The most compelling band on this year's Warped Tour isn't a tried-and-tested old-school punk act, a guyliner-sporting American emo band or even the token hip-hop dude (sorry, Yelawolf). The most interesting band on the Warped Tour is an obscure, broke, punk outfit called Demerit whose members sport an excess of prefab accessories and insist that theirs isn't political music. Still, its angst-ridden lyrics prove the band's unrest:
"Why the fuck am I loyal to you?/ We don't wanna be your victim of greed/ Sick of you, no future for us/ How many people die in famine?/ No way/ No control/ Poverty makes us strong."
The passage might seem vague and sophomoric compared to the more biting civic criticisms offered by Warped headliners like Against Me!, but then Demerit isn't questioning the U.S. government—it's challenging its own. And the Chinese government isn't exactly known for its love of dissent.
In a world where punk rock is largely co-opted (see: Warped Tour) or relegated to underground bubbles that rarely reach the surface, China represents a fascinating frontier where punk—the lifestyle, not the clothing line—is still a very new and revolutionary concept. Whether bands like Demerit can inject their values into the popular conversation back home (especially when its albums have been subject to government censorship and its label headquarters has been raided by authorities on multiple occasions) remains to be seen. "Punk in China is a very small scene," writes mop-headed frontman Li Yang (a.k.a. Spike Li) from the Warped Tour's Salt Lake City stop. "It's like kindling material. If we want to make a big fire, we need some gasoline or a big wind."
That big wind probably won't come from the band's own country. Australian filmmaker Shaun Jefford's documentary Beijing Punk (filmed in 2008 but still awaiting a proper American release) paints a portrait of Chinese punk bands—including Demerit—living in poverty, drinking too much and struggling to find an audience while receiving almost no Chinese media attention. "They're not gonna make it in China, that's just not going to happen," the band's American expat label manager tells Jefford in the film. "So their real chance is to get attention from abroad."
That's the ostensible reason for Demerit's U.S. tour (a rare opportunity for Chinese bands, which are regularly denied visa requests), but the band wouldn't be punk if "making it" was its prime objective. In the documentary, Demerit's members repeatedly express that they're happy being poor and relatively unknown in Beijing—and joining the Warped Tour on a decidedly un-punk year has only strengthened the band's resolve. "Those pop bands [on the Warped Tour] might make more money, but I respect the bands that make good music with attitude, like the Casualties," Li says. "I used to think punk was an American and British thing, but after going on the Warped Tour, I think that we are the punks."
It's hard to argue the point. Not just because Demerit's cultural context makes its music inherently more dangerous than that of its U.S. and British contemporaries, but because the band—which sings in English and sounds reminiscent of Rancid and early Bad Religion—plays with power and aggression without sacrificing its message of community and resistance. Demerit may hail from the new-world superpower, but it's a decidedly old-school punk band.
But even as songs like the chant-along "TZ Generation" and the touching acoustic closer "Voice of the People," both from Demerit's latest LP, Bastards of the Nation, manage to slip an awful lot of heart and rebellion past the censors—it's hard to listen to Demerit without imagining the long shadow cast by all the words both censored and unwritten. The band shrugs this off. "We're not political," Li says in Beijing Punk. "Just about freedom."
Freedom—as Beijing Punk's Jefford points out—is, of course, an entirely political issue—perhaps nowhere more so than in China. And even if the political implications could be scary, Li dreams of a day when punk rock trumps pop culture in his home country. "If that day comes, it would be a different China," he writes. "We wouldn't be afraid, we'd be excited because punk finally would become a true cultural phenomenon, not a fashion statement. We don't need to be scared now. They still think we're dog crap. Trust me, that day will never come."
SEE IT: Demerit plays the Warped Tour at the Washington County Fairgrounds on Sunday, Aug. 14 (noon, $31.50, all ages) and the Red Room on Monday, Aug. 15, with a screening of Beijing Punk (8:30 pm, $6, 21+).