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Rock ‘n’ Roll Legislator Freddy Lim

Taiwan Needs to Step Up its Game

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Taiwan Needs to Step Up its Game

Source:Yang Ming, Sam Shen

Best known as the frontman for a heavy metal band and now a lawmaker, Freddy Lim tells CommonWealth what it takes for Taiwanese artists to gain traction overseas and the importance of both drawing on their heritage and meeting international standards.

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Taiwan Needs to Step Up its Game

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 635 )

He’s a legislator but also the lead singer of Taiwanese heavy metal band Chthonic that has made a name for itself around the world. When he was elected to Taiwan’s national legislature in January 2016, it made international headlines and was reported by 115 overseas media outlets in 30 countries. The BBC described him as the first heavy metal star to be elected to a parliament anywhere in the world.

Below are excerpts (translated from Chinese) of CommonWealth Magazine’s interview with Lim on what it takes for Taiwanese artists to succeed in the international arena.


When I was 15, I wrote an essay saying I wanted to form a band and tour around the world. It was because I saw documentaries of groups I liked in concert, like Guns and Roses and Mötley Crüe, and highlights of their tours and travels. I liked music, I liked movies, I liked baseball, so I would read English newspapers to get firsthand information.

I didn’t look internationally simply for the sake of doing it but rather because the things I liked were common around the world. I like rock ‘n’ roll music, and many countries have really great bands, so rather than just making my own music I wanted to see how others did it.

It’s important to develop interests that are international and universal from when you are young.

I always wanted to put together a band and tour the world playing concerts, but at the time nobody from Taiwan was doing this, so there was no tangible precedent you could follow. After trying to do it, I realized it wasn’t as easy as I had imagined. Even in the West there are tens of thousands of bands and most of them are never able to go on tour.

I’m the type of person who always wants to take on challenges and difficult things. If there’s something that everybody says isn’t easy or is unlikely to be accomplished, I’ll go for it as long as I think it’s a direction worth pursuing.

That something has never been done doesn’t mean we can’t try. The first person who does it has to bear risks and make mistakes, and they’re likely to face more frustration than others. But I treat frustration as something that’s going to happen and adopt a positive attitude to deal with it, continuing to learn and complete a task rather than trying to avoid it.

One example: When I started making records, I had to get in touch with international recording studios because at that time Taiwan didn’t have any studios that could work with or had any experience with a band with Chthonic’s style.

I knew it was going to be difficult. Language can be an issue. I always read English newspapers, and I would get up the courage to speak, and continued to speak until I got good at it.

Then there was the importance of having confidence in yourself if you have the chance to go overseas and come in contact with foreigners.

The post-production of my first album was done in Denmark. The most important thing when working internationally is communicating, overcoming your own psychological barriers and breaking out of your own comfort zone, because when you’re overseas, each country has its own business environment and it won’t necessarily be similar to Taiwan’s. The key in getting over those hurdles comes down to whether or not you are willing to work with them – it could just be a matter of language or communication issues, and those aren’t big problems.   

‘Not Doing Things Well’ not an Option  

Why is it that Taiwan doesn’t have any bands other than Chthonic that have earned international recognition? This is something I really want to talk about. What I’ve realized through experience is that international standards and local characteristics are both very important, but if you mix them together, you will never succeed.

What do I mean by “international standards”? In terms of producing heavy metal albums, people have had decades of experience in achieving quality. The type of drums heavy metal fans want to hear, the type of guitar they want to hear, the overall aesthetic quality of the music, these represent a clear set of international standards.

If you produce a recording of poor quality in Taiwan but make the excuse that this is how it is in Taiwan, then you’ll fail.

We have turned “not doing things well” into one of our “special characteristics,” but there are international standards dictating what the level of quality should be.  

Also, many people often mistake the special characteristics of other countries as international standards. For example, it has become popular in Scandinavia in recent years to draw on Scandinavian legends, such as Thor, vampires and Satan, and adapt them to heavy metal. Many Asian bands have made the mistake of treating that approach as an international standard, assuming that to make this kind of music you now have to write about vampires or Satan. But that’s just a local characteristic. These themes are the most common ones in use only because most bands are from the West.

All walks of life in Taiwan are now used to seeing “not doing things well” as a special Taiwanese trait and taking the special characteristics of others as “international standards,” ultimately getting both wrong. A story written by a Taiwanese about vampires that appears on a record that is poorly produced can’t even compare with second- or third-rate productions in the West, and it doesn’t even give others the chance to see some of Taiwan’s own identity.

When making a record, I insist that the production side meets international standards but that the songs have local flavor.

When I was writing the albums Relentless Recurrence, Takasago Army, Seediq Bale or Mirror of Retribution [about the 228 Incident], I found many moving stories from Taiwan’s past. I’ve written eight albums to date, and I’ve always read more than 10 times what went into each album before making it, because I found so many stories and developed strong emotional bonds with this land. Even though each group of stories generated only one album in the end, it was like 10 times the emotion was poured into it.    

If the starting point isn’t raw emotion, it’s impossible to write an album that moves people, including myself. The huge reservoir of emotion behind each song is really important and makes it possible for people to have such a strong emotional reaction every time they listen to the music. Because of that, people are willing to recommend it to other heavy metal fans and convey the deep emotions the album evokes.

The Importance of ‘Posture’

I often say to young artists that the eyes of international music circles will light up when you bring Taiwanese characteristics to the global community, but the “posture” you use to introduce them is more important than what you’re actually introducing.

That attitude, that emotion and confidence, originates from what you have picked up and absorbed before creating. If you do not have a confident attitude and are simply in a rush to sell, that will be at odds with the things with which you strongly identify and have an emotional bond.

Although I agree with the concept of “the more local, the more international,” the “local” aspect absolutely cannot be consumer-driven and just touch on the surface of things. Rather, the stories have to come from the heart and be able to stir emotions.

The Taiwan we must sell to the international music community is a Taiwan with depth rather than things like the erhu [a stringed instrument] or aboriginal facial paintings. They’re superficial, and their impact may last no longer than a half-hour dance. They cannot help attract media coverage after international performances, while stories with depth can.

But you also cannot blindly invent stories; that’s too technical, too consumer-driven. The stories have to have been real.

Look at the movie “Tshiong,” directed by Cheng Wen-tang, that we’ve been promoting recently. The movie chronicles how fans put pressure on Chthonic. Everybody thinks Chthonic is very aggressive and combative, but music fans are even more aggressive than Chthonic, especially these past few years when fans have forced the band to make its position known on many things. For example, during the Sunflower Student Movement, fans would say, “We’re already at the Legislative Yuan. Why hasn’t Freddy come yet?” We can empathize with this type of situation, which is why we made the movie.

Taking a product international cannot happen overnight. It took us a long process of trial and error to search for and figure out what international standards were. And for any Taiwanese band trying to go global, there are many things that are not easy to adapt to.   

Do you want to choose to give up or to align yourself with international standards? Our band has always followed international standards, no matter how strict they were. If others can do it, then so can we.

I often remind myself that I need to be able to honestly tell myself every day that I’m better today than I was yesterday. If we can make that kind of constant progress, we can achieve our ultimate goals.

Translated from the Chinese Article by Luke Sabatier


Freddy Lim

Age: 41
Current: Legislator
Education/Experience: Yan Ping High School (Taipei); National Taipei University (Department of Business Administration); Chthonic lead singer; Amnesty International Taiwan chairman
Languages: Chinese, English, Japanese

Additional Reading

♦ Tawian Turnaround: Fighting the Brain Drain
♦ Founder of Gogoro Horace Luke: 'Young People Can, They Just Don’t Have The Stage'
♦ From Heavy Metal Frontman to Taiwan’s Parliament (New York Times)

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