Red Pirates rock!

Updated: 2012-05-28 17:29

By Ellie Buchdahl (China Daily)

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Red Pirates rock!

Red Pirates rock!

Top: Drummer Yao Yao is transformed with energy and huge smile on stage. Above: Lead singer Dave Cooper says their mission is to sail the seven seas of rock 'n' roll. Photos by Mike Franklin / China Daily

A rock band jamming in bars in Beijing hutong, has built up something like a cult following. Ellie Buchdahl checks out its rock factor.

The air is heavy with the smell of sweat and smoke in a steamy bar in a Beijing hutong. People jostle on the concrete dance floor for a space nearest the stage.

Red light from a cheap filter illuminates four figures onstage - two Chinese guys with Beatles hairstyles, thick-rimmed glasses and guitars; a skinny Chinese girl behind the drum kit; and in the center, dressed in billowing striped trousers and dripping with wooden and leather jewelry, the blond, Mohican-headed singer. "Geiwo yige woop!" he shouts - "Gimme a 'woop'!"

The bars and cafes of Beijing are full of tribute bands, expat music groups and Chinese graduates of local music academies. Most of them are of average quality, and most take their crooning painfully seriously.

The Red Pirates are a refreshing change. The three Chinese musicians and one Briton play an eclectic repertoire that majors in rock covers like AC-DC, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana and The Clash, along with some of their own head-banging, hard rock compositions - most notably their anthem Red Pirates Ho!

All of it is delivered with theatrical, tongue-in-cheek attitude - take lead singer Dave Cooper's mantra as an example: "Our mission is to sail the seven seas of rock 'n' roll." It is this raucously fun-loving banter that makes the band so appealing.

In some ways, it seems Cooper has commandeered the band and set himself up as pirate captain.

Guitarist Li Xuan, aka Banx, first linked up with bassist Zhang Yangbing ("Johnny Ice") via the Internet in 2009. Drummer Liu Luyao (Yao Yao) and their original singer Nishuo followed.

The somewhat dorky inspiration for the band name came from Banx and Johnny Ice's favorite Japanese anime, One Piece, which is all about pirates - although they stress the name has deeper meaning.

"Rock 'n' roll is like pirates," Banx says. "Because it's like riding a boat on the ocean, it has this sense of freedom."

Cooper was an assistant professor at Beihang University, teaching video game design and jamming with other expats in his spare time.

In late 2009, Banx passed him twanging on his guitar while waiting to use a practice room near Hepingmen of Xicheng district. Nishuo had just left the group, and Banx invited Dave to a rehearsal. In 2010, Cooper joined the band.

That was when the Red Pirates became really piratical. After years spent doing amateur dramatics and comedy, Cooper got stuck into hamming up the nautical theme.

"I started to release the Red Pirates into the whole thing," Cooper says. "I'm into my theater and I like playing with it, and as soon as I was onstage, this was my banter."

Cooper's unrehearsed style means you can never predict how "piratey" a Red Pirates night will be.

One time he will arrive fully clad in pirate costume; another he will have the audience bellowing "arrrrgh!"; yet another time there will be barely a hint of swash or buckle. "I don't stay in character all the time," he says. "It's more organic. We don't want it to be a gimmick."

But for all Cooper's flash and his powerful voice, the other three band members are still in control of their arm of the ship, albeit in a less overtly buccaneer way.

Banx and Johnny Ice hurtle through impressive guitar riffs and occasionally risk a jump onto a chair or a table or a quick crowd-slide with appealing schoolboy awkwardness.

The real joy to watch is Yao Yao. Tucked behind her drums and utterly unassuming in black jeans and T-shirt, it takes a moment to realize this skinny girl with long black hair is a band member and not a quiet kid getting the stage ready for the next act.

But as soon as she takes up her drumsticks, Yao Yao is transformed. Energy radiates from her huge smile as she plays with rhythmic perfection. It's impossible not to be hooked.

"I started drumming when I was in college," Yao Yao says. "I found college really boring but when I play the drums, I feel happy and I don't even feel the smile coming - it just comes naturally. I feel sort of turned on inside," she admits cheekily.

Red Pirates rock!

Since the four started playing together in 2010, they have built up something of a cult following. Their fans range from Chinese students to foreign teachers and engineers.

The Pirates' energy is infectious. It is a testimony the appeal of blasting out loud music to your heart's content, and to how a city like Beijing can bring people together, that the whole crowd is up on its feet, dancing and stamping out the backing beat as they work up to their anthem:

"Red Pirates under a golden sky

Red Pirates never die ..."