“So many people think this kind of music is noisy and dirty… nothing is impossible in China”. Thus Murk summarises the national view towards dark ambient and metal music. Sole creator and owner of Beijing label Dying Art, it’s been twelve years of scraping together underground bands in order to expose their sounds to China and the rest of the world. But signees are thin on the ground. China’s feeling towards metal music is poor, its view of dark ambient virtually non-existent. The circle of interest is so small and closed that it’s almost pointless to measure – as Murk says, “only we are living in it”.
People in China aren’t interested in these styles. It’s only pop music and “Korean shit music” that people want to listen to. Anyone with a mild interest in online Asian culture will know exactly the kind of Korean pop that Murk is talking about: girl groups comprising two to thirteen leggy young women, spouting trashy lyrics over trashier tunes. But it sells, and it sells well. Dying Art, by comparison, is at the other end of the spectrum. About as far as you could realistically go.
Dying Art concentrates solely on dark ambient, ritualistic and neofolk while its sister label, Dying Legion, focuses on Chinese underground metal. Dying Art was the first of the two, starting in 1998, a couple of years after Murk began investigating rock and metal on Chinese BBSs. Dying Art started its life as an online magazine called Under FM which was the first Chinese website dedicated to dark ambient music, featuring descriptions of bands, interviews and reviews, “just like Heathen Harvest”, as Murk kindly compares. I can only imagine the kind of interesting place Under FM would have been in the late 90s, regardless of my lack of knowledge of the Chinese language – but then maybe that makes it more interesting. Though the Under FM homepage still exists, it now redirects to Dying Art and Murk’s personal reviews of music albums on the Chinese social networking site Douban – all accessible as long as you’re au fait with the tongue.
In 2000 Murk was introduced to IHVHLXXII, a band from Beijing but living in Australia. His introduction to this band was to be the start of the label proper: “the first demo was very like dark industrial, I really loved that, we hit it off. I thought about this – can I do something for the underground musician who is like-minded like me, and I published 200 CDRs for him and included the cover design and everything I could do. That is the first album of Dying Art, after that I stopped Under FM.”
His baby since 2000, every part of Dying Art and every band signed is relative to Murk’s own fascination with dark music, the name of the label especially. Death is an intrigue for Murk, a point that he and I are very much in agreement on: “I like art that involves death, we can think about what is death – a real death – and the influence of death on our lives. Dying Art could be ‘dead’ any time – in China there’s always lots of ridiculous politics to limit your mind.” Far from wanting Dying Art to explode into something bigger and more mainstream, Murk’s attitude towards the label is very grounded indeed. As far as he sees it, keeping things underground is the way to go. It’s more genuine, it’s less influenced by outside factors. Even though he was involved in the musical project ANTI XXX, he has no desire to be famous or for Dying Art to explode, for as he puts it, “if you’re an underground production and [you're] going to be famous, you have to say goodbye to your production soon. I can change myself only. I can’t change anything else.”
If anything the small size of the Chinese underground is a benefit to the label. It makes finding new acts relatively easy. If there are more bands that Murk would love to sign than he could, the main hindrance is lack of funds. Splice this together with the fact that people are downloading his records and you get a situation which is – to put it candidly – “not fucking good”. Murk elaborates, “downloading sucks, but who didn’t do that? I can’t change that and I don’t want to complain about that. Spend your money on food, spend your money on entertainment, and some people like to spend their money on PUSSY, everybody has their own hobbies to fill their empty lives up.” Dying Art has therefore – intentionally or unintentionally – become something of a boutique label in China, with both the label and the bands cooperating financially to put the products together: “there are no famous bands under Dying Art productions. But their music is the best, with no doubt. They paid a lot of time and money on music, unfortunately they get nothing by their music in China… I think I have no right to say whether Dying Art helped many Chinese bands or not, maybe the bands and members could say that. I don’t like self-evaluation, I just like to keep music as a souvenir for them and for me.”
Those unaware of the label probably won’t have any cognisance of its multiple artists, but even the artists themselves don’t seem to give much about themselves away. It was my introduction to the project Enemite which opened the world of ritual ambient up, a dark, traditional-sounding band comprising of single member Li Chao, otherwise known as Evilthorn. Keen to know if we can expect more of his work under the Enemite moniker, I posit the question enthusiastically, only to be disappointed and told that he is now specifically concentrating on his electro group Zaliva-D. There will be, in Murk’s words, “no more metal or ritualistic music” from him. Another intriguing artist to come out of the label was Zhurong, who in 2005 released the four-track EP “Zhurong’s Anger”. A fascinating and calming work of spiritual Chinese ambient, not only could I gain no information on the man behind the project, but I couldn’t get any information on whether there was to be a follow-up release. Murk is the only man to help me on this one, but he dashes my hopes of further output by saying that there will be nothing new from Zhurong, and the band, whoever they were, have come to a close.
So what about similar artists in the country apart from those on the label? I’m aware of quite a few, but I’m interested in Murk’s views. What other Chinese bands outside of Dying Art and Dying Legion can we take as recommendations? “Yeah, Pest and Midnight [labels] are very good, two productions with the same boss. And also I like most bands and artists who have cooperated with Pest and Midnight like Zuriaake, Chaotic Aeon, Skeletal Augury, Bai Shui and WOT [Whisper of Tears].” I have to admit to having no knowledge of most of these, though a Bai Shui CD sits on my shelf as part of a promo from Heathen Harvest 1.0, and I remember coming across Zuriaake and enjoying his excellent approach to black metal with a traditional oriental feel. Murk’s tastes in Eastern dark music aren’t wholly limited to China’s output though, “I love many Japanese bands, Sabbat, Metalucifer, Fastkill and so on… I think metal music is more popular [there] than Chinese”. Given the sales figures and the comparative huge amount of Japanese to Chinese metal bands, I can only concur.
Just like Murk’s fascination with Western dark ambient and metal music, in the West many people have an interest in the mysticism of Asian culture. But our romantic view of real-life China may well be an affectation. In Murk’s eyes, there’s nothing particularly ‘mystical’ about Chinese music and China is a shadow of what it once was – “we’ve lost so much” – is his frank synopsis of the current state of the country. His personal life is relatively normal, but he’s proud of what he has with his home and with his label: “my personal life is a common Chinese family life, wife and my son, and of course I have a job, but I have to finish other work first when I’m at home – play with my son until he falls asleep – so I can only work for Dying Art deep in the night.”
It’s work that certainly pays off, at least if going by the quality of the bands on the label’s roster is anything to go by. Dying Art is still going strong, regardless of a thin ambient scene, a poor national attitude towards dark music and the call of home life and the working day. Nevertheless, this gives us as listeners all the more reason to support the label and to investigate its artists. Talking of which, how does Murk see the label’s future? As ever, he’s modest and realistic about his undertakings, “the future is unknown. I can tell you about what has happened [or] when something has really happened. I don’t have any plans for Dying Art, I don’t need that as well. I live in the present moment forever.” Given his strength of composure and his enduring achievements, it’s a tenet from which we could all learn.
Interview by Lysander