“You’re not punk, and I’m telling everyone
Save your breath, I never was one”
The infamous reactionary words of wisdom by Jawbreaker, written as the ultimate “fuck you” to punk purists who had established very rigid parameters to punk rock. This song, Boxcar, always come roaring to mind when thinking about bands who don’t fit comfortably within any one genre tag, let alone something as broad as “punk”. It’s always bewildering, and disappointing, to know that here in 2019, people are still having these age-old conversations about what is and isn’t punk rock. It’s bewildering because, who gets to decide? But disappointing because, ultimately…who gives a fuck.
When we sat down with the outspoken vocalist, Janice Lau, of brilliantly chaotic Hong Kong band David Boring, this sentiment came tearing out of her even before we sat down to begin the interview.
“There are certain things about us that people associate with in terms of “punkness”, like the aggression on stage, or that I perform in a certain way. All these things seem to make people think of the punk rock aesthetic. So people constantly lump us into this with their strange notion that punk is this one single, flat agenda. Yet at the same time, there are still people who tell us that we couldn’t be “punk” because we all have day-jobs, and we’re not living on the streets.”
The band, made up of architects and engineers from Hong Kong, may not fit your neatly molded idea of a “punk” band. But isn’t “neatly molded” and “punk” a complete oxymoron to begin with? Punk rock in and of itself was created to challenge society’s norms; by not conforming to whatever lofty ideals or life choices they have set out for you. By definition then, David Boring is exactly that. From the moment the band quietly sets up to perform, before they annihilate you both sonically and visually, and then physically, the band’s approach to music and performance is in your face. It’s abrasive. It’s uncomfortable. It’s nihilistic. It’s like watching a train derail and head straight into a concrete wall. At any given moment, the band will self-destruct right before your very eyes. That was our first jaw-dropping encounter with this band about 3 years ago in a small venue up on the 28th floor of a commercial office building, and we have been a fan ever since.
“I think anger can manifest itself in many ways and really, you don’t have to be a “punk” to be angry. If you understand why we do what we do and the context, the kind of music we write and the way we perform will make perfect sense. It’s not blind anger. Our stuff is very philosophical, very human, with a heavy emphasis on social issues.”
With lyrical content that takes the band into the political arena, David Boring continues to force you to challenge what YOU may consider the stereotypical definition of a nonconformist. The anti-establishment, “fuck the government” trope, is not the set of rules the band abides by.
“It’s not about being political in an overt sense. We’re not about “slogan”-y politics, but a general frustration of a generation of people who feel trapped by society and disappointed at the state of the world. That to us is really heavy. Which then manifests into our performances being more violent and destructive.”
The heaviness of living in a city like Hong Kong with all the pressures of life restricted to a limited amount of space, where the space itself becomes overly oppressive, should result in explosive art as a way of dealing with a city bursting at the seams. However, this is not always the case.
“Musicians and artists often put on a persona because they think that’s what their genre requires of them. They try so hard to play the part, but it ends up feeling more like a form of Cosplay. When it comes to being an artist, you have the responsibility to really live what you’re doing. It can be a hobby or a form of escapism, but you have to believe in what you’re doing.”
The band, branded as intensely confrontational, in an overly conservative city like Hong Kong, can often ruffle some tender little feathers. Do they shy away from this? Abso-fucking-lutely not.
“We tend not to listen to other people much. We don’t jump into a shared agenda that everyone out there is eager to support or get behind. We’ve always been pretty independent from all that. I fully understand the importance of a “scene” but I feel it’s vital you believe in something before you just go and support it. Sometimes people play music in Hong Kong to be part of something bigger than themselves. And that is a legit reason. But the reason we do what we do is simple – we just want to do what we’ve been doing and what we’ll continue to do.”
Have we mentioned how much we adore this band? They are the anti-thesis of a stereotypical Hong Kong band who ticks all the right boxes for people to then get behind.
“We choose to use our (not-very-big) platform to disseminate our message because it is often difficult to work with media outlets. We feel that often there is already a narrative made up about you, and you get used as a pawn or a sound bite to help support their agenda. Thus, the story they end up writing is often not about you, but you confirming a stereotype for them. They do this by taking everything of context because they use what they want to use and take everything else away. It is a common tactic for media outlets to lure people into saying something shocking. They are well aware that our society currently is hyper sensitive and deeply divided so certain buzzwords will trigger a reaction. So we’ve become more cynical because we do have A LOT to say, but we have to be careful, and speak only if we trust the source.”
Controlling the narrative. Glaringly obvious that this is not only important for David Boring, but a mode of survival. For example, the band’s latest single Jane Pain, the band threw up a lengthy explanation for the track as a way to provide an accurate context for the song to their fans and listeners. As a band so dedicated to their art, having to explain the art must suck.
“Actually no, I really love it. I love the dialogue and conversation. I find that very interesting. Real dialogue demonstrates respect to your audience instead of treating them as just mindless consumers. This video for example, we’re talking about really complex issues, yet there’s the potential for people to focus on the possible shock factor of the video. So we realized that for some clarity of focus, we need the full package: the song, a video and a write up. It’s still not a literal explanation; we don’t want to explain all the subtle nuances, but we do want to provide people with a guide. I know it may be dull to people who couldn’t careless to read through the text, but at least I know it’s out there having been written by ourselves representing our point of view. This way, people can get a direct comparison of the way the media is portraying us versus what we’re really about.”
With so much polarizing emotion that this band stirs up, when word got out that they would be traveling to the US – the reaction too, was interesting. As a band that is often misunderstood locally, David Boring need to travel to places that are more welcoming and understanding of their artistry and caliber. The band recently returned from performing at SXSW, and even shows in NYC, with a stop at a recording facility in Pennsylvania.
“A lot of people were wondering how all that happened. They wanted to know who our contact was, how we applied or who recommended us, when the reality was, we didn’t do any of that!”
So how DID this all happen? Well the entire experience was broken down into 3 parts: SXSW, going to New York City, and then finally a recording project that took place in Philly. In fact, that latter event was actually what started it all. And how did THAT even happen? With the band’s much celebrated appearance on the late Anthony Bourdain’s Hong Kong episode of Parts Unknown.
A creative director of a label out in Philadelphia was inspired by the story portrayed in that episode, googled the band, and out of the blue got in touch. They invited the band to come out to their recording studio to be part of a project that they had been working on with a number of American bands (David Boring would be the first band from outside the US). It was this invitation that set things in motion for the band. As Janice was sharing this serendipitous event, she smiled gloriously from ear to ear.
While they were knee deep in researching and working out the necessary paperwork to get into the country through the proper means, the band was then also approached by a UK-based indie label. The label too, came across the band and fell in love with what they heard and saw. It just so happens that the label was already working on setting up a special showcase at SXSW and thus asked if the band would be interested to be involved.
And that folks…is how the story unfolded.
“The whole two weeks we were in the US was absolutely an experience of extremes. I still find it really hard to process all that took place during that time. All we wanted to do was experience Austin but through playing and meeting people, many from the industry, we were getting told all these wonderful things that could happen to us if we wanted to truly pursue this as a fulltime gig. To be honest though, none of us are ready to do that. In fact, we all love our day jobs. We’re not interested in dropping everything to put the immense time and energy it would take to fulfill these industry insider’s rockstar prophecies.”
As volatile as the band comes across, they want this experience to provide a hopeful roadmap to bands out there. This American adventure is proof that there is a path for bands who find themselves in seemingly hopeless situations, such as out here in Hong Kong. The journey also further affirmed certain values that the band has always held dear. To be a band in today’s world requires you to create music that is different; something that’ll grab people’s attention. That’s what got them to where they are now, and the opportunities laid out in front of them. “You have to consider that there are thousands and thousands of bands. Even at SXSW there were hundreds of bands performing in front of industry people. People who’ve seen and heard it all. Why would they come see you? You need to be doing something really really unique, yet still authentic. It needs to be real.”
David Boring is anything but a band that keeps themselves inside neatly laid out parameters. They are the type of band that smiles at said parameters, and then proceed to burn them all to the ground. Then, for added measure, come back and stomp all over the ashes. Thankfully a band this driven, not to mention inspiring, has several projects and collaborations lined up. All done with the utmost integrity and respect for their art. While they were in Philly, they wrote, recorded and produced a song, and documented the entire experience to be released in video format soon. So the future remains there’s to plot.
But then again, they could also just choose to destroy it and end it all today.