David Boring played their last show of 2015 to a small crowd of dedicated indie gig regulars at Focal Fair in Causeway Bay. The show was part of the Sweaty & Cramped series, and the venue was filled to the brim with music lovers dancing in an alcoholic haze. As is often the case when David Boring is involved, chaos erupted near the front of the stage halfway through their set. “It is not a good show for us unless at least one member of the band has a public meltdown,” vocalist Laujan later said.
It is not easy to put David Boring into words: heavily rooted in post-punk and no-wave, David Boring is the embodiment of the lingering traces of a 1970s subculture and movement, placed into what the band calls the very cyberpunk city of Hong Kong. Formed in 2013, the band is supposedly named after the unlikely hero of an American cult classic graphic novel – but the choice of the word “boring” seems more closely tied to the band’s obsession with a dark, twisted mundanity. In one of the opening lines of their songs, the band declares, “Nothing ever happens, and it was boring”.
In an interview with HKFP, David Boring explain their musical influences: how they went from being teenagers who “fell in love with Radiohead then tried to find bands that sound like them” (spoiler alert: there weren’t any) and dug through boxes of scrapped CDs in mainland China in hopes of finding hidden treasures, to becoming the indie musicians they are now.
Humble Beginnings: ‘To make music with life’
“I had just graduated, and I wanted to be in a band,” Jason Cheung – guitar and backing vocals – said. “I went to Uwants, which is a popular online forum for people wanting to join bands to find one another. There was this post in simplified Chinese characters that caught my eye – its author was saying she wanted to try noise and experimental styles, and to “make music with her life”.
“Screw you, that’s not what I wrote!” bassist Liu Sishuo yelled, laughing.
“It really was, I remember it very clearly. I thought it was interesting, so I emailed her. It was just the two of us, and we began looking for a drummer through the University of Hong Kong Music Club. We found the drummer, who said he had a friend who plays guitar, and that it’s a buy-one-get-one-free deal,” Cheung said. And that was how Cheng Yat-Wa (guitar), and Stan Chik (drums and backing vocals) joined the David Boring family.
The band’s early influences were mostly post-rock, though they had already begun dabbling in a bit of post-punk. It took a good six months of messing about before they wrote their first original songs, and after they wrote “I can’t”, they had a much better idea of the direction in which they wanted the band to head. The four of them also needed someone to sing, so they recruited Faye Lam, the band’s first vocalist.
David Boring said that in the early days they had been influenced by shoegaze, though there are few traces of the genre left in their current songs. The only relic of that era was a cover of DIIV’s Doused at a HKU Music Club performance back in 2013; the band swore and shifted uncomfortably when reminded of the show (“It was our first one”). When Lam left the band to pursue her studies in Japan, she seemed to have taken shoegaze with her. Lam, now back in Hong Kong, is a member of local shoegaze and dreampop band Sea of Tranquility, while Laujan has taken her place as lead vocalist at David Boring.
“When Faye left, we had no output for a while,” Cheung said. “I knew Laujan from university, but we were just friends who said hi and bye to each other. Every now and then, though, we would both be sharing music on Facebook, and we would find that we have pretty similar tastes. She had never played music before, but I thought that it would be such a waste if she didn’t. When she came back to Hong Kong from England, where she had been studying, we jammed together. Though I can’t say that she and the band were a perfect match from the beginning, she brought in a lot of new influences and became a new driving force for us.”
While the band’s first songs, Nothing and Useless Green, were solid tracks, their style was less distinct, their sound less defined, than in their newer ones, Susie Exciting and Machine #1. Music reviewer Vivian Yeung has described the band as “almost def[ying] categorisation” in Boom Magazine, and indeed in Hong Kong there’s nothing quite like them.
“You flatter us,” Liu said. “They’re all nodding, but we all know we’re not quite there yet. Our first album isn’t even out yet, so we’re still finding our way. But it’s true – after Laujan came, she brought in a lot of industrial and no-wave elements, and it’s been great.”
Noise rock and cyberpunk
All the band members wax lyrical about what Laujan has brought into the mix, so what exactly do she and the rest of the band listen to for inspiration? “A lot of noise rock and post punk in the 70s and 80s – lately it’s gotten more hardcore or very experimental, but still with punk roots,” Laujan said. “Their influence on me is not just musical – I’m also interested in the stories behind, the characters and icons.” Prolapse, Joy Division, and Trumans Water are some of the acts that the band name as influential. Laujan has recently written an article about her musical influences, ranging from No Trend to Iggy Pop, on local music blogging platform Absurd Creation.
What makes David Boring really stand out from the rest of the crowd is the extraordinary amount of effort it dedicates to crafting the concepts behind the music. It is easy to see that the influence no-wave and punk has on the band goes far beyond the musical – the band appear to have absorbed the genre’s aesthetics and philosophies as well, and the end product is what the band describe as a “morbid modernity”.
These influences, however, have made David Boring the changeling in the Hong Kong indie family. A few years back the scene was dominated mostly by a mixture of pop rock, folk rock and metal bands, and recent years have seen a surge in post-rock, shoegaze and math rock outfits. David Boring fits into none of those genres.
“I find it interesting how there’s all these different niches that local bands fall into, but very rarely is there punk. I’m not saying that we should take the whole ideology and apply it to Hong Kong, but given the atmosphere in society lately, shouldn’t there be even more people with punk attitudes? Hongkongers love to cheer themselves up with happy things – or they go to the other extreme, with fantasy or metal bands. But punk is very real. What you’re not okay with, you take it out and use it. With hardcore punk it’s kind of like that – it’s very angry, and there doesn’t need to be a reason behind that anger. I think all of us in the band are more attracted to post-punk because it’s not enough just to have punk’s raw energy – a resistance without philosophy or reason is a very stupid thing,” Laujan said.
These ideas are incorporated into the new songs the band has written, Laujan said, as she breaks down the songwriting process. “The story element is important – if it’s just a ball of fire you have, it goes out very quickly. For us there’s two parts to making music – it has to sound good to us, to satisfy its basic purpose for ‘entertainment’ as a consumer product. But entertainment according to our standards.”
“The second thing is that there needs to be a message. We’re not seeking to give a lecture or to cram a story down your throat, but we want to lay things out there so that if the listener wants to dig deeper, there’s something for them to find, and there’s another level of meaning to it,” Laujan said. “It sounds pretentious, saying that we want it to be ‘deep’, but we want to put important things into our music – something that’s not necessarily obvious to people at first, something that makes them squirm in discomfort and feel like the world is horrible. We want to make it into an art form. I think all of us are quite masochistic.”
“We want to be honest to ourselves, to create something that’s closest to how we are. We don’t just want it to be just pleasant and packaged nicely, all hipster-like, but ultimately empty,” Chik added. “Like shoegaze is.”
It isn’t just all sound and fury: the band has delivered too, with their confrontational lyrics and no-inhibitions performance style. In Machine #1, Laujan sings, “It takes cowardice to push on through this game it takes madness to stay sane.” Cheung said the lyric was about the fact that what was happening in everyone’s daily lives was enough to drive a person crazy, and yet one would keep doing it. And in a way, he said, it was easier for the insane to keep going in a society that operates mindlessly and mechanically. The fact that everyone has got used to it makes it all the more creepy, Laujan echoed.
True to its name, the track is layered with industrial tones and robot-like vocals that drone on in the background, evoking images of a production line in a city out of the Matrix. Laujan said that she had always wanted to do something political with a song – not just about politics in itself, but to make a social statement – and she felt that it was going to be Machine #1. The track is the first in a series the band is planning; each one that follows would address a new issue, but the aesthetics would be consistent, she said. The aesthetic they have decided on is cyberpunk.
“I think Hong Kong is a dystopian future come true. Cyberpunk is about high-tech, lo-fi – permeating into all aspects of culture and life. The idea that mega-corporations are taking control of everything, but something corrupt is boiling underneath the surface – it’s very Hong Kong to me. It’s been done before, Hong Kong and cyberpunk, but no one has really presented it in any form other than visually,” Laujan said.
GoPros and live shows
Last year saw the release of the band’s first music video. “We felt that as an indie band we shouldn’t be spending a lot of money on asking someone to make a super glossy MV for us. The production value isn’t necessarily reflected in the budget. We did the whole thing ourselves – none of us knew how to film or edit a video, and the resolution was very low quality – it wasn’t intentional. We did it all in one day, at Jason’s house, and it was really fun,” Laujan said. It was completely do-it-yourself, taken with a GoPro. The result was a music video that is a bit messy and amateur, but an extremely stylistic blend of the awkward, disturbing and incomprehensible.
David Boring’s live performances are similarly memorable; chaotic yet energetic, they often end up with band members pushing or assaulting each other, and Liu playing bass while sprawled across the floor. This is usually the cue for the small, self-conscious Hong Kong-style mosh pit near the front of the stage to stir; in contrast, the band always appear extremely unaware of themselves, or their surroundings. They have none of the rock star swagger, they don’t bother to contain themselves or pose for the camera. They just play, and look as if they will keep playing till the music brings the world crashing down.
“I need to let the audience know, at that very moment, how much I hate everyone and how much I’d like for all of them to die,” Laujan said. “When you reach that stage, screaming isn’t enough anymore – you naturally grab the person next to you and start shaking them.”
According to the band, this live performance style was unintentional and evolved organically; the turning point was their outdoor show at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. It was raining, and the stage crew began packing up the equipment, but the band was playing “I can’t”, and they refused to stop until the amps started going out one by one. Chik said that it was a ritual, a direct communication with the audience, and every time they play they want to unleash all their emotions in one go. It is very cathartic, he said.
Indie scene and mindie music
Like most bands in Hong Kong, David Boring’s members have busy day jobs or engagements that make it difficult for them to find the time to pursue music with all their hearts. Cheung is a doctor who works till late and whose schedule is dependent on his hospital shifts, while Laujan has hectic periods with her architecture job. Liu said that the band has a tradition; whenever they have holiday breaks – be it Christmas, Ching Ming Festival, Dragon Boat festival or even Valentine’s Day – they rehearse. The band will be reducing their live performances in 2016; in 2015 they performed a total of 20 gigs. “It was important for us that year because we really wanted more experience with playing live, and it was also an opportunity for the band to work out our dynamics and get inspiration,” Liu said. Now, it appears that David Boring has shifted their priorities, in that they are hoping to put out an album this year.
The band did a Japanese tour last September, which they said was “mind-f***ing” but tiring. They played multiple shows every day, and before the band had time to recover – either physically or emotionally – it would be time for the next one. “The audience was extremely open-minded though, and very accepting of different genres,” Laujan said. They also became good friends with their touring buddies, Hong Kong punk rock veterans The Yours, about which the band has nothing but praise. “They were very professional and organised.”
Now stepping into their third year, the band are no longer newcomers in the local indie scene. They are a bit wary of the different cliques that exist within it, but feel that it is all right as long as they focus on doing their own thing. “I think what’s great about the Hong Kong indie scene is that it gives young bands a lot of opportunities. We were playing at Hidden Agenda and Hang Out even when we hadn’t properly written that many songs yet – if we were in the mainland, I’m not optimistic we would have made it at all. But the downside is, the indie crowd is very small – it’s always the same people at the shows,” Liu said.
Surprisingly, David Boring is not dismissive of pop music or mindie – a term coined by netizens to describe bands which are between mainstream and indie. “Don’t underestimate the mainstream music business,” Liu said. “They can afford to spend a lot of money, and as a result they hire a lot of good musicians, and there’s some fantastic production and songwriting. They’re all professionals – at the end of the day, we don’t do it full time, unlike them. Some of them have been working in music their whole lives.”
Liu, who is from mainland China, started out by listening to hip hop – mainly Tupac and DMX. Liu’s open-mindedness and diverse tastes may be attributed to the fact that she grew up listening to scrapped CDs – overseas records that had been produced in large quantities but suffered from poor sales in China. The side of the CDs would then be punctured to lower their value and they would be sold as “garbage”, and it was many music-starved teenagers’ favourite pastime to dig around for good stuff. This was how Liu first got exposed to indie. Later, she would also get to know bands through the CDs that were sold along with a rock magazine with political content; the records were a cover that helped the publication get through the censorship board. Through those CDs, Liu discovered many Chinese indie bands.
“[Liu] has a very interesting way of listening to music,” Cheung said. “On the one hand, she likes stuff like [famous Taiwanese pop singer] Hebe Tien. She also takes the most interesting part of every song and uses it as an inspiration. For example, some people really like Sonic Youth for its experimental elements, but she likes its quieter, acoustic songs like Wish Fulfillment.”
“She usually likes something for reasons that are completely different from the rest of the world – she could have statistics to support her arguments. She has her own set of logic,” Laujan laughed.
“Look at the mindie bands that became popular – they’re clever in their own ways too,” Cheung added. “It’s sugar coated, but the filling is also interesting.” Cheung, too, was into “mainstream” bands like Maroon 5 or Westlife when he first got into music. Later, he came across Radiohead, and then tried desperately to find bands that “sound like them” – only to realise that there were none, he said, laughing.
And what musicians would they like to share the stage with, dead or alive? “We’re all Joy Division fans, so we joke about how if Ian Curtis comes back to life, we’ll want to play with them,” Laujan said.
Liu had a different answer. “Hebe,” she said. It was hard to tell if she was kidding or not.
Check out David Boring’s Soundcloud here.