The Island Line is one of ten transit lines in Hong Kong’s metro system, connecting the main districts of Hong Kong Island, the buzzing financial and cultural hub of the city. Since 1985, the Island Line’s deep underground networks have endured many turbulent changes and developments that have unfolded across the city.
Halfway across the world, Davis Wong (COL ’17) and his band, The Island Line, released their first studio album, Stardom Young — a coming-of-age narrative set in the four bandmates’ native Hong Kong — on Sept. 23. Borrowing its name from the metro line while voicing its experiences, the band’s debut effort is remarkably polished but rough in all the right places.
Wong, the group’s vocalist, guitarist Justin Yau, drummer and guitarist Jonny Ho and bassist and lead guitarist Ryan Chang were all good friends growing up. They entered the world of music on their own and did not collaborate until the end of their senior year of high school. The group’s first show was at its high school’s graduation ball.
However, the group soon scattered to attend different universities around the globe, interrupting its musical projects. Whenever they reunited during summer and winter breaks for the next two years, they would write and perform music together.
“The real gelling of it was our first Christmas back, when we rehearsed together every day to play a show and had a great time,” Wong said.
The bandmates knew they wanted to keep working together, and after writing a few songs the previous summer, they met up this year with more ambitious projects.
“We realized we had something good going on, and that we should take the time this summer to make an album,” Wong said.
Wong described the album’s production as a “very guerrilla operation.” After Yau downloaded an audio program onto his computer, the band pooled money to buy microphones and started renting out recording rooms by the hour in downtown Hong Kong.
“We would set up our stuff on the sly while the managers weren’t looking and record some tracks,” Wong said.
Throughout the summer, they would meet every morning to decide what the basic structure of the songs would be: how many bars, what verses and how many times they wanted to repeat something.
After laying out a few rough tracks, they would head over to the studio and record over it.
“We spent a few weeks working all day, usually 1 p.m. to about midnight or 1 a.m.,” Wong said.
After recording, Yau would stay up for hours, making mixes and coordinating sounds until the break of dawn. Despite such a humble process, the production work satisfactorily allowed the sounds to remain crisp, independent and smoothly composed. The music and lyrics play off of each other, and the volume and quality of the vocals adapt to the different instrumental sounds.
The group’s creative process was highly collaborative and capitalized on the diverse perspectives and approaches of the band’s members.
“It was a very democratic process, especially because everyone writes [and] writes stuff differently,” Wong said. “We would show each other stuff and make improvements to try to iron it out.”
Wong took charge of the album’s lyrics and let his bandmates focus on composing instrumentals. This collaborative process was not always easy, especially when attempting to synthesize a final product, according to Wong.
“The hardest part was aligning four different people with different perspectives and opinions, getting to a point where it all works for everyone,” Wong said.
Living apart for two years, the band has expanded its horizons, with each member’s separate experiences, independence, personal time and reflection fitting together.
Many of the tracks were adapted from what other band members had previously written. Each song describes different experiences, but the album is thematically centered on coming of age in Hong Kong.
Influenced by diverse styles, from The Rolling Stones to Oasis, Wong said that the group’s overall goal was to “write pop music that sounds like rock music,” balancing catchy and enjoyable music with substantive lyrics.
The Island Line wants to make people get up and dance, but for those few who are listening more intently, the band hopes to share the experience of growing up “in a unique place at a unique time.” Different subthemes are explored in many songs: nostalgia and longing on “Stone Age,” disillusion and heartbreak on “Not My Woman” and “There She Goes,” and dreams on “Pop Star.”
“True Age” is the album’s heaviest and most clearly grunge inspired track. Recorded at a time when Yao had just begun producing, the band feels they didn’t get the song just right and hope to revisit it in the future.
“Promised Land” is a dong that took a while to grow on Ho.
“I really hated the song when I recorded it, because it was just the same four bars on the drums. It took taking a step back to realize what it could be,” he said.
As for the band’s future, Wong was reluctant to set anything in stone, explaining there is a disconnect due to the band members leading quite distinct, separate lives. Before all else, the members of The Island Line are a group of friends, wishing to stay close through their shared love of music that got them started in the first place.