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Suffocate: from the unemployed youth to a professional band Suffocate was founded in 1997. Now, it’s one of the oldest band in Chinese metal circle. Band members have long hair and special performance methods and music style. Though they bring to the public a sense of distance, it is metal fans’ fa…

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Suffocate was founded in 1997. Now, it’s one of the oldest band in Chinese metal circle. Band members have long hair and special performance methods and music style. Though they bring to the public a sense of distance, it is metal fans’ favorite.

On the day of interview, Kou Zhengyu, one of the lead singers of the band, arrived at the meeting place early. He smiled and shook hands with the journalist, not showing any kind of distanced feeling. In the talking, we gradually felt he was an ordinary musician. Kou is 37 years old, and he was considering problems like family stability and pension.

“Everyone will face all kinds of pressures in life. Most of the time, people feel suffocation. You never know what will happen tomorrow. For example, a decade ago, we – several unemployed young men – established a band and kept it running. This is amazing.” Kou told us when referring to the band’s name.

Finally, make a living by music

The initial members of Suffocate knew each other in their childhood, but they knew nothing about music. However, when they first played metal music, they fell in love
with this special and fashionable music style deeply. Recalling back the old days, Kou said, “We wanted to do something special at that time. We don’t listen to music that loved by others. We listened to music which others dislike.”

Therefore, playing music was a very natural and simply process for Suffocate in the early time. “We are a little silly. Since the beginning, we have thought that we can earn bread by music. But being silly also has advantages. Finally, we manage to make
a living by music. Now, it has been 20 years.” Kou laughed and told us.

In the first five years of the beginning, they earned a living by performing in small venues and received little income. Kou said that they started to earn money until
2010.

No one knows their hardness and they even wanted to give up. Luckily, they managed it. Therefore, now the band is able to perform on large festivals like Midi and Strawberry. But they also cherish the chance to perform on small stages and always take it seriously.

Kou Zhengyu saidthat bands like them are paid very low, though performing in festivals like Midi and Strawberry is what many musicians expect. On the contrary, some otherunlikely performances have high paying.

For example, the show which is invited by real estate developers might be refused when some bands hear it. However, Kou doesn’t think so. “The organizers found us, which meant they knew us. They invited us. At least, they love our music. For ourselves, we have a new opportunity to promote. If the organizer hopes that we
can perform a true rock show, then we should go and try our best.” Kou told us.

Once, Suffocate was invited to participate in a Pepsi event in Dalian. It was until they
arrived at the scene that they find out that the show was on a pedestrian street.

Though it did not suit their style, they performed seriously. “Audience might not know our music, or even felt it was noisy. But they were very curious. They might think that watching several men sweeping their hair was better than watching the monkey show.” Kou joked.

Though some audience may not understand their music, they can feel the band’s attitude. Many people felt their honesty. After the show, audience rushed to take a photo with band members. 

After 2010, all kinds of festivals emerged in China. Many people argued that festival is revenue-generating and it may came with funds. Even in some tourist spots of second or third tier cities, local governments hope to active tourism market with festivals. With performances increasing, more people start to know Suffocate. Kou said, “20 year ago, rock musicians were very poor. We have nothing. But now, some became rich and the market also helped some musicians to achieve their dreams.”

However, it does not mean every performance can earn money. Kou told us that they only sold six tickets in a LiveHouse in Shanghai. Other bands may give up the show under such circumstance, but Suffocate insisted to perform the show. Also, there were only 12 songs in plan but they played 14 songs.

When referring to that show, Kou said, “Small venues, few fans and poor equipment will influence the quality of performance or our mood more or less. However, only we
four members truly enjoy the show. Even though audience are not so energetic, we don’t care the number of people under the stage when we are on the stage. In fact, we also perform for ourselves.”

330, from a bar party to a festival

Though, heavy metal is not the mainstream music in China, 330 Metal Music Festival which organized by Suffocate has been held for 13 years. In 2002, a friend of Kou Zhengyu went out of the city for business. He was responsible for a bar performance and he asked Kou to help him find some bands to perform in the bar.

The date of the performance is coincidentally Kou’s birthday on March 30th, and Kou agreed immediately.

On that day, Kou found several bands and held a party in the bar. Many strangers became friends and Kou was also deeply moved. So he decided to do something for Beijing rock fans.

In the second year, Kou organized 330 party and held it in the bar again. He specially found a kebab brother and bought ten cases of beer to treat fans who came for the
performance. Later, 330 bar band party became the annually held 330 Metal Music
Festival.

Kou said, “Since the tenth anniversary of 330 Metal Music Festival, we offer free hotdogs. Therefore, we called it the first festival that offers meal in China. We are
called the festival for we care about more details.”

The year 2014 was a milestone for 330 Mental Music Festival, for the number of audience reached 1400, which was out of our expectation. The record of tickets only surpassed 500 before. Kou said that all factors contributed to it together. The speed of information dissemination by media platforms was much faster and the range was larger. TV media also talked about rock, and more and more people started to accept rock and wanted to get touch with it. Additionally, the lineup that year was very good, for they invited the best bands in China.

However, the success in 2014 did not bring any big breakthrough in 2015. In fact, the result was totally different. The largest reason was that too many people came to the festival and the department concerned asked the audience to enter the venue again, which resulted in many audience detained outside. For safety reasons, the performances were cancelled that day.

Zheng said,“Later, we refunded all the tickets. And what we earned in 2014 was used to make up the loss in 2015.” However, what moved Zheng was that many fans bought 330 peripherals on Taobao after they received the refund. Though the show was cancelled, but fans did not complain about it and also leave the festival in order. Kou was deeply moved and even dropped tears on the stage.

Recently, Suffocate is preparing 330 Metal Music Festival this year. Learning from the lesson last year, Kou said that the number of audience would be restricted this year and there would be two stages with more colorful lineup.

Though 330 is Kou’s birthday, he never thought it was a birthday gift. “It’s more like an exam. The bigger the show, the more the pressures. We start to prepare next March’s festival in each November.” Kou said.

Dream road of the top metal festival —- Wacken Open Air

However, performing on Wacken Open Air Festival is the gift from the heaven for Suffocate. Suffocate is one of the Chinese bands that has performed on Wacken Open Air Festival. It’s hard to image that they once refused the invitation from Wacken Open Air.

In 2009, Suffocate was invited to the Metal Battle competition which offered opportunity to perform on Wacken Open Air. During the competition, the organizer of Wacken Open Air discovered them and invited them for the world class festival.

However, it required 15000 RMB each person. Suffocated refused it under financial pressure.

At that time, the organizer, who did not know the situation of Chinese musicians, could not understand why a band with a history of more than a decade did not have the money. They once doubted that Suffocate did not know Wacken Open Air.

Kou Zhengyu was very anxious, and kept explaining to the organizer that they were aware of what it meant to receive the invitation from Wacken Open Air rather than disrespect. They really lacked money. However, no matter how Kou explained, the organizer left with little understanding.

In 2012, the German organizer still could not forget Suffocate and invited them again. This time, the band collected funds from all methods including Midi school, and they
finally stood on the Party Stage.

It rained heavily on the day of the show. Few people attended the festival, but three
works of Suffocate were inclueded in the official DVD of Wacken Open Air in 2012. Other works of this DVD were all from top musicians in the world. Kou said, “You might have a surprise in the wind and rain.”

Dialogue with Kou Zhengyu: we are the most embarrassing generation of rock musicians

CMBN: Suffocate is an old band. Do you consider participating in variety show? What do you think of Cui Jian’s programThe Star of China?

Kou Zhengyu:Some programs found us. It does not mean the programs are not good, but we don’t know the meaning of taking part in variety shows. I don’t think it’s suitable for Suffocate to attend those shows, rather than being the mentor in the
show. I think that Cui Jian is the only one among Chinese rock musicians who can do it, because he is the founder.

Not long ago,The Star of Chinacut the show of Miserable Faith. Many people were angry about this. But I think it’s a good thing. If this were on TV, not only the band but also Cui Jian and the program would be blamed. The program was cancelled, Cui could continue to play music that he loves. His position of the father of Chinese rock music won’t be shaken. And Miserable Faith also won’t be affected. It resulted in the rise of TV rating and people were more interested in rock music. 

In another point of view, I think it’s not bad for Chinese rock musicians to remain “underground”. If this condition is changed one day, it may lose its special characteristics. When we compared the songs of Wang Feng before and after he earns money, we find his songs are simpler and more understandable, and lyrics are more direct and clearer later. However, Wang Feng’s songs used to be profound and thought-provoking. So, when rock becomes the mainstream, its art position may drop and the way of thinking also changes.

CMBN: The number of variety shows increases and more people mention creating “non-mainstream music market”. What do you think of non-mainstream music in China, such as metal music and rock music?

Kou Zhengyu:Many people think that we need to create a market. But I think each music genre has its market. There’s no need for creating. It already exists.

Before, there’s no channel for metal and rock fans to communicate, nor there are so many venues or bands. However, when those factors come together, you’ll find there are many people paying attention to metal and rock music. So, its market already exists. It is not created by people.

For example, heavy metal music has developed many years in foreign countries. But this culture is not very powerful in China. We can’t create such culture because it already exists. And this is also the reason why we survive.

CMBN: Have you ever considered that metal music and rock music will become the mainstream music in China one day?

Kou Zhengyu: That’s crazy. I don’t know if this is possible. But if square dancers are
listening to Suffocate’s songs, I may feel sad. We peruse personalize things. If it becomes too popular, it’s not a good thing. Personalization is like everyone want their phone ring to be different from others’. We don’t expect everyone to listen to our songs. It’s impossible and it should not be that way.

Metal and rock are always special, which means they can only be non-mainstream music genres. But non-mainstream does not mean it cannot earn money. It’s not so profitable, but at least can feed you.

CMBN: In recent two years, capital started to enter into music industry. What do you think of the meaning of capital to non-mainstream music?

Kou Zhengyu: In fact, there exist lots of problems. Capital is about money not culture. Business movie likeCurse of the Golden FlowerandThe Promiseearned money but lost culture. It’s same with music. Money does not equal to good music.

For so many years, why people go to KTV only to sing classic songs? It only reveals that there are fewer songs about culture.Two Butterfliesmade lots of money, other musicians also wrote such songs.

They are able to earn bread but think less about music and its culture. Luckily, there are people like us who insist all the time.

Who really need the support from capital are musicians like us that can lead the market. We have struggling within the industry for too many year. We know music and the market. It’s not about several TV talent shows and people even have to make up their stories.

CMBN: How do you think of the three generation of rock musicians —- the old, the middle-aged and the young?

Kou Zhengyu: Rock musicians of our generation is quite different from the previous generation. Last generation, including Cui Jian and The Tang Dynasty Band has better condition than us. Their parents live overseas or they were born in musical families, or grew up in theaters. They got touch with music in an early period. And now, they are famous and have high position. Even though they do not perform, they
can do other things related to music.

My generation is different. Our parents are workers and no one in the family knows music. The condition is totally different. So does the time. We are an embarrassing
generation of rock musicians. We have to insist our own staff while struggling in
the market.

Now, the market has recovered. But many are at their thirties, facing problems of marriage and they need large amount of money. So many bands have changed their ideas. Miserable Faith is a good example, their music before is totally different from what it is now.

Other bands take smart approaches. Such as bands in Inner Mongolia and Yunnan, who have local elements and their own special features, making them more acceptable. But we do not have such advantages. Many people give up under various reasons and pressures.

However, as for the next generation of young bands, their thinking mode is totally changed. Several people established a band. They have work and only have rehearsals or shows on weekends and holidays. Though they are serious and professional, but music is no longer the focus of their life. Life is life. Music is music. They know it’s
hard to make a living by music.

However, for rock musicians of our generation, music is all what we have. Without the band, we have nothing.

CMBN: What’s your pressures? What troubles you?

Kou Zhengyu: What truly troubles us is that we cannot play with such attitude. I’m 37 years old. Now the first aging generation of Chinese rock musicians does not emerge. But Cui Jian and The Tang Dynasty Band are old and may not perform again. I’m curious about how long they could play music. What will they do if they reach 60 or older? 

If they can play music until 60 years old, I may continue until 65. But with my age increasing, I don’t know whether I could remain such attitude. Actually, I’m afraid of aging. It might be natural for foreigners to play rock at 60. But people will think you’re crazy if you play rock at 60 in China. Therefore, keeping this mood and
continuing music are the goals of Suffocate.

Nevertheless, fromanotherperspective,it’s not only in music but also in business and life. Four or five people make up a band and the mood of each person will influence the whole band. But we all have good mood. If there’s difficulties, we would solve them together. We keep doing music we love and fighting for the business we love. I think this is enough.

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