In a scene from the film Nowhere Boy, a young John Lennon gets told off at school. “You’re going nowhere!” snarls a furious headmaster. The future Beatles founder replies: “Is ‘nowhere’ full of geniuses, sir? Because I probably do belong there.”
When Van Chan formed his band over a year ago, he decided Nowhere Boys would be the perfect name. “We’re not well-known in Hong Kong, but we’re working hard,” he says.
The quintet – Chan on vocals, guitarist Kenneth Angus, keyboardist/violinist Fisher Kan, bassist Hansun Chan and drummer Nate Wong – describes their sound as “cinematic rock” genre – music inspired by movies.
“Movies are an improved version of reality. Everything is perfectly dramatised. Even the tragedies are beautiful. And it’s this hyper reality that we want to bring people in with our music,” says film fan Chan, who likes to write songs while watching movies.
He wrote Back in Time after watching Eric Bress’ The Butterfly Effect, while Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky inspired a song of the same name.
While tracks like The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up include audio segments of movies, no song is more “cinematic rock” than Rhapsody, a schizophrenic but pleasing blend of flamenco, baroque, classic rock, rap, church music and, just for the sake of it, children’s songs.
“We nearly put in Old MacDonald Had a Farm with its original lyrics, but that was going a bit too far,” says Kan. So they changed the lyrics – essentially a cha chaan teng breakfast menu – and sang them in gospel style.
Van, who got the idea for the song after dreaming about escaping from a girlfriend’s home when her parents unexpectedly returned, wrote the various song sections together with Kan.
After they were done, they had no idea how the pieces would meld together. “But we just threw what we had to the rest of the band, and they made it work,” says Kan. “We managed to write the song and record a demo in just two weeks.”
“It’s awesome to do something silly really seriously,” says Chan. Rhapsody was the band’s debut single, and is their proudest work to date.
“It’s the best representation of our band – we’re five totally different people with different musical backgrounds,” says Kan.
Before Nowhere Boys, Chan, an avid music lover, was pursuing a career in architecture. Music was his hobby, and he performed cover songs in his spare time.
Then in October 2014, he met Wong, who grew up in the US and had recently arrived back in Hong Kong. Wong encouraged him to form his own band, and so he picked several friends who he thought were “good multi-instrumentalists, not too famous and could take criticism well”.
Once they began jamming, he realised he had found the group of people who could turn his musical vision into reality. That made him quit his job and dedicate all his time to the band.
In July last year, they released their self-titled debut EP, featuring six songs mostly recorded in their homes with their own equipment. They spent HK$70,000 on mixing, printing and making music videos, yet saw it as just a passion project and didn’t expect any commercial success.
To their surprise, it landed a No 5 spot on the iTunes and No 4 on Apple Music Canto-pop charts within its first week.
Their songs were played on local radio, and the 1,000 copies they printed were gone in three months. Soon after, they got signed to Frenzi Music. “The managers are musicians themselves, so they really respect us. I don’t think they even know how old we are – they don’t care!” says Angus. “But having a label really helps establish us as a legitimate band and get more media attention, especially on radio.”
Next month, they’ll release their second EP, Welcome to Our Hyperreality. After being told their first was too “surreal”, the band tried to make this one more relatable with Canto lyrics inspired by daily life.
Superman is about a man on his deathbed who realises he could have been a superhero. Disco track Refractions is about a person whose only joy in life is performing on stage after work.
“Our lyrics are very local, so some people try to make out songs political,” says Chan. “But we’re not super hot-blooded. We’ve got a more romantic, nostalgic vibe.”
Due to rich blend of instrumentation and genres, a typical Nowhere Boys song could use more than 80 individual tracks. Now, with HK$109,000 raised through crowd-funding platform Musicbee, the band is aiming for a whole new level of sound quality.
“Our last EP took just two months to make, but for this one each song is taking two months,” says Ling. “Having professional producer Victor Tse [from Frenzi Music] on board made a huge difference. We only think about musical arrangements, but he thinks about the full picture. While recording Superman, he told me to add in a guitar solo. I didn’t think it would work, but it ended up pushing the song’s emotions to a whole new level.”
Chan also relished having a producer to guide him vocally. “People say I sound like Eason Chan, but I’m trying to develop my own sound. Before, I typically needed an hour to record a song. That’s already 10 takes. But now it’s four hours to do one verse to get the sound just right,” he says. “Usually in rock songs we tend to sing as loud as we can, which is great to notch up the energy during live shows. But for recording, Victor asked me to use head tones, which is a technique used for opera singing. I was skeptical at first, but it worked.”
Indie artists in Hong Kong can have a tough time getting noticed in an industry geared towards sugary pop.
But Wong is optimistic: “I see a lot of opportunity in Hong Kong. In the US, everyone’s good and there’s an oversaturation of bands and musicians. We’ve made some different music and we found people we are super receptive to that. So that’s really encouraging,” he says.
Join Nowhere Boys at their EP launch gig at Hangout on April 28! Check out their Facebook event page for more info.