Chinese Proto Electro Punk Band STOLEN Touring With New OrderOctober 6, 2019
Blazing a hot trail across the vast country of China has emerged a proto electronic punk outfit called Stolen, that are breaking the mould of expectation on what the musically curious youngster has ever dared to dream inside the great wall.
As fate would have it whilst on a trip to play at a festival the infamous Mark Reeder the UK Berlin hybrid music entrepreneur who has made his mark with MFS Records and discovering Paul Van Dyke has likened watching Stolen to seeing Joy Division for the first time.
Fast forward from a massive tour of China the Stolen crew set up base in Reeders Berlin studio to lay down their first studio album and its an epic masterpiece. They are now currently on a European tour supporting the iconic UK band New Order, having already played in Prague, Munich and tomorrow in Berlin……. iconic underground magazine got the first European exclusive interview…..
Mike Mannix: First of all, thank you, Mark Reeder, for introducing ‘iconic underground’ to ‘Stolen’ one of the biggest electro-punk bands in China. Thank you all (six) for talking to us at iconic underground. So, to kick it all off we need to discuss your background since you started out as a 5-piece band then embracing French cyberpunk VJ, Formol, to make it 6 members. Please discuss your early influences socially and musically growing up in Chengdu China & France and what propelled you all into a life of music, and how you came to meet VJ?
Stolen: We have known each other since our early teens at music school and there we found we all love the same kind of dark and gloomy rock, as well as punk and some psychedelic music from the 60s and 70s. Back then, we thought there are only a few kids in China who probably like this type of music because it was so different, we even thought this applied to classic rock music like the Beatles too… so when we heard the music playing in the little bar next door to our rehearsal room, stuff like Joy Division, Portishead or Pink Floyd, it made us very curious. The guy running the bar was French and he played a lot of music by so many bands we had never heard of before.
That’s how we got to know our VJ – Formol, he introduced us to a wide range of western music styles by artists like Kraftwerk or Aphex Twin. Due to the relatively secluded period in China, this music was previously inaccessible to us, through Formol we found that a new continent of music has existed for a long time in the rest of the world.
MM: Formol, please discuss your own personal influence’s growing up who inspired and did you think you’d ever end up in China in a band?
Formol: I admire movie directors who made the perfect connection between the audio and the video world: David Lynch’s, Quentin Dupieux, Ola Simonsson’s Sound of noise, Tom Tykwer’s Lola Runs…and all people who can really bring surprises and invent new paths mixing music and videos… as for the music, I love artists like Aphex Twin, Front 242, Venetian Snares, Kraftwerk, Das Ich, or Laibach…
Of course, back in the day I could never have imagined I would end up playing in a band in China, but my life is sinuous like that, even from the very beginning, when I was in my mother’s belly I couldn’t find the direct way out, so the doctor had to pull me out with a special tool, leaving a scar on my head. All my life is sinuous like this, but I like it! Right after the end of my studies in 2008, I wanted to go to North Korea (for personal interest) but finally, I ended up in China. I opened a bar and met my bandmates there, they liked the strange music I played and because I was thinking there was really something interesting to do with them, I ended up becoming part of the band, shooting my own images, writing words and doing most of the communication work to create a coherent and original visual world for us.
MM: Mark, please fill us in on your own exceptional story and your own rise in the music industry leading up to meeting the band and how you got involved.
Mark: Oh dear, my life has been quite diverse, so if I were to go into depth, then I would surely need my own special edition of the mag! I will try.
Basically, I started my musical career in a small Virgin record shop in Manchester during the mid-70s just before the punk explosion. In the late 70s I played bass in a new-wave punk band with Mick Hucknall, called the Frantic Elevators until I left Manchester to go and live in Berlin in 1978. In West-Berlin, I became the Factory Records German representative, promoting fresh Factory bands like Joy Division and ACR and later New Order. I worked as a live sound engineer for Die Toten Hosen and also started my own band “Die Unbeannten” (The Unknown) and co-managed all-girl band Malaria! During the mid-80s I toured Europe with my own band Shark Vegas, as the support for New Order. Towards the end of the 80s I dabbled in acid house and formed the short-lived project AlienNation.
Living in West-Berlin also gave me plenty of time to discover the East. I travelled extensively around the Ost-Blok and even played the first secret new wave gig by a western band in Czechoslovakia. I would take regular trips over into East Berlin too, where I befriended a small group of punks and together we arranged for West German punk band Die Toten Hosen to perform a very secret gig in a church in East Berlin. The church was seen as a silent protest against the communist regime and this little concert was the first time anything so rebellious had ever happened in East Berlin. It created a huge ripple effect, causing all punk bands of the German Democratic Republic to suddenly want to play within the refuge of the church.
Obviously, this anti-state activity didn’t go unnoticed by the authorities and I was constantly monitored by the STASI, who thought my agenda was to corrupt the youth of East Germany with my dreadful music. Eventually, I was formally invited by the state (and the STASI) to produce the debut album by East German indie band, Die Vision for the state-owned record label AMIGA. Less than two weeks after we had finished recording, the Berlin wall came down. Unfortunately, I missed this historical event, because I went on holiday the night before, to Nicolai Ceaucescu’s Romania, travelling via Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. When I returned two weeks later, Berlin was not the same. From the remnants of the AMIGA in 1990, I started my own label Masterminded For Success (MFS) which launched the careers of many well-known DJs and artists, such as Mijk van Dijk, Cosmic Baby, Dr Motte, Ellen Allien, Johnny Klimek, Corvin Dalek, and Paul van Dyk.
I stopped MFS in 2007 simply because I got bored, everyone wanted me to make trance and I really wasn’t interested and so I went back into making my own music, production and remixing. Meanwhile, I’ve remixed tracks by some great artists like Liars, The KVB, Queen of Hearts, Ekkoes or MFU, but also great tracks by some of the older guard too, New Order, The Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, John Foxx, and recently, Yello. In 2015 I was in a film called B-Movie (Lust & Sound) which is a documentary film about my life in 80s Berlin. I show it all over the world. That’s how I came to be on a two-month tour of China with B-Movie (and DJing at after-film parties) I played at a festival in Chengdu and that was where I met STOLEN.
MM: Why did you call yourselves Stolen, what’s the meaning behind it?
Stolen: Telling this story makes me quite embarrassed. Until I met Mark I hadn’t told anyone and even now I rarely tell others. I never even told my fellow band members why I chose the name STOLEN. When I was in primary school, I started to fall in love with pop music, but tapes and CDs were such a luxury for a little working-class schoolboy with no money. So, I started to steal cassettes from a local record shop. One day, I stole a tape again. Unfortunately, this time I was discovered by the shop keeper and he caught me. He informed my parents, they came to collect me and were obviously very disappointed in my behavior. They even bought me the tape I had tried to steal. I felt so ashamed. When I got home, I tried to translate the words on the album cover I’d stole and I found the name of the album was “Please don’t steal this album”! I was even more ashamed. Since then, I wanted to have a band called STOLEN. Oh, and I also stopped stealing records.
MM: You released your first EP in 2013 ‘Strange Old Fashioned Entertainment’ to huge critical acclaim, fill us in on the inspiration behind it and whole studio production process to build this body of work?
Stolen: This first STOLEN EP was a totally DIY affair, from recording to production and mixing, even the album packaging and distribution we made ourselves. Of course, we didn’t have very much experience, but it was a good way to learn. Although some people started to get to know us through this EP, it is really not a good record. It only records that special first stage of the band. At that time, we also started to discover electronic club music and we wanted to incorporate the style more into our own music. So, we decided to add more synthesizers and sounds and even some post-punk instrumental music ideas, which has expanded our horizons greatly.
MM: Once you got on-board Mark, what was the first thing that struck you about the band?
Mark Reeder: Actually, I met the band almost a year before we made Fragment. I was playing at an Open-Air Festival in Chengdu during my two-month B-Movie tour of China, and it was my promoter-tour manager friend Ni Bing who introduced me to Stolen. He said, “you will like them”. How right he was! They were curious as to what I would think of their music and so they sent me a few demo songs to listen to, which were surprisingly good… but then I saw them live. They completely blew me away! After meeting them in person, I honestly felt positive energy that I have only ever felt a few times in my life before, after seeing a band. If you can imagine,
it was a special feeling something like I had watching Joy Division for the first time”
They were quite unlike all the other bands at the festival, they had passion and energy but they had something very special about them musically, which excited me and I had this impression that they are spearheading the new face of China and new sound of Chinese music. We got on so well, I felt it was destiny that had brought us together. It was like we had known each other for years. We decided to go into the studio and work on a track, which ended up being three tracks. They were so happy with the result, that they even released it in China, to a very positive reaction. This recognition was great motivation for them. They then asked me if I would produce their next album.
MM: How does the tension between past and future affect your style of electronic music?
Stolen: At the present, we are the future. We use the past to inspire us. Today, we have access to all styles of music that our parents’ generation couldn’t even imagine. This access to the past and the present has expanded our music influences, it is inspiring and that affects our music just as much as our everyday experiences do.
MM: Mark, how would you define your relationship with the band?
Mark Reeder: I feel I’ve been a part of the band, but I guess I’m really just their guide. They have their own very specific idea of what they want and how they would like it to sound and it’s just my job to try and help them get that, but it’s also to add something more to it too. The band liked my sound and they wanted a touch of it in their own songs. That’s a wonderful feeling.
MM: In 2015, you released your first album, ‘Loop’, on Beijing-based D-Force Records which led you onto a massive 32 date tour capturing the imagination of a whole nation. Again, tell us about the labour of love that went into this from the writing, production and how all 6 of you pulled together to create this masterpiece, and what were the biggest challenges you faced?
Stolen: Our first album, Loop is more like the final examination paper since the formation of the band. It brings together what we believed was our ten most satisfying works from the start of the band until the time we recorded the album, so you can hear some early electronic ideas and more traditional darkwave rock music. We had never been in the studio with a producer before.
We recorded the album in Taiwan and the producer at the time was the best post-punk producer in China. He was the guitarist of the Chinese band PK.14. He captured us at that moment. We wanted to make an album that represented us live, something explosive which would help to create a new music scene. Yet, we realised making an album and performing live are two totally different things, live is live and you can’t download that experience. Even if we let everyone judge it, and they think the sound is full and outstanding, it still could not achieve the effect of a live performance. It is because of this that we begin to understand and learn music production and to study the relationship of sound.
Until we met Mark, we didn’t know which way to turn. We had the ideas and ability, but we just didn’t know how to get where we wanted to go, he seemed to be the key to open the door for us”
We realised making this record, that we have to accept an album is something to listen to for eternity and that you can return to it anytime, it is a snapshot of the band at that moment and it will still be the same each time, whereas a live performance is a one-off event and it is never to be repeated.
By the way, that 32-week tour of China has been very important in the development of the band as a live act. My band’s ability to play and the attitude towards live performances have changed dramatically. Which is great. Although quite a few Chinese cities don’t really have that many people who to listen to this type of dark and dancey music, we feel it is up to us to try our best to make everyone who comes to the scene become our fans.
MM: What drives and motivates you all?
Stolen: I think what drives us is curiosity, we are excited to discover the wider music world. Until now, we have been inspired by a lot of our favourite music types, but that changes as we hear more and more music that is new to us. We enjoy the STOLEN way to complete and integrate. We want Chinese young people to fall in love with this kind of alternative art and seek more satisfaction in our musically driven spiritual world, rather than wasting their time in their real-world of desirable consumer brands.
MM: What were your own challenges in producing their latest album Mark and are you happy with the outcome?
Mark Reeder: Yes, thank you, the band like it, so I’m very pleased. Thankfully, I had already recorded with STOLEN in Chengdu, so I knew where their strengths and limitations were, this helped a lot. I prepared by having the band record all their songs together in China, as it was especially important for me to have the drums, as the band wasn’t able to bring all their equipment to Berlin, only their synths and guitars and I needed the sound of their original drumkit. Everything else was recorded in Berlin. They were quite curious and eager to watch me work, now that was difficult, as I’m not used to prying eyes. It was hilarious every time I played an instrument, out came their phones.
Not really being used to the cold, the band also had to suffer the mild winter temperatures and because we only had a limited time to record everything, I made the band start work every day at 8:30, so one of the biggest challenges was getting them out of bed in the morning! After we had recorded everything, the band went back to China and my studio partner Micha Adam and I was able to sit down and produce it. Thankfully, the band trusted me enough just to let me get on with it. They knew I had a plan. I wanted to make them an album that they would want to listen to themselves. I liked their mixture of textures, the album contains fast dance tracks, but also slow, mystical and sometimes even psychedelic tracks too.
MM: Can you tell us about your experience in the iconic city of Berlin where you are producing your new album?
Stolen: We didn’t have much time to feel the city like we had imagined. In fact,
we spent the whole time (in Berlin) making the new album in the studio with Mark and Micha. We worked very hard with not much time to play”
We love the architecture of Berlin, the attitude of people and their enthusiasm. Even the air and temperature there made us feel calm and sometimes embarrassed! We thought it was so cold, but Mark said it was a mild Berlin winter. Mark gave the band a new perspective and brought us to a higher level, which forced us to examine our work and view it differently. With each new idea, we had to think about performing the tracks live. We all got so much inspiration from each other and it was exciting to complete this record, every day, this is our best memory!
MM: How do you make sure that your music has a soul that connects with your audience?
Stolen: The connection is the beat and the beat is the music. I suppose I should really tell you about some of the confusion and helplessness of our generation and the views and thoughts about the Chinese system? It is not the same as in the west, as you can imagine, but it is not negative. Just different and very challenging.
We try and put our ideas into some dark and radical dance track and use dance to bring people together, we dance with the audience and we want them to dance with each other. Realize the resonance of the soul”
Young people in China have their own attitudes and ideas, but many lack the opportunity or guidance to understand the diversity and many different levels of what can be perceived as art. This will eventually change, they just need encouragement, they need to see that it works. If we can help to show them the way, then others will follow. There are so many creative people in China, and most of them don’t even know it. We use our methods through our music with the aim to make more Chinese kids learn and hopefully become interested in music and art.
MM: What bands / DJ’s / Artists / Producers are inspiring you all today, and who would you like to work within the studio?
Stolen: There a far too many… we really like music by NIN, Massive Attack, New Order, Depeche Mode, or Laibach, I know these are all big names, but they have been constantly improving their music and live performances and are always interesting. This is our motivation. Some electronic artists like Aphex Twin, Kraftwerk or Jimi Tenor, opened our minds and showed us more possibilities! Who would we like to work with? apart from Mark, you mean? The producer who we would really like to work with most is Trent Reznor because we like how he makes How to destroy angels! or maybe Ryuichi Sakamoto. Of course, this is a dream. We still need to do more of our own efforts!
In reality, I would just like to know what such a master would make of our music.
Like we didn’t know what Mark would do with our music at first either. Now you can hear it for yourself.
MM: Tell us about the current scene in China, and what should we expect to see developing there?
Stolen: Now younger people in China are beginning to understand the difference between creative art and cheap entertainment, and they are beginning to pursue a more spiritual satisfaction! They are not as shy as they used to be, and they love to dance and enjoy our music. This is very gratifying news for us. We hope that this generation of young Chinese people will be able to have the possibility to experience more independent thinking and have the mobility to do what they want, instead of being enslaved by the larger consumer environment. You can feel there is a desire out there to be recognised and accepted, which is the driving force behind us all.
In Chengdu the atmosphere is more relaxed than in the Capital, there they have other pressures. We have our own little music, fashion, and arts scene, it is a very creative city. Mark said the music scene of Chengdu reminded him a bit like when Manchester was on the edge of punk. Regardless of the city you come from, we all struggle to compete against the established music scenes of Shanghai and Beijing. It’s not like there are thousands of young Chinese kids making music though. They definitely like to hear it, but not make it. That is left up to the few of us who are daring enough to try and I suppose it’s even more daring of us to sing in English. For the moment we are a handful. Maybe if more kids see that it is possible to get some recognition outside of China, this will build their confidence and motivate them?
MM: How would you define your own personal success, what’s does it mean to you?
Stolen: Of course! especially for us, it is very exciting! Even such a thing as this interview is part of that success!
We will soon have a new album out and this will give people the opportunity to hear what kind of music is happening in modern China. It’s clubby, mystical, groovy and psychedelic in our own Chinese way. Naturally, we believe absolutely in what we do and hope that we can make our little band from Chengdu a worldwide success! That success would not only be ours, but it would also pave the way for other young Chinese bands to follow.
MM: What do you hope that people will say about your band when they look back, what do you hope your legacy will be?
Stolen: I hope people will say that STOLEN represented a new generation of Internationally recognised Chinese musicians. I guess it is up to us now to show that we can do it. I hope that our legacy will be that people see that STOLEN were the ones who helped to change the musical face of China. Also, very important for us, is the way we have fought to own the copyright of all our music ourselves, because in China there is no protection of artists’ copyright, and the situation for musicians is very weak. Maybe in the future, the ownership of an artist’s copyright will be protected. That we have managed to keep our own songs copyrights has never been done before in China.
It is standard practice that most Chinese artists don’t own any of the copyright to their own music. If they want to release an album, they are usually forced to give up ALL their rights, and that means everything. They get a bunch of money, but own nothing, and will only get money from their live performances, not from record sales. We felt that we didn’t want to take that road and sacrifice all our rights in exchange for the company’s investment! This is unhealthy and not at all motivating and it’s very old fashioned.
MM: Do you feel this is a particularly exciting time to be working in electronic music?
Stolen: I am very excited. We are on the edge of doing something really new and exciting in China. That is quite an exclusive feeling I believe. And through it, we will be bringing people together. I think that Chinese kids can feel real music and art, they just have to know it is there, feel it inside them and discover how to express it. The old political ideas of the past, purged the idea of individual creativity.
That idea is no longer reflective of the present. Young people in China now have the chance to think and discover these hidden talents and we hope they will discover it through our music. There are plenty of electronic artists and DJs playing great music, but most are playing music from another era, one that they missed, while for us, we are at the start of something new for our country. That is much more exciting and adventurous. And no matter what type of music it is, I don’t want to see the kids lost in shameless, electronic voices! I hope they can think and be creative.
MM: What are the next big planned events and projects?
Stolen: We have many, but the most important for us now will be the release our new studio album FRAGMENT in late September! In November we will conduct a 22-week tour of China! I hope everyone will keep looking forward to it!
MM: Mark, last thoughts?
Mark: China is not known for making music. It is known for making virtually everything else though, so why shouldn’t China also be known for music? Why can’t they finally have their own home-grown musical genre? After all, they have never really had one before. Yes, traditional Chinese pop music exists, but I am talking about a musical sound from China that will resonate around the world and give them a musical identity. I want to help STOLEN to put China on the musical map.
It is a great feeling knowing you are taking part in something new and exciting. There is almost nothing to compare to that euphoric feeling of achievement”
Through STOLEN, I want people to know that there is a new playing ground, but this is not about taking, it is also about giving. Giving them a chance. It’s very easy to jump onto the bandwagon once it has been proven it works. Yet, it’s much harder to decide to participate while that bandwagon is being constructed. All this is about embracing the new sound of China. It is about giving a small band of working-class kids from Chengdu our support, and the chance to have their music heard and that will be nourishment to their little music scene. During the cultural revolution, young people in China were forced to miss out on the dawn of all the important musical genres that we in the West take for granted. The Beatles & Stones beat generation, progressive rock, disco, 70s Punk, rap and even early 90s Techno.
The young Chinese people today, are having to discover and ingest five decades worth of popular Western music culture and work out the bits they like. That’s not easy for them”
They have had to consume all these classic genres within a very short space of time. Which makes for an interesting pathway of influence. Initially, the cool thing in China was to sound like your favourite band, but the days of Chinese bands simply copying Western artists is over, now there is a new crop of cool Chinese artists who are playing their own style of Sinographic sound. For sure, this new sound is a mash-up of every genre that has gone before, which makes it appear familiar, but it is skillfully rearranged to become something quite original and often very experimental. However, many of the young and creative artists I met, gave me the impression that they feel they are still not good enough to compete with Western bands. Well, they are.
As the world slowly declines into segregation, it’s time for music lovers to unite and show our support and encourage them to think positive. There are plenty of creative kids out there, they just need to discover that talent within them and know where they can go with it. In such a vast country as China, there are not many willing to open up and take that risk, and that’s what makes STOLEN so special. It’s important for young China to realise they have the ability to create their own artistic musical identity and I know I was right from the start that whatever the outcome, STOLEN are spearheading this new movement of Chinese music, which in turn, will give China a whole new musical identity.
Interview – Mike Mannix