Chthonic’s Freddy Lim: “If Taiwan Can Do It, I Believe the Whole World Can Have Live Music Back Soon”

It can be hard to believe Freddy Lim’s story. In 1995, the Taiwan-born musician started Chthonic, whose sweeping, hard-hitting symphonic black metal incorporated traditional Taiwanese folk music and instruments. The band slowly built a dedicated fanbase, until 2005’s Seediq Bale exploded them onto the international metal scene. But though Chthonic have continued making compelling, unique black metal, the band is only one part of Freddy’s journey — in 2015, Lim started the New Power Party, a political party focused on human rights, civil liberties, and Taiwanese independence, which won him a seat on Taiwan’s parliament. Now, six years later, Freddy continues to play two roles — the frontman of his homeland’s most widely-regarded band and a legislator in one of the world’s most progressive nations.

“When you’re touring, you’re playing almost the same set every night, but you need to be fresh,” explains Lim of his two different jobs. “You need to feel the passion, every night, to make it sound like you played the same set for the very first time. You cannot let the crowd feel like you’re bored. And when I make a speech to the crowds about what I stand for — for example, LGBT rights, we want to convince people to legalize same-sex marriage to let them have equal rights — although I’ve made that speech dozens of times, I need to keep the same energy. This is so important for you, and for the country — you can’t let the crowds feel like you got bored talking about the same thing.”

Boredom is certainly not part of Chthonic’s trajectory. The band recently played at Taiwan’s Megaport Festival to massive crowds in a beautiful act of catharsis after the past year. This show is set to become the band’s new live album, and involves the remixing some of their classic tracks by Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s post-gender digital minister, a longtime Chthonic fan, and an old friend of Freddy’s. Even Lim can admit that all of this is kind of unusual — and pretty awesome.

“We might be the only country where this kinds of thing happen!” laughs Lim on the phone. “I don’t think any other parts of the world have a metalhead as a member of parliament, and another metalhead, who’s transgender, making electronic music, in the cabinet!”

How has the last year of COVID been for you, both as a musician and as a politician?

The first couple of months, everyone was very nervous. When the epidemic broke out in February, people here felt quite unsure about how things would go. Then after last May or June, we found out we’d gone the right direction — we closed the border in the first moments, we didn’t trust the news from the Chinese Communist party, the Chinese government, and we didn’t trust what the WHO had said. In the first few weeks, they said, It’s nothing big, nothing very bad, so people can still travel. We didn’t buy that, because we’d been through the SARS situation in 2003, so we knew what was going on. We followed the instructions here quite fast. So since last June, life has gone back to normal — though we’re still quite careful with social distancing and wearing masks. But we can still go to baseball games, movies, restaurants, concerts — they’re all open as usual. 

What was it like being in a country that was handling COVID well while so many others dealt with significant issues?

When we looked at news overseas in the first few months, when we read about how bad things got in Asia, and then the US and Europe, it was like another universe to us. We feel lucky that we did it the right way, but still we feel very sorry about what’s going on in other parts of the world. It’s a bit weird — we’re not that happy, but we feel quite lucky.

You guys played Megaport, Taiwan’s biggest rock festival, at the end of March — what was that like, after the year everyone’s had?

It felt very energized. I think music is all about life, the exchange of energy with a crowd. Without playing live…maybe you can do an online show through the Internet, you can connect to people, but it feels so different. When you play live in front of tens of thousands of people, you feel energized, and that’s something that no technology can replace. That’s why I hope that we can cheer up the world. If Taiwan can do it, I believe the whole world can have live music back soon, and people can feel that energy again. You’re not playing front of computers anymore, you’re in front of crowds. And that can drive your inspiration, because you want to exchange energy with your fans. You get inspired by them, and you want to make more music. That’s something that can’t be replaced by any other way.

What would you say is the biggest difference between the crowd at a metal festival and a political rally?

It’s quite the same thing. Of course, in a speech, you want to convince people. You’re like a preacher. So sometimes it can be like a lecture. It’s a bit more difficult than playing music, because playing music is purely emotional. So with a show, you’re trying to find that same emotion every time. When you are lecturing, when you’re trying to convince people of values, you need emotion, but you need to stay calm as well. You need to strike a balance. You can’t be too passionate, but you can’t have it look like you’re just reading a script. It’s a bit more difficult, but it’s very similar.

How much can you tell us about your upcoming new live album?

Our new album is a live album of our set at Megaport Festival. But it’s not just the old arrangements — there’s a lot of new remixes in the songs. Our digital minister in the cabinet, Audrey Tang, has been a Chthonic fan for almost 20 years, and we became good friends. But 20 years ago, we never thought I would be in parliament and he would be in the cabinet. So we feel like Megaport was so important to us, that we could make something unique by rearranging Chthonic songs, to make them more memorable. So we decided to make this a live album. 

The collaboration with Audrey Tang is really fascinating — what do they bring to Chthonic’s music?

Audrey Tang has been quite a unique digital icon in Taiwan. They invented a lot of new technology to strengthen and improve our democracy, so we tried to make more technologically-enhanced remixes of the songs. We feel all the songs will be quite unique. I think all the fans who’re familiar with our songs will love this album, and for all the fans who might not know these songs, it will be a good first step to getting into our music. 

The other thing is Audrey Tang is transgender, and in Asia, especially in the countries around Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong, they’ve become quite popular. Taiwan is the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage, but also [a country where] a genius who is transgender can be invited to the cabinet to become our digital minister. That doesn’t happen in other Asian countries, much less other parts of the world. So Audrey has become an icon, to show that Taiwan is open and progressive as a country. We can try to improve ourselves, and accept a lot of diverse people. So when Audrey, this transgender digital minister of Taiwan who’s our old friend, can bring something new to our music, it’s very cool. 

It’s always been Chthonic’s way to shake things up from album to album. Is that something you strive to do, or a natural progression for you?

I think it’s something that happens naturally. We try to do something new, we try to combine with something, we try to make something in the music that keeps us fresh as well. To put some technology and electronic sounds in the songs…we’ve thought about that for maybe ten years. Jesse [Liu, guitars] and I have talked about that so many times, but we never found the perfect moment to do that. And working with Audrey Tang is just the right moment we wanted. And that makes more sense than just trying to do something interesting. Because we are working with a guy who is a digital minister — that makes it mean a lot more.

Chthonic’s 2021 Megaport live album is available for preorder.

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Words by Chris Krovatin