If you run into the members of Emptybottles. at a local gig, you may not be able to pick them out from the crowd. They do not make it easy, with their nerdy tees and glasses, and not an ounce of the self-possessed airs prevalent among Hong Kong’s indie musicians.
And then you watch Rocky Sum, Thomas Wong and Cha Siu Bao break into a whirlwind of guitar and drums, weaving intricate melodies and choreographing temperamental beats — and you wonder how you could have missed them.
This month, the band is releasing their second EP, In Complete Sentences, just in time before drummer Cha Siu Bao starts her master’s degree in the UK. Their release show this Saturday, August 19 at Focal Fair, will be their last gig before going on a two-year hiatus. Other bands may just switch their lineup and carry on, but for Emptybottles., this is almost unthinkable.
The three musicians met at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, when they organized instrument classes for their college’s band society. On one occasion their students bailed on them, so they ended up jamming for the first time; afterwards they got into the habit of playing together, often in deserted storage rooms where they would stash their instruments.
The chemistry between them stems from this shared history, and it is why despite having been repeatedly asked why they don’t have a bassist, they have never bothered to get one, and never will.
People’s first impression of Emptybottles. may well be their proud geekiness. Many of their songs contain literary references, from T. S. Eliot (“Ash Wednesday”) to Paul Auster (“Polaroid”, their first and as yet unrecorded song). They know this won’t make their songs popular, but it doesn’t matter; it is enough that one or two curious souls may follow this trail of breadcrumbs and look up the references themselves.
But they also try not to take themselves too seriously. When praised for their simple yet sensitive, punch-in-the-gut lyrics, Cha Siu Bao laughs. “Most of the time, we have no idea what Rocky’s singing.”
Emptybottles. is often categorised as math rock, but the band is hesitant to own that genre. “Math rock is very disciplined or technical, but we aren’t really like that,” Rocky says. Instead, the band prefers a DIY style, presenting the music raw — or if you will, in “incomplete sentences.” The songs are short and sweet, with no unnecessary flourishes, hitting that sweet spot between terrible lo-fi and overly polished works that lack a human touch.
As far as labels go, they prefer “emo,” more specifically Midwest emo. This has confused many, amongst them Hidden Agenda founder Hui Chung-wo, who has called them post-rock; others associate emo with the Myspace-era music of the 2000s. But Midwest emo is something different altogether. One example would be TTNG — a band that Emptybottles. opened for in May, right before that notorious Hidden Agenda raid.
“With Midwest emo, it was a regional movement, be it their labels or their musicians that keep overlapping into different bands. There is a sense of a tight-knit community that influences and inspires each other.”
But the band gets critical when evaluating Hong Kong’s music scene, a scene the band is part of (albeit somewhat reluctantly). Their noses twitch when they speak of the scene’s circle-jerk mentality, when bands pointlessly praise or blindly support each other.
“There’s no need for there to be a fake solidarity. Sometimes people hate each other — that’s fine,” Rocky says. To him, being “indie” doesn’t mean you have to be weird — it can also mean that you are a pathfinder, searching for alternative methods that may go against the flow.
This is what Rocky calls the “fuck you attitude.” There is an honesty that permeates everything Emptybottles. does: they are cautious about branding themselves as a “Hong Kong band”, and are against writing songs with “triggers” — intentionally relevant topics that invite reaction and offer a path to quick popularity.
“Hong Kong people are crisis-driven. When there’s no crisis, they revert to watching TVB,” Rocky says. “We rarely emphasise anything. Some [musicians] know how to press buttons… but we don’t really like doing that.” Adding, “Maybe that’s why we don’t sell well.”
This creates challenges for the group. “Hong Kong is not very accommodating,” says Rocky. “There isn’t a lot of space for creativity — even if the scene completely vanishes, it doesn’t matter to a lot of people. The difficulty is to continue doing what you’re doing despite this. In the modern world, it’s very easy to leave, but not easy to stay.” (The band explores this in two songs: “Swallow” — about those who leave, and “Sparrow” — about those who stay.)
While they reject labeling their music as “local,” the group shares a desire to “stay here and cultivate something.” That is partly why Rocky has created a label-slash-organiser-slash-publishing platform called Sweaty & Cramped, with which he hopes to engage fellow musicians, and bring some continuity to bands that come and go from the scene.
“The usual lifespan of a band is only around three to four years,” he remarks. “But if a label exists, you would allow people with similar beliefs to continue existing. There would be a catalogue, an archive. They would continue to exist in the scene in a different form.”
That promise of continuity will be tested when the trio takes their upcoming break. From Cha Siu Bao’s injuries to Thomas’s hectic medical school schedules, the band has always been on and off, with life getting in the way. But this doesn’t mean that we’ll be saying goodbye to Emptybottles. anytime soon.
“Our biggest enemy isn’t a lack of money, but time,” says Rocky. “So long as the drive is there, we’ll still continue with the project.”
Emptybottles. will be playing with Chinese Football and Hurok on August 19 at Focal Fair, Causeway Bay. Still / Loud’s Holmes Chan and Wilfred Chan contributed editing.