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Shanghai Noise Act Torturing Nurse on 15 Years of Hard Wear and Harsh Noise

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Unlike most adolescents, the project known as Torturing Nurse is mellowing out as it barrels through its teenage years.

A household name in harsh noise circles around the world, Torturing Nurse has gone through many lineup changes in its lifespan to date, but it has since 2015 been the solo project of original co-founder Cao Junjun, better known as Junky. Cao got his start as a musician playing drums in Junkyard, a near-mythical Shanghai band that formed in 2001 and managed to fire off one album, Junk & Retain Junk, before its members split off in different directions. Very different directions. Two of Junkyard’s members, B6 and Ma Haiping (aka MHP), have gone on to become two of Shanghai’s most polished, accomplished electronic music producers. Junky, on the other hand, “wanted to make something more extreme.”

That something is Torturing Nurse, which formally began as the duo of Junky and guitarist Misuzu Tornado banging their way around Junkyard’s former practice room on April 25, 2004. 15+ years later, it’s fair to say that Torturing Nurse is both China’s most extreme act — past shows have entailed S&M, bondage, raw pork, duct tape, and forcible dragging by the hair — and also its most prolific. Discogs places Torturing Nurse’s recorded output at 244 releases, but Junky balks at that: he maintains his own list of releases, which at this writing sits at 404.

Despite his furious level of output and urban legend status, however, Junky has shown some signs of, if not quite mellowing, then at least slowing a bit. Longtime Torturing Nurse member Xu Cheng left the band in 2015 after having a child, and Junky got married last year, leaving him less time to devote to his craft of maltreating a long-suffering chain of broken guitar effects pedals and contact mic’d metal scrap. “Obviously I have less time to make music, but on the other hand I’ve gained more security and happiness, and I need to spend more time taking care of my family life,” he says today.

So Torturing Nurse might be slowing, but it’ll never stop — “2004.04.25 till FOREVER!” is the official line in his bio. I had the opportunity to sit down with Junky just before his April anniversary show in Shanghai to take stock of Torturing Nurse at 15 years:

RADII: April 25, 2004 was the official beginning of Torturing Nurse. What happened on that date?

Torturing Nurse: It was the first practice, I remember it very clearly.

How was the first practice?

The first time it was just two of us, me and Misuzu. We locked ourselves up in a rehearsal space for three hours. We didn’t know what to do, but we wanted to make noise in a different way. So that was the first attempt. We used drums, guitar and other instruments, it was more like a powwow.

Where was the practice space?

Wuyi Road in Shanghai, a basement space. I knew the space because my previous band Junkyard practiced there. We recorded one album, then the rest of the band members quit. And I wanted to go down a different road too, I wanted to make something more extreme, more off the track of what’s considered “music.” So that’s where me and Misuzu rehearsed for the first time as Torturing Nurse.

Some of Junkyard’s other members went on to prominent success in very different fields, like B6, a well-known electronic music producer and composer, and MHP, an active and influential techno producer.

Yeah, Junkyard was really early, we started in 2001. At the time none of us had heard much “avant-garde” music, like Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten, Keiji Haino, or any artists who could be called avant-garde rock. Then B6 and Ma Haiping [MHP], they were students at the time, they listened to some of these artists. There was a record store where we discovered them. Then we started practicing together, and that was the beginning of Junkyard.

MHP and B6 then moved on techno and you gravitated to harsh noise…

It was a long time ago. After making our album, the members of Junkyard all went separate directions. I wanted to make something more extreme, but some of the others wanted to do something that had a bigger audience, or grooves or melody. So there was a ten-year period where we didn’t cross paths at all.

When and where was the first Torturing Nurse gig?

It was in 2004, I think in July. It was in a gallery that no longer exists, called Jiji Gallery, in M50 [a gallery district near Shanghai’s central rail station]. They invited Torturing Nurse and [Beijing-based experimental musician] Wang Fan to perform. At that show we were a four-piece — there was a Taiwanese girl wrapping herself up like a mummy, and a bassist named Miriam [in addition to Misuzu and I].

How many shows have you played to date, roughly?

Should be over 250…

And how many releases?

Over 400. [laughs] Actually the list on Discogs is incomplete. If you go to the Torturing Nurse Facebook there’s a complete list linked to there. All of my gigs and releases are in Google docs that you can find there.

Over the 15 years of the project there have been many different members, and now it’s pretty much a solo act, but the one most constant partner you’ve had in the project is Xu Cheng, who now runs the play rec label. How was your dynamic with him when Torturing Nurse was a duo?

So at first it was me and Misuzu, and then Miriam and Wan Jun from Taiwan joined, it was us four. Then we were invited to play at the 2Pi Festival in Hangzhou, organized by Li Jianhong in 2004. He and I both lived in Shanghai at that time but we only met in Hangzhou at the festival. After seeing our set, which was performed by that four-piece lineup, Xu Cheng wanted to join our band. I told him,

“You can join the band, but the only request is you cannot use any software. You can use any hardware you want, except for your computer.”

So he joined the band, and we played as a five-piece band for a while. Over the next few years other members played on and off, but from 2007 on Torturing Nurse was the duo of Xu Cheng and I. Then in 2015 Xu Cheng had a baby, so he quit the band, and now it’s just me.

When I interviewed you for The Wire five years ago, you said that you “use violent noise to express freedom, above all.” What do you think is the relationship between noise and freedom? Has your feeling changed over time? As you continue to make this kind of music and performance, do you still get the same feeling of freedom or catharsis, or has it changed over time?

I still feel the same, but it would be a lie to say that my own experience of freedom from it has not changed, because I’ve grown as a person over the years. But honestly I still think this kind of music, Noise, gives me the most freedom. It helped me so much at a time when I felt helpless and hopeless, when I felt sick of other forms of music. Over the years, after having communicated with people all over the world, I still do believe that Noise gives me the most freedom, gives me the most power.

You got married last year… Marriage tends to give one a new perspective on life, and it’s freeing in some ways, but also limits freedom in others. Has getting married life changed your perspective on making noise?

Yes, it’s definitely changed. Obviously I have less time to make music, but on the other hand I’ve gained more security and happiness, and I need to spend more time taking care of my family life. But the good thing is, my wife is also a music fan. She doesn’t really like Noise, but she understands it and supports it.

Five years ago I also asked you to list some of your most memorable performances, and you mentioned some of the ones that are also the most infamous among audiences who’ve seen you play: the time you chopped up raw pork and threw it in the crowd, for example, or the time you dripped hot wax on an almost-nude supplicant on stage. I can’t even imagine these kinds of performances happening in Shanghai today, the city has gotten more conservative. How have your own memories or attitudes to these past performances changed in the last five years, as you seem to have mellowed a bit in certain ways…

I know I told you some of the most memorable performances I’ve done before, but now, the same piece of art or performance, as time goes on you get sick of it. So now those feelings don’t stand out to me as much as they used to. When looking at my performances, I don’t look back. I’m not looking back and thinking about what fun projects I’ve done before. I would like to think forward and see what can bring me more satisfaction in the future.

What are those? What do you have planned for the future of Torturing Nurse?

I’d still like to continue [long-running event series] NOIShanghai, and for myself personally, it’s 80% in the works that I will go to Brazil and Australia next year for a somewhat loose tour. Before I’d get really excited about a super busy tour, ten shows in ten days, but now I put more value on the quality of a show, so I’ll probably just go to each country and play two different cities.

Have you heard anything coming out of China’s experimental music/noise scene that you’ve found interesting? Anything from younger artists?

I don’t actively seek out new noise music as much as I did a decade ago. Now my biggest source of discovering new music is either sharing the stage with other musicians, or my friends’ posts on Facebook. If there’s anything special to mention, it’s last year, there was a young kid called 北山Q男 performing noise at a Taiwanese folk festival, and the video got so many hits on YouTube. I met him in person in Taiwan, I thought that was very interesting.

This was a college kid at a rather serious, academic campus folk music competition. The interesting thing was he orchestrated a harsh noise performance, and the judges and audience actually put him through to the finals. They were progressive enough to accept it, which I thought was really interesting.

Over the years you’ve had issues with venues in Shanghai, Torturing Nurse has been banned from many. In general, the Shanghai music scene has recently seen a lot more restrictions: drug busts, raids on venues, forced venue closures. Overall, what effect does this have on the scene? It definitely seems to be getting worse, less free…

It definitely has a major impact. Of course I think it’s bad. Ideally a healthy scene has many venues that support all kinds of music. No matter what kind of music you play, you can go to a venue and have an audience to enjoy it. That’s a virtuous circle that supports the growth of a scene. But now, with all the limitations, it’s not a healthy thing for the scene. And Shanghai being the most open city in China, I hope it one day can be like Tokyo, where people take what they want from whatever shows and venues they go to. Even if you don’t like it, you don’t have to talk shit about it, you just go to support other stuff that you do like. That’s a virtuous circle and a healthy scene.

Japanese harsh noise bands like Incapacitants and Hijokaidan have had a significant influence on you, and you’ve played in Japan a few times. Maybe there are some similarities between Chinese and Japanese society, in terms of the social structure and how Noise presents a way to puncture that, or experience a different kind of freedom within that. But I think there are also very big differences. Tokyo is much more international, inclusive. What do you think the difference is between making  Noise in Shanghai vs Tokyo?

Shanghai and Tokyo, these two cities, economically they’re similarly developed. But Tokyo being even more densely populated, people are probably more stressed over there, competition-wise, but they’re also way more educated. Generally, and also when it comes to taste in or exposure to music. So Tokyo is the ideal environment for an artist like me, where I can play anywhere, and it’s very easy. No matter what you like, it’s very easy for you to find a small scene.

But it’s so much harder in Shanghai. We still have years to go before we achieve that. But overall, when it comes to what noise music represents, I think it’s more similar than different when it comes to the social structure in Japan and China.

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Josh Feola
Josh Feola is a Shanghai-based writer and musician, and RADII's Culture Editor. His coverage of Chinese music and art has appeared in The Wire, Dazed, Artsy, LEAP, Tiny Mix Tapes, and more. He's been active in China's underground music scene since 2010 via his booking platform pangbianr.com, and is a former member of Beijing bands Chui Wan, SUBS, and Vagus Nerve.