On Children’s Day two years ago, Writer Yang Yiliu posted a photo on Weibo with the caption “It’s June 1st, so let me gift you one of the TFBoys! Happy Children’s Day!”
In the photo, the lead singer and guitarist of Casino Demon, Wang Zi, and the Captain of TFBoys, Wang Junkai sit across from each other in front of a bright window, each holding a guitar. Wang Zi overlooks Wang Junkai (Karry) seriously has the latter looks down at his guitar.
The second day, Wang Zi woke up to a ton of “tags” on Weibo, with new comments mostly thanking him popping up every time he refreshed. On June 3rd, he re-posted the photo, commenting “I hope the talented Karry can release an original work of his own very soon!” But aside from this, he never took advantage of this teacher-student situation to promote himself and his band–all he got were a few thousand new followers.
In fact, at the time, Wang Zi was also teaching guitar to another member of the TFBoys, Jackson Yi. If it weren’t for one of his friends that posted a photo of the two, the public would still have no clue about their relationship today. “It’s not like he asked me to teach him, so I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it.”
Last year, he was invited by Tencent to join the show Roast, but he kindly declined. Band member and good friend of his, Liu Hao, said that “we’re not show-y; we just put in work.”
Of course, they know that being on a popular TV/internet show would help tremendously with their popularity and therefore income. But they would rather focus on the music than do anything else. To them, fame will come when it needs to, and it definitely won’t be through a show.
The aesthetics of Casino Demon
On the second day of March, Casino Demon released their first self-titled album.
This time, they didn’t use the name “Du Gui” (赌鬼). Wang Zi explained that aside from the last album, “Zi Qi Dong Lai,” (literally translating to “purple air from the east,” meaning a sign of good things to come) the band has always stuck with the name “Casino Demon.” The Du Gui name was only used in the process of publishing. However, they’ve noticed that the name doesn’t necessarily work with their music and aesthetics (Du Gui literally describes a person that is addicted to gambling). A lot of people’s first reactions when they hear the name is that they think the band plays metal, punk, or grunge music.
At the end of last year, Casino Demon released a slew of singles and music videos, including Wo De Zuo Tui (My Left Leg), Ni Hao Lei Ou (Hello, Leo), Da Shu (Big Tree), and Drink. Hello, Leo and Big Tree were the first singles in which two members of the band, Liu Hao and Guang Zheng, both contributed to the composition and vocals.
To them, the process of composing should be relaxed and enjoyable. After recording “My Left Leg,” Wang Zi actually went to have operation done on his left leg to take care of a chronic vein problem. After the operation, he said, “At least my left leg is fixable via an operation; my mind, on the other hand…I’m not sure if anything will fix the problem of it going ‘left’ any time soon.” When writing “Big Tree,” Guan Zheng wanted the song to promote environmental awareness. Every time he went to the south of China to perform, he would be in a delighted mood because of the good weather and air, a stark contrast to his home Beijing, where people have to deal with smog on a regular basis.
Liu Hao’s “Hello, Leo” was surprisingly popular among listeners. He said that the composing process was actually pretty simple–they just wanted to make the song “rich” and pleasing. In the music video, Liu even goes out of his way to crossdress as the female protagonist: heavy makeup, pencil skirt, and stockings. The idea was Wang’s, and his reason was that Liu was the “cool” guy among the three, so this would provide a shock and awe element to those who know them well.
This type of humor is one of the hallmarks of Casino Demon.
Wang Zi is a big fan of Fan Wei (a famous Chinese comedian). He would watch his series Ma Dashuai every day when he was in school, and he ended up finishing the entire three seasons, five times. Liu also appreciates Fan Wei, and in some ways, they’re very similar. Aside from Liu’s decent acting skills, he often uses seemingly-straightforward humor to describe the struggles of the working class.
As a result, when working on their last album, Wang obtained the rights to a photograph of Fan Wei’s through a friend to use as the album cover. Through the album, the band wants to add their interpretation of life and society on top of their usual humor and (sometimes) self-deprecation.
“Maybe the majority of the listeners just think we’re some jokers, and they can’t decode the struggle in our songs,” Liu said that their songs are much deeper than most people think. Till this day, none of their songs have broken 999 comments on NetEase Music.
“Leave the sorrow to the self,” joked Wang. As a rock musician, he thinks he has a certain responsibility to the listener. Even though there is a lot of pain, it is still important to bring joy to people. “In a way, I’m kind of a hero, eh?”
Just as Liu said, most people can’t really decipher the “sad” core of their songs. The three young boys’ music is, as described by themselves, “brave and pure, relaxing and freeing, but not without some disappointment and sorrow.”
“To be a Chinese super band!”
In 2004, then-high-school-student Wang Zi wanted to form a band that was different from those of British rock. His girlfriend at the time, a student at the Capital Normal University, told him one day that she got to know the owner of the clothing store next to her school, and he was a bassist. Wang asked her if he was any good, and she quickly replied, “just like the guy in Red Hot Chili Peppers.”
“Damn that’s good.” The second day, Wang went to meet the owner, Liu Yang, who would later become the bassist for the band.
When he went, Liu was practicing. Because the two were both from Beijing, they were especially friendly. Wang found out that Liu was indeed a very good player, so he told him about the idea of forming a band. After coming to an agreement, the two immediately started the search for a drummer but weren’t able to find a good fit after auditioning over ten people. One of the most memorable candidates was a policeman from Inner Mongolia, called Wang Jianming. Once, they were practicing at a location in Xi Cheng district, and there was a cockroach on the ground. Wang, without any warning, just picked it up and ate it. Yep.
Through some friends, they were able to land a reliable drummer, Ma Jian. In a practice room behind 7 Music Shop, Casino Demon came to fruition.
Afterward, Casino Demon was signed to Modern Sky, and with the label’s support, they quickly released their first album, Teenage. Wang Zi said that they weren’t really concerned about anything other than writing songs at that point. Even though the skill levels were fairly uneven among the band members, but they only had one goal, and there was little to stop them. “It’s so different for us now. I even have to take a second to think about the brand and flavor before getting a coffee.”
Wang Zi said jokingly that after the successful release of the album, he felt that he was the king of the world. But now, he feels like he’s the least-king person on the planet.
After the release in 2008, the band went on a national tour. Wang Zi recalled, “it was a time where we didn’t need to worry about our daily needs; everything was taken care of.” A year later, Modern Sky told the members to get US visas in preparation of a tour in the States along with other bands under the label, namely Queen Sea Big Shark and Hedgehog. In Wang’s mind, the bands that were able to tour overseas were big names like JoySide and Brain Failure. In his early 20s, Wang never thought he’d ever play his music outside of China.
The night before they would leave for the US, Wang was so excited that he stayed up all night.
Their schedule in the US was very intense. In less than a month’s time, the three bands put up 23 shows in 23 different cities. Because of the intensity and a somewhat lack of maturity, the ten-something friends became increasingly hostile as the trip went on.
But the tour was still good in general. In Detroit, they only sold one ticket, and the one person that showed up wasn’t even really paying attention to the band. But in Los Angeles and New York, tons of Chinese students went to support the band, making them feel especially at home.
Wang Zi recalls: when they were in the US, the bars would give them a ticket to exchange for a drink. At the time, they thought there was only one kind of beer. When he ordered his first IPA, Wang thought to himself, “why is the beer this color?” He puked it all up just after one drink. “I didn’t know better back then,” he said.
After returning to China, the three members didn’t contact each other. Hedgehog’s drummer left the band, leaving Queen Sea Big Shark the only band “intact.”
“We were too young,” explained Wang Zi. Even though the band was no more, his friendship with Liu Hao and others have grown closer.
Liu is seven years older than Wang. He majored in Mechanical Design and Production, but having learned piano at a young age, Liu was the bassist/main vocalist of his band in college. In his second semester of freshman year, Liu he got to know Bian Yuan who recently moved to Beijing after graduation in search of his rock and roll dreams. Through luck and chance, they formed the legendary band JoySide.
After Liu graduated, his parents “arranged” for him to enroll in the army, but because of a physical conflict with one of the instructors, he was discharged one week before the official enrollment. “Do you want to be in the military?” One asked. “Absolutely not. I’m so glad to be discharged–I can finally come back to be in the band,” he firmly responded. After returning, Liu had a fallout with his family. He wouldn’t speak to his father for six years, and Liu moved in with Bian Yuan to Beijing’s Qinghe area. The 2-bedroom apartment was shared by 4 people, costing only ￥900 in total every month.
Right after the discharge, Liu had some money from his time in the military–they paid him ￥1600 per month, and he brought home a little over ￥5000. He would treat everyone whenever they went out, so the money didn’t last very long. Afterward, he opened up a second-hand clothing shop with some friends on Xi Si Bei San Tiao, and at the same time, he started performing again at bars and coffee houses, and they would usually have one performance opportunity every weekend.
During a show at LaoWhat Bar, Liu got to know Guan Zheng, who also had a band back then named “Fan Le.” Guan was a big fan of JoySide and was introduced to Liu through a friend.
“When I first met Liu, he didn’t know me, but I knew him. He was the bassist for JoySide who would wear studded bracelets, studded belts, and cropped t-shirts, just like those hipsters in American comics,” said Guan as he remembered his first time meeting Liu, “I thought he was so cool.”
When Wang Zi first met Liu, the former was only 15 and a half years old. He was in a band called The Down Hearts, which would be the predecessor of Casino Demon. One day, Wang was preparing for a show at the Mao Livehouse, so he decided to buy some “new” clothes at Liu’s second-hand shop. He recalled that Liu was wearing a checkered shirt with his hands in his pockets, looking like a full grown-up. Liu proactively approached Wang, and later the conversations grew to include playing instruments and their common friends. Wang then later became a regular at the shop. Liu told us, “I remember he told me to keep an eye out for those black-eyed Mickey Mouse stuff (an older version of the Mickey Mouse design) because he loved vintage designs like that.” In 2008, Wang Zi even invested in another second-hand shop of Liu’s, and the two were seeing each other almost every day.
After an out-of-city show one night, Wang drank a little too much and was throwing up on the side of the road non-stop. Liu patted him on the back and said, “don’t worry–I’m here.” Wang Zi said that even though Liu looks like a pretty tough guy–being tall and all–deep down he’s very soft and caring and jives with a lot of people.
Whether it’s Liu Hao or JoySide, having grown up with Nian Qing Bang, Wang Zi felt like he was in musical utopia. This is the reason why he was especially sad to hear JoySide splitting up during the American tour. He claims to be a very simple-minded person that believes in an ideal world, so the disbanding of JoySide threw him back into reality.
Sometime later, Liu Hao opened up a bar called School with his friend Liu Fei, and the place would later become a “base” for underground rock. During its first year of opening, the bar was constantly crowded to the point that Guan Zheng described the experience of being a bartender there as “riding the subway” every single night.
After being at School for a while, Wang Zi decided that he still wanted to have a band. He told Liu Hao, “let’s form a band. Grab Zhu Boxuan–he just quit from Hedgehog. Oh and Zhang Chao, too. He quit from Escape Plan. Let’s play punk together.” So the four formed a band called The Dancers. The band would release only one EP and go on one tour before Wang Zi decided to study abroad in the States. More specifically, he would got to Chicago to study photography. Before he left, Liu said to Guan, “Don’t worry about it. He’ll probably come back in a year and a half. We’ll see.”
Exactly after a year and a half, Wang Zi dropped out and returned to China.
“I was a freshman at the age of 24 while my friends were all 18. Plus, I was alone in the country. Often I’d think about those guys back home, and how I can’t see them, let alone grab a drink or two with them. I couldn’t stand it, so I came back.”
Before returning, Wang Zi stayed in New York for a month. He said that he learned more watching the street performers in New York than he ever did in school. After returning to Beijing in 2012, Wang Zi decided to rebuild Casino Demon. Their goal was simply “to become a Chinese super band.”
Wang Zi grabbed Liu Hao, and the two went to a Xinjiang cuisine restaurant on Gu Lou Dong Da Jie. During their discussion about rebuilding the band, Wang Zi reminded Liu that they didn’t have a drummer. “Talk to Guan Zheng,” said Liu. The two immediately called Guan, “We’re rebuilding Casino Demon. You in?”
After that call, Casino Demon was officially back.
“Leave the sorrow to the self.”
The all-new Casino Demon was able to sign to the label StarSing Disc. In 2012, they released their first EP since the return, named “Have You Seen a Star Like This?”
The band immediately followed the release with a national tour along with a documentary “Have You Seen a Du Gui (Casino Demon) Like This?” which included details of their friends–including Fu Han, Bian Yuan, and Dong Yaqian–helping them record the album. The band released its second post-reunion EP “You Still Love…Right?” in 2013. On October 12th, 2013, Casino Demon held an EP release concert at the Mao Livehouse, and the place could only be best described again as “riding the subway.” It would be safe to say that most of the people walking from Gu Lou to Mao were going to see Casino Demon.
“I’m a pretty impatient guy, so I wanted to release something right after I’ve written five songs. Recording is something I also enjoy, so we release two EPs in a row.”
Shortly after, Liu Hao would be having dinner with Modern Sky’s CEO, Shen Lihui. He told Shen, “we wrote some more demos, so do you want to maybe sign us back?”
“Yes, please,” responded Shen.
After signing to Modern Sky, the band had many more opportunities to perform, and was provided with an environment to consistently produce music. However, on the creative side, things were still a bit stagnant.
Even though the band was far from being “mainstream,” the three all have had their “times of glory.” During an age of decline in the rock industry, Guan Zheng said honestly, “I’m kind of disappointed. I think we all are.”
“Of course there are disappointments. I’m just used to it.” Remembering the live concerts from ten years ago, Liu Hao said that even though the venues were small, they would be filled with hundreds of people, and the atmosphere was “explosive.” But now, the younger generation isn’t really interested in rock anymore, because hip-hop is apparently what’s “in.” Wang Zi said that their original fans are now either at an age where rock isn’t something of interest anymore or have become a member of the industry. Either way, there are very few people that are willing to spend time and energy and money on rock music.
“To be honest, I think the feedback we’re getting with our music is very unfair. Very. Unfair,” Liu Hao said calmly, “Because we’ve put in so much to get so little, and I’m not just talking about money–it’s everything.”
The problem Liu described is a problem that is plaguing most indie rock bands in China. Different from folk and hip-hop music, rock bands usually need to invest a considerable amount of time, money, and energy into instruments, rehearsals, recording sessions, mixing, producing, manufacturing, artwork design etc. From album sales and ticket sales alone, the bands hardly covers the cost of making the album.
In the documentary, Wang Zi often appeared red-eyed, telling others his requirements for each musician. Liu Hao would collapse onto the sofa next to him, while Guan Zheng squats on the ground, looking for the best cymbal for the next recording session.
“Rock music is all about quality, which introduces complications in the production. This is vastly different from most of the computer-based music nowadays, and in a way, counterintuitive.” Liu Hao says, “We want to be honest with our music. There are things to be happy about in life, and so are there things that bring us down. It gets a bit complicated when they are mixed up in our lives, but the mission of our music is to bring happiness to the people.”
Guan Zheng continued, “that’s what we hope for–to move others through our music.”
“Just leave the sorrow to the self,” repeated Wang Zi.
When it comes to rock music, Casino Demon feels like it carries a certain responsibility. “We often talk about ‘live and learn,’ and we want to not only do that but also ‘live and play,’ and most importantly, ‘live and make music.’ We’ll keep making music until we physically can’t anymore.” This year, Casino Demon will launch a national tour titled “As Long As You’re Better Off Than I Am” to promote their newest album. In the trailer, the three members are already in their 80s, drinking wine with their trembling hands. While they can’t hear particularly well, when they hear the word “rock,” the three immediately light up.
Translated by Kane Ge
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