Freddy Lim: Branding "Taiwanese" Sound and Identity

Below is a portion of an article that I'm co-writing with my sociologist friend Carey about indie music in Taiwan. My portion is based on my interview with and archival research on Freddy Lim, the leader and vocalist of Chthonic. The final version of the article will be published in Amalgam, a journal run by graduate students of University of Virginia.


Known as “Freddy” (in English) in Taiwanese media, Freddy Lim spearheads the independent music scene in Taiwan. I secured a spot in Freddy’s busy schedule with his agent using my convoluted New-Jersey connection. At The Wall, one of the most established “Live Houses” in Taipei, we sat down near the entrance of the White Wabbit indie music record store and began chatting about Taiwanese music and cultural industry. With his long hair tied back in a ponytail, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, Freddy seems amicable and earnest in person, quite contrary to his dark, intense stage persona in his metal band ChthoniC.

“The local idea”
Freddy leads ChthoniC (閃靈), an internationally recognized “extreme metal band.” In a typical ChthoniC song, one hears symphonic synthesizer, machine-gun guitar riffs, rapid firing on drums and bass, screaming vocals, and a crying erhu, a traditional Chinese two-string bowed instrument. The band utilizes form, length, modes, instrumentation, and the generally dark imagery from metal, while fusing these now universal pop music elements with a “local flavor.” The erhu accents the melody with its melancholic “Oriental” sound.

This “local idea”, according to Freddy, is ChthoniC’s winning ticket particularly in the international pop music arena. “The basic structure of metal is not going to change. Even if you use modern instruments and songwriting techniques, for example, 3-to-7-minute song length and verse-chorus-verse structure, you still need an idea. The bottom line is the idea. This is a way for others to enter your story. This is especially the case for metal since concept is important in this genre.”

Politicizing music / music-politicking
“ChthoniC” means “gods of the underworld” in Greek and has implications for the cultural and political underground. ChthoniC’s songs reference Taiwanese mythology and history. The band’s fourth album Seediq Bale (2005/6), for instance, is a concept album based on the story of the Japanese massacre of the Native Taiwanese group Seediq during the Japanese occupation in the first part of 20th century. The award-winning album Relentless Recurrence (2002/6) adapts the story of Na Tao Ji (林投姊), a ghost folktale that depicts the life of a woman who commits suicide to return as a ghost to revenge on a Chinese man after the latter raids her of wealth and sexuality and returns to China. This story, according to Freddy, reflects the fate of many Taiwanese women during historical influx of Han Chinese immigrants to Taiwan in the 17th century.

Freddy cites ChthoniC’s main influence as being black metal. Originated in Northern European countries such as Norway, the black metal movement uses pagan, Satanist, and other anti-christ imagery as a nativist effort to counter the hegemony of Christianity. Similarly, ChthoniC’s adapts black metal’s dark aesthetics and nationalist aim for the Taiwanese context. Freddy sings and writes lyrics in the Taiwanese dialect. This has political significance. From 1949 until late 1980s, Kuomintang (KMT) barred the use of Taiwanese in schools and media and instituted Mandarin as the official language. Since 1990s, the use Taiwanese over Mandarin has become a politicized symbol of the localization movement associated with Taiwanese independence known as “Taiwanization.”

Besides ChthoniC, Freddy fiercely creates and participates in public events. Most recently, a song he wrote for the Taiwanese baseball team was used to support the 2008 campaign of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate. Freddy also works as the Chief Operating Officer of TRA Music (The Running Ants Music, 螞蟻暴走音樂事業團隊, ) whose mission is to “develop a grounded environment for Taiwanese music while connect with industry in Japan, Europe, and North America through concert events, festivals, and recordings that showcase Taiwanese and international artists.” Many of the TRA events reflect the organization’s political leaning toward Taiwanese nationalism. The most politically explicit perhaps is Spirit of Taiwan, formerly known as Say Yes to Taiwan. The first of this festival series propagated messages of opposition to Chinese reunification in 2000. Each year the concert takes place on February 28 to commemorate the 228 Incident, symbolic of the violent military regime of the KMT in mid 20th century.

Representing Taiwan to the world
Freddy has become a self-designated spokesperson for Taiwanese independence internationally. Invited to perform at Ozzfest in the US and Wacken Open Air in Germany, ChthoniC toured US, Canada, and Europe, performing nearly 90 shows in 2007. The band named their tour as “UNlimited Taiwan”, a gesture to protest the exclusion of Taiwan as an independent nation since 1971.

At the press conference in New York, organized by the Taiwanese American Association, Freddy made a speech addressed to the U.S. government and citizens regarding the issue of the UN. Freddy asserted the United States as a symbol of freedom and democracy. He also criticized John Negroponte, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, for the latter’s comment about Taiwan’s push for UN membership as being a ‘mistake.’ Freddy ended by appealing for U.S. support in recognizing Taiwan as a state of autonomous sovereignty apart from China. “I still have faith in your Country, please support a democratic Taiwan and let the Taiwanese citizens share the same rights as your citizens in the international community. Don’t let us down.” ChthoniC’s message of pro-Taiwan independence has drifted far and wide. At shows, Freddy rallied the crowd screaming “Fuck China.” Taiwanese living abroad and fans from all over the world have expressed sympathy and support for the cause.

Selling the brand of nationalism
Freddy’s feats have set deep roots in the indie music scene in Taiwan. Since 1990s, Freddy and TRA Music have worked consciously to develop an ecology that encourages structural growth in indie music scene domestically while increasing the contact between Taiwanese and international musicians. This is only one side of the story. Not all Taiwanese bands and citizens are pro-independence or DPP supporters. Backlash to Freddy and TRA-dominated industry has rippled, however, not in any organized effort. Most criticisms target him for politicizing music, dominating the scene, and using the industry to advance his own career. With persistence, Freddy’s personal political conviction continues to drive him to build a particular anti-reunification “local” identity and community, branding it as “Taiwanese” or “Asian” to the world.

The 2008 presidential election resulted in a political switchover from the DPP to the KMT. This has already prevented Freddy from wielding financial and political backing from the government to invest in cultural Taiwanization. I asked Freddy, “what next?” He expressed that the TRA-affiliates will undergo some organizational changes and concentrate on the business aspects of their work. For ChthoniC, this means orienting further outward into the global scene. The band is now working on a new album, produced by Rob Caggiano, the guitarist of Anthrax. Similar to the Seediq Bale (2005/6), there will be a Taiwanese as well as an English release distributed worldwide.

I find this to be a fascinating case of how indie music organizes a transnational social movement. Much of Freddy’s inspiration has derived from his experiences and imagination of the U.S. and Europe: ideals of freedom and democracy filtered through the Euro-American rock idiom, now practiced in Taiwan vis a vis the world. As ChthoniC gains global recognition and mobility through record distribution and performances, I wonder, what will become of “Taiwanese” identity and sound domestically and internationally? Further, how do Freddy and ChthoniC manage or challenge the First-World or Euro-American notions of “Asia” or “Asian music”?


1976 @ Riverside Cafe: How I Got Inducted into Taipei Indie Scene

I was told that 1976 is a quintessential indie rock band [獨立樂團] in Taiwan. With curiosity, I went to the Riverside Cafe, one of the most active underground/indie music venues near two major universities in Taipei, on Saturday night 7/5/08 to experience what is supposedly most representative of Taiwanese indie music scene.

Billed as a “mini concert”, the show featured only 1976, no other opening bands. Die-hard 1976 fans all came out to fulfill their ravenous appetite for their favorite band. No doubt, people were spilling out of small basement. I managed to squeeze into the “latecomers’ row” on the stairs at the entrance. Everyone knew every song and sang along to most songs [although singing along is not an unusual thing in Taipei’s indie music scene].

What seemed most striking musically was their lead vocalist’s Britpop, new-wave inflected style and bilingual lyrics. According to their wiki page, 1976 started out by covering songs by New Order, The Smiths, Pearl Jam. Like many Taiwanese bands, Ah-Kai [阿凱] leads 1976 with only vocals, not playing any other instruments. Ah-Kai’s thin voice is surely reminiscent of New Order, Pulp, and The Smiths. It carries an “untrained” quality (which, I’m sure, is deliberately expressed) ventures into off-key territories often. His performed fragility projects a sense of uncertainty and honesty making his vocal persona youthful and effeminate.

I totally got a kick out of watching guitarist Da-Ma [大麻, meaning “marijuana”] make his playful riffs. Da-Ma takes post-punk to its broadest definition. There was a little bit of grunge chromaticism, a bit of metal shredding, a chunk of Britpop melodic fragments, and plenty of contemporary indie pop delay, tonal leaps, and asymmetrical rhythm. Not using many effects, Da-Ma’s Telecaster made some of the best guitar sound I’ve heard live.

My friend Marty of Island of Sound warned me of 1976’s cult status within the scene. Their celebrity is apparently “near-mainstream.” Screaming, dancing, clapping, and head-bopping fans adored them. They screamed hard and long for an encore. The band came back and played a hit "Depression of Sunshine Boy" ["陽光男孩躁鬱症"]. The fans stuck around for over 10 minutes to plead for more. 1976 went back on stage without their instruments apologizing that they had to reserve some songs for their soon-to-be-released album. The crowd slowly and unwillingly dispersed after that.

1976’s songs are about mostly about Taipei, urban life, and 20-something-year-old’s quandary with love and future. I loved what I saw of 1976. Plenitude of love and kinship crammed into a small basement. Along with the rest of the post-show crowd, I caught the last subway of the night to go home. A sense of belonging hovered. I felt like I was inducted into scene, finally.


Aphasia: Shoegazing with Old Taipei

Taipei-based indie band Aphasia | 阿飛西雅 played a set marked by their controlled balance between sound, music, and noise at the screening of silent film The Morning of Taipei 「台北之晨」. The event took place in part of the Taipei Film Festival.

The Morning of Taipei is an experimental film directed by Taiwanese director Bai Jing-Re (白景瑞). This film was made after Bai returned to Taiwan after having studied in Italy. The film begins with long shots capturing pastoral images of Taipei: slow-moving tricycles on city streets, men carrying water, elderly Tai-Chi practitioners in the park, etc. Images of progress and youth follow. With a visual sensitivity and a “chugging-forward” rock rhythm, Aphasia played with changes in tempo, harmony, and song structure to echo the rhythm of the editorial cuts and camera movements in the film.

I liked their “noisy” section. Noise went with spiritualism - quite well. They stripped away layers of sound one by one. Guitar feedback took centerstage. Timbre displaced harmony as images of Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian iconography surfaced. The band implanted a block of sheer silence to coincide with the close-up shot of a bronze sculpture of Jesus Christ. The “progress section” showcased an Aphasia song. Major key, vigorous tempo, layered texture, creamy effects, and teleological sensibility all add up to make a now-classic shoegaze sonic ecology.

Aphasia consists of former members of Nipples. As a Nipples fan, I went the show expecting to be smothered by guitar noise and feedback. I found that Aphasia seems toned down compared to Nipples. Aphasia withdraws from Nipples’ sonic fringes and projected a flatter tonal contour. No vocals, no words, just an instrumental dialogue between the guitars and the bass rhythmically backed up by the drums. There was sludge, tons of delay on the guitar. There was a hint of rigor proffered by the bassist. I still craved for more dynamics in terms of texture, frequency, and rhythm.

Last year, Aphasia worked on the soundtrack to Taiwanese-produced film Summer Tail 「夏天的尾巴」. Directed by 鄭文堂, Summer Tail stars Enno Cheng (鄭宜農). Aphasia's bassist KK mentioned that this soundtrack is more “high school.” Compared to Nipples, Aphasia seemingly exudes more maturity through their “leveled” expressions. Yet I still miss the torrent aesthetics of Nipples. In any case, I look forward to Aphasia’s first album entitled Aphasia【失語症】. The album will be released at Formoz Festival at the end of the month by White Wabbit Records.

Here are some video snippets of the screening/performance.