elton John, not Celine Dion.) Tizzy Bac’s Taiwanese label continues to insist the band has a cult following, but as the fans continue to grow, cult status may not last long.

When Wonfu made its first tour of Japan in 2006 and found former Pizzicato Five bandleader Yasuharu Konishi showing up in support, it was not just a dream come true, it was probably inevitable. Formed on Christmas Eve 1998, Wonfu had always walked the razor’s edge between pop and indie rock. The band started out playing Taipei’s smoky basement rock dives, but even as it did so, it was always exploring ultra-catchy, candy-sweet hooks, albeit still underpinned by darker nuance and proper rock basslines. With a female bass player named Twiggy, hit singles like “Miniskirt” and retro-chic fashion as a major part of the act, comparisons to Shibuya-kei – a mix of jazz, bossa nova, pop and rock from 1990s Tokyo – were inevitable and in fact welcomed by the group. In Taiwan’s 2002 Indie Rock Awards, Wonfu won the judges prize for Best Band, and in subsequent years it was twice nominated as Best Band at the Chinese-language Grammies, the Golden Melody Awards, and once at the Singapore Hit Awards. Good things followed, including an endorsement deal for motor scooters followed and invitations to perform in every important market for Chinese music: Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Macau and of course every major festival in Taiwan. But the real icing on the cake has been the three albums released in recent years in Japan, including a “Greatest Hits” CD. Musically, expect a lot of male-female vocal harmonies, Monkeys-style guitar pop and TV-commercial-ready sunshine music… or is that all just an act? Either way, performance skills are flawless, so if it is just an act, it certainly is a very good one.

For playing around 100 gigs in 2008, an achievement which sits at the pinnacle of Echo’s consistent gigging over the last decade, Echo goes down as one of the hardest working indie bands Taiwan has ever seen. The four-piece was founded in 2000, starting out as a college band heavily influenced by Brit-pop bands popular at the time, and the influence is felt most in the vocals of Wu Po-chang, which regularly soar to the high end of the range with the plaintive emotion of Suede’s Brett Anderson, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke or even perhaps Coldplay’s Chris Martin. The guitar work of Huang Kwun-wun similarly moves between a light edginess and sheer urgency, while the rhythm section of Chiou Wen-yen and Mu Chun-yu lay down moody and subtly propulsive grooves. When Placebo came to Taiwan, Echo opened up for them. Comparisons like this are of course dangerous – we wouldn’t want to give you the idea that Echo are simple emulators, because from whatever origins, their music has certainly developed over time, ranging from rockin’ and dancy-fast to more sensitive moments that verge into the territory of urban folk or even occasionally Mando-pop love ballads. But the comparison should give you a handy idea of where the band is coming from. Taiwan’s fans have been more than appreciative, supporting Echo through three albums and buying up all the tickets for shows on the band’s recent album release tour. This is their first ever visit to North America.

When Fire EX (also called “fire extinguisher”) formed in 2000, all four members were 16-year-old high school students enthralled with the sounds of Greenday and other acts of the punk-gone-mainstream variety. But they somehow managed to combine that raw guitar energy with local strains of Taiwanese rock, and by the time they were in college a mix of pure attitude and Taiwanese inspired melodies had carried them to the stages of Taiwan’s two largest music festivals of the time, Spring Scream and the Formoz Festival, where they quickly found themselves as a regular act playing for crowds in the mid-hundreds. While most of Taiwan’s indie music scene revolves around Taipei, Fire EX came out of Taiwan’s second largest city of Kaohsiung, which is around 300 miles to the south and despite its 3 million population tends to be much more provincial. The language predominantly spoken there is Taiwanese, a Chinese dialect different spoken by most in Taiwan yet different from Taiwan’s official national language of Mandarin (also the universal language of mainland China). Fire EX sings in both Taiwanese, Mandarin and a smattering of English, and they are known for easy melodies, many of which combine the shout-along choruses of pop punk (in early songs like “Let’s Go”) with revved up, guitar-powered interpretations of Taiwanese folk songs, which tend to be lilting and lovesick country tunes in part derived from Japanese enka. Now, with band members approaching the ripe old age of 26, Fire EX has two full albums under its belt as well as a film soundtrack. The group has also gained considerable complexity in terms of both songwriting and musical arrangements, so while they still play the old rowdy crowd-pleasers, new material tends to be more psychologically edgy. In other words, the intensity is no longer simply about communal youthful abandon, now frontman Sam Yang even goes so far as to claim the influence of postrock, and though that may be going too far, certainly the energy seems much more generated from within.

Aphasia is in fact a continuation of an earlier band called Nipples, which was a fixture in Taiwan’s indie scene. All four of Aphasia’s members used to play in Nipples, but after a decade of making music, Nipples decided it was time to take on a new identity. The two-guitar setup creates huge amount of feedback and distortion, and the group’s intertwining of musical structures builds up angular soundscapes and rough textures. This is one reason why Nipples were often compared to Sonic Youth and other guitar-heavy bands. And indeed, Sonic Youth was one of their biggest influences. But this was also a reason to stop and start over again. After releasing two full-length studio albums, the time for homage was over. Aphasia’s latest effort, “The Crocodile Society of Aphasia,” was completed with production help from notable US indie rock engineers JJ Golden and Andy Baker of Japancakes. It takes the listener on a sonic walk through the day in the life of a Taipei resident. The album is distributed by Arts & Crafts in North America. Despite their purely instrumental nature, the band is an active supporter of Taiwanese independence. Also of note, three of Aphasia’s founding members work in indie music, running labels, doing sound engineering and other jobs.

The White Eyes’ female lead singer Gao Xiao-gao is getting pretty famous within Taiwan’s and China’s indie scenes for being outrageous on stage, including showing up for one gig wearing a nude leotard painted to look like she really was buck naked. The entire scene did a triple take on that one, both at the show and the next day on Facebook. Formed in 1994, White Eyes takes their name from a Taiwanese expression for people who say out loud those embarrassing things that everyone knows about. They’ve opened for international acts The Music and These New Puritans in Taiwan, were named best indie band at Taiwan’s 2009 Hohaiyan Music Festival, and their gigging experience covers Taiwan, China and Japan. The White Eyes debut album “Kiss Your Eyes” was recorded in Beijing and later mastered in New York by Greg Calbi, who’s worked with Sonic Youth, Pavement, Interpol, MGMT. They see it as a fusion of grunge, punk and psychobilly.

One Response to “Taiwanese Indie Bands Rock SXSW”

    Leave a Reply