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January 20, 2011

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'Dirty underpants' songs of the city

THE absurdly named "Top Floor Circus" band is known as "Shanghai's dirty underpants" for its gritty funny rock and folk songs about real everyday life in Shanghai dialect.

Their fans call themselves "toilets," eager to receive the truth.

But the five musicians are not angry, edgy rockers - far from it, they say - they're just telling it like it is, with humor and for fun. In fact, all the 30-somethings have full-time, white-collar jobs, they're married and have children.

The 10-year-old band has been singing in dialect for around eight years - long before Shanghai dialect became fashionable for song singing. The band peels away the nostalgic, luxurious, fashionable and classy layers of Shanghai and reveals a more materialistic, realistic and earthy (to say the least) underbelly of the metropolis. There's a lot of slamming and slang to tell everyday stories from deep inside the city's old lanes, or longtang.

The five members are guitarist and cofounder Mei Er (Mei Yuting), vocal and cofounder Lu Chen, guitarist Yang Fu, drummer Xiao Ling and bass player Su Yong.

Their next concert is January 29 at Mao Live House, their last performance at that venue for a while. They will perform favorites and folk songs from their new album, "13 Shanghai Classic Pop-rock Hits."

"We want to reflect the life and feelings of ordinary people we meet in daily life - the delivery guy, the local soccer fans, the ayi (household maid) who works for us, and others," says cofounder Mei.

The music is ironic and self-mocking.

Anyone who looks Top Floor Circus on the Internet finds a humorous introduction on the band's official website. They call themselves "a model in the culture and art world, an outstanding group in Shanghai's culture and art field, a young, fresh force in Shanghai's circus world. They're part of the Temporary Office of Sending Performances to the Ground Floor Project." The sarcastic introduction is typical self-mockery.

"Since the very beginning, all we ever think about is having fun and that's it. That's the reason behind every decision we make - the style of the songs, the arrangement of concerts, the costumes, the lyrics," says guitarist and cofounder Mei.

Fans love the rough social and self critics. Others consider the lyrics and performances vulgar.

Their second album, "The Lowest Form of Civilian Fun" (2003) is their most popular so far. Half the album is in Shanghai dialect, and they made it at a time when almost no one was singing in dialect. Today dialect is hot.

"The lyrics were incredibly rude and they repeated the most offensive swear words in Shanghainese. But if you think about it, that's what you hear in the longtang every day," says 29-year-old Robert Liu, a "toilet" fan.

The first time Liu listened online and heard the lyrics - "so vulgar and realistic" - the headphones were accidentally unplugged from the computer and the swear words poured out as the boss happened to walk by. "That was quite an experience," he recalls.

Recently Top Floor Circus musicians were upset by a TV interview that described them as stereotypical angry and edgy rockers who are depressed and need to release their anxiety.

"But that's not what we are," says Mei.

"For us, the band is a hobby, a pastime. Some people go to karaoke, go to the movies, play games, or play cards. We get together as a band. It's not a profession because we all have full-time jobs."

Mei works for Shanghai Media Group as a TV program editor and cofounder Lu is a civil servant in the customs department.

Salaries allow them to do many things that other bands can't imagine. For example, they disappeared for nearly three years after their last album in 2006, leading many fans to suspect they had disbanded.

They experimented and changed their style in each of their four albums. First, they were a typical university band; in the second album they became anti-high art; in the third they were punk and now, in the fourth, they sing folk songs about ordinary Shanghai residents.

The latest album, "13 Shanghai Classic Pop-rock Hits," is online and downloads are free. Fans submitted designs for the cover.

"We are not playing music to make money," says Mei.

The latest album is milder than their previous efforts and contains almost no vulgarity or strange melodies.

"Well, we've gotten old now," Mei jokes.

In their Christmas Eve concert, they played the entire album and presented the show as a dating program for nearly 1,000 fans at Mao Livehouse.

A friend hosted the show and introduced characters from their songs - "snail aunty" (nickname for household workers), soccer fans, out-of-town girls living in the city, white-collar workers, night club girls and others. All the characters described their dream lovers.

A typical song, "Courier," goes:

"We are couriers, we are couriers, our boss is a big cheat, we are couriers, we are couriers, we earn only several jiao (cents) for a delivery."

Top Floor Circus

Venue: Mao Livehouse

Address: 570 Huaihai Rd W.

Date: January 29, 8pm

Admission: 50 yuan


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