by Ceridwen Brown
On a dark and drizzly Shanghai night we drag ourselves out of the house and try to hail a taxi to the Xujiahui area south of the city, where longstanding but ever-changing underground venue Harleys has all female metal band Must Be Red on their bill that night. I’ve been trying to catch them again for a while, having watched a memorably skillful, committed and entertaining performance of theirs early on when I moved to China. They made an impression.
As well as being a consistent and supportive alternative music venue, Harleys sits directly under a delicious no-frills Chinese diner, where post-soundcheck dumplings, sichuan beans and Tsingtao beers have become a tradition whenever Ugly Girls play there. We find Must be Red in the stairwell entrance to the venue and suggest the diner for a quieter spot to talk before they play the show.
Together since 2010 but with a shifting lineup, the five piece band as it is now; guitarists Ani 安妮 and Red 瑞德, singer Jess 小鱼, bass player Journey and Drummer Amanda 淇钰 have been playing together for two years. Citing bands like Our Lady Piece and Metallica as their main influences, they stand out stylistically amongst the other female-led bands in Shanghai as particularly heavy.
We sit at a classic Chinese style round dining table, propping our zoom mic on the huge rotating glass plate designed for easy food sharing but serendipitously benefical for spinning one microphone between five people. At odds with the onstage presence that I recall, Must be Red are initially quite quiet and our first question is met with an extended thoughtful silence.
What is your music about?
Ani: Errr…That’s a very hard question. I think every song is different…
Jess: …yeah, but generally they’re positive…
Ani: We want to bring some positivity to the world.
(Unable to resist interjecting with a contradiction so early on, Casey quotes from the distinctively un-positive Must be Red song of the same name that we like to listen to a lot “The day you die is the best day of my life”?)
The whole band breaks out laughing
Ani: Ok yeah that one’s different! But I don’t think we have an overall message or theme.
Do you define your style as ‘Metal’ and who are the biggest influences on Must Be Red?
Jess: Our style is Metalcore or Post Hardcore. We all like Our Lady Peace a lot… Korn, Metallica… heavy stuff!
Amanda: All Shall Perish…Crosses, Miss May I
How did you get together and is there any story behind the name?
Jess: Red and I had another band like 10 years ago.
Ani: When I came from Hong Kong to mainland China, I wanted to form a band but I didn’t know anyone. Somebody introduced me to Red who was looking to form a heavy metal band with all girls and asked if I was interested so I joined at that point. Same with the other girls but they joined us later.
Red: The band name is nothing to do with my name!
Jess: The colour red represents passion and blood; and in Chinese if something ‘must be red’ it means it must be popular. The association of red in China is of being good, y’know? In China ‘red’ means popular/fortunate… it’s kind of hard to explain…
Ani: I think red is special and evocative even outside of China but especially here it stands for fortune, life and passion. We liked the idea of all of these associations.
The bands you listed as influences were foreign bands, do you listen to Chinese bands too? How did you get interested in alternative music?
Ani: Probably more foreign bands, some Chinese bands like Life Awaits but not a lot. We listen to all sorts of music though, not just alternative bands. Jazz, classical, musicals…everything is interesting to us. We all learned classical instruments at school. I first discovered heavy music when I saw it on TV and thought it was really cool, so that’s when I started learning guitar.
Amanda how did you start drumming?
Amanda: I learned classical piano since the age of seven, then started learning drums in 2011. When I first wanted to play in a band I actually wanted to be a guitarist, but I found it so difficult and then my friend called me asking if I wanted to learn drums with her so we could get a discount by splitting the cost of the lessons! After learning for three months, I joined my first band; then another and another. In total, five bands over the course of my time at university. Now I don’t want to be a guitarist any more! For my day job I teach drums to teenagers, adults and kids. I have so many female students! Young Chinese parents particularly like their children to play drums. I don’t know why, but watching little kids drum is so cute!
It’s a very specific drumming style, did you always want to play metal drums?
Amanda: I played in many different styles of bands and also loved heavy music, but until they found me to be Must be Red’s drummer, I hadn’t started to learn how to play very heavy drums or use a double bass drum pedal. I still play in another very different style band as well called Dream Can, but Must be Red is the band I’ve been in for the longest out of any band I’ve played with.
You say it was a conscious decision to be an all female band, what was the motivation for that? Have you ever felt you had to prove yourselves as musicians more because of it?
Red: I think it’s unusual in China.
Journey: You think so? I don’t…
Red: I don’t like to form bands with guys. I don’t know why…
Jess: I think it was destiny! (laughing) Red doesn’t like forming bands with boys because every time they fall into a relationship!
Red: Then when the relationship breaks up so does the band…
Ani: All of us had played before in bands with male and female members but it was Jess and Red who had the idea of forming an all female one. I personally didn’t like the idea of it at first because I felt like all the guys weren’t coming for the music, but because we are an all girl band and I don’t like the thought of that. But now I think they come more for our music. I guess I did feel like we had to prove ourselves somewhat, especially playing metal style, but we’ve done it already!
Journey: I’ve been in lot of bands with guys but…. (hesititates)
Amanda to Journey: …they’re not as cute, you prefer me!
Journey: (laughing) Yes I’m just so happy in Must Be Red.
Amanda: What could be so different about it really though? I don’t feel like male or female makes any difference at all. I don’t feel judged as a female drummer.
Ani: (laughing) She thinks she’s the best!
I’m interested in how edgy metal music is perceived as in China. Do you play Must be Red’s music to your families and what do they think of the band?
Ani: I do think it’s edgy in China. My family has never listened to my music before (laughs at the idea and turns to the others)… have yours??
Amanda: I really don’t think they can understand it actually, but my parents are coming to see us at Hainan. They already have tickets! They’ve watched videos of our band on wechat (Chinese social media app) many times before and they always click ‘like’ on them! Because they live south in Guangzhou where I grew up, this is how they can see what I’m doing.
Jess: My parents have heard our music. My father likes Metallica, so I think he’s cool. It is an edgy style though. I think all over the world this kind of music is not mainstream.
Can you describe the local scene in Shanghai and do you think it has changed a lot since you started playing?
Ani: This question we’ve been asked a lot actually, but we don’t really have an answer to it. We don’t pay much attention to the bigger scene; we just play the shows we want. We have gigs around once a month on average; more in the summer when they have music festivals. We’ve played Midi festival and Strawberry festival. They’re big shows; huge crowds! Midi was so much fun because Must be Red is heavy and the Midi Crowd listens to heavy music, they loved it.
Do you feel like the greater political landscape of China interferes with the music scene?
Ani: Well, yes because you can’t write about that in your lyrics, especially if you want to perform in the music festivals. Every show we have to submit all the lyrics and explain them. If they were talking about politics we wouldn’t be able to do that. It can stop certain music from being released as well. Most negative stuff is off limits… I don’t know, they accepted ‘The Day You Die is the Best Day of My Life’ (laughing) They were fine with that!
Jess: I write all the lyrics and I’m not really interested in writing about politics. My lyrics are more about emotional things, you know? Personal emotions if not personal experiences.
Who is it you want to die?
Ani: (laughing) What is that song about actually??
Jess: Some random thoughts! Angry things I was thinking at the time, but I don’t remember actually. I wrote that song 3 years ago and I guess I was angry in that moment. It’s our only song that is so angry!
You only sing in English, never Chinese right?
Jess: Yes, only in English. I tried writing in Chinese but it was so hard. It’s hard to explain why. Ani always tells me to try and write Chinese lyrics as almost all of our audience is Chinese so some folks don’t understand the lyrics. The way of singing in each language is very different though and I feel more comfortable with the pronunciation of English musically. With Chinese, our words are short so you have to speak like one, one, one (the language is made up of single syllable sounds) whereas with English you can fit the words together differently. The natural rhythm of the languages is so different.
From a western perspective, female musicians appear to be more represented and involved here than in our home countries. What are your thoughts about women in the Chinese music scene and any general thoughts on feminism overall within modern Chinese culture?
Ani: I think just within the music scene at least it’s seen as a good thing to have girls in your band. It always makes people more interested and want to come to the performances. Whenever we play, there are usually other female musicians in the bands even if they’re not full girl bands. I guess a lot of the audiences for rock music are guys, so I don’t know if they like to see girls because they think they’re good looking or if they aren’t thinking about it like that, but girls are definitely not excluded from the scene at all. Outside of music, I don’t know, it’s a big question. We don’t really think or talk about this a lot, I guess we’ll have to talk about it.
Would you guys like to do the band full time and do you see it as an option?
Ani: We’d like that but we don’t think it’s possible. We don’t really make money from this band. Maybe in the future it will be possible in China but not now. From what I’ve seen, I don’t think people are becoming more open to this style of music. Pop music is mainstream in China and I don’t think that’s going to change quickly. The other heavy bands that we like in China we see live at the festivals that are for a very specific crowd. We did a tour to the southern part of China last year, to Guangzhou, Shenzhen and then to Hong Kong. We would really love to play outside of China, but I haven’t thought about how we would be perceived, we don’t know!
With the mic turned off, talk quickly turns to groupies, one of whom – a friend of Casey’s, is already downstairs stage center, waiting to take his shirt off, and never misses a Must Be Red show. He is absoloutely in it for the music but also in awe of them in general. We joke about who gets the most attention and the band agrees unanimously it’s Amanda. They take off to get ready for the show, us follwoing soon after into a crowded audience who make it very hard to film the performance steadily once the girls take the stage. It’s a riot.
(Must Be Red – The Day you Die is the Best Day of my LIfe // Video recorded by Ceridwen Brown & Casey Li Brander)
You can hear more Must Be Red here at the China Grrrl bandcamp page. The compilation is a work in progress and will be available to purchase in full in the future.
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