Rough diamonds

By Chen Nan (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-05-15 09:00
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Rough diamonds

Li Yan, lead vocalist and guitarist of the indie punk-rock band, Rustic. Provided to China Daily

Li Yan, leader of the band Rustic, says they deserve to be called the Best New Band in the World and with Chinese rock music causing a stir abroad wants to ride the crest of the wave. Chen Nan reports

'We came here all the way from China just for your US dollars and the London girls," Li Yan shouted to the audience at the London Scala on April 27. He was at the world final of the Global Battle of Bands (GBOB), a 6-year-old competition involving more than 40 countries.

The 20-year-old young man, better known as Lucifer, is the leading vocalist and guitarist of indie punk-rock band, Rustic, which includes bassist Wang Heyong and drummer Wang Fan. In 15 minutes, they performed two songs, Girls Are Not Yours and Wild Woman. After the 4-hour battle between 19 bands from all over the world, Rustic emerged victorious, winning not only $100,000, but also the chance to record an album in a London recording studio, a 10-stop UK tour and a contract with a UK label.

"I knew we had won when the host said the words 'original', 'entertaining' and 'using a different instrument'. And I jumped onto the stage at once," says Li, sitting in a McDonald near Houhai, a tourist hangout of the capital.

Wearing blue jeans, a dotted shirt and sneakers, the young man is energetic as he talks. He has a personal clothes designer from France and his haircut is his favorite so far, he says.

Recalling that night, he is still excited. "I guess the reason why we became the final winner is that we gave a great live performance and were creative," he says while taking out his clarinet, the instrument which, as he puts it, helped them stand out.

"Music is the core. But visual impression is also important, such as dyed hair, eye-catching clothes and the pose when playing instruments," he says.

Right from the time Rustic won the chance to fly to London last November, Li was clear of one thing. "It's meaningless to me to win second or third place. We deserve the title of the Best New Band in the world," he says.

His confidence comes from years of guitar and clarinet training (since he was 11) as well as his persistence. Despite his parents' objection, he started the band in a small town of Hebei province in the summer of 2006.

The name Rustic, which came from Li's searching through a dictionary, reflects the band's music idea: rough and unsophisticated. They sing in English and their songs, all written by the band, are about girls, sex, and money. After two years of songwriting and live performances in their hometown, Li and the band came to Beijing in 2008, building up a strong fan base and honing their live power.

"I have dreamed of becoming a star like my idols, such as the Sex Pistols, Toy Dolls, and the Clash, since I was 11. I don't want to repeat the life of my parents' generation, which is dull in that small village," he says.

With their unpolished music, outrageous costumes and energetic live performance, Rustic impressed Michael Pettis, boss of D22, a popular live venue near Peking University. He became the manager of the band and offered them a contract with Maybe Mars, an indie label that has Chinese bands such as Carsick Cars, P.K. 14, and Joyside on its books.

"I wasn't very sure about their final win but I know they will rock the people off the stage. Now, they are going to be real stars," said Pettis in an interview.

According to Li, he has listened to Chinese rock music since childhood, such as those of Beyond and Tang Dynasty bands. But he says Rustic has a different understanding of rock 'n' roll.

"We are optimistic about our lives so we want to make the audience happy. The beats could be strong but there is no anger," he explains. "I think that's the difference from the rockers of the old generation."

Like many young Chinese of his age, Li likes computer games and talking about girls. But he insists that he has a healthy life without nightlife, drugs or alcohol.

"I just have one girlfriend," he giggles.

He is also aware of the need to promote the band. "I like having interviews and photo shoots because it proves Rustic really matters" he says.

"But now what I worry about most is our first album which will come out at the end of this year," he says seriously. "I don't want to let down all those who have supported us all the way. You see all the people walking along the streets of Houhai? I want them to know Rustic one day, both foreigners and Chinese."

"Chinese rock music is making a noise in the world with more bands touring the US and Europe," says Wain Yee, one of the producers of GBOB and a longtime observer of the mainland's underground music scene.

"Beijing is probably one of the most exciting cities in the world for music, its all happened in the past few years," he says. "I have been blown away by the young bands' originality and live performances and you can find such performances almost every night in the capital."

Since Cui Jian, who is considered the godfather of Chinese rock, emerged in the 1980s with the song Nothing to My Name, the rebellious rock spirit has been shared by many generations, from rockers like Zhang Chu and Dou Wei in the 1990s to today's bands like Rustic.

"The big change is that the young generation, such as Rustic, are much more open-minded and willing to show themselves. They have absorbed Western culture through the Internet," Yee says. "They are not afraid of being criticized. They are 20 and it's just started, after all."