Photo credit: Bana Chen

By Sinead

It is somehow entirely fitting that FireEx’s滅火器 career trajectory has been shaped and shadowed by key events in Taiwan’s recent history. The band came into being twenty-one years ago in the southern capital of Kaohsiung, just as Taipei was experiencing its first ever democratic transition of power. A stalwart of the punk scene on the island, it was their engagement with the youth-led Sunflower Movement of 2014 which catapulted them into the spotlight, as their music became the theme tune of the protests. Their star has continued to rise, seeing them rise to the top of the indie pile and take home the coveted Best Band Award at the Golden Melody Awards in 2020.

We caught up with them just after their performance at this year’s online South By Southwest (SXSW) festival to discuss their creative process, the Taiwanese music industry and everything in-between.

The band’s recent single, ‘Hope for Tomorrow希望の明日’ written in solidarity with the people of Japan to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the tragic Great Tohoku Earthquake in Japan encapsulates FIRE EX’s spirit of solidarity and kinship in a different context. Creating the song at the request of the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, the band shared that they were inspired by their own close relationship to the country, having frequently toured over there. “We are like flesh and blood”, they explained, “we want to support each other through music”.

The song also touches on larger themes of the pandemic and the separation it has brought, fluently switching between Mandarin, Taiwanese and Japanese to remind us that “although we are separated/We are still thinking of each other/Although we don’t speak the same language/I can understand you perfectly”.

It is not just recent events, but also historical and political events which Fire EX. have found inspiration in with their music. Open supporters of Taiwan’s DDP party, for who they have written campaign songs, the band has made a name for themselves with their pro-independence stance and criticisms of Taiwan’s pre-democratic history. Their latest album, Stand Up Like a Taiwanese無名英雄 , released in 2019, was possibly their most politically engaged work yet, covering moments from the KMT’s retreat to Taiwan in 1945 to the 2019 Hong Kong protests.

Talking about the inspiration behind the album, they referred back to ‘Island’s Sunrise島嶼天光’, the 2014 release which brought them to widespread attention by becoming the unofficial anthem of the Sunflower Movement protests in the same year. “Getting attention because of Island’s Sunrise was actually a really draining experience, and it’s only gotten worse and worse….Everyone seems to have an opinion about everything we do…so much that sometimes we even start to believe that we are those people the trolls describe us as”. 

After going through this experience, the band sees the Stand Up Like a Taiwanese album as their “declaration”. Following two years of preparation, they travelled to the  spiritual home of punk rock, California, to record the album, which was inspired by their struggles. “[We] were angry. Why is it so hard to be Taiwanese? What did [we] do wrong?”. But the album, whose Mandarin title translates to “Unnamed Hero” ultimately loops back on the themes of hope and bravery, celebrating those who have shaped and will shape the history of the island. “Whenever times were tough, wasn’t it all those unnamed heroes who stepped up and made Taiwan into what it is today?”.

Photo credit: Bana Chen

After twenty years, Fire EX. has started to expand in new directions, starting their own record label Fire on Music火氣音樂, housing artists such as Enno Cheng 鄭宜農 and even inspiring their own festival, FireBall Fest火球祭, which is now in its third year. They admit this has been a big step for them.

“As a band you are only responsible for yourselves, but managing a company means everything is much more complicated….we have to constantly switch between our roles as a performer, composer or as a boss”.

But they insist it’s all worth it. “We’ve put our all into this in the hope that we can bring new musicians and new music onto the scene”. 

Fire on Music was even involved in setting up the Taiwan Beats Showcase at this year’s SXSW festival, for which the band performed their own live session. “We were so happy when we heard we were selected…even though no-one can travel right now, we still hope we can show the world what’s special about Taiwan”.

There’s lots more to look forward to in 2021 for the band. They are in talks for some new collaborations, guitarist Orio Cheng 鄭宇辰’s band EmptyORio are about to release their second album and the band are deep in planning for this year’s FireBall Fest. “We are so excited to see everyone there!”. 

As proud Kaohsiung natives, the FireBall Fest is always held in their hometown. We took the opportunity to quiz the band on their insider spots in the city. “There is this coffee shop we really love called “Grey Coffee灰咖啡” which our friend runs. Every time we go back to Kaohsiung we always hang out there since its really cosy and has good food. Apart from that we’ve been going to eat Jin Tian Braised Pork Rice 錦田肉燥飯 since we were kids – as uni students we would hang out at Liuhe night market until the early morning and then go grab breakfast there.”

From Kaohsiung to Taipei and back again, the band has come a long way since their night market all-nighters. Looking back over the last two decades, the band sees their greatest success as just that – their resilience in the face of change and challenges. “We are still here and still moving forward with the support of our amazing fans…over the last twenty years we’ve never forgotten why we first started making music”. Indeed, we believe their fans will continue to be there for these youth culture pioneers till the very end. Here’s to another twenty years!