Facing The Music: Five Expat Bands Under The Spotlight

The sounds of Dongguan are live & alive and diverse with chorus & verse. But the question behind the encore is how did they get here? We discover the reality behind being successful musicians in Guangdong.

The truth is, we are very lucky to have a number of skillful and creative bands play in Dongguan—whether from here or the surrounding areas—made up of experienced and vivacious musicians who love to entice and engage a crowd with their best hits. Whether original or cover bands, musicians play a key role in many of our lives, keeping us entertained by creating a place for dancing and socializing, even escaping from the monotony of working life. Whether you’re a musician, a keen dancer or you just like to enjoy decent live music, we can all appreciate the effort that goes into producing and performing music in Guangdong, and anywhere for that matter.

Starting a band appeals in many ways—being able to perform with your friends around different spaces, entertaining a crowd by making them sing and dance, discovering new fans, etc.—however the fun also runs parallel with particular challenges, especially in China. For one, creating music that agrees with the tastes of those in the community isn’t always easy. You have to appeal to your audience—this doesn’t always necessarily go to plan. Musicians may face the disappointment of a small audience. Not to mention Dongguan itself being such a melting pot of various cultures and diverse tastes, meaning that it could be a hit or miss with the community liking their music or performance. Then there’s the idea of making an album that will reach people. Despite the risks, these musicians put themselves out there up on stage and in the studio to reveal their message in the form of music and lyrics. Seeking an ultimately sound and successful show, the apprehension must be daunting at times. Especially with new venues ad audiences. On the other hand, the journey to stardom in a foreign country sounds exciting right? One thing is for certain, our five selected bands from Dongguan, Shenzhen and Guangzhou are all passionate about their music and putting on a boundless performance. An eclectic taste in music will serve you well here, and it seems that many of the bands chosen like to spice things up a bit with combining their music genres as opposed to defining themselves with just one. It is clear however, there is ultimately a common alliance with various forms of rock. From originality to a cover band who puts its own touch on existing music, there is always pride in identity: Bands find it significant to tell their personal story or at least to put their own spin on things. From hard rock to psychedelic jam to blues, there is something here for everyone in all the usual venues around our electric city.

REVOLUTION: THE “LOCALS”

Formed in 2011, REVOLUTION is an energetic rock band from our beloved Dongguan, having extended shows to Shenzhen, Hong Kong and even Shanghai. The band consists of three talented Italians and one talented New Zealander; lead guitarist Frank Chelini, singer Andy Rossi, bassist Vitto Figio and drummer Marcus Hemopo. Known for smashing their live performances, REVOLUTION’s influences include progressive rock, hard rock, blues and heavy metal, but the band gradually ventured into more rock-friendly works by incorporating classic rock and pop rock into their music. Excitingly, they have an album on ReverbNation with some of their written material, so why not check it out?

REVOLUTION has performed at an impressive number of diverse venues in Dongguan, including Hollywood Baby Too, Murray’s, B Quarter, One for the Road, Live 8, Brown Sugar Jar, Irene’s Bar, Buongiorno, Fifth Avenue, and Jazz Bar; not to mention the Dongcheng Square Music Festival and Houjie Music Festival.

HOW DID YOU GUYS MEET?
Andy: “Frank and I met on a Sunday afternoon in a bar through a mutual friend, one of those things that happen by chance and simply just because. The band started in Dongguan at the end of 2010 with a different line up. Marcus joined at the end of 2012. Vitto was already a good friend of each band member and Marcus was introduced by some other friends.”

CAN YOU TELL US A FUNNY STORY?
Frank: “Well one time we played at a music festival in Zhuhai and I fell offstage in the middle of our performance! It was hilarious actually.”

WHAT DO PEOPLE ENJOY THE MOST ABOUT YOUR SHOWS?
Frank: “We think that we have to play from the soul and give emotion to the audience who come to listen to us. We try to give the maximum every time we play. We like to get the audience dancing as well to see everyone participating. Every show from REVOLUTION is different, so I suggest coming to see us live; every show has a story to tell.”

CAN YOU REMEMBER ONE OF YOUR FAVORITE PERFORMANCES?
Frank: “We have played around 400 shows in different cities and we have lots of fun especially with big shows like when we play at festivals, it’s exciting! At the same time, we love to play in small bars where we can feel the warmth from the audience. We had a show in Shenzhen in a famous club and that night one important musician was in the audience, he even joined me in a Led Zeppelin cover. His name was Marco Minnemman, a famous drummer who cooperated with Joe Satriani.”

WHO WRITES THE MUSIC? DO OR DID YOU EVER COWRITE?
Andy: “After some time, we started to have more confidence in ourselves and each other as musicians, so we started to write original songs. For the majority Frank writes the music and I write the lyrics. Currently we have 10 original songs and we want to keep writing more.”

IMAGINE YOU CAN PLAY ONLY TWO OF YOUR SONGS FOR THE REST OF TIME. WHICH SONGS ARE THEY?
Frank: “Woah, so difficult. ‘Watch Out’ and ‘Woman’. ‘Woman’ is an important song from an important time in my life.”

HOW HAS IT BEEN DEVELOPING A MUSIC CAREER HERE IN THE SOUTH OF CHINA?
Frank: “Marcus and I have had long experience with live shows in our countries. China is a big challenge, even with how different the people are. Wow, the beginning was hard and crazy; things started to come naturally show after show. We have used music agents many times for bigger shows. We’d like say thanks to all of the people, bar owners and organizers for giving us opportunities to groove.”

HOW DO AUDIENCES HERE RESPOND TO WATCHING YOU PERFORM?
Andy: “I think over the years people have reacted very positively to our shows. We all play from the heart and put a lot of energy and soul into our performances onstage, so this pays off and people always enjoy it.”

DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR BUDDING MUSICIANS HERE IN DONGGUAN?
Frank: “All of it has to come naturally, step by step without thinking too much into it. Stay easy and work hard for it and you will get there.”

LIPS MCKENZIE: THE JAMMERS

Made up of four likeable musicians from the US, UK and China, jam band Lips Mckenzie draws from several musical genres and packs a punch with psychedelic jams and intriguing backstory between the lines of original music. Strongly influenced by bands such as Phish, The String Cheese Incident and Atmosphere, each show this band performs promises varied setlists. With Curt Zimpfer on guitar and vocals, bassist and vocalist Eric Archer, Matt Meloy on the drums and new-to-the-group keyboardist Jacob Ryo, these four certainly make a dynamic set of artists. Having toured around Guangdong, Lips Mckenzie has played shows regularly in Shenzhen, Dongguan and beyond since 2017. Look out for their EP coming to the internet soon or catch one of their shows and grab yourself a Lips Mckenzie t-shirt—we have ours!

Having shared its musical talent with many of us here in Dongguan, Lips Mckenzie has played many a time in the likes of Treehouse, Grateful Q, Murray’s and SoWhat Livehouse.

OKAY THIS IS A STANDARD QUESTION TO ASK MUSICIANS BUT I’M GOING TO ASK ANYWAY. WHERE DID THE NAME COME FROM?
Matt: “Eric came up with a ton of possible names for the band in the whacky weird way that he would. Two words came together: Lips and McKenzie. We liked it so we chose that but I think we all thought it was just temporary until we could choose a more solid name. We kept it so long that it grew on us and now we love it; now we are Lips McKenzie.”

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY MAKES YOUR MUSIC WORTH LISTENING TO/YOUR SHOWS WORTH WATCHING?
Curt: “I like to think that Lips McKenzie shows are safe spaces for people. People are going to be dancing around and chatting with each other and really be free of judgement. Our shows are judgement free, psychedelic dance parties for those who love to drink beer and get down.”

WHAT WAS YOUR WORST SHOW LIKE?
Curt: “Worst show? Brew summer fest 2017; it shall never be spoken of!”

YOU RECENTLY HAD KEYBOARDIST JACOB RYO JOIN THE BAND. WHAT LED TO THIS?
Eric: “No one ever questioned whether or not we needed a keyboardist, it was known. Jacob is our missing piece and he is also on a level that goes beyond the stratosphere.”

HOW ARE REHEARSALS TOGETHER, GENERALLY SPEAKING?
Matt: “There’s conflict in rehearsals at times but that’s more to do with outside influences such as stress from jobs, friends and women! I’m actually surprised at how fast we learn songs and how quickly everything gels. The jamming sessions usually see Curt as the teacher and the rest of us as the students but that’s quickly becoming less and less, as he has taught me and Eric so much that we are starting to lead by example. We have a couple of techniques and exercises, one of which includes turning off the lights and playing in the dark.”
Curt: “Also, writing original music is a huge emotional release for us. I would go nuts if I couldn’t write music; I write maybe one song a day or at least one guitar riff a day. Most of the stuff I’ve come up with will never be used, but that’s not the point.”

HOW CHALLENGING HAS IT BEEN PRODUCING AND PERFORMING IN THE SOUTH OF CHINA?
Eric: “No matter where you live on the globe, it’s easy to have a shitty band and challenging to have a good one. Some advantages of being based in China are that the market is less saturated and there are better opportunities. Disadvantages come in the form of cultural and language differences. But it’s all part of the ‘expat musician’ experience, which is an awesome one overall, and I think it’s the real reason why we do what we do.”

FLOWER BRIDGE: THE CROWD-PLEASERS

Playing blues and rock, Flower Bridge from Guangzhou plays its fair share of shows around Guangdong, performing original music as well as its very own spin on covers too. From Canada, the UK, China and the Philippines, Andrew is the lead singer and guitarist with Josh on lead guitar, Cat on bass and Lars on drums. With a passion for energy and sound, this band insists on supreme entertainment with Josh making his very own guitar pedals, and members joining the crowd with tricks like playing guitar behind their heads and backs. Famous influences include Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton and Deep Purple.

From Guangzhou to Dongguan, Flower Bridge has put its name out there in our local popular venues, Murray’s and One for the Road, on several occasions.

SO TELL ME, HOW DID YOU GET TOGETHER? AND WHERE DID THE UNIQUE NAME COME FROM?
Josh: “Andrew and I met not long after I moved to Guangzhou seven years ago. We were introduced through a mutual friend and hit it off immediately because we have an almost identical taste in music. We found a rhythm section and started playing regular gigs locally.”

Andrew: “It all started a long time ago as a joke. Friends of ours started saying ‘Flower Bridge’ as a joke to each other because in Cantonese it sounds like “Fa Kui”—a play on words. Sometime around 2011, Josh and I found a bassist and drummer in Shiqiao and this was when we were joking around with the name. In the end we decided to go with it! Josh and myself were original members of the band and shortly after Cat came along and we really connected. We had multiple drummers, but the most recent member Lars came along just this year and has been a blessed addition to the band with his fantastic double kick drum skills.”

DO YOU HAVE ANY FUNNY STORIES ABOUT THE BAND WHICH YOU CAN TELL US?
Andrew: “We always joke about how Cat can sleep anywhere and everywhere. We always take videos and photos of him sleeping, it’s quite funny.”

WHAT’S YOUR MOST RECENT SONG?
Andrew: “A song called ‘A Little Bit Louder’, a heavy hitting rock song. There are more on the way. ‘Meanstreak’, ‘Two Thousand Years’…”

HOW HAS YOUR JOURNEY BEEN SINCE THE INCEPTION OF FLOWER BRIDGE? DO YOU HAVE ANY DIRECTION IN MIND FOR THE COMING FUTURE IN TERMS OF MUSIC OR PERFORMANCE?
Josh: “It has been a great experience playing for what is often a very culturally diverse crowd! We learned a lot and the band went through a few line-up changes. Right now, we are lucky to have the time and opportunity to put together some original music for recording in the future, which we’re all pretty excited about. After so much time playing together it will be great to record some original material.”

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR EXPERIENCE OF PRODUCING AND PERFORMING HERE IN CHINA?
Andrew: “Being a musician in Guangdong is one of the most difficult jobs for sure. You try your best to perform well but sometimes others undercut you by doing it cheaper. Some people don’t realize just how expensive and difficult the job is. You really need to love music to do it these days. It’s difficult to please everyone. Most music has taken a turn towards DJs and technology but we stay true to who we are, which is rock and blues.”

UNANIMOUS: THE NEWCOMERS

A newer contender having formed in just under a year ago, Unanimous has since been rocking venues in Dongguan and Shenzhen. From the US, UK, Russia and China, the Shenzhen band members include Ed Boyde-Shaw on vocals, Mick Arrell on guitar, Boris Meshkov on drums and Anne Sue on bass. Hard rock with elements of metal and hip hop assimilate original songs cowritten by Mick and Ed, both who share a passion for this style of music. Of course, the songs really come together during practice when Anne and Boris add their input with arrangements. Endearingly, all band members were already friends in the Shenzhen music scene separately and united to form something new.

So far, Unanimous has played shows at Treehouse and Grateful Q, delighting Dongguaners and their friends and fans from Shenzhen. And who knows what’s in store for the future.

WHY DO YOU THINK PEOPLE ENJOY YOUR MUSIC?
Ed: “I think that people like listening to our music because we have an eclectic sound with a strong focus on songwriting. We have written songs about personal and political issues and love, but we also have some songs about a Japanese Ronin and sword wielding heroes because writing and performing these songs is just so much fun.”

WHICH OF YOUR SHOWS HAS SEEN THE BEST CROWD REACTION SO FAR?
Ed: “We would all probably agree that our show at Magma Dolores Park in Shenzhen was our best because at that point we had a good bulk of material and had started coming into our own, stylistically. There was a good vibe at the show and the crowd responded very enthusiastically to our music. We received great feedback afterwards.”

WHAT’S IT LIKE REHEARSING TOGETHER?
Boris: “I don’t find the atmosphere to be pushy and I just start playing, I don’t really have to think about it because it’s easy and fun. Practices are a low-pressure environment, one which I think I flourish in.”

DID YOU WRITE ANY SONGS THAT YOU THINK ARE A BIT WHACKY?
Mick: “We have one song that we all feel is a little too weird called ‘Stranger Alien’. The song has an 11/8-time signature and we’re struggling to land on a proper arrangement for the song. We are currently working to refine it and make it work with the rest of the album.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR UNANIMOUS?
Mick: “The next big thing for us will be to get into the studio, we have written 12 songs so far and we are highly anticipating recording our first full length album. Once we have this recorded we will look into touring, spreading our music and growing as a band.”

THE BEATLEBAND: THE COVER BAND

A tribute band dedicated to The Beatles, The Beatleband is an ingenious endeavour by four musical Guangzhouers, paying homage to the world-famous rock band from the 60s. Having played gigs at various venues in Guangdong, the successful squadron combines UK and USA talent, with Clem Vickery on vocals and bass, Jason Boyd on guitar and vocals, Bill Blackford on lead guitar and backup vocals, and Chris Pye on drums.

The Beatleband has brought its classics and less-known tracks to Dongguan through Murray’s and Cruise Bar at Kande Hotel, for our PartyHERE! event, The Executives, which took place in January. And how can anyone dislike a good rendition of the Beatles?

DID YOU EVER EXPECT YOUR BAND TO BE SO SUCCESSFUL?
Jason: “There are no guarantees in show business, but it seemed like being a tribute band for one of the most popular bands of all time was a pretty safe bet. I think if we were a ‘Captain Beefheart’ cover band it would have been much more of an uphill battle.”

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY MAKES YOUR SHOWS WORTH WATCHING?
Jason: “Great songs. We do most of the big ones that people know but also we have some hidden gems for real Beatles fans too.”

WAS IT IMPORTANT TO YOU TO ADD A TOUCH OF YOUR OWN STYLE? OR DO YOU AIM TO BE A REPLICA OF THE BAND WE ALL KNOW AND LOVE?
Jason: “Well, it’s impossible to sing as well as the real deal, but we did work hard to get the harmonies correct. I think most of us are going for as accurate as possible, however we have changed the drum parts around quite a bit to make them more dynamic and modern. (No offense to Ringo!)”

IF YOU COULD ONLY PLAY TWO SONGS FOR THE REST OF TIME, WHICH ONES WOULD IT BE?
Jason: “‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and ‘Hey Bulldog’.”

WHAT FAMOUS BEATLES SONG TENDS TO GET THE BEST REACTION OR THE MOST CROWDS DANCING?
Jason: “Well, everyone loves ‘Hey Jude’ because it’s a big sing-along song. But as far as dancing, folks love the early Beatles songs best. Those like ‘Twist and Shout’ and ‘I Saw Her Standing There’.”

HOW HAS IT BEEN FOR YOU FORMING A COVER BAND IN GUANGDONG?
Jason: “Honestly it’s been pretty smooth to put together. All of us have been in bands before, and it’s been so much fun to do a deep dive into the catalog of one of our favorite bands. And audiences have been great. Although it’s nice to have some western folk in the audience to show the Chinese folk its okay to get up and dance around like a loon.”