CHTHONIC bassist Doris Yeh

March 31st, 2010
by Hanntu

CHTHONIC

Bassist Doris Yeh

 

Interview and words by HannTu

Promotional pictures courtesy of Spinefarm Records 

Chthonic are in the unique position of being one of the most easily recognisable bands in the world of metal, in spite of (or possible by virtue of) being from the metal wastelands of Taiwan. Backed by a major label (Spinefarm Records), the band has taken their fascinating brand of Far Eastern black metal, their image and their country of origin on tour with them, bulldozing stages the world over with aplomb. However, in their own country, they are extremely outspoken and active on the subject of politics, especially where their country’s fraught relationship with the People’s Republic of China is concerned. Here, I speak to bassist Doris Yeh by email, who was recently in London to do some publicity work for the band’s latest album, MIRROR OF RETRIBUTION (incidentally, the lovely Doris was on the cover of the January edition of GQ Taiwan).


MIRROR OF
RETRIBUTION

 

Hi Doris, hope you are well! I caught about 10 minutes of your set at Wacken 2007 but I can’t remember much of it, because we were all very drunk. Anyway let’s get this interview started! In recent
interviews, you have described the story behind MIRROR OF RETRIBUTION, but
please give our readers another quick summary of the album.

In the
philosophy of Eastern Hell, ‘Mirror Of Retribution’ is the first layer of Hell
that every spirit will fall into after they have died. ‘The Mirror’ will
reflect everything you’ve done in your whole life, then according to the sin
you’ve committed, the Ghost King will send you to a different Hell to get a different
punishment.

So
we named this album MIRROR OF RETRIBUTION; we
described some scenes from Hell on our former albums, but this time we wanted
to make an album that is totally
connected to the Taiwanese legend of Hell.

We put the
biggest tragedy in Taiwanese history as the background, which is the massacre that
happened on February 28th 1947, when one of the Chinese armies lost their inner
war and this caused millions of Chinese to retreat to Taiwan – they occupied
Taiwan, robbed properties from the people and killed over 100,000, with countless
Taiwanese citizens and elite members going missing.

There were many Taiwanese people who fought back against
the Chinese army, but they were either killed
or arrested. The last heroic battle happened in the middle of the country, in
front of a temple call ‘Sing Ling Temple’.

We created a story based on
this real historical event, and we also created the main character,
‘Tsing-guan’, who is the medium (psychic) in the temple; he tried to use his
ability to go to Hell, stealing the Book Of Life And Death, and killing the
tyrants of the Chinese army.

He went through many scary Hells,
one by one, until he reached the army of Hell…

One of
the major differences I hear in MIRROR OF RETRIBUTION from SEEDIQ BALE is the
lessened use of orchestration. There seems to be more ‘metal’ on MIRROR OF
RETRIBUTION, whereas SEEDIQ BALE seemed to have a more symphonic feel to it.
What do you have to say to this? If you agree, was this a conscious choice, and
why did the band decide to have less orchestration?

Basically, it’s a faster, more brutal and more
straightforward album, about a young medium’s revenge and tragedy. I think it’s
natural for MIRROR OF RETRIBUTION to have less orchestration generally because we are expressing  greater, more wrathful emotion in a very
clear way.

One of
the other musical differences is the increased use of death metal riffs;
overall there is a more melodic death metal vibe, as well as a very Cradle of
Filth feel, especially in the vocals. What kind of music were you and the band
listening to while writing MIRROR OF RETRIBUTION? In your opinion, how has the
band progressed musically from 2005 and SEEDIQ BALE?

Actually, we don’t set any style
limitations when we’re writing songs. On MIRROR OF RETRIBUTION, according to
the theme of the album, we added different levels of lower pitch to the vocal
screams and then we built them up in the bridges. I think from MIRROR… to SEEDIQ BALE, we matured as a band, and we were able to bring together different elements
into a complete and dramatic story…

Overall,
is there anything you have done differently from the last album?

Yes, not only did we reach
another level in terms of writing songs, but we also had a strong producer in Rob
Caggiano (guitarist of Anthrax) who made the whole album much heavier and more
brutal. And for this release we signed with Spinefarm Records, so we had more
resources for creating a satisfying piece of artwork and for promoting
ourselves in a way that just wasn’t possible before.

 


What are
the songwriting dynamics within the band? Who writes the lyrics, who writes the
instrumentation? Does everyone have input into the final songs?

First of all, we will decide on
a concept for the album, and divide that up into different chapters, then each
member is free to write songs according to those chapters. However, the main songwriters
are our vocalist Freddy and our guitarist Jesse. After some riff or a rough structure
comes to the fore, then all of the other members will get involved to complete the
song. As for the lyrics, Freddy is the main person here, but Jesse and our
producer, Rob, helped to translate them into meaningful English.

 

What has
the feedback been on MIRROR OF RETRIBUTION, and what are your hopes for 2010?

Mirror Of Retribution’ got the
best feedback we’ve had so far from fans & critics alike, and the same is
true in terms of CD sales. Right after the album release last September, we had
a North American tour and then a UK tour, which was a great experience for us.

In 2010, we hope to focus more
on tours and festivals, and of course we’re starting to write new stuff so hopefully
we can record our next album in 2011.

 

Is Freddy
a classically trained er-hu player? When you are on tour, who plays the er-hu?

He was trained by a Hena
(er-hu) teacher. He is our first Hena player as well as our vocalist, but we also
have Su-nong, a classically trained er-hu player. However, Su-nong is now
serving in the army, so he recorded his parts onto the computer before he left,
and of course Freddy also plays the Hena live in concert.

As a
Malaysian Chinese myself, even though I don’t understand its significance, the
horror of the make-up on your promo pictures still sends chills down my spine
(especially CJ’s white mask) – but Western audiences may need more explanation
about what the symbols mean. Please explain the white mask, and some of the
symbols/words you have on your faces?

It’s
a natural process for us to choose the face paint according to the album we’re
working on at the time.

On MIRROR OF RETRIBUTION, the main character’s fate
was cursed, so we used many Taoist cursed words with red colour on our faces, like Freddy, Jesse and CJ’s make-up. As to the mark on my forehead and also Dani’s mask, that is according
to the face-paint from the Eight Generals Of Hell. Those elements express the
story more completely than other kinds of face-paint, and they make our songs
and our image more connected.

 

‘Spell of
the Setting Sun’ has some spoken/whispered Chinese words towards the end. Were
they Taiwanese, Hokkien or Mandarin, and why have you stopped singing or
writing lyrics in your native language?

We always have two lyric
versions of our albums. One is in Taiwanese or Mandarin, and one is in English.
Outside of Taiwan, however, we only release the English language version. And if you say our native
language, basically that would be Taiwanese rather than Chinese or Mandarin. J

 

Black
metal as a genre has historically been a genre that concerns itself with themes
of oppression, racism, nationalism, ethnic pride and politics. How would you
compare yourself to other politically aware black metal bands, Primordial for
example?

Actually, we don’t say we are
a ‘Black Metal’ band, since we’re from a different culture and we have different
roots from the Western bands. If there is a relevant genre for us, according to
the elements and the style we have, then I think we would be in the world of ‘Extreme
Metal’, although I would prefer us to be known as ‘Taiwanese Metal’ .”

Politics

Obviously Freddy Lim is the most outspoken member on the subject of Taiwanese
nationalism and political independence, but do all the members of Chthonic
share the same political outlook?

Yes, and the interesting
thing is that every member’s father also enjoys talking with Freddy more than
talking with their own son or daughter!

 

What are
your thoughts on the weak performance of DPP in the 2008 elections?

I think it’s time for a new
thought to be re-born. I always look on the bright side – after the lowest
point has been reached, the recovery will come. I hope DPP will find a brand
new value for the benefit of all people.

 

Is it
realistic to hope for political independence from China and recognition of
Taiwan as an independent autonomous country by the UN?

Taiwan has been an independent
country for 60 years; the Chinese government claims that Taiwan is still a part
of China, but we don’t pay tax to the Chinese government and our people won’t
do army service in China. I should make it clear that we have many good friends
who are Chinese – what we hate is the Chinese government and their thoughts, NOT
the Chinese people. 

Have you
or Chthonic encountered any form of backlash or censorship because of your
political views back home?

Yes, always.  The complex situation comes from the
occupation of Chian-Kai-Sheck’s army, who lost their inner war in China 60
years ago and retreated to Taiwan; they keep teaching the Taiwanese that we are
Chinese. So there are two forces inside Taiwan now – one recognises that Taiwan
is an independent country, the other that we are Chinese, and that is supported
by long-term school education.

It’s a big challenge for us,
because we have to face the backlash not only from the Chinese government (we’re
on their black list), but also from certain factors in Taiwan.

 

On the
surface, your lyrics simply tell of Taiwanese/Oriental mythology, or old folk
tales, but how do your lyrics tie in with your political outlook?

As I have always said, today’s
politics is the history of tomorrow, and we use historical stories as the
inspiration for our music. With MIRROR OF RETRIBUTION, the period referred to
is just over 60 years ago, but the influence of that time is still being felt
today, both socially & politically. When we are writing songs, we never want
to mention the politics of today, but people will connect to them
automatically. J

 

The band and
Doris

Here in
Malaysia, there has been terrible opposition by the religious and moralist
people towards all forms of metal and especially black metal. Clubs and venues
have been shut down or raided, people have been arrested for wearing band
t-shirts and accused of practising Satanism etc. Even if there is no direct
opposition to your music, the lack of exposure of heavy metal and lack of
recognition before the internet must have made it very difficult to find people
in Taiwan who are into metal. How hard was starting out as an extreme metal
band in Asia, and what is the scene like there now? Is there an underground
metal community, and do you think Chthonic’s success and worldwide recognition
will help expose and inspire more Taiwanese metal bands?

I’ve heard about this bad
situation in Malaysia. Taiwan has been through those kind of hard times when we
still had martial law some 20 years ago, but people fought for freedom and
human rights, some were arrested or killed, but we earnt our freedom. I was
born into a lucky generation which has not had to endure martial law, even
though the pro-China forces in Taiwan are using powers like the media and
education to fight with us and put us under pressure. But I think the success
of ChthoniC will somehow help people to learn more about human rights, and at
the same time, I think we’re also inspiring more metal bands to develop their
musical careers in the way that ChthoniC has done.

 

Can you
tell us more about Chthonic’s history: how you guys first met, got started,
etc?

The band formed at the end of
1995. Freddy, the vocalist, is the original member and the first leader of the
band. All of the members joined by being introduced through friends, including
myself. Drummer Dani and keyboard player CJ are the younger brothers of our
former drummer and one of my good friends, who is a computer engineer.

 

What are
the personalities in the band? Who is the funny one, the quiet one, etc?

When we’re out on the road,
the other bands always say that we like to hang out with our laptops more than
hang out with them! J When we arrive in the venue, right after
load in, we all open up our laptops and start to work!

 

How did
you first start playing bass, what were your favourite albums, and who was your
musical inspiration?

I started to play bass when I
was 17 years old. My father is my main inspiration because he is the bass
player for a TV station. When I was a kid and playing piano, my father would
sit beside me and play along with me. My favourite album is by Sigur
Ros, it’s called “()”. My favourite metal album is by Nine inch Nails – THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL.

 

Thanks for
doing this interview, and congratulations on being January GQ Girl, you look
gorgeous as usual. Good luck with the band!

Thanks to Nina Potthoff from SPINEFARM RECORDS UK for setting up the interview, and good luck in your latest venture!

CHTHONIC

Freddy Lim : Vocals, Er-hu

Jesse Liu : Guitar

Doris Yeh : Bass

CJ Kao : Keyboards, Piano

Dani Wang : Drums 

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