Posted May 11, 2016
Despite having been around for six years and establishing themselves as one of China’s foremost hardcore bands, Dr. Liu and the Human Centipede have largely flown under the radar. That’s not a complete accident – though the band take their music seriously, as frontman Liu Fei explains, prominence in the China underground scene has never been one of their priorities. We talked with Liu the day after their album release show for Weekend Punk, their third full-length album, in the back office of School Bar, a local rock club of which Liu is part owner.
Dr. Liu and the Human Centipede are a Beijing hardcore band started in 2010. Their members include frontman Liu Fei, guitarist Wangzi, bassist Chacha, Cai Xiang on drums and Cao Pu on synth. They recently released their third full-length, a double album with fellow hardcore act Zankou, entitled Weekend Punk under the label Robust Husband.
Interview translation transcript:
Liz: So can you talk a little bit about how you chose your name? Is it based on the movie?
Liu Fei: Right, I really like the movie The Human Centipede. It’s a fucking cute movie. I just like the first one. And I feel like the movie teaches us how to see the world and how to see society. So I love the movie, so I chose it as the name for my band.
Liz: What do you think the movie has to do with society and seeing the world?
Liu Fei: You know the end of the movie made me think about what kind of person you want to be – maybe the first or the third or the second or the third. You want to see the shit and you want to eat the shit and shit the shit or you want to only eat the shit. I feel like that’s the three kinds of people in society, and which one do you want to become? Now in terms of whether you’re talking about Chinese people or all people generally, I think most people choose the second kind; it’s the safest position. I can see really fucked up shit, and I can also pass on fucked up shit to other people. But I don’t want to be that. I want to be the first kind of person – well, not that I want to be that kind of person, but I’d rather take that position than any of the others. I think… rather than… passing shit onto other people is not as good as just laughing about it.
Liz: So a lot of people who listen to this record or read or hear this interview don’t speak Chinese. So can you talk a bit about what the songs on this album are about and what inspired them?
Liu Fei: Ok, actually my lyrics are very simple. My lyrics have a lot of political elements, but I won’t like a lot of other Chinese punk bands whose lyrics are very direct because I want to use my own language to say out my own thoughts and ideas. But actually it isn’t just this aspect, it’s also life, but we very rarely sing about love. We don’t want to sing love [songs] (laughs). Yeah. But most of our lyrics have to do with my opinion/point of view about a specific thing. You know when I see the news on TV I think about I want to see something of the I don’t want to be a nerd, you know. I don’t want to be a stupid pussy. So I must think. AndI must sing the song. And make more people understand what I’m talking about. For example, [the song] “Die Like a Dog” (不得好死) is kind of about, so before there was a high-speed rail that collapsed, it was a big accident, and CCTV tried to conceal it. For example “Back to the Murder Field” is a new song about the military parade on September 3, 2015. I wanted to express this, but I didn’t want to make it too sensitive or obvious, that would make people as soon as they hear it go, “Oh, I know what he’s talking about.” And of course there are some things in our lives that if we don’t like them, then we’ll talk about it.
Liz: When you say the nerds or the pussies or whatever, what do you mean by that?
Liu Fei: I think it’s just some shabi who don’t actually think about things, the kind of people who just care about earning money and living a comfortable life. For instance, the kind of people who we call in China jianpanxia or wangluoxia (“keyboard warrior” or “online warrior” – people who express outrage about social wrongs online, but not in real life) – people who only know how to curse other people from the safety of their computers, these numb jingoists, these left-wing advocates. And they think of themselves as really active or like justice warriors, but they’ve just been brainwashed until they’re crazy. I think that’s what nerds are – people who just swallow these ideas from the time they’re young. And you don’t know how to choose what you want or what you don’t want. I think they are really shabi.
Liz: Could you choose one song from the album and just talk a little bit about what it means and why you wrote it?
Liu Fei: Like “Dingfuzhuang Thugs” (定福庄暴徒) is probably our most famous song. It was also used in a Jackie Chan movie, a kung fu movie, as the theme song (Police Story, 2013). But they didn’t know what it was about. The truth is, it’s about a very anti-Japanese period in China in which, because of the Diaoyu Islands, there emerged this problem in a lot of places with thugs who would go around smashing cars or use this opportunity to hurt people. Now actually these people have no idea of the Chinese government's real motivation. Because the government knew that there was a lot of unrest, and they needed somewhere to transfer this anger against the government, so they realized they could move that over to the Diaoyu Islands Issue. And let's be honest, who do the islands truly belong to? Not you , in any case. Regardless of who they belong to, you need a visa before you can go there. So this song is about that; it's telling people to stay awake. Because at that time, I did see a lot of so-called patriots going around smashing Japanese-made cars, attacking Yoshinoyas and then being taken away by the police for disturbing the social order. Fuck, these government agencies will be exposed. So the meaning of these lyrics is nobody remembers that you occupied the streets - you are all just puppets, government stooges. Under normal circumstances I won't explain the meaning of the song, and anyway every person who listens to the song will have a different idea of what I mean.
Liz: Do you not worry that writing about things like this, your band could get in trouble if someone from the Culture Bureau hears it? Or do you think that the lyrics are vague enough or that they don’t pay enough attention to rock music that they won’t care?
Liu Fei: I just don’t care. Because Human Centipede has been an “amateur” band from the beginning. So if you say I can’t play shows, fine, I won’t play. You don’t let me make music, then I just won’t make it.
Also my lyrics, even though people might be able to remember them very clearly, there’s not a single line of me like saying “fuck your mother” or whatever. I think we’re actually quite cultured. So my lyrics are more about venting or saying what I want to say. Also, I have no interest in participating in some fucking festival, some dickwad something-something “berry” festival in this place and this place. They can go fuck themselves. This is rock and roll, I just want to play what I want to play, so I just don’t care. But yeah, we don’t include the lyrics in our CDs – if you get it, you get it, if you don’t, you don’t. I don’t care. If we’re talking and you want to ask me what this song means, I’ll tell you. But you know I don’t want the lyrics to be a signal or be a bible or something else, you know. Like having people go, “Oh! I know that line, that’s from your lyrics!” I don’t like that.
Liz: I noticed that on this record you have a few songs that have not very traditional hardcore elements, like in COPS you have the girl who was singing, and then in another song you have the guy who is rapping. So why did you want to include these kinds of different elements in this album?
Liu Fei: First, we all love hardcore, but there are some differences. Like I like Black Flag and the Germs and Circle Jerks or like Bad Brains, 7 Seconds, like more traditional hardcore punk. And maybe our guitarist, who’s also Zankou’s guitarist, he loves Japanese hardcore punk like BBQ Chickens, Razor H. But we all love maybe Maxiumum the Hormone, a Japanese hardcore and metal-fusion band. But I hope because this is something we do for fun, so I hope that – like for instance, our bass player, he loves Ricky, he loves ska, so all of the members, when we practice together, we each bring our [influences]. So you have one, you have one, you have one, ok we get together. So it’s maybe not traditional hardcore punk. I want several elements to get together and [like, for instance] Beastie Boys I love. So I hope our music can include some old-school rapping and maybe even some ska, just as long as it’s fun. I think it being funny is important.
Liz: Hardcore is often thought of as an angry aggressive genre. Is that what it is to you? Like, when you’re writing songs, does it come from a place of anger or excitement, or what are your feelings when you’re writing songs?
Liu Fei: I think when I’m writing songs, it’s very simple, it just has to do with what I’m thinking about at any given time. So for instance if there’s something that’s been going on lately that I want to talk about, when I write songs that’s going to come out. So it’s not like they come from a place of always being angry or always being happy.
There’s often a specific thing that will make me want to write a song. And then because of a story or some detail, I’ll write a song, so actually for me… because I really don’t understand music, I just know how to write lyrics. So usually when we’re at band practice, they’ll come up with the musical concept and I’ll have a listen and then spplhy the lyrics. Anyway, for me it’s very simple. For example today, ok in the afternoon, I saw the movie of the fucking CCTV on BBC or CNN so I want to talk about something of this news, talk what I want to talk. So that’s how it works for me.
Liz: I think the hardcore scene in China is fairly small. I could probably count on one hand the number of hardcore bands in Beijing. Why do you think that is?
Liu Fei: I think hardcore is still a very small community in China; it will never become a mainstream genre in the world or in this society. But hardcore isn’t necessarily mainstream in the US either. So I feel like in China… how to say it? The people who know about punk are already pretty exceptional, so I don’t have very high hopes that people will be able to accept hardcore punk or something as extreme as trashcore and on and on. As long as everyone is doing their own thing, that’s good enough. And it’s also not a big thing for me that everyone accept it. If it became like this, I think… the country will be changed.
Liz: So in addition to this band, you’re also one of the owners of School Bar, which gives you a pretty good perspective on the punk scene and of course you’ve played in punk bands in the past, you’ve been involved in the punk scene for a long time. What would you say is its status at the moment? How has it changed in the past five to ten years?
Liu Fei: I think the most China punk golden age was maybe 1997 to 2005. So I think now punk’s time has kind of passed in Beijing, I think at least at School you can still see, not only punk, or not what I think of as punk, but a lot of bands that have the punk spirit. I think in the past, most people’s understanding of punk had to do with the music itself, or like how you dress, what your life was like, but I think now it’s more about spirit. A lot of people say School is a punk bar, but I don’t agree, you know. I think School is a rock and roll bar but our understanding of rock probably is based on the punk spirit, and for me, that’s enough. But I do think that right now Beijing and also Chinese punk is beginning to see a resurgence. At least that’s my hope.