Drummer of China’s first female punk band, sonic experimentalist and Dover Street Market buyer, Shenggy Shen resides amongst avant-garde music and fashion. From working with the infamous Blixa Bargeld to making analogue psychedelia as Elephant House, we spoke to Shenggy about classical music, Chinese culture and creative rebellion.
You were the drummer of Hang on the Box, how did the band come into being? Did you face any obstacles as China’s first all-female punk band?
Hang on the Box was formed in 1998. At the beginning, there were only three girls: lead singer and guitarist Wang Yue, drummer Yang Fan and bass player Yilina. I first met them after their gig. After a quick chat I invited them to my studio as they had nowhere to rehearse. One time, we improvised with the four of us because the original drummer (Yang Fan) had to move to playlist guitar and so I joined the band.
The band encountered a lot of difficulties in the beginning, no one wanted to give us the opportunity to perform and thought that girls can’t play instruments well. The public opinion has never stopped attacking us. We used music to fight; we wrote the songs “No Sexy”, “For some stupid dick heads on the BBS”, and the song “We don’t need Saxophone” was dedicated to our favourite bands X-Ray Spex and Bikini Kill with the lyrics: “There’s no darkness because you gave us your hands.”
Your sound progressed from punk to industrial avant-garde with WHITE, could you elaborate on your change in sound?
Once I saw a documentary about underground music in Berlin in the 1980s, a band was called ‘liaisons dangereuses’ blew my mind, especially the keyboardist, Chrislo Haas, who played a synth MS20 and a massive table of modulars. I went crazy for electronic equipment so I bought a MS20 and tried to make a new sound! I was still playing with Hang on the Box but I also formed WHITE with Shou Wang. To me, drummers easily undergo subversive changes, I guess it may be because we aren’t as involved in song-writing, so we are more likely to enjoy different challenges.
For WHITE’s debut album, you worked with Blixa Bargeld in Berlin and went on to support Einstürzende Neubauten, how was working with someone so prestigious?
I met Blixa in Beijing 2005. I worked as his assistant and we became good friends before recording. He’s an incredible, pure intellectual and a sweet home-man. The whole process was a beautiful journey; we spent two weeks in the studio and shared more ideas than music itself. Blixa is very German; he doesn’t allow any unclear disorder. When we were lost musically, he would suggest we play a game – that’s very Dada. When we were recording percussion, Blixa suggested the starkest expression of the analogue instruments.
Your more recent work (such as Elephant House) seems to be influenced by psychedelic jazz and experimentalism. What direction do you think your music will go in next?
I’m really into classical music at moment, also a lot of contemporary composers. I’ve actually liked it since I was a kid. I’m starting to learn cello after lockdown; I really want to try composing and to continue collaborating with different musicians and artists.
Are you working on any musical projects at the moment?
I just made an EP for a programme for the Academy of Fine Arts China during lockdown. It’s the first time I produced music myself without other people in the studio.
In your opinion, what are the differences between the Chinese and UK music scene?
In my mind, British music and subcultures are always at the forefront of the world. They have massively influenced China’s 1.4 billion people since day one. We had a good scene of culture earlier in 2000’s but not anymore; the current Chinese government is too dictatorial. They control everything, there are too many restrictions on artists. My answer is freedom. However, all my friends in China just keep fighting.
You also work at the renowned Dover Street Market; do you think that music influences style?
Music and Style always influence each other and the best style always come from music. Look what we have got: Ska, Mods, Punk, Goths, Hip-hop, even classical music, I found that people listen to Beethoven wear Paul Harden. My order of the world is: Mankind obeys politics, the economy is more long-term than politics, society is higher than the economy, and above all that is culture. Punk is my favourite subculture; rebellion has a beautiful spirit which is why designers and musicians of every era keep going back to it. Comme Des Garcons is the best; I love Rei Kawakubo’s uncompromising spirit for freedom.
What is inspiring you at the moment, both visually and musically?
Visually, I’m really into dancers, both classical and contemporary. I love how they express emotion and tell stories through bodies. And, I’m very inspired by a young Russian calligraphy artist called Pokra Lampas. I have been following Russian subcultures for a while, all those young post-Soviet artists are incredible; a fresh generation influenced by western culture but overall creating another world. Musically, I have been listening to Gustav Mahler and Shostakovich again: they are mad and from the future!