On the stage of popular band competition music variety show The Big Band 2, Hua Dong and Liu Min stood face to face, occasionally making eye contact, Huang Jin hid on the side of the stage, each focusing on their part of the performance. Hua Dong closed his eyes, lowered his voice and slowly sang the most absurd sentence in “Pigs In The River”—“My right hand asked, should I raise for white? My left hand asked, should I raise for black? ”
Right before the performance, Hua Dong accidentally moved the keyboard resulting in it failing to produce sound. Hua Dong had to notify the mixing engineer with a gesture.
Hua Dong then started to whistle the melody. After several whistles, Liu Min’s voice came in: “I heard a perfect stranger’s voice over secret wire” and continued to play the restrained and aggressive rhythm, sending energy into the atmosphere.
Hua Dong later told China Music Business News that at the moment of the accident, he was only thinking about how to continue this performance. “I may have moved the table a little bit, this is indeed my problem.” He said.
This little accident and witty rescue unintentionally created a wonderful performance that was different from other Re-TROS performances. In the talk session with the host of The Big Band 2 Ma Dong and the band, Hua Dong talked about the use of logic in their music. He said he did not believe in inspiration, “We never relied on inspirations to make music.”
“Pigs In The River” won 235 votes in the first round, making Re-TROS number 1 in its group and helping them advance to the next round. Hua Dong said the first round was “unexpected but reasonable.”
There are many reasons for Re-TROS’s successful advancement in the show. First of all, “Pigs In The River” is not difficult to listen to. That’s because the base motif is simple but catchy. The backbeats also gives out a playful feeling. Even though the lyrics is in English, but the song is easy for the audience to appreciate, with a little novelty, which is a bonus.
Secondly, the band has sufficient swag. Hua Dong’s body language, pronunciation, and other small details all give people a sense of rigorousness and professionalism. Liu Min’s outfit, the instruments that she plays and her vocals are all striking on the senses. Their voices complements each other perfectly. One is high, the other is low; one is bright the other one is deep. As the the first round performance in the competition, “Pigs In The River” was absolutely wonderful, charming and professional.
“If you are interested, you can come watch us perform. If you are not interested or find us annoying, you can also criticize us. We are not a “variety show band”, nor a very commercialized band, but we want to show you what’s possible for niche music.”——Hua Dong
The three members of Re-TROS are all of lean, small physique. They often carry serious facial expressions, wear black clothes and looks cold and distant.
Hua Dong has always maintained the same hair style with long bangs that cover his eyes in the past ten years. The length of his bangs is as precise as his music, just short enough to not block his sight. Liu Min grew her natural curly hair a little longer than her usual sharp, short hair. Drummer Huang Jin has short, messy curly hair. He’s usually serious but and he makes a dark jokes out of nowhere occasionally.
The day before the filming of the third round performance, Hua Dong didn’t go to bed until 5:30 in the morning. It was a very stressful time with very little sleep. Hua Dong doesn’t like the makeup and hair process. As soon as the filming is over, he rushed to find cleanser to wash off the makeup first. He hasn’t gotten used to makeup yet.
As the number one band in The Big Band 2, Re-TROS would inevitably face judgments from the public.
Some fans think that the backbeats, the drum and the vocals in “Pigs in the River” are all too similar to “Red Light Hand”. And the album description itself mentioned “Red Light Hand” and talked about how “Pigs in the River” is a tribute to Nick Cave.But if you listen carefully to the song, the arrangement is paying tribute to Nick Cave, but the melody and Hua Dong’s pronunciation are very much Re-TROS’s self-expression.
Some people also criticized Re-TROS for singing in English, saying that they are doing this because of some sense of superiority. To that, Re-TROS responded that Hua Dong found out that English lyrics suits his pronunciation and the melody of Re-TROS music more.
The five earliest Re-TROS songs all have Chinese lyrics, but Hua Dong thinks that he performed them very poorly and suspected that he was not suitable to a lead singer. He recalled: “I never thought about an international audience. I started to make English songs just to give it a try.” He felt lucky that they changed switched to English lyrics and better integrated into their musical expression.
When asked about whether Re-TROS will write Chinese lyrics in the future, Hua Dong said that if it fits well in the music, he is not against it, but he might not try that in the next few years. For Re-TROS, the reason why they accepted The Big Band 2’s invitation to participate is that they want to show the public that niche bands like them can survive professionally.
Hua Dong said to us: “After all, we are not a “variety show band”, nor a very commercialized band, but we have shown the possibility to survive as a professional band.” He explained that it is very important for young people who’s considering pursuing a career in music, who are very likely to get discouraging messages from their friends and family.
When asked about whether Re-TROS psychologically prepared themselves for criticism from the public due to increased exposure to the public on the show, Hua Dong answered, “I thought about it a little, more or less, but I don’t take it seriously. We are not a new band. We had our ups and downs. It’s not new to us. People can say whatever they want.”
For Re-TROS, they don’t care to be liked, but it is important that the public knows they exist.
“This is a process of exploring music and a process of exploring yourself. It has nothing to do with being cool or not cool. On stage, I just perform well, I just need to do my job well.”
Hua Dong is a native of Nanjing, both of his parents are German professors. At the age of 19, Hua Dong was admitted to Martin Luther University to study Germanic language and literature.
At the end of the 1990s, British rock was popular, and Joy Division is an important influence in post-punk. At the end of 1998, Huadong chose to drop out of school and return to his hometown Nanjing. He joined P.K 14, one of the first post-punk bands in China. In 2000, he came to Beijing with Yang Haisong and lived in Dongbeiwang, Haidian for a year, not far from Shucun, where rock musicians gather. But life in Beijing wasn’t as good as expected, Hua Dong left Beijing and returned to Nanjing.
Liu Min is from Leshan, Sichuan. After the college entrance examination, Liu Min and her girl band U235 came to Chengdu to perform. In 2001, Liu Min met Hua Dong in Nanjing.
Later, Hua Dong decided to go north again and form his own band. In 2003, Re-TROS was formally established with three members, Hua Dong, Liu Min and former drummer Ma Hui. In the early days, they all live in Tongzhou and rehearsed 3 or 4 times a week. Hua Dong and Liu Min lived in Tong Zhou for 20 years.
Bauhaus, a post-punk band from the UK, has a great influence on Hua Dong. When he was young, Huadong had always wanted to be China’s “Bauhaus.” In Re-TROS’s second album WATCH OUT! CLIMATE HAS CHANGED, FAT MUM RISES…, Hua Dong payed tribute to “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus with the song “Up Next: Bela Lugosi’s Back.”
In 2004, Re-TROS began to perform in Beijing and gained popularity very quickly. In 2004, they signed a contract with Modern Sky. In 2006, Re-TROS was invited to perform in the Singapore Arts Festival, and the following year, they had a 16-stop tour in North America. In 2011, Re-TROS stood on the stage of Summer Sonic for the first time and as the conclusion of the show. In 2012, they appeared in the South by Southwest Music Festival.
Although Re-TROS has been touring and performing inmusic festivals, it has not released any albums in the eight years after 2009. Modern Sky did not put any pressure on them to produce new albums. When they don’t have enough budget, they can basically apply for more. “We are very lucky to have met Modern Sky and our agent Yunxin. Both Dave (General Manager of Modern Sky UK) and Michael (former General Manager of Modern US) have helped us tremendously, otherwise our path couldn’t have been so smooth,” Hua Dong said.
In 2015, Huang Jin, an old friend of the Re-TROS members and former drummer of rock band Sound Toy, officially joined Re-TROS. Huang Jin also participated in the creation of Re-TROS’s new album Before the Applause and made himself indispensable.
Even though he was uncomfortable with the way Re-TROS makes music in the beginning, towards the end, he experienced a sense of spontaneity he never felt before. “My drum was all done recording within two and a half days. It was very fast. I never thought it was possible.
Over the years, Hua Dong gave up the idea of becoming the Chinese “Bauhaus” and decided to do something different, out of the realm of post-punk.
In their early days, Re-TROS only used three major musical instrument. But now, Re-TROS is more electronic-music focused, therefore the loop machine become very important for the band. Re-TROS does not hire outside band players because it is hard to integrate them into the Re-TROS system, so they use loop machine to add different instrumental sounds into the music.
In the history of Chinese rock band development, there was a time when everything was learned from the west. However, recently Chinese rock bands have entered into a new era of authenticity and self-expression. Re-TROS’s 2017 album Before The Applause is no doubt an excellent example of that.
“Many bands use synthesizers now. I think it might not have a lot to do with synth pop in the 80s, but right now electronic music is influencing rock music.”
Hua Dong, Liu Min, and Huang Jin are very quiet people and can bring down the temperature around them. At the same time, they are also very direct and has strong preferences.
This sense of contradiction is also reflected in their music, which has the preciseness and restraint of science but also emotional richness.
As long as you have experienced Re-TROS live performance performance, it is impossible not to be pulled into the world they created with their music. Re-TROS live music is rich, detailed, and can withstand scrutiny and time.
For many years, Liu Min and Hua Dong performed standing face to face, with Hua Dong’s back facing the audience. They rarely interacted with fans on stage. At the end of every show, Hua Dong would bowed as their conclusion ritual.
Although they have accumulated a lot of touring experience from live houses to stadiums, Re-TROS still maintains high standard for the precision of their performances.
For fifteen years, Re-TROS has always had their own rehearsal room and maintained a regular rehearsal schedule. They write music in the rehearsal room, and performance details are finalized in the rehearsal room too. At the end, every detail gets practiced so much that it becomes muscle memory. Rigorous practice ensures 100% consistency and stability across all live performances.
Before joining Re-TROS, Huang Jin heard about their way of rehearsing but didn’t know exactly how hard it would be. In the beginning, Huang Jin was very uncomfortable with their rehearsal style because he was used to a different style back in Chengdu. But Huang Jin gradually got used to it. Huang Jin told us, “The memory is not only in the brain, but also in the muscles, in your body.”
So beautiful accidents like the whistle in The Big Band 2 are unlikely to happen again in the future. Hua Dong firmly believes that as a professional band, their job is to bring the visual and musical impact to the audience as precisely as possible because they paid for the performance.
In real life, Hua Dong and Liu Min live and dress very plainly, and all three maintain a normal lifestyle. Liu Min enjoys staying at home, watching tv, exercising, and caring for her pets. Huang Jin is also an animal lover. During the pandemic, he is raising 4 cats at home. Hua Dong likes making music and reading novels. The most recent novel he read is Neuromancer.
Re-TROS hates professional networking. They think that if you want fame and fortune, it is better to go directly into business or become a celebrity. That would make you more money than making music. They think that making music is a profession and they are not celebrities, just ordinary people.
For Re-TROS, the reason why they participated in The Big Band 2 is to convey their views on the music industry to more people. They hoped that those who takes making music seriously, perseveres and do not seek fame or fortune can go a long way in the show. Hua Dong keeps emphasizing to us during the interview: “Focus on the music, we hope everyone can pay more attention to the music itself.”
“Listening to rock music can be a part of the process of looking for answers. Gaining name recognition outside of our fanbase is a good thing in a sense, but inot necessarily. It may have diverted people’s attention, and now it is necessary to bring the attention back to the music,” said Hua Dong.
But obviously, if a band doesn’t have dramatic ups and downs, the media would not be interested in writing their stories.
Hua Dong and Liu Min are suspicious of the “networking” and “life difficulty” parts of the narrative. In the past few years, the most difficult time was when their Tongzhou rehearsal room was torn down while they were touring outside two years ago. In an earlier media interview, Hua Dong and Liu Min lived on 4 to 5 yuan a day during their earliest and most difficult time. But Liu Min said, “Everyone had their difficult times, living itself is difficult but what’s the point in talking about that? We make music, not tv dramas.”
A music critic commented that Liu Min “should dress like a woman”. Liu Min didn’t care much about it. She said that she doesn’t care about “coolness” or being a “cool girl”. She said,”I didn’t make a band for the sake of being cool, this is a process of exploring music and a process of exploring yourself. It has nothing to do with being cool or not cool. On stage, I just perform well, I just need to do my job well.”
Liu Min does not wear heels in her daily life, has no time for make-up, and does not pay attention to whether she looks attractive on stage. During tours, she carries heavy equipments just like any man in the team.
So, what does Re-TROS music try to convey?
For Hua Dong, Re-TROS doesn’t need to tell the audience what their music is about, and the audience doesn’t need to guess, because it’s the connection between the person listening to the music and the music itself. It has nothing to do with anyone else.
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