Banana Monkey are back in business. The band has been around on and off since 2005, with a couple of changes to the line-up but a consistent theme of infectious indie rock. They were the first Chinese band to perform in Mongolia, they had a swanky fashion shoot in Vogue China and – most importantly – they helped to pave the way for the underground Shanghai music scene. Inspired by a mixture of Chinese and Western influences, they continue to create a unique sound for their fans with one goal in mind – to have fun. Life has taken them in different directions from time to time, but they are back for a Shanghai gig this weekend, as they start working on some new music. We caught up with lead singer Bono, bass player 三鬼 and drummer Alon about their upcoming performance.
Let’s go back to the beginning. How did Banana Monkey start, and what were your goals and expectations at the beginning?
Bono: At the beginning, there was no clear purpose, but I felt very lucky that four people with a similar music style could write great songs together in a very short time and can live like rock stars.
Alon: Most of us were members of the former band Marrow, and because we all like bands with roots in the rock garage style that were popular at the time, we rebranded and started up Banana Monkey. At that time, we didn't have any specific goals. We just wanted to perform more and liked the feeling of being noisy.
In Rob Wallace’s documentary about you, you said of your performances that your audience should ‘expect the unexpected.’ Is that how you would describe your style – unexpected?
Bono: I never wanted to be limited to one style, nor did I want to declare which style we belonged to. I felt that we liked a lot of styles, because at that time we were still young and happiest creating freely. It wasn’t until after writing five or six songs that we realized that we belonged to the retro rock garage category. So then we thought, okay, let’s continue going forward with the way we feel most comfortable.
Many of your songs are in English. How do you all decide which language to sing in and keep a balance between the two?
Bono: There are many colloquial expressions that would be difficult to listen to if you sang in Chinese, not to mention that our music genes come from Europe and America. So, we decided that if you want to imitate, imitating them all is the purest way to go.
三鬼: The truth is Chinese songs don’t sound as nice. We may try to sing in Chinese, but our best efforts can’t compare to someone like Vincent Fang 方文山.
Alon: We tried Chinese more, but it just didn’t have the right feel to it.
Do any of you speak any other languages than Chinese and English, and would you consider performing in a third language?
Bono: For us, the form and attitude of the music are more important than lyrics. Most people in the world speak either English or Chinese, and, in the future, we will consider writing some new songs in Chinese too. A third one would be too troublesome, so we’ll stick to just Chinese and English.
三鬼: Japanese would be great to sing, it sounds nice, and it’s easy to rhyme.
How much more difficult is the music creation process when singing in a foreign language?
Bono: I think it’s easier. A couple of American friends told me “when you write poetry, grammar is not as important,” so I feel more free. Even if our pronunciation is not totally accurate, fans will think it’s cute.
Who are your inspirations, and have they changed over the span of your career?
Bono: Even now, my idols are still MC5 and Iggy Pop; their music, appearance and performances are a complete treasure. No one can replace them. They seem to tell people: “I don’t belong to this world; I am here.This world is messed up, and I have a lot of fun!” And we’re the same.
三鬼: I’ve always been a fan of Takeshi Hosomi and take inspiration from him.
Alon: I like a lot of bands that have a more complex style, such as Raconteurs, Jojo Mayer & Nerve, Towa Tei, The Strokes, Kings of Leon, Peter Erskine, Snarky Puppy, etc.
You were one of the first success stories of the Shanghai music scene, as focus had traditionally centred on Beijing. How did it feel bringing so much deserved attention to the Shanghai independent rock scene?
Bono: The rock atmosphere in Shanghai is rather f*cked up. At the time, most of our fans in Shanghai were foreigners because many Shanghainese didn’t understand what we were singing. Later, many bands in Beijing also liked us very much. It made me happy. Later on, I played with several Beijing bands. It felt great. It was truly a mixed feeling of fighting and love.
三鬼: Sometimes it feels undeserved; you have to have guts to be able to sell out in minutes.
Alon: I don’t think we received that much attention. I had an agent taking care of it 10 years ago. and I was a bit more active at that time. I participated in many performances and some brand business activities too, so that helped us.
Did you expect to experience success so quickly?
Bono: I had a very short and similar successful experience more than 10 years ago, and I felt that I was really not far from a rock star. But then I never felt it again.
三鬼: I feel embarrassed to have such illusions. From the bottom of my heart I still don’t believe it’s true.
In your first year of performing you were referred to as ‘local garage superstars’ and even did a photoshoot in Vogue China with Liu (above). How was this experience for you?
Bono: Superstar? It’s inexplicable. Even Vogue China had less appeal to most of the audience at the time, except for people in the fashion circle, but these people basically didn’t watch the rock scene and weren’t our fans; they only knew that there was no rock. There was also no fashion at the time. It was strange.
If you could do another Vogue China shoot again with anyone, who would you choose and why?
Bono: A young female who really likes rock and roll, definitely someone who meets this criteria!
三鬼: I’d love to do a shoot with Athena Chu 朱茵 in the future.
In 2012, you were the first Chinese band to perform in Mongolia at a national concert opening for the national holiday of Naadam. How did it come about, and how did you all feel about the opportunity? Would you like to go back and perform there again?
Alon: It was planned by our manager at the time, Brian. A lot of interesting and exciting things happened then; they were unforgettable. I’d definitely be willing to go back; I believe it would be better this time around.
Bono: At that time, I didn’t know it was the Mongolian National Day live broadcast. During the first song on stage, the drumkit broke and several people came up to repair it. We could only play freehand to those in front of us, and we didn’t know what to say. The scene was very awkward.
There was also a Mongolian rap band who didn’t like Chinese people that were staring at us. When we finished the last song, the police surrounded us nervously, and then quickly took us away from the scene in a car. Thinking about it, I was a little scared. If there is another opportunity like this, I would still like to go there, but I’d need to know some things in advance and be more prepared next time.
三鬼: I wasn’t a part of the band then, but I worry I have a manner of someone looking for a fight, so I would be nervous to go.
Are there any other countries or areas in which you would like to perform?
Bono: North Korea.
三鬼: JAPAN! JAPAN! JAPAN!
You’ve taken a lot of breaks from the public eye – it seems almost every time you’re at the peak of popularity, you disappear! Where do you go during these breaks? What brings you back together?
Bono: Everything is uncontrollable. The band is more like a relationship between four people — we fall between love and hate, which is very troublesome because, without the constraints of interests, we can only resign ourselves to fate.
三鬼: I’d also like to know the answer to this!
Alon: Everyone was busy with their own careers for a while. The reason we keep returning though is because everyone loves it.
You first started playing together in 2005, and although you’ve taken small breaks, you are still creating and producing new music in 2020. To what do you attribute the longevity of the band, and how do you keep your music so fresh?
Bono: Let yourself fall into other things, and it’ll reflect in the music. Fall in love with young girls more, continue to drink a lot of wine and live like a child.
三鬼: We all have to work together tirelessly and shamelessly to keep moving forward.
Alon: Longevity is due to mutual understanding, complementary personalities and close musical tastes. Everyone also has a favorite style, which varies slightly, and helps us to create new things.
During your breaks, you’ve all started up your own successful side hustles – a fashion brand, additional bands, a name as an electro DJ and guitarist and even a photographer! Do you keep these going when you’re together too?
Bono: My independent designer brand has been suspended for the time being, but most importantly, at Shanghai Fashion Week in 2015, my band and I played music for my autumn and winter launch. I think Hedi Slimane and rock and roll fashion designers must envy me!
三鬼: I also work at Lezi Entertainment in the creative planning department.
Finally, what can we hope to look forward to for the rest of this year and next?
Bono: For the remaining few months of this year, I just want to keep writing new songs and recording and playing some fun shows. Hopefully next year will be our year of renewal.
三鬼: I look forward to doing more things with the band and all the fans getting to know me better.
Alon: Write more songs, record more songs and perform more.
All images courtesy of Banana Monkey