Nova Heart Interview
All article photo credits: ©Фуко, www.foukography.com
Helen Feng (冯海宁), lead singer of Nova Heart, is a name synonymous with China's burgeoning underground music scene. Back in 2004 she started punk band Ziyo [自游], later co-founded the electro band Pet Conspiracy and in 2009 co-founded the Chinese music collective FakeMusicMedia with her partner, Philipp Grefer. Described as dark, sexy and beautiful, Helen Feng′s new project is Nova Heart. To date they've already clocked up 3 European tours including lengthy tours of the States, Canada and Australia. Lucky for us, lead singer Helen kindly agreed to answer a few of our probing questions as the band get ready to embark on their first national tour.
Chengdumusic (CM) : You've been in the music business for some time now. Looking back, do you see a time when you were happiest?
Helen Feng (HF) : I think its like everything in life, we are most happy when we don't know that we are suppose to be unhappy. For music I was most happy in the 1st three years doing a band. I had been doing music since I was 3 but mostly in choirs and music groups that had constricted lines by which you could grow as a performer, and in the 1st three years with Ziyo before reality had actually caught up to us was great. It was born an only child, and it was like overnight I had four brothers, that drank smoked and we could do whatever f--- we wanted with our music. Everything that happened at the time, we were thinking "wow! I can't believe this is happening to me it's so amazing." We could be playing in shitty bar with no soundsytem to some hookers and johns and we were happy. Life is more fun as the underdog. Still I can't complain, I'm happy all the time, and most happy on stage. I had a pretty damn good life now, and maybe all that is just unwarranted nostalgia. Everything looks better in retrospect.
(CM) : What would you say has been your biggest achievement so far?
(HF) : Surviving. It's alot harder than it sounds.
(CM) : Somebody once likened you to a female Jim Morrison. In your opinion, how much truth is there in Jim's quote, "Whoever controls the media controls the mind."
(HF) : Was true in his day but is outdated now. The new quote should be, "Whoever controls social media controls the mind".
(CM) : We read somewhere that you once got shot at a party. Could you tell us a little more about what happened? Was this the closest you've ever come to death?
(HF) : No, I'm one of those people that got pretty close quite a few times. I was hospitalized for Phenomia when I was 4 for a week. I almost drowned when I was 7. I got shot at when I was 16. I fell out off of a fence, shattered my jaw, and lost alot blood. Woke up in the middle of surgery in a shitty Chinese hospital that had me on the wrong anesthetic when I was 24. I think those were the closest ones so far.
But as for being shot. I was walking out of a party when I was 16 after sneaking off to my first underground rave with a friend in highschool. She brought one of her friends, this guy, who I danced with all night. He put a bandana around his head to keep the sweat from flowing into his eyes. We were thirsty and decided to go to the van where we had stored some water because the Rave sold water for way too much money to capitalize on all the kids on X. When we walked out, some gang bangers saw my friends bandana, which was the the wrong color probably of a rival gang in that neighborhood. So they did a drive-by. I don't think they were planning to kill us, just scare us or something. It worked. I didn't go to another underground rave til college.
(CM) : Pet Conspiracy played Chengdu late last year. Are you still in touch with the band and have you seen any of their shows lately?
(HF) : Not really with the band, though I talk to some of the members every so often. Last time I saw their show as when Nova Heart played our first real official gig, and they were on the same bill. That was in Zurich August 2011, year and a half ago. I haven't seen their show since.
(CM) : Chengdu's changing quickly whilst the underground music scene moves at a much slower pace. What's your take on Chengdu's role in China's underground scene?
(HF) : I think if I had to pin it down to a music town vibe I can do it best with unfair over-simplified comparisons to the US. I think Beijing is like New York, Shanghia is like LA, Wuhan is a like Detroit, and Chengdu would be more of a Portland or a Seattle. Like these Oregon Cities Chengdu has a pretty good variety of bands, but it's kind of thriving in it's own bubble not so connected to the music trends elsewhere. It doesn't get sucked into another arbitrary musical movement. But there's still enough venues to play, musicians and fans to make the scene active and growing, and it has a really good local support system. It might take longer for bands to get famous in the rest of China or find their sound, but it also gives local bands distance enough from the noise to work toward something unique. Some of my favorite bands are from Portland or Seattle, it's pretty diverse even though that area's mostly known for starting grunge. I think Chengdu will be that, a music town that might create a sound that isn't a copy of what's going on in the west but uniquely Chengdu.
(CM) : We've been lucky to be able to see some of the best bands in the country playing at the Little Bar. Are there any new bands you've been listening to or seen recently that you could recommend to our readers?
(HF) : I haven't seen enough Chinese bands lately, because we spent half the last year on tour oversees and the other half recuperating. But we saw some really amazing international bands. M83, one of the best shows I ever saw. French Horn Rebellion, really really fun. We toured with them and it was blast. Brandt Brauer Frick, cause being a musician I just stand jaws agape in awe of what they do. Bonaparte, the hands down craziest show on the planet and real punk rock not faux punk rock, with some dancers that would scare you shitless if they weren't so great. The National, because it's very emotional for me, and I sing along. Friendly Fires, I danced my ass off. Planning to Rock, was just so bizarre it was cool. WhoMadeWho, another life changing experience for me. There's a huge list, most of them maybe a bit out of range for little bar, but man, some of these bands remind you, oh that's why they became so big. It's cause they're friggin amazing!
(CM) : Any advice for any new bands just starting out?
(HF) : Take what you do seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously. Biggest turn off are bands that pretend to be rockstars before they even known how to play their instruments or write a half descent song. If everyone thinks you're douchebag, you can forget about becoming a real rockstar. (not always true but that's what I want to believe)
Rehearse and play as much as you can. That seems pretty simple advice but lately in China there are alot of bands that play 1 or 2 festivals and think that their too good for club shows. They try to not play as much to up their "market value." It's a bunch of BS. You can do that if you're a headliner, and most headliners I know played like I did in the past, something like 3 or 4 shows a week for years. Remember the Beatles were playing 6 hours a day 6 days a week in Hamburg for 3 months at a stretch. Trust me, you clock in the hours, you get the results.
Learn to do a sound check!!! Next time you meet a descent sound guy, be nice to him or her, and ask questions like. How do I EQ the levels on my guitar amp to make it sound better? Most sound guys are willing to share if you ask them nicely, and so when your in a situation with a venue with a not so good sound guy, you can do your own sound or at least get your sound closer to what you want. But regardless if the soundguy is good or bad, try to always be nice to them. They have alot of power over you, so don't piss them off.
Be Unique -- You get results faster in China if you copy somebody else's successful formula. But the end result is you don't have your own voice, and when you go to the outside world, you get outed and end up as just another novelty band, the Chinese version of blah blah blah. Everyone is looking for a unique sound. You'll have some hurdles with audiences at first, but they will come around if you put the time into song writing and cultivating that vision. If you think you found something new, hold on to it and don't let the naysayers discourage you. Especially the hipsters. They spend too much time trying to dress well and reading reviews on Pitchfork to cultivate a real personal opinion about anything. Remember, there has always been trend setters and trend followers. Follow your gut, and you'll have a better chance of being the former.
(CM) : Festival season's coming around again. What's the best one you've been to so far and why?
(HF) : For me, the best festival I've ever played was Icelandic Airwaves. It was a showcase festival, so it was still venue based, but the vibe was great, the sound was great, the audience was great, and place was great. Only thing not great was the freezing cold weather but hey it's Iceland, everything else. . . GREAT! As for outdoor festivals in China, the best was Midi Shanghai. It wasn't the best billed festival I've ever been to, but the vibe was so positive. People had fun, and there was a sense commaderie between audience and bands, and the bands with each other. Clockenflap, was probably the best billed festival I've ever been to in China, even if Hong Kong is kind of a special circumstance. If I could put Midi's vibe and Clockenflap's bill together, with Icelandic Airwaves environment and technical perfection, it would be the best festival on the planet!
(CM) : How was the Clockenflap festival in Hong Kong? Did you get chance to catch any other acts whilst you were there?
(HF) : It was really nice. We had only been together as a band for 3 months with Nova Heart when we played it, so we were really raw. I was kind of mortified. I was there 2 times, once with Pet Conspiracy and Once with Nova Heart and Ziyo. For a new festival, they really have a strong vision, and I think they took a concept that I thought would be impossible in Hong Kong and made it possible. Also the bill is always really good. I saw Blood Red Shoes, The Pains of Being Young at Heart, Los Campesinos, Santigold, and the Cribs there.
(CM) :How do you feel your shows are received abroad and is it a different reception to the ones in China?
(HF) : Yeah, last year, we were received much better abroad then here in China. We're still a pretty new band, so we still need work, but we played something like 7 festivals overseas last year which was really nice. I think we resonate well overseas because the mood of the world is always a wave. Up and down, one day we want to party party party, next we want to calm down and be contemplative, and at times we want to sulk. In 2002 to 2008, it was party party party. Then the party was over. The world realized that there was price that they had been ignoring in a fog of consumer noise, at first they were mad, and they became screamy screamy with a bit of party party still left over. Now the mood is less angry and people want to think about how we did this to ourselves instead of just getting loud. They want to be more cerebral. I think music is more than anything, a reflection of the mood of the moment, and we caught the wave somehow in the west. My head is in this stuff right now, politics, economics, social behavior, what is morality, why are drugs illegal, and why are wars so different now and so weirdly much worse because there are no more clearly defined winners and losers. I'm on my own metamorphasis kick right now which seems to resonate well with people overseas. China's on the back end of that wave, it's still party party, screamy screamy, money money, anger mixed with materialism mixed with a longing for hedonistic self-gratification. I'm not on that wave anymore. Still I can see this country coming around to us. By the time China does, who knows, maybe we'll be on a different wave.
(CM) : Could you tell us a little about the other members of Nova Heart?
(HF) : Current members are Boxuan. He's bassists also for the Gar, Maitian Shouwang Zhe, and he used to be in Hedgehog. He thinks in complicated forms, which means that he pushes away the simple construction of basses that usually exist in four to the floor dance music. At first I didn't get some of his concepts, but now I really dig it. Our drummers Atom, who is still in Hedgehog. She's a powerhouse drummer and one of the best performers I ever met. She's added alot since joining, and they've both taken the band in a more rock direction from our early Italo disco roots. Zong Can was from my former band Ziyo/Free the Birds, and he's a really unique guitarist. He's not a virtuoso, but he builds crazy soundscapes with his guitar, and has a kind of buddhist chant vibe mixed up with some distorted funk like its coming out of a heat bent record played by a worn down needle. I like the sound we're creating, lots of influences yet it's not really anything I've heard before. Working with everyone makes me excited, we're in a process of kind of finding the best working way for all of us right now.
(CM) : What's Nova Heart's song writing process like?
(HF) : The initial writing process is very different now. Nova Heart started with me and Rodion. Rodion produced the tracks that I wrote. I'd do a simple foundation for a track, hook ideas, vocal parts etc on garageband and send it to Ed (Rodion). He would make a basic version send it back. I'd send notes, and we do this back and forth for a few months. Finally I end up in Italy in his studio, and we just take all the different tracks and do fixes and throw ideas around until we have a structure. I take the stems back to Beijing and work it out in the studio with the band. Record bits we like and send it back to Ed and he integrates it in the mix. That was 2011, the Process 2013 is I'm doing more stuff in my own studio now. Upgraded to Logic and more professional gear, and I do more without Ed then before. I program the electronic elements at home along with vocals and some basic structure bits. I take the stems to rehearsal and work it out. I think Ed will come back in the process some time later, but I'm working out much more stuff in my studio. It's easier to change it that way, and make it more live ready, so I can create seperate version for the album and live. It's challenging because I'm still learning to do the programming and mix myself. I think there was one time when my boyfriend joked that Girls shouldn't get into programming electronic music. He threw down the challenge and now, I'm just 100% into it.
(CM) : Are there any performers out there that you really admire?
(HF) : Nina Simone. I am a lifelong fan.
(CM) : Many thanks for doing the interview Helen. One last question, where would you most like to be right now?
(HF) : On tour in Central America or Africa. . . next goal!
Nova Heart play Chengdu's Little Bar on Saturday the 23rd March with support from the excellent Hi Person. Doors open at 8pm. We suggest you get your tickets early at the following pre-sale ticket link:
For more information on the band click the following links: