Interview: Riz Farooqi - King Ly Chee

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As local hardcore legends King Ly Chee celebrate a 15-year reign, Graham Turner speaks to frontman Riz Farooqi about screaming, Slayer and spreading heavy metal across Asia
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There aren't many people in the Hong Kong music scene who can claim to have a legacy but that's exactly what Riz Farooqi, founder and frontman of King Ly Chee, has built up. He's become the flagbearer for hardcore in Asia and his band – despite a litany of changes in lineup and some extended breaks – have served as a tentpole of the genre, ever constant and uncompromising. The guys aren't just a great band but they've also helped our city's underground scene grow and improve in recent years. This fortnight, as well as taking to the stage to celebrate 15 years in the game, Ly Chee also release a new album (the band's sixth) and reflect on their rich history with an exhibition. These are milestone events for not only the band but Asia's hardcore scene, as Farooqi tells us…

Congratulations, Riz! It's great to talk to someone who's as influential as you are in the Hong Kong scene. So what does the scene mean to you now compared to 15 years ago?

It means the same thing. We're still fighting for the masses to recognize heavy music as a legit form of music. While we've seen other heavy bands who started with us quit and move on to playing commercial pop music and find enormous success, we continue to dig our heels in deeper. It's just the music that speaks the most to me. It's not an act when we're on stage screaming and talking about hardcore. I don't have another change of clothes when I get off the stage. It's what we're about. After 15 years, I definitely would've thought that it would've become a little bit easier for us. But it hasn't at all. Our name and band has certainly grown by leaps and bounds outside of Hong Kong, especially in China, but in Hong Kong, the longer we stay active the less people know who we are. It's hilarious and tragic at the same time. But what are you going to do? This style of music is called hardcore for a reason! You gotta be pretty frickin' hardcore to play this type of music and to keep at it even when you're playing to a half empty room!

How have your own tastes changed as you've matured?

I think the biggest misconception about us is that all we listen to is heavy music. Man, I'd go insane if this was all that I listened to every single day. When I get up in the morning and drive to work – I'm a first grade teacher at Hong Kong International School – I'm certainly not blasting Slayer. It's usually City & Color, Ella Fitzgerald or Jack Johnson. Lately it's been You + Me, which sounds rad first thing in the morning. I appreciate music that's real. Real instruments played by real people. I don't mind pop but my biggest pet peeve with Cantopop is that it's not actually written by the singers themselves. The music is written by some mass-producer and that's why it all sounds the same. All the melodies are the same. You can't hear any soul in the music and I just can't stand listening to stuff that has no heart in it. So, to answer your question, anything that is well-written and honest will definitely get my attention. We have two acoustic tracks on our new album that were certainly not inspired by Sick of It All or Sepultura...



What can you tell us about the new album?

The new record is called CNHC, which stands for 'China hardcore', which is the flag we fly proudly around the world. The new album contains 16 songs but since we always release a Chinese version as well as an English version, the record contains 32 songs altogether. I'm the singer so let me tell you what a joy it is to have to re-record 16 songs that you've poured your heart out on and then have your engineer, who has been our guitar player Brian since 2007, say 'great, we're done. Let's take a five-minute break and re-sing everything'. It's hell. But we're definitely excited about this record because we're proud that we have stayed active this whole time. This 15th year really is quite a milestone for any Hong Kong band. Prior to us, I can't think of many bands that have made it past this mark and were active the whole time. We don't just play one show here and there a year. We're always in China or touring every year and either putting on shows here for visiting hardcore bands or playing here.

We've always been quite a socio-politically interested band so lyrically we touch on a lot of things going on in our world, especially Hong Kong. We have a song called Against All Odds that talks about how there are immigrants who move to Hong Kong and live in absolute squalor but do it in order to escape the lawless nature of their lives in their home countries in order to give their children a better future. I am certainly an example of that because that's what my dad did when he left Pakistan over 40 years ago in order for his future family to have a decent life. I was certainly a lucky one because my dad was able to put me into an international school and, in turn, got me to some great places. But there are many who come to Hong Kong and their non-English, non-Chinese speaking children have to go to all Chinese-speaking schools. I can't imagine how tough life must be for those kids who are sitting in classrooms taught in Chinese, looking at textbooks in Chinese and are expected to be able to read and write at the same level as their Chinese peers. But there are kids who make it through this system and are successful. And thus the last line of the song is 'against all odds, I made it out alive'.

We also have an acoustic song called Gaza, which is inspired by the tragic circumstances of that part of the world. Yes, I'm Muslim, but in no way is this an anti-Israeli, anti-semite song. It's written through the eyes of a child and a mother who are hiding in a corner of their homes trying to stay alive while bombs rain down around them. The child asks his mom why this is happening and why people don't like them. The mother has no response and says to the child that 'there is a better place for you, sweet angel, so spread those wings and fly'.

The packaging for the record is another thing we're super excited about. Our record originally was going to be a double LP vinyl release. But our mixing and mastering took so long there was no way feasible for it to be released in time for our record release show. There are no factories in Hong Kong or China that print vinyl so we were going to do it all overseas but the turnaround time is at least eight weeks. So what we had to do was completely change the whole art design again and this time we came up with something super sick! Of course, we are truly an independent band so we pay for everything ourselves, which sucks, but at least we hold full freedom to do whatever we want. So we came up with this crazy box which opens up to a beautiful black-and-white shot of all the KLC members shot by the amazing Mike Sakas. Inside the box you get both English and Chinese CDs but also an A2 fold-out double-sided poster, one side with a black-and-white KLC lineup pic and the other side a full colour poster of the album cover. There's also a black-and-white book with individual photos of every band member we've had! It seriously is pretty rad and is something we never thought we'd be able to do but, lo and behold, here we are taking things one step further as we have always been doing since day one.

What is it about King Ly Chee that's kept you guys so relevant and prevalent all these years?
Honestly, until about a month ago I didn't know how 'relevant' we were to the local music scene. But a month ago one of the biggest shocks was given to us when a drummer named Kulo Ming, who plays in a number of local underground bands, dropped some insane news. It turned out that this entire year he's been working on a King Ly Chee tribute CD featuring 16 Hong Kong bands covering our songs! I've heard some of the songs and I just can't believe there are bands in Hong Kong who appreciate us this much and have taken our songs, new and old, and reinterpreted them to honour us. That's insane! We certainly don't get invited or included in many large-scale events in Hong Kong. That goes from music festivals to press, so in terms of the general public, we are certainly unknowns. But in the underground world, we're a band that can still garner respect and recognition. That is unbelievable.

What do you see for the band's future?

We're already in talks about the 20th anniversary and how we're going to rock that year with events! This year we've already organised stuff that we never thought we'd do but felt like 'you know what, this is our 15th year, so let's go big!'. We've organised a photo exhibition that will go from 3pm to 7pm on December 20 and then from 8pm to about 11pm we'll be performing with a few surprises. We've got some great merch that we've printed up especially for that night, including shirts, longsleeves, windbreakers, hoodies, a KLC skateboard which we did with our boys at 852 Skateshop, who are also celebrating their 15th year, and, of course, our brand new record! Our good friends from Singapore, a band called Overthrown, will also fly out to play at this. So it's definitely going to be a fun night of celebrating a Hong Kong band! Graham Turner

King Ly Chee
Sat Dec 20, Hidden Agenda. Tickets: $200 (adv), $250 (door); ticketflap.com.

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