Top Floor Circus
An interview with Lu Chen, the pop punk ringmaster of Shanghai rock folk
At nine o’clock on a recent Monday morning, Lu Chen, the slender and polite lead singer of Top Floor Circus, the first rock band to sing in Shanghainese—and a man whose transformative stage persona sees him swearing, stripping nearly naked, and engaging in exaggerated comedic role-playing—met me in a bookstore at 50 Moganshan Road, in what’s become, in the nearly twenty years he’s lived in the neighborhood, the hippest contemporary art district in Shanghai. He had just returned to Shanghai the previous night after giving a concert in Beijing. Lu, who formed the band with his college buddy Mei’er more than eleven years ago, has gone from being a rocker known for popularizing Shanghai in a country whose official culture promotes national unity over local individuality, to being respected by clutches of fans across the country who adore his razor-sharp wit and multimedia showmanship at nearly fifty live shows a year.
Lu’s audience is small but intense and ever-growing. With rock music barred from television and severely limited on the radio, his appearance on Dragon TV in Shanghai on January 6 was notable. Mao Amin, perhaps China’s most famous pop icon of the late eighties and early nineties was a guest on the popular 80’s Talkshow and, instead of performing one of her own hits, she chose to sing “Shanghai Childhood” by Top Floor Circus, inviting Lu to join her in a duet. It was his first television appearance and certainly his most visible in public. Top Floor Circus was barred from performing briefly after its 2009 song “Shanghai Welcomes You” skewered the memory of the Beijing Olympics theme song, poked fun at the 2010 Shanghai Expo and went viral on the Internet.
Now in his mid-thirties, Lu, who wears his hair close-cropped, goes largely unnoticed by the chic crowd. He arrived at the bookstore by bicycle, parking across the street after dropping his son at a nearby kindergarten. After our interview he rode to work, back to the anonymity of his day job as a civil servant.
Why do you choose to sing in the Shanghai dialect?
On our first album, there was one track that had lyrics in Shanghainese. I remember one of the lyrics was, “We are all a pile of shit.” We enjoyed singing it tremendously. So on our second album, we had a few more tracks in Shanghainese. And by the time we started working on our third album, which was the punk album, we made the decision to sing only in Shanghainese. Since we mostly speak Shanghainese in our lives, it feels natural and unfiltered to sing about our lives in Shanghainese. Now we are working on our fifth album, and we will keep singing in Shanghainese.
Since the propaganda department seems to be always pushing for Mandarin, what's the significance of local dialects?
Dialects make people nostalgic. They capture people’s most tender memories and most lovely quirks. People will get sick if all they can eat is burgers from McDonald's. But it is also possible that what we are doing is only providing people the option of KFC.
How do audiences react outside Shanghai?
People outside Shanghai probably won’t be able to understand everything in our lyrics, but we usually introduce the content and context of our songs to our audience before we start performing them, which can make them more accessible. In the past two years, we have also been projecting the lyrics on a screen during our tours. [Editor’s Note: no matter the spoken dialect, Chinese is written and read in the same script].
What was it like growing up in Shanghai? Did you live in a classic Shanghai alley with stone gateways?
I did not actually live in a shikumen nongtang. The kind of house we lived in is called “old workers’ housing” (laogongfang). It was one of those “new villages for workers,” built by the government in the 1950s. Unlike shikumen buildings, which are known for combining wood and brick, the laogongfang buildings are concrete constructions in which three families shared one kitchen.
I was born in the late seventies. Back then, we were poor and life was much simpler. There wasn’t as great a variety of electronic gadgets available. Information was scant. As a result, we could focus on one thing for a long time. One could spend a crazy amount of time playing marbles on the ground. Kids today probably play the same game on an iPad. But they also have so many other choices and access to an infinite amount of information. We used to crave information. Someone’s relative bringing a tape of Alan Tam from Hong Kong was among the greatest joys in our life. Nowadays, you can get almost anything with the click of a mouse on the Internet. That is the biggest difference.
Who are your current band members?
There are six people in my band now. I am the vocalist, Mei’er is the bassist, Su Yong and Yang Fu are the guitarists, Pipa is the drummer and there is a girl, Fanfan, who plays the synthesizer and sings backup and lead.
Did your band members all have similar experiences growing up?
Very similar. We are all Shanghainese except for our guitarist, Su Yong. He is from Anhui province but has lived in Shanghai for more than ten years. Mei’er and I started playing music in college. In November 2001, we formed Top Floor Circus, and gradually attracted the current personnel.
Have you ever wanted to break up?
We’ve never even come close to the thought of splitting up. But our band members have all gone through a lot of life changes in the past decade. When a band member’s wife is pregnant, we know that member is not going to be around to rehearse for six to twelve months. During that period, the rest of the band also takes a break and only meets up on holidays. Once the new dad has adjusted the band starts practicing again, maybe with some new ideas. Since we’re not a “professional” band, we can be flexible and work in a way that’s comfortable for everyone.
What is your creative process like? How do the melodies and lyrics come into being?
Most of the time they’re created in rehearsal sessions. I write down a lyrical idea and then we create a melody for it and tweak the lyrics. Sometimes I come up with ideas for lyrics and melody at home, but then change them both significantly during rehearsal. It’s always a group creation.
Who are some of the artists who have influenced you?
In the nineties we all listened to Cui Jian and other famous Chinese rockers like He Yong, Zhang Chu, Dou Wei, and Tang Dynasty. When we got a bit older, we started to explore foreign musicians, like Nirvana, Bob Dylan, The Doors, Radiohead, etcetera, through cut-out, or dakou, cassette tapes. Nowadays, I can suddenly fall in love with a style for a short period of time but find it hard to be deeply influenced by any specific musician.
In terms of other types of artists, I have always been a fan of Dadaism, especially Duchamp. I also love French playwright Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu the King. Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu and French director Eric Rohmer are probably two of my favorite film directors. They both make subdued and slow-paced movies that are also artistic, which is the style I like.
Your second album was called The Most Vulgar Taste of Petty Urbanites1. How would you characterize a petty urbanite from Shanghai?
Every city has its share of petty urbanites. It’s not a phenomenon unique to Shanghai but a product of China’s urbanization. Perhaps soon we’ll see more “grand urbanites.” Petty urbanites are quite contradictory in nature: their living conditions are not superb but they share a superiority complex as city dwellers. They’re extremely full of themselves while at the same time suffering extreme self-abasement.
How do you balance your day jobs and your families with your music?
For my generation of Shanghainese it’s easy to get by with just a part-time job if you don’t have luxurious living standards. But sometimes, the way you choose to live is a result of herd mentality. It all depends on your priorities. All of us want to do a good job when making our cameo appearances as “normal people.” I believe everyone is trying to balance his or her life. We just spend our spare time on music. While others might spend their spare time singing karaoke or playing golf, our hobby happens to be playing with our band.
So Top Floor Circus is just a hobby to you? Is that why you provide free download links to all of your albums on your Douban page?
Yes. I think we’re quite fortunate to live in this time. We have the technology and platform to share our music with the world. I have nothing against making money. But if we were selling our music, a lot of people might not buy our CDs. I would rather see more people listening to our music. As an artist, why wouldn’t you want to share your work with your audience? It’s natural. I have listened to so many other people’s music without paying the artist anything. For example, if you are a farmer, you need sunlight, water, and fresh air to grow your vegetables. But the sunlight, water, and air never charge you anything. If you can create something and immediately share it with others, so that other people will be inspired to create their own things—I think this is the best cycle. And we all have our day jobs. So we are not living off of our copyrights. We wouldn’t be upset if someone adapted one of our songs. We’d be thrilled.
Are you suggesting that all artists should get a day job?
That’s up to other people to decide. Letting people download our music for free is just what works for us. Maybe it’s not in compliance with the ethics of intellectual property, but we prefer to share our music.
How big is the average audience at your concerts?
It depends on the venue. Once we performed in a small bar in Wuhan while there was a music festival going on in town—that night we only sold fifteen tickets. But when we did our Ten Year Anniversary Christmas Concert in 2011, there were more than 1,000 people in the audience.
Have audiences’ reactions to your performances changed over the past ten years?
When we first started, we wanted to make experimental music. Then we became a punk band. Now we don’t mind being a pop band. We want our music to be more accessible and enjoyable so that people can find agreement with our artistic perspectives through enjoying our music. Nowadays when we perform, the audience no longer bitterly shouts “You guys are hooligans!” Instead, they cheerfully laugh at us and yell: “Haha, you guys are hooligans!”
How would you describe your stage image?
It is very difficult for a performer to be passionate and authentic on stage. The audience has expectations for you and you want them to be excited, but you also need to stay true to yourself. It’s a struggle.
Is that sentimentality I hear when you sing about the average person’s everyday life in “Shanghai Childhood,” “Be a Nice Guy,” or “Shanghai 25th Hour?”
All three songs are very close to everyday life, which is why they touch people. “Shanghai Childhood” recalls the youth our generation knows. That’s why people have an emotional response to it. “Be a Nice Guy” and “Shanghai 25th Hour” are about contemporary working class life in Shanghai. Every day, people are packed like sardines in the subway and yet there’s zero communication among them. Everyone’s playing with his or her cell phone. People now understand the world through the world of cyberspace. We observe some absurd little details of contemporary life and people can all relate.
Why do you often appear more sarcastic when you sing about contemporary youth culture trends such as punk and “Little Freshness” (or “Xiao Qingxin,” defined by Timeout Beijing as: “a narcissistic lifestyle centered on indie pop music, simple design, sentimental statements and a love for Lomo photography.”)
Did we? No, we don’t have the right to sneer at a genre. We are not that grandiose. We just borrow the style from them.
Sometimes, we don’t know what else we can do. Jean Baudrillard once wrote: “You cannot fuck your life and save it too.” Our intention was not to mock, but to explore a different interpretation. I think the real attitude of punk is to “fuck everything.” So it seems logical for a real punk to fuck punk. And Little Freshness shouldn’t be limited as a lifestyle that only consists of sunbathing, flower planting, and reading. Little Freshness can be a cleaner attitude towards life. This could be just our interpretation, but I think our interpretation can enrich the content of these styles. You will easily find vulgar things in our songs, but if you are careful you will find noble things too. We like to cook big dishes for people.
- Petty urbanite, or Xiaoshimin, is a slightly pejorative term coined in the literature and cinema of early 20th century Shanghai to describe a city-dwelling white-collar worker of limited economic means, limited education and an unsophisticated outlook on life. It has since become a synonym for someone who is selfish, materialistic, vulgar and easily appeased, and it is often used as a stereotype for Shanghainese.↩
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