Nine Treasures, R-L: Ding Kai, Tsog, Saina, Askhan, Aoger / Photo by Johann Jouin
In Mongolian mythology, there's this recurring villain named Mangas. "He has 18 heads, really powerful. It's like Mongolian Satan—a big boss, you know," laughs Askhan Avagchuud, frontman of Mongolian folk metal band Nine Treasures. "The protagonist of course is a brave young person or something, and when the two fight, it's for 81 days. But the monster, he doesn't usually run away; he stays fighting. So I thought: he's probably actually a pretty brave guy. Even though he's a villain, he still has feelings. Why else, if you knew you could never win, would you keep on fighting?"
Which is how Nine Treasures ended up making a song about "Mongolian Satan," as told from the perspective of said Satan. It's also emblematic of how the five-piece approach metal in general. Which is to say, with compassion.
"I'm always thinking," muses Askhan, "'Can beautiful things go into metal?' That's really important. Metal is so heavy and aggressive, so can it be built with love, or other views or emotions?" The 28-year-old guitarist speaks with a gentle assuredness, as does his bandmate Saina who's seated next to him—he plays the balalaika, a traditional Russian lute. We speak primarily in Mandarin, with their manager Yue Sun jumping in when needed. We're Budapest, at the World Music Expo, where Nine Treasures just played the opening show of their first-ever European tour. It's a big deal for them; they're well known enough on the Chinese metal circuit, but it's their first time touring outside the country.
The band first formed in Beijing in 2010. All five current band members grew up in Inner Mongolia—the autonomous region in northern China, not to be confused with Mongolia the country. Before they all found each other, Askhan and Saina had been roommates in college, both studying animation, while drummer Ding Kai and bassist Aoger had become friends in music school. Tsog, their morin khuur (Mongolian horsehead fiddle) player, met them later in Beijing after a stint playing music in Mongolian-themed restaurants.
They've come a long way since then, having released two studio albums and an EP, played major festivals in China, won second place at Wacken Open Air's 2013 Metal Battle Finals, and amassed a loyal fanbase that Askhan describes with fondness. "Chinese music fans tend to be younger. A lot of them are college students. Oftentimes, they'll form these sort of fan groups; they'll gather a ton of people and go to a show together. Not like here where it'll just be two, three, four friends in a group. They'll organize hundreds of people. They'll make their own flags with their group's logo on it and show up to the concert together."
While there's no dearth of Chinese rock and metal bands for fans to rally behind and fly flags for, the same can't exactly be said of the Mongolian metal scene. According to Askhan, it's primarily them, Tengger Cavalry, and Ego Fall holding it down—and Tengger Cavalry is currently based in New York City, not China.
Nine Treasures in an earlier formation / Photo by Johann Jouin
Growing up in Hailar, Hulunbuir, in the northeast of Inner Mongolia, Askhan, like some of his other bandmates, listened to a lot of Mongolian music on the radio. "From six in the morning, they'd start playing music, always playing Mongolian songs. It was all old singers from the 50s and 60s. The recordings were analog, made on old cassette tapes at the time, so it was really rough, but it had that texture, that kind of static noise."
For both Askhan and Saina, it was in the late 90s—around fifth or sixth grade—when they both, independent of each other, discovered their shared portal into metal: Hurd. Hurd are like the godfathers of Mongolian heavy metal, "big stars" as Askhan puts it. But it wasn't until high school that he found out that what they were listening to had a name, and that name was metal. At first, for Avagchuurd, it was a lot of metalcore and power metal—the Lamb of Gods and Triviums, the Calibans and Heaven Shall Burns of the world. But when folk metal exploded across Europe in the '00s, and when through that he found Viking metal, he started getting ideas.
"I started to think, 'Can we put our traditional culture into heavy metal? Is that possible?' It's really cool but kind of a big challenge for young musicians, because it's really hard to write the songs. Guitar and bass and drum is really loud, and balance [between the loud and traditional instruments] is so hard to get." It may be challenging, but in their hands, the fit seems entirely natural. On their latest EP, 2015's Galloping White Horse, braying horsehead fiddle barrels through scuzzy guitars and artillery-fire drumming. Strummed balalaika rocks back and forth, a teetering cradle for Askhan's throaty growl-singing. The sense of space throughout evokes steppe plains and sky.
Thematically, their music, "is about everything in Mongolian life, like horses and the environment, or rivers or certain kinds of animals." One of their more popular songs, "Sonsii," is an anthem for environmental protection. Inner Mongolia's natural environment has taken a hit with increased industrial development over the past decade, so they wrote a song about it from the perspective of the environment. "Sonsii means 'I'm listening,'" Askhan explains. "Listening to your lies." At other times, Nine Treasures' music seeks to celebrate. In the exuberant "Tes River's Hymn," they sing praise to Five Tes—the five offshoots of Mongolia's long winding Tes River that feed into the massive Uvs Lake.
As much as they're inspired by Mongolia's physical landscapes though, so too are they influenced by the more spiritual aspects. "When I was little, my grandma would often bring me to the temple to pray," Askhan recalls. "The lama (Buddhist monk) would hold a gathering every year, at a pre-determined time, and at that time, the lamas would all sit in the temple and start to chant Buddhist scripture, ongggg, and blow that really long horn. During the gathering, a lot of people would come and pay their respects one by one, and the monks would touch the scripture to your forehead. I lived with my grandparents for quite some time, and it may be that their ways of interpreting the world influenced mine as well. So of course when you're making music, it influences that too, for sure. It's nothing clear or explicit, but it's there."
That awareness of what lies beneath the surface is one of the defining characteristics of Nine Treasures. Not that they all grew up going to temple with their grandmas—in fact, none of them are practicing Buddhists—but rather that they've made it their mission to bring forth those things that may not be immediately obvious but that are still there, that can be imagined even into existence: the humanity of an 18-headed monster, the synergy between balalaika and heavy guitar distortion, the courage to be soft in the jagged jaws of metal.
Minna Zhou is mastering the world on Twitter.