Hypnotic and Historical Power: Taibach Interviewed by Alex Lau

The anonymous industrial music duo on engaging the ideological minefield of US-Taiwan-China relations.

dark blue-lit room with two djs standing against a wall with Taibach logos behind them.

Taibach performing at the Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art, 2018. Photo by Freya Chou. Courtesy of the artist.

Long in gestation, Taibach’s first recordings were recently released as an LP on Empty Editions, a record label that I run together with my colleagues from Empty Gallery in Hong Kong. Composed of two Asian Americans who wish to remain anonymous, Taibach’s deliberate engagement with the ideological minefield which is US-Taiwan-China relations feels necessary during a moment defined by rising ethno-nationalism and the flattening of complex political narratives. With a nom de guerre that references both the infamous Slovenian proto-industrial group Laibach and their mythologized homeland of Taiwan, Taibach restages the classic thematics and aesthetic strategies of industrial music for a contemporary moment in which shifting balances of power between East and West herald new hegemonies and exhume old grievances. I spoke with the members of Taibach over email, iMessage, and WhatsApp about music, politics, and Asian American identity. 

—Alex Lau

Alex LauIn your biographical materials, you emphasize the fact that Taibach is composed of ABCs, or “American-Born Chinese.” Is there a particular condition shared by ABCs that you feel Taibach is addressing? Perhaps what I really want to know is: Where do your allegiances lie? In a fictional (or real) war between the United States, Taiwan, and mainland China, which side would you take? 

TaibachAnother way to phrase your question: Are you a traitor? There is an extra gene (or chromosome)—a mutation which manifests cultural symptoms. However, Taibach is an extra-national entity turned extra-nationalist. As people, we are American-born Chinese, technically speaking. This is simply an honest fact, and the more we try to escape it, the more deeply we entrench ourselves as ABCs—experts in the art of self-denial and historical amnesia, but also extra-national aberrations. This may be partly what makes Taiwan a strange kind of homeland that is also a bundle of wild contradictions; on the personal level, it is a place where we now live or might one day live, a place where our families have chosen to or been forced to live in, but also a place that they may move to once again. The political contradictions are well known, and truly wild, but ultimately we are not very partisan, or rather when it comes to the war, the sides we choose don’t follow national lines. But we do take a lot of inspiration from the nations and nationalisms and their hypnotic or historical power, the comedy and violence of their ambitions and failures. We are also made out of many layers of diaspora and estrangement, and we have our own ambitions for renouncing and/or changing citizenship.

ALCould you explain some of the necessary cultural and historical background informing (and, really, functioning almost as a theatrical backdrop for) the Taibach project?

TaibachWe conceived the current manifestation of Taibach as a mythological KMT band, that is to say, a celebration of the Kuomintang, the military force most notably responsible for founding the Republic of China in 1911, spearheaded by Sun Yat-sen, and later led by his military protege Chiang Kai-shek. According to conventional wisdom, they struggled to control a chaotic China until finally being defeated by Mao’s communists in 1947–49 and retreating to the island of Taiwan where they ran the country in exile under a forty-year dictatorship—partly through campaigns such as the White Terror—until the late ’80s and early ’90s when Taiwan transitioned to a multi-party system. The KMT still exists in Taiwan alongside the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party, and while it advocated “taking back the mainland” (反攻大陸) until recent decades, it has in the meantime fostered friendly economic relations with China. In combination with remaining a US “client state,” this has been largely responsible for Taiwan’s “economic miracle.” Both of our mothers—who since moved to the United States—are from KMT families who crossed the strait. In many ways, they may still want to take back the mainland, even if it is through a visit to the Great Wall to snap pictures rather than by overwhelming military force. We, further down the de-evolutionary chain, are content taking back Taiwan, again not by superior military force or even by adequate musical talent, but simply by eating oily noodles and by being oily, i.e., slippery. As time goes by, the conventional historical narrative will change.

AL I heard that when Taibach performed at the Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art there were elements of the performance that were considered controversial. Knowing how conservative the cultural establishment in Taiwan can be, I’m surprised that you received the greenlight to play at an institution like this in the first place. 

TaibachThe show featured visuals from a dramatization of the Nanjing Massacre and snippets of a niche genre of porn called “Yoda porn,” which has been clumsily jammed into a Taiwanese political and Jedi context, as citizens have noticed the current Taiwanese president looks a bit like Yoda. Cartoon penises were censored. For some Star Wars fans, even the implication of Yoda penetrating Luke Skywalker would be considered controversial. Had we been aware of Baby Yoda appearing in 2018, our mixed visual metaphors might have been truly monstrous. Next time! 

ALThe type of aesthetic strategies you are using in the construction of Taibach’s backstory and visual identity seem to be drawn mainly from the wheelhouse of classical industrial music. I’m speaking of such formal techniques as appropriation and bricolage but also a certain attitude of deliberate provocation which goes along with this. In our current political moment, many of these strategies (as well as their historical originators) seem to be considered at the very least distasteful, and often reprehensible. Can you talk about your choice to use these strategies and adopt these stances during a time when this might be seen as a type of outré maneuver?  

TaibachWhy distasteful? To whom? It seems nearly all current aesthetic strategies are distasteful. We live in a time when the irony of our own allegiances is either too inconvenient or painful to acknowledge. Maybe one of the great pleasures of political ideology is the constant awareness of its failures. Cultural heritage and its history is much harder to grapple with as something that can also move against you, either because it’s bound together with family history or because it’s also a political construction plain and simple, or both. This is where Laibach’s and Neue Slowenische Kunst’s sign play was extremely inspiring for us as something that could also apply to the very complex situation in Taiwan and East Asia, with all of its grave and comic implications. 

New Years note from Nanking International Safety Zone

New Year’s note from Nanking International Safety Zone, 1938. Courtesy of the Hoover Institution Library and Archive, Stanford University.

ALWhat type of reaction do you hope to provoke, especially in an audience that might be more familiar with the types of ethnic and national tensions present in contemporary Asia?

TaibachA lot of it is dance music. Maybe they can see and hear something a bit different—a new spin. Just like in the West, naive opinions and hackneyed theories are ubiquitous and inescapable here. We promote a more profound situational awareness that includes not just one’s immediate surroundings or self-benefit, but the entire historical edifice, its contradictions, and especially its founding myths. Sometimes this means celebrating myths to emphasize their contradictions.

ALAnother influence on Taibach which has come up in our previous conversations seems to be Detroit techno, particularly the activity around Underground Resistance and Submerge Records. Personally, if I detect any musical influence from them in your work, it has to come from early EPs like Riot and Punisher. There’s a sort of relentless quasi-militaristic rhythmic structure as well as a pervasive atmosphere of sci-fi paranoia that I can see being applicable to Taibach. 

TaibachDoing this kind of music would not be possible without Underground Resistance, but tracking the way their influence fed directly into our own music is difficult. One might have read music journalists waxing poetic about the rhythms of assembly-line auto production, but then someone in the UR orbit reminds you that the early producers were simply car freaks, which makes a lot of sense when you realize how perfect early electro sounds on a car sound system that coddles you like a womb, combined with the cinematic thrill in the experience of driving a car. Just look at the lyrics of Cybotron’s “Cosmic Cars.” So it’s fair to say that plenty of sci-fi paranoia in techno music is part of a cinematic experience, but one that’s still closely related to the history of machines, and militarism as well. We’re also huge fans of Deutsche-Amerikanische Freundschaft, who played a lot with militaristic themes in a way that was both threatening and hilarious, making very sexy and very male music that connected important dots between fascist sensibility and male homosocial or even homosexual sensibilities. Wonderful stuff. But beyond our obvious love of Laibach, our interest in martial or military themes is focused on East Asia, particularly in the way nationalist movements or militarism from the twentieth century are strategically remembered or pacified today, and especially in relation to the different “economic miracles” of the region and how new prosperity rekindles nationalist sentiments and illusions of absolute supremacy and sovereignty that only become more contingent. 

ALTaibach often seems to use found vocal samples as an important element of your compositions. Can you speak more about this?

TaibachSamples can tell stories or at least function as mnemonics. Some stories only remain as samples. For example, massacres. It is hoped that some of the samples provide ideological hints and totems. Finding and preparing samples is a tedious process. There is too much media, so there is an inexhaustible supply of samples. Samples don’t need to come from just what we accept as musical sources; and more importantly, they don’t need to be in English or any other Western language. All of recorded history is available.

ALSo sampling is actually just another way for you to engage with history.

TaibachLiving one’s life is engaging with history, whether one knows it or not. It’s really just a few people who actively create, for instance, conspiracy theories. Most people just sample them. Taibach sequences them.

ALWe’ve spent a lot of time in this interview on Taibach’s musical influences, but how about extra-musical influences?

TaibachMusical influences change depending on mood. Are anger and frustration considered extra-musical? Is history extra-musical? Some of Taibach’s music has definitely been influenced by 7/11, Family Mart, and air conditioning. 

Toxic waterfall in Taiwan

Toxic waterfall adjacent to Taibach’s studio in Ruifang, Taiwan, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

ALThis is almost an obligatory question, given that this interview was prompted by the release of your first LP, but where do you see Taibach evolving from here? 

TaibachA high-concept double album? Maybe a rock and/or space opera? We had expected that our debut EP would open up acting opportunities for us, but due to COVID-19 the response has been less enthusiastic than expected. More seriously, living on different sides of the planet makes it difficult to work together in person under normal circumstances, so after this past year just meeting to work or perform seems like an incredibly ambitious next step. There have been ideas—spending a prolonged time together to discover our own particular way of really shredding as a live act using electric guitar and something like breakcore percussion: a country music record of KMT military slogans with karaoke accompaniment; using more romantic comedies from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Hollywood for visuals; using more spoken-word elements like we did in the opening of our set at Empty Gallery in October 2018. One of us wants to constantly acquire more gear, while the other is desperate to unload the burden of existing gear. A dream is to do a “take back the mainland” (反攻大陸) tour of China, following the popular slogan coined by the KMT after losing the mainland to the communists and retreating to Taiwan. We could call the tour Project National Glory (國光計劃) after the KMT military endeavor to recapture the mainland, which lasted from 1961 to 1972. The tour could have death-metal-style tour T-shirts like big rock bands used to do for stadium tours. Death-metal “Project National Glory / 國光計劃” shirts would sell like hotcakes in the mainland, though they might need to be brightly colored. Another aspiration of ours is to never perform in the United States, not that we have actually had the opportunity. But we could be swayed to perform in the United States given the right consonance and dissonance, like a KMT building, or the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, or a Chinese restaurant. We would also like to perform more regularly in Hong Kong and Taiwan, since at least so far these are the places where people seem to understand what we are trying to do, even if that is sometimes a bad thing. 

Taibach’s debut LP is available from Empty Gallery.

Alexander Lau is a curator, writer, and former filmmaker based in New York and Hong Kong. He is currently director of Empty Gallery and its associated record label, Empty Editions. Lau also sits on the board of NYC-based arts organizations Primary Information and Blank Forms. He has previously collaborated with organizations such as Tai Kwun Contemporary, Triple Canopy, Videotage, Printed Matter, The Museum of Chinese in America, and Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

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