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15 July 2015

Home > About Hunan > Notes on Hunan

Ye Xiao: Changsha’s Musical Whiz Kid by Tim Jonze

Ye Xiao is the guitar god from Hunan province who’s acting as the liaison between Chinese and western music scenes. He tells Tim Jonze how, despite his mum, he learned to love heavy metal 

‘My mother broke the guitar by cutting it with a big kitchen knife’ … Ye Xiao. Photograph: Tim Jonze/The Guardian


In my opening blog for this mini series of reports from China, I wrote about Sam Genders’ debut concert in Changsha and Ye Xiao, the man who was responsible for getting his show off the ground. Regarded as something of a local musical genius – a guitar virtuoso obsessed with prog metal – he’s composed concertos for electric guitar and arranges music for the country’s reality TV programmes, many of which are made here in “entertainment city” Changsha. I was thrilled to be invited over to his home studio to get a chance to see him work, and to find out how he fell in love with heavy metal as a teenager. It turns out his story is a funny and familiar one, involving youthful rebellion, artistic dreams and, um, a huge pair of Chinese kitchen scissors …
Hi Ye Xiao! Let’s start with how you got into music. Your family are musical, right?
Yes, my father is a clarinet player, and my mama used to be a singer of opera, then became a composer when she was older. I studied piano from when I was three years old, so I had no childhood – I practised a lot!


Did you like the piano?
I love music and I love classical music, but when I was a little boy I think piano is a little effeminate … when you study piano it’s with all girls, so it made me feel odd! Weird!


How did you get into the guitar?
I heard a band in Hong Kong called Beyond in 1996. I heard the electric guitar solo – and I don’t recognise that sound, so when I realise it’s a guitar, that’s when I know I want to play guitar.
A life-changing moment, then!
Yes! And then I decided to keep long hair and tattoo!
How did your family feel about this change of direction?
In the beginning they don’t like. My first guitar is an acoustic guitar. My mother brought it home from Japan in 1990. When I studied guitar on that one, my mother was so angry because I didn’t study hard and just played rock’n’roll, she was worried, so she broke the guitar by cutting it with a big kitchen knife! And when my mama did that, she was crying! And I was crying, too!


But it didn’t stop you?
Right. And then the other day I heard my mother talking to a friend, and it transpired someone was looking for a guitar teacher, and I heard my mum say, “Why don’t you come for my son? He’s the best guitarist in Hunan!” This was many years after the kitchen knife incident.


You’ve done a lot of work in television. How did that start?
I have a friend who plays guitar, and he went to the TV station to be a director. One time he needed music arranged by computer, MIDI, so he found me and asked if I could do it. I said I would try. So that was the start.
Do you enjoy TV work?
No! Very much no!


But you do it because it helps fund more creative projects?
It funds life. I continue doing it because I need to make a living through the TV programmes. Through the income it lets me pursue my own work.
What is your favourite kind of music to play?
Progressive metal. Dream Theater are my favourite band – I have a tattoo!
How did you get into them?
A typical way that local people get into western music is through pirated records being shipped here. They are not formally imported into China, so they will be cut by the customs officers – the CD will be punched. But some people will still get them and sell them very cheap: £1 for a disc.
Do they still work?
One or two tracks are not available, but still you can hear the rest.
When you play progressive metal, what do you bring to it that’s uniquely yours?
It’s more about putting the Changsha personality into it – very edgy, sharp and also diverse. I want to put those mix of things into progressive metal because that is the Changsha personality. People here are very enthusiastic, and their emotional range is very up and down.
How has the rock scene here changed over the last few years?
At the moment, local musicians have access to international music very quickly, since things have opened up with the internet. But I think they try to copy the format, but not really the core, or deeper, side of rock music yet. So it’s still just beginning. We are good at copying other cultures, at receiving from them, but I would like to be able to give with my music. And I’m working very hard to do that, to contribute.
Guardian music editor Tim Jonze and Ye Xiao Photograph: Tim Jonze/The Guardian


With China’s economy rising so rapidly, how do you see this influencing the country’s rock scene?
I think at the moment, in terms of music, China is at a very dangerous crossroads. Because of the economic development, everything is developing very fast, and also with the internet some musicians will think that they understand what western rock music is like. But I think they know only about the format, the superficial thing, not really getting to the inside part. It’s dangerous that people will believe, because of the speed of things, that we are almost the same, but that’s not really the truth. So I worry about that, if people just continue to copy the format and not create something that’s their own.
Tell me about working with Sam. How was it working with a British musician?
When I heard a British musician was coming here to work with Chinese musicians, I said: “I must never say yes to this – because I am too busy!” But when I heard the music I realised that I had to say yes.


What did you learn from the experience?
I learned that writing these sort of songs is more in-depth than I knew – I knew the basic format, but there is a lot to do from zero to the song. We only had four times to rehearse, so I had to think a lot about how to arrange the songs. When we first rehearsed with the full band together, I was very anxious … but Sam said it was perfect, and that was when I felt really happy and that it would work.


What were your initial thoughts of his music?
I listened to some of his music, and through this I could feel that Sam must be a very nice guy – with a very kind heart. Music is reflective of your heart and your true feelings. So before I met Sam, I already got that feeling.
If music reflects personality, what would people think you were like from listening to your music?
[Pauses] I think maybe I should ask you that question!
Ha! Well I’d say you were a bit wild … very intense, very passionate.
And that would be the perfect description of my music!