An evolving voice — P.K.14’s Yang Haisong talks propaganda, literature and 1984

Communist Party slogans in a pedestrian underpass in Zhaoqing, China

Jonas Kelsch — Hong Kong, June 7, 2017

Yang Haisong inherited the role of China’s rock and roll godfather from the genre’s forerunner Cui Jian, but the multi-instrumentalist, producer and record company CEO says the younger generation has to find its own voice.

When Yang Haisong was growing up in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing, public space was dominated by the party line: “Yeah, you know I hate the slogans and I hate the manifesto things and the propaganda things,” Yang said. “I was raised up [on] all these kinds of things.”

It’s not only party spin that disturbs Yang, but also the advertisements that are now ubiquitous in a more capitalist China. He also has reservations about the all-knowing internet, which was partly the inspiration behind P.K.14's most recent studio album 1984 (2013).

In spite of Yang’s disdain for propaganda, he does not seem that interested in politics. Yang said that in his view, rock and roll is more about finding one’s voice than it is about rebelling against something, and that it is not the duty of rock musicians to try to improve the world. “I mean, the only one who can change the world is like the powerful people,” Yang said, citing the likes of politicians, warlords and businessmen. As a musician, “what you can do is only to be…yeah…yourself,” Yang said, and to observe the world around you, “to document everything.”

In other words, rock music cannot prevent 1984.

Yang first read Orwell’s dystopian classic in high school. “It kind of like scared me a lot,” he said. “I didn’t think it was like a science fiction novel or something, I felt like it was a reality of England or the Western world.”

In the album, only one song, “1984: Part I,” alludes to the novel, Yang said. This penultimate track demonstrates the honed cooperation of a band that has been together for decades. The players come in one by one, starting with guitarist Xu Bo’s minimalist five-note melody that he stretches across four bars. After a couple repetitions, he is joined by bassist Shi Xudong’s pulsating eighth notes and drummer Jonathan Leijonhufvud’s four-on-the-floor. The buildup progresses for two and a half minutes, nearly halfway through the song, before Yang joins the fray. Eventually he belts out manic lyrics reminiscent of Winston’s suffering at the cruel hands of the Ministry of Love:

“You say, ‘Please give me the strength to fight against time 
 Let me disappear before I’m torn to pieces’”

(“1984: Part I”)

Yang insists any references to the novel are not meant to be vivid. “It’s not a kind of a warning, it’s kind of like [a way] to describe the reality,” he said. “The other songs are about me, my friends and my life…Like, you don’t need to rewrite the book, you just need to write the reality.”

But he did take a moment to explain that the sense of eerie connectedness evoked in the album connotes the work of English writer John Donne, who, as he suffered from a terminal illness, wrote poetry that helped inspire Ernest Hemingway’s novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” “No one is isolated islands,” Yang said, echoing Donne. “So everything is like together. It’s kind of like the internet.”

He identified the internet as a major theme. “The basic idea [of the internet] is, like, anarchist,” Yang said, “but today the Internet is more controlling our lives, everybody’s lives. Even the government can use the internet to watch everybody, to control everything, every part of your life. So it’s become a very scary thing actually. It’s wasting a lot of time at a personal level, and it’s controlling almost all parts of life.”

If Yang seems vague at times, it could be a reflection of his literary philosophy. “I think for a novel or a poem, space is a very important thing, to let the people think,” Yang said. “If you want to write something very directly, its not lyrics, its just manifesto[s] or slogans and things.”

Yang takes particular care in writing lyrics. “When I start writing and thinking, and making some music and thinking…the first thing is to find out my language,” he said, adding that “Language does not mean Chinese or English, this kind of thing. Language means my voice.”

“I think for a novel or a poem, space is a very important thing, to let the people think”

Like Orwell before him, Yang is deeply interested in reclaiming stale, politicized terms like “communism” and finding a more genuine meaning behind the words, to avoid using them with “a lazy habit.”

Yang said he and his band are trying to find different ways to use Chinese characters, such as those featured in the two-character slogans that are increasingly being plastered on walls and occupying advertising space throughout China. These slogans include “democracy” (民主: minzhu) and “freedom” (自由: ziyou). “I try to find out what is the meaning of ‘freedom,’” Yang said. “To me, it’s the same character, but I need to find my own voice.”

He does not think this analytical and creative process is limited to his band, or even his generation. “The younger generation should maybe find their own [voice],” he said, acknowledging that the voice or language P.K.14 uses now is very different from their predecessors, e.g. Cui Jian, Tang Dynasty and Black Panther. “It’s not necessary to follow us,” Yang said. “The youth should find themselves, and for every generation [it] should be like that.”

This may be easier said than done for the Chinese rockers Yang has inspired for over two decades. Perhaps one way the youth can find their own voice is by following Yang’s example of reading widely and conscientiously. His reading habits would put many intellectuals to shame and could explain how he maintains such an open mind.

Yang has read virtually all of Orwell’s books, and among his favorite authors are Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Jack Kerouac. He said that when he likes an author, he delves into the full catalogue of their work. “It’s very natural for a writer,” Yang said, “that if they write one book, [their] philosophy and [their] worldview [are] inside. For all the other works it’s almost the same.”

He held our FaceTime interview in his home study, where hundreds of titles, crammed into one or perhaps two tall bookcases, glowed yellow, bathing in the light of a single exposed incandescent light bulb hanging above Yang. The rest of the scene was framed in darkness.

His music may seem dark sometimes, but unlike many alternative rock musicians who sing about the angst and uncertainty of living in the postmodern era, Yang is not afraid to smile. This is even more impressive since he is so busy. He has served as CEO of Maybe Mars for three years. During this time, P.K. 14 has been working on a new album, which they are currently promoting on a China tour. They have not yet recorded the tracks, Yang said, and do not plan to do so until September or October at a studio in Berlin.

Yang admits that he prefers being in the studio. “Actually I spend more and more time in the studio to do producing and mixing and recording,” he said. “I have some very good employees to work for me, I mean, they are really good […] To me, it’s like I have them to help me, to work with all the details and stuff, and commercial stuff.”

The most recent studio release Yang was involved with — as producer and bassist — is Life is a Gasp (2016) from Alpine Decline, a Los Angeles band that recently moved to Beijing and signed with Maybe Mars. The guitar/drums duo is able to produce plenty of sound between them, so Yang, who has been playing bass since before P.K.14, said his role was to “just follow them and support the drums and fill some empty space with my bass.” His unobtrusive low-end can be sensed throughout the album, in tracks like “Wasteland Repeated” and “This X-Ray.” “Don’t change them,” Yang said, as it were a mantra. “Don’t change the drums’ rhythm.”

He identified post-punk influences on his bass playing, such as Joy Division and The Cure. On the whole, Yang’s musical interests span multiple genres (though he’s not a fan of genre labels), including noise, which is prevalent in P.K.14's live album Music for an Exhibition (2015). “The first music style, generally, I fell in love with is folk music,” he said. “It’s protest folk songs like [those of] Woody Guthrie, like Bob Dylan, I guess.”

Despite his discontented folk mentors, Yang affirmed his more passive approach. “Art, what we can do with art is, like, to find ourself,” Yang said. “Actually, the life [of an artist] leads me to be an outsider, to be out of the mainstream life.”

On Tuesday, June 20th, I had a chance to see P.K.14 (Public Kingdom for Teens) in Macau. The performance, which featured unrecorded songs, confirmed what Yang said about the upcoming album, that listeners could expect “something different.” The new material was more technical and harder. Halfway through the set, Leijonhufvud had punctured a bass drum head (but to be fair, he was preceded by a thrashing heavy metal drummer who played vigorous double-kick drum patterns).

When I talked briefly to Yang at the end the performance, he asked whether I enjoyed the show. With the band having just finished a bravado encore of several songs, running right up to 1am, the answer was an unequivocal yes. P.K.14 will return to Beijing to finish their tour on Saturday, June 24, at venue Yue Space (乐空间).

Corrections:

A previous version of this article said the Chinese word ziqian means “make money.” This is incorrect. The word ziqiang means “build prosperity and strength.”

An earlier version also said that Yang has played bass guitar since the formation of P.K.14. He said in the interview that he has been playing bass since before the band got together.

[Last edited: June 21, 2017]