Any western press about Mayday invariably mentions the “Beatles of the Chinese world”, but U2 crossed with a little One Direction might be more accurate. The songs are chiming and anthemic, the success is monumental—unprecedented, basically, on their home turf of Taiwan—and, let’s face it: the five members of Mayday are awfully pretty for men in their 30s.
“There were no actual rock bands in Taiwan in 1997, so when we start our band at that time we never even think about going on tour, something like right now,” says guitarist Stone, calling the Georgia Straight from his home studio in Taipei as he prepares for the North American leg of Mayday’s biggest-ever world tour.
“We made our first album just for something like memory,” he says, wryly adding that Mayday’s ambitions, back when the high-school friends first hit the garage under the name So Band, didn’t extend beyond eventually joining the army or settling into careers as “chef or carpenter, maybe”.
Almost two decades and nine albums later, Mayday has played to over 40 million screaming fans around the globe. Having dominated its own hemisphere, the band is intent on colonizing this one just as completely, a plan that appears to be on schedule after Mayday hit some untested European territory last month. In Holland, of all places, and to Stone’s great surprise, the non-Asian portion of the audience was singing along in Mandarin.
“That one was most exciting to us,” he says. “The first few years when we’d go to London or New York, it was almost 90 percent Chinese people there. We get more western people now.” This upswing is probably attributable to a couple of things, starting with Mayday’s undeniable gift for the kind of instantly gratifying, stadium-tooled alt-rock that usually comes with a name like Snow Patrol or Coldplay attached.
But matters really started to change for Stone and his uni-monikered bandmates—Ashin (vocals), Monster (guitar), Masa (bass), and Ming (drums)—when they started subtitling their videos with English and Japanese lyrics. What this revealed, funnily enough, was an apparent fixation on transcending language itself. Check the lovelorn power ballad “Cang Jie” from 2011’s The Second Round. Riding over the top of those swooning harmonies—which, to be fair, do actually bring the later Beatles to mind—we hear Ashin bemoaning that “words lose their effectiveness”; that he’s “run out of language” while he prays for “a poem that would let the whole Universe start again”.
It’s a point Stone makes repeatedly during a 30-minute chat, whether it’s about smuggling a sly message into the hyperactive electro-rocker “Enter Battle”—“We’re talking about politics, sort of, but not very obviously. It’s the beauty of lyrics,” he says—or just laying out the band’s governing manifesto.
“We always believe that music, there’s no boundaries, there’s no language. Music itself has its own power,” he insists. When Stone spent a year at the Paul McCartney–founded Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts during a band hiatus in 2001, he recalls ditching words altogether around his pan-European classmates and “just playing guitar so people would know what I’m talking about”.
“You just make the music to talk,” he says. “That’s the easiest way.”
There’s further significance to this if you consider the language and identity issues that define Taiwanese life and culture. When seven of the country’s key alternative bands came to Vancouver courtesy of TaiwanFest in 2010, they brought previously suppressed Taiwanese dialects and a general resistance to the monoculture of mainland China with them. In contrast to that, somehow, Mayday managed to both kick-start Taiwan’s politically charged independent music scene back in the ’90s and find a neutral path through the China-dominated mainstream. Now they own it.
Europe and North America are next on the docket, although it’s worth considering that, in contrast to underground Taipei rabble-rousers like Aphasia, Mayday had a global outlook right from the very beginning. When Taiwanese superproducer Jonathan Lee suggested that the band get out of town to record its 1999 debut, he set Mayday up at—are you ready?—Greenhouse Studios in Vancouver. (Stone is delighted to learn that Bryan Adams, whom he saw when he was still in high school, hails from these parts.)
“Every time we’re going to make an album, we try to escape our hometown,” he says, “to get a different point of view and get detached from people and just really focus on the music. We like working in area like Vancouver. It’s working with the other people, they have a different point of view of music. Then we will have some chemical explosion or change.”
This is where U2 comes in. Asked what he’s listening to these days, Stone leaps right over the question and states, “I’m really looking forward to listening to U2’s new album right now.” Indeed, he seems pretty intent on paying tribute to the long-standing doves of Irish one-world rock.
“We get a lot of ideas from U2, actually,” he says. “Song and concert ideas, and also the point of view to the world. Because U2, they always write their songs very positively, I think, and they’re very political, and I think Bono himself always tried to make the world better and better. That’s what we admire. We really want to have that kind of power U2 has right now.”
If Asia is the future and the future is now, Mayday could very well get exactly what it wants, and soon.