Luk Haas has been quite an influence on third world international punk hardcore with his label Tian An Men 89′ after all of these years. No other punk label has gone this far to bring us some of the most surprising records ever and most of this has been done before the internet age. Here is a chat with the man that has yet to see a border ( he’s walked over 120 countries ) that doesn’t have a counter culture to offer. A incredible breath of fresh air and inspiring!
Interview conducted by Flox
PE: Tian An Men 89 Records has been around for years now and still on going ! Can you please present yourself for some of the younger punx who haven’t heard of you yet ?
LUK: TAM89 has started releasing vinyl records in 1993, after already 8 years of travelling and meeting with punk bands and underground musicians in countries that were “off the punk map” of the then scene (thanks in big part to zines like MRR, the world punk scene had created a kind of informal unity network through exchanges of music, letters, scene reports, and touring bands, but it encompassed until the mid-80s only Western Europe, part of Eastern Europe like Poland and Hungary, the US and Canada, part of Latin America like Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Peru, Japan, Australia and NZ, and South Africa). Most of the world was actually not connected to the punk scenes as we knew them… It is hard to imagine nowadays, but nobody in 1986 had heard of Czech punk, Israeli punk or Russian punk for example… I had been travelling regularly since the age of 18, and had been connected to punk since 1983, and did my first trip to explore an unknown scene in 1986 in Czechoslovakia, which was still communist at the time. I met bands, brought music with me, wrote a report for MRR, and did a small distro of Czechoslovak underground music on cassettes, called Ukrutnost Tapes. But I was longing to see this music on vinyl, which was and still is for me the ultimate punk format. That led to the creation of TAM89, which is still going on to date. TAM89’s objective is to release punk music from countries where there has not been any punk on vinyl yet, but excluding “Western” countries (so for example I am not looking forward to release punk from San Marino, Cyprus or Liechtenstein, even though I am hoping someone will do it some day). So obviously, when a US band is asking me to put out a record for them, they are completely off the mark, and did not take time to understand TAM89’s philosophy. It is not that difficult for a band in the “West” to do a 7”. They need to save up some money and work on it.
PE:It seems as if your job and your label are quite related since most of the bands out on Tian An Men 89 come from you searching them out in the countries you’ve worked in. How did you get into punk growing up in France in the late seventies / early eighties and how did it become so international for you ?
LUK: Well, I would not say so. Not. My job and my label are not interrelated. I do my best to avoid this, actually. Most bands I released do not come from countries where I have been working. I have been working in Afghanistan, Uganda, Albania, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Tajikistan, Democratic Congo and North Korea. From those countries I released bands from Iran and Tajikistan that I met during my missions, while the bands from Indonesia, Jordan and Albania that I released, I met them during private trips, sometimes before I even started working abroad. I have been working abroad only since 1996. And I do still a lot of private travelling outside of my work! I became involved progressively into punk, after having been always interested by music and by militant politics, and I discovered the Polish punk scene in Poland in 1983 during Jaruzelski’s State of Emergency period. I was hooked up immediately. It was fascinating. Great music, great attitude. I guess punk became international for me because I had been travelling, and have always been curious of discovering new cultures, etc. I have also a deep interested in traditional forms of musical expression from all over the world, as well as in leftist propaganda music.
PE: I’ve read you’ve worked and travelled in more than 110 countries around the world up til now and 40 different countries are now represented on your label. I imagine that your experiences and stories are countless. How do you discover the bands ? It’s amazing to hear bands from Nepal, Madagascar, Thailand, Iran, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Kyrgystan, Kazakhstan, Cuba, Turkey, Hong Kong, Jordan, Tatarstan, Macau, Lithuania, etc… it’s really inspiring for myself and others. What are some of your most inspiring moments through the years ?
LUK: Actually I have visited now over 120 countries! I still have a lot of places, music and people to discover though! It has been very varied and rich in terms of experiences indeed! Before the internet was born, discovering bands abroad was pretty difficult and involved a lot of talking to people in music shops and the music press. That was the case in Czechoslovakia, Syria, Jordan, South Korea or Nepal for example. Or during my first trips to Iran, Tunisia and Morocco. Nowadays it is much easier, as some info and contacts usually can already be found on the net. The most inspiring moments were to discover people struggling under extreme dictatorships, with very limited freedom of expression, and always the risk of being arrested, for example in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Myanmar, Uzbekistan, Iran, to name a few. And of course making friendships that last over 20 years, like with Joe Kidd in Malaysia…
PE: You’ve also participated by doing scene reports for MRR since the 80’s. How did you get to punk ? And how did your idea of creating an ‘exotic’ international label when it wasn’t trendy to do so come about ? Was it because you’ve had enough of the occidental punk sound or was it just simply more exciting or to give access to very isolated an unheard of bands to see the light on vinyl ?
LUK: I think you have pretty much answered the question: it was more exciting to give access to very isolated and unheard of bands to the worldwide “network” of punk. I obviously still love the punk sounds, even from “Western” bands.
PE:As well Tian An Men 89 doesn’t have a particular music style as most punk labels except of being original. You have a very global sense of punk on a large view of sounds. How do you feel the part of alternative and rebellion from the young people from one country to another which take different forms and musical aspects while at the same time having the same enthusiasm for protest and change ?
LUK: Exactly… punk remains interesting because it takes different musical forms, and sometimes integrate elements of local musical traditions… this is just fantastic. Punk should be original. I do not like copycat bands. What you can notice is that the more isolated the country, the more original its sound is. In the USSR bands had not much access to Western punk sounds, but relied on any Western rock they could hear, and reinterpreted it by integrating their own culture in it. That made early Russian – Soviet – punk stunning. It is still the case to a limited extent for example for bands from ex-Soviet Central Asia. However, nowadays, anybody in Iran or China can download hundreds of world punk albums for free, so there is a tendency of uniformization of sounds… still, without he internet, there probably would be no punk yet in Syria or Algeria… and some countries still have no or very restricted internet access like North Korea or Turkmenistan.
PE: How did the idea of travelling the world come to you ? It seems you’ve been on the road for ever ? Do you actually live somewhere? Do you ever feel burned out or on the contrary always have the urge to go somewhere further and to do more and more? Do you miss a certain sedentary way of living ?
LUK: As I said before, I started travelling at 18, it was an urge to see the world and get out of the usual surroundings, I think. A growing up process? Still unfinished maybe, haha! I have had a “base camp” near Geneva since 2006… so I can store my things and find a home when coming back from a trip. I do at times feel burned out, but more from the job than the actual travelling itself. Also the fact that my job involves spending one year and up abroad for each assignment, does not help to put out roots and stabilise… at times there is a lack of previsibility for planning my life which is getting tiresome. I basically get sent wherever they need me, and not much where I’d like to work… and sometimes it is warzones, making it pretty stressful in the long run, especially when you have to face possible brutal death. On the other hand, after a few months home, I always feel the urge to move and discover a new place, meet new bands, etc. I’d, I think appreciate a more sedentary way of living, especially professionally. It does get harder to pack to live for long period each time now… I guess there is a toll on your life with this kind of job… broken marriage, etc. It’s weird to reach almost 50 and suddenly realize you are alone and have to re-start all over again. Well that is life.
PE: I imagine that working for a NGO you must be directly confronted to political structures and authorities from one country to another. Does this ever break you down to see all the atrocities and corruption of governments in the third world countries and make you feel awkward being from a first world country ? Do some situations make you feel useless, frustrated, hopeless or on the contrary give you more energy for things to change ?
LUK: Difficult question. I think my job made me more realistic and politically-savvy. Corruption is everywhere, be it in France or in countries in the so-called “third world”. “Third World” nowadays does not mean anything as among countries that used to be referenced in this group are actually very developed countries. China used to be qualified as “third world” and is about now to become the first world power. It is maybe better to use “developing”, even though some countries are “developed” in some aspects, and “under-developed” in others… again, for example, China or India. This taken, of course, it is extremely difficult to witness atrocities or extreme poverty, and it does make the work very difficult when you have to deal with very corrupt or totalitarian regimes. Some situations make me feel useless, frustrated, hopeless and pessimistic for humankind. On the other hand, sometimes, I still find the energy to go on and work harder to improve lives of the people who suffer from conflict. It is maybe easier when you can see the direct positive results of the work, and improvements: crops growing well, meaning people will eat normally, less torture or ill-treatments in a prison, or finding a prisoner that had been hidden for months or years, and bringing him news from his family.
PE: Have you ever felt any animosity against the bands you put out, in their own countries which are for certain much more marginal and outsiders than punks on the occidental side ? Have some countries been more memorable for you on the ways they impose oppression and censorship towards artistic expression and political opinions ? ( Iran, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Egypt ?… )
LUK: Yes, in communist Czechoslovakia, East Germany; and in some Arab countries, it was/is not easy being an outsider, being involved in rock music, not speaking about punk. There used to be court trials of metalheads in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, in the 90s, but this has calmed down there, it seems now these societies have grown up. There is a cultural problem with rock, punk, metal in countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran, where the law is essentially Islam, and the government have a conservative/restrictive interpretation of it, in Saudia, meaning that performing music in public is not allowed (this was also the case in Afghanistan under Taliban government), and in Iran, that rock is seen as imperialist influence, and female voices as forbidden by religion. On top of it, there are political problems. When countries restrict freedom of expression, they tend to see dissident cultures like rock in general as a potential opposition, and may repress it hardly. In Myanmar, there is no cultural problem, but of course there might be a political problem with punk if seen as opposition to the dictatorship. Egypt, hopefully has found new freedom culturally and politically.
PE: How do you feel about the uprising of rebellion from the last spring revolution in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria and what’s still going on in Syria, Yemen against the dictatorships ? The energy and will for a change against their repressive systems and corruption. Do you feel that more left wing youth is coming for the future and that people are in desperate need of emancipating men and women alike ? How do you see things evolving politically, culturally in a global and individual way ?
LUK: In my humble opinion, I think people who have been living under oppressive regimes, are longing for freedom, justice and decent standards of living, and an end to corruption. This may take violent uprising forms like some revolutions we have witnessed this year, and it allows people to think and form their own political opinions, which is vital. What you see is that is a kind of explosion of opinions, logically, and if you look at Tunisia, they have now I think about 70 political parties, representing the whole political spectrum, from communists to islamists. Now, I think that for the majority of people in those countries, it is not a question of “left-wing” etc… it is more a question of basic freedom, and improving ones’ life. Left-wing politics, as well as Islamism, might be frowned upon because of the restrictions in freedom of expression it usually implies (people remember the Soviet block, and that it usually supported their regimes, like in Syria, and know that Islamism usually mean less freedom, like in Iran). They also mistrust western-style “democracy” that they view as hypocritical and unfair: Western powers also supported dictatorships, and do not support the Palestinian struggle for freedom… basically, I think the revolutions are just starting and there might still be a long way to go for those countries to find a satisfying solution. There might be a return to some kind of dictatorship, actually. Globally, things do not evolve in a very positive way, as you can see with the failures of capitalist system, the domination of financial power, corruption and injustice worldwide. We will see how the world will change in the future, but I am not very optimistic.
PE: Even though it’s quite elitist, you ‘ve decided to put out the bands on limited edition vinyl since day one. Was this a personal choice ? I imagine that all the bands represented on your label don’t have record players, mostly in Asia I think. Is it an easy way for them to distribute their sound in their countries or is it more dedicated for people outside of these countries ? Is it easy for these bands to get their music out in their own countries and to be able to play gigs as well or are they mostly bands that play in their garages, and are never quite able to express themselves publically ?
LUK: As explained before, for me vinyl is the ultimate format for punk. I do not like mp3 and digital music forms as it lacks essence: artwork, etc, and is completely dispensable. For me music is culture, and not consumerism. Buying physical forms of music (vinyl, CD, cassette, etc) allows to recognize and respect the work of the musicians and other people who took part in it, and not simply consume and delete an ephemeral form of entertainment. I think vinyl is lasting. Nowadays vinyl sales increased tremendously, to the point where vinyl pressing plants are re-opening everywhere, from Mexico to Switzerland to Colombia. It may be in some place a new fashion, but vinyl never stopped being produced as people who care about music prefer this format. Nowadays, some labels in Malaysia, or Israel, are again pressing vinyl. Even Russian and Ukrainian labels have restarted. It is not only a “Western thing”. I know a lot of Malaysian friends who have bought again (or for the first time) turntables. You can get a pretty cheap and quite good new turntable in shops or from some internet shop. I think it is a kind of global trend touching also new countries, but of course, probably not the poorest ones… In any case, buying music, or even downloading music is elitist (as the latter means you have a computer or access to the net, or a mp3 player), meaning that if you you are among the poorest, in any case you do not have access to music, but need to use whatever you earn to buy food. Many people in the world live in a survival mode. So, talking a bout punk, or music, compared to their lives, is “elistist”, vinyl or not. Everything is relative.
For the bands I produce, usually, vinyl is not so easy to sell, as are CDs anyway… CD is dying slowly worldwide. Even if the situation of bands may be very different from one country to the next, playing punk is always a struggle to get your music out.
PE: You’ve already put out a book on the ‘Discography of Eastern European Punk’ years ago. How did that idea come to life ? And I’ve seen that you’ve started working on your website by writing down releases out in each country through tapes, cd’s, etc… will there be a new book on Asia out one day ? How do you work to get all of this together ?
LUK: I have always, logically, been trying to document scenes and music history, being a kind of hobbyist archivist… So I had this idea to compile all data I had on Eastern European punk music, as that would help document these scenes. And it seems a lot of people are interested in it too. The book is almost sold out. For the time being the discography of Asian punk will remain online, as it is much cheaper and easier to update it. I love books, as I love vinyl, but it costs a lot of money to print a book! To get all this together, I work a lot to search for information… again, since the advent of the internet, everything is easier.
PE: What influences you today musically ? What are the next projects that you are preparing and what are those that you haven’t been able to do that you would really like to do with Tian An Men 89 ? Are the releases from India, Transnistria, Morocco, Lebanon, Egypt really going to come out ? Can you talk to us a little bit about these bands ? And do you still have contacts with all the bands you’ve put out ? What have all these people become nowadays ?
LUK: Nowadays, I still listen to a lot of punk, mostly from the countries I « cover » with TAM89, but also some traditional music, some Asian, Middle East and and African garage pop from the 60’s (it is great to see so many labels doing reissues of this music, like Sublime Frequencies, Analog Africa or Finders Keepers), propaganda music from former communist countries, obscure prog rock from the 70s (again, from Africa, asia, etc), crazy and weird stuff generally… For TAM89, I am indeed hoping to release in 2013 vinyls with punk bands from Morocco, Transnistria, Lebanon, India etc… it depends mostly on bands, some of them make promises but do not keep them and delay endlessly (the Indian record should have been out this year really!). I was in Transnistria this year, and India last year. I hope to go to Lebanon next year, even though I will be working in Abkhazia. The Indian records should be with 7 Degrees and Bombay 77 which I met in New Delhi, but the guitarist was about to move to NYC recently, so I am not sure now. More Indian bands are interested (Tripwire, etc), so I think doing an Indian vinyl will not be a problem. Chornaya Raduga from Transnistria has great songs in the Grazhdanskaya Oborona vein. Zllaq Wella Mout from Morocco plays ska-punk, sun in Darija, the Arabic dialect of Morocco. In Lebanon, I am in touch with 2 bands, among them Detox, great street punk. As far as Egypt goes, I am being told that only one punk band still exist (Brain Candy), the others (Spit Diet, etc), have split up. Musically I do not like very much what I heard from Brain Candy, they sound like hard rock, but I am hoping they can develop their sound further, and maybe new bands to appear, otherwise, it might be possible to do a posthumous release of those that split up. I’ll keep an eye on Libya and Tunisia too, I think we see good bands there in the future. I still have contacts with some of the bands I produced, not all. Obviously, over almost 20 years, some bands split up, some people drop out of the scene, move, etc. That’s life. But some bands still exist and continue to play, sometimes release CDs (like Jeruji in Indonesia, The Bollocks in Malaysia, or… Megapower from Jordan, who reformed in Brussels!!)
PE: Any last words, comments ? Can you let people know the easiest way to get your releases ? What people can do to support ? Thank you for your time Luk and all the best in your adventures and commitment til next time
LUK: Thanks for the interviews, anybody who knows punk bands from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bhutan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia and East Timor should get in touch!! To support TAM89, spread the word, and buy our records… lately it takes us over 10 years to sell 400 records, which is not so good for making new releases! To buy them, get in touch with Fred Brahim of Darbouka Records ( HYPERLINK “mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org”email@example.com), he is my permanent distributor!! He is also releasing great records on his label. In the US, you can buy TAM89 releases from S_S Records (Scott Soriano’s label).