Igniting Taiwanese Rock Music：Fire EX.
Camille Kuo /photo byFire On Music /tr. byScott Williams
Fire EX. (photo by Kent Chuang)
Punk-influenced Kaohsiung band Fire EX. sings in Taiwanese about the times we live in and the band’s deep love of Taiwan, writing and performing such highly popular tracks as “Good Night! Formosa!” and “Island’s Sunrise” that kindle their fans’ hopes for Taiwan’s future.
Fire EX.’s members are always a little embarrassed when asked about the origins of the band’s name. They explain that lead singer Sam Yang was just 16 years old when he asked two classmates, bass player JC Chen and guitarist ORio Cheng, to form a band to play at school events in the summer of 2000. Struggling to come up with a name, they ended up settling for the text printed on a poolside fire extinguisher.
Once a bunch of naive young school kids, they’ve grown in their 20 years together—Fire EX. has become the kind of seminal rock band that speaks for its generation, and they performed at the Presidential Office Building’s 100th anniversary concert.
Fans go wild when Fire EX. projects “Taiwan” onto the screen during a concert.
Doing something meaningful
Sam says that the band has never been focused on how long they might stay together or how famous they might become.
As the years passed, band members arrived at the first fork in the road: the question of whether to turn their musical hobby into a job or career.
The somewhat rebellious ORio matured early. Recognizing while still in elementary school that he didn’t want to live a regimented life, he deliberately failed his middle-school music program admissions test by covering up his answers with correction fluid.
Sam faced his family’s opposition to a career in music while he was in university, writing a letter to his parents to state that he would no longer accept their financial support, but would instead take responsibility for his own life. KG Ke, the band’s drummer and youngest member, also dealt with resistance from his family.
But supporting yourself is hard when you’re just 20 years old.
Sam was broke during the band’s early days, and spent some time living in musician Wu Zulin’s practice space. When the group was ready to produce a demo, they raised the money they needed to rent a recording studio by calling up their classmates and asking for help.
Kaohsiungers through and through, the band was determined to stick with their pursuit of music in spite of the obstacles they faced.
When he worked with Wu mixing sound for an event supporting the Losheng Sanatorium and heard leprosy patients share their stories, Sam realized that there were still many dark and silent crevasses within Taiwanese society. “When these kinds of groups need help, we are duty-bound to give it.” Even when the band was struggling to make ends meet, it performed benefit concerts free of charge or at a discounted rate.
Fire EX. vocalist Sam (far right) wore a plexiglass board emblazoned with the band’s name around his neck during the band’s first public performance on New Year’s Eve 2000. He hoped it would help the audience remember them.
Albums can be inspired by both personal and environmental factors. For example, Fire EX.’s Reborn(left) came out of the band's brush with breaking up, while Stand Up Like a Taiwanese(right) was a tribute to the growth of Taiwan’s democracy.
Soundtrack to a social movement
Fire EX. started its rise to fame in 2014, when the band’s “Island’s Sunrise” became the theme song of the Sunflower student movement. On hearing the song’s first line, “When dawn begins to light the sky,” most young people can immediately chime in with the next: “I shout out a song.”
Sam wrote “Island’s Sunrise” at the request of the students who were occupying the Legislative Yuan to protest the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, and completed the song in just 48 hours to support the movement. During the movement, the students often sang Fire EX.’s “Good Night! Formosa!” as well, transforming their anxiety into good wishes: “As the sun comes up, it’s another pretty day / I wish you well / Formosa.”
But the band don’t think of themselves as having been active participants in the social movement. Even though “Island’s Sunrise” was named Song of the Year at the 2015 Golden Melody Awards, Sam humbly but firmly says that the band was nothing more than “the musical accompaniment to those events. We were just bit players.”
Hundreds of thousands of people rally on Taipei’s Ketagalan Boulevard to protest the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement. (photo by Kent Chuang)
Sam sings in Taiwanese, giving voice to the inner lives of Taiwan’s people.
Writing songs for Taiwan
The lyrics to Fire EX.’s “K2, We Too!” run: “I come from an island on the sea / My brave mother lives on the island / The vast sea, the mountains and forests / Give me my courage.” The band wrote it as the theme song for Taiwanese climbers Lu Chung-han and Chang Yuan-chih’s attempt to summit K2, the world’s second tallest mountain.
The band often takes Taiwan and its people as the subject of its songs. Sam mentions that their newest album, Stand Up Like a Taiwanese, is also about Taiwan.
He says the idea behind the album was that the many individuals active in Taiwanese social movements, whether related to the February 28 Incident, martial law, the White Terror, or the modern post-martial-law era, are unsung heroes.
One song from the album, a collaboration with Hong Kong-based lyricist Albert Leung called “City of Sadness” that links the February 28th Incident of 1947 and the Hong Kong student protests of 2019, created a stir even before its release.
Sam had invited Leung, a fellow Golden Melody jury member, to write with him in May 2019.
When the Hong Kong protests got underway a month later, he noticed historical parallels with the Taiwan of the February 28th Incident period. Leung subsequently changed the Chinese name of the song to “Shuang Cheng Ji” (“a tale of two cities”) to highlight the similarities between two places separated by seven decades.
The album also addresses Taiwan’s difficult international situation.
The usually quiet JC states that the whole world takes note of how Taiwan—its manufacturers, medical system, and precision instrument makers—handles events like the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. “Taiwan may be an unsung hero, but we make contributions to the international community nonetheless.”
Fire EX. hopes that its music will give people a fuller picture of the history behind Taiwan’s current situation.
Fire EX. delivered Taiwanese songs to music fans from around the world at Okinawa’s “What a Wonderful World!! 18” festival.
When Fire EX. performed at the Kibamusha Rock Festival in Fukushima, Japan, singer Takeshi Hosomi joined them onstage for a song.
An unquenchable fire
Big rises often precede big falls. In the year that the band released “Island’s Sunrise,” they also dealt with the prospect of breaking up.
The possibility emerged after the band, who value relationships highly, got into a financial dispute with their then management company. Sam, ORio, and JC flew to Japan’s Ishigaki Island to think things over. After returning to Taiwan, they formed their own company, Fire On Music, and recorded their fourth album, Reborn. When Sam reaches this point in the band’s story, the slight hurt in his eyes fades.
Fire EX. has a habit of breaking new ground. They held Taiwan’s first concert in a baseball stadium, and founded Fireball Fest, the first international music festival in Taiwan to be hosted by a band. They are also one of the few Taiwanese rock bands to have toured overseas.
The band believes that it can’t compromise on the hardware for Fireball Fest if Taiwan is going to be a top-tier home for performances, and argues that upgrades in this area are the only way for our music industry to advance to the next level.
Establishing their own company and organizing an international music festival are aspects of Fire EX.’s effort to find its way forward. “For the last few years, we’ve been learning and growing, sharing the good and the bad. We’re pretty proud of what we’ve accomplished.” ORio is surprisingly emotional when sharing this declaration with young people.
Fire EX. paused for this photo with their fans while touring for the 2020 album Stand Up Like a Taiwanese.
Rockers forge international ties
Having played everything from pubs to Summer Sonic, one of Japan’s largest music festivals, the band is now thinking about how to connect with other bands from around the world while “putting Taiwan first.”
Band members happily share their experience of teaming up with European, American, and Japanese groups. They add that their unambiguous politics have also led to tests and provocations, including an early ban from the mainland Chinese market for their advocacy of Taiwanese sovereignty.
“We’re not followers, which makes some people think we’re weird and stubborn. But we’re actually really easygoing. We just try to put our thoughts into practice in our lives.” As an example, Sam mentions that he doesn’t use the term “the mainland” for the PRC, but instead respectfully calls it by its proper name, “China.”
“What’s the point of making music if you have to be careful about what you’re supposed to say?” exclaims JC, in a totally punk statement. Perhaps the real way for politics and art to each mind their own business is for the political sphere not to interfere when songs express political views.
Fire EX. has created a model for itself built on establishing a Taiwanese base, and then working from that base to export Taiwanese culture abroad and collaborate with other musicians from around the world.
Their recent efforts in this vein have included working with Japanese rockers Masafumi Isobe and Takeshi Hosomi; inviting a wide variety of internationally famous bands to perform in Taiwan; and their 2017 world tour.
“If people are willing to come together and walk this path, it’ll make the scenery even richer,” says Sam. “That’s what we want to do.”
These men have lived the “choose with courage, bear up with resolve” ideology that they write about in their song “Keep On Going.” More than just lyrics, their words are an apt description of their 20-year journey.
Fire EX.’s music offers listeners a gateway to understanding, loving and protecting Taiwan. (photo by Kent Chuang)
Retrieve from Taiwan Panorama