Unless you live in Whitehorse, you've probably never heard of Matthew Lien, the Yukon-based musician and environmental activist who incorporates the sounds of rolling icebergs, calving glaciers and fierce peregrine falcons attacking grizzly bears into his classical and pop world-beat recordings. Why would you? In Canada, the experimental self-producer doesn't even have a distribution deal.
Yet over in Taiwan, where Lien's instrumental albums top the charts and concerts pack stadiums with more than 30,000 fans, he's a superstar bigger than Jesus. Or at least that's the cheeky message of a new ad campaign in which he stars as the poster boy for the latest brand of suds from Taiwan's largest brewery.
The Last Supper billboard is a takeoff of the Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece. Now rolling out in Taiwan, it features the long-haired, bearded 40-year-old at a table surrounded by funky, young apostles drinking Gold Medal King, a new brand of all-natural, rice-fortified beer from Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corp. (TTL).
"Just don't ask me to turn rice into beer," Lien says with a laugh over the phone from Taipei, where he lives part-time, has a small recording studio and drinks his fair share of Taiwanese beer.
Lien says he was initially concerned that some people might be offended by the ad, part of a huge promotional campaign that includes more eco-friendly 30-second TV spots of him swimming, drinking and recording the sound of a waterfall in Taiwan's rain forest.
But he notes that this East Asian country, still considered a renegade province by the People's Republic of China, is not predominantly Christian. And to him, the Christ-figure promotion just sounded like a lot of fun.
"The environmental and cultural issues I address can be quite serious, so I feel it's good to lighten things up from time to time," Lien explains.
"And if everyone does their patriotic duty, then you never know. Maybe Taiwan could drink its way to independence," he laughs.
Slightly chubby and teddy-bear cuddly, Lien might not be as sexy as rock-and-roll singer Wu Bai, the company's previous celebrity spokesperson. But as TTL chairman Ray Dawn told the Taipei Times, he's confident they made the right choice.
"We wanted to show how fresh the beer is and how natural the ingredients are. But more importantly, we wanted to use an international image to prove that Taiwan Beer is accepted by people everywhere, not only in Taiwan."
Indeed, Lien says he's drunk so much of the stuff he should be given corporate shares.
This is the first time the TTL, which accounts for 80 per cent of Taiwan's $1-billion-a-year (U.S.) beer market, has used a foreign face to advertise its products. Mind you, it wasn't much of a risk. In Taiwan, Lien is a household name with international album sales that typically outpace Celine Dion and Eric Clapton.
For someone who first set foot in the country a mere 10 years ago, Lien's list of achievements in his adopted home away from home is phenomenal:
Last year, he was the first foreigner to win a Golden Melody Award (Taiwan's equivalent of a Juno, and his second nomination).
In 1999, after an earthquake devastated the island, he headlined a series of benefit concerts that raised more than $600,000 (U.S.) for relief efforts.
In 2000, his music was performed at the inauguration ceremony for Democratic Progressive Party President Chen Shui-bian.
Last fall, the Taiwan National Chinese Orchestra premiered his commissioned work, The Eternal Beauty of Taiwan, for a National Day celebration commemorating human rights.
And thanks to his environmental commitments, he has been appointed a cultural ambassador by two provincial magistrates and the central government, and is now directly involved in the overhaul of the national park system to allow for aboriginal co-management.
So why is his music so popular in Taiwan, while in Canada he remains virtually unrecognized, save for a few small awards?
"Good question," he says laughing long and heartily. "I like to think it's just good music.
On a more serious note, he says the appeal of his supernatural-sounding compositions might have something to do with the insular nature of the country. "Because of Taiwan's dilemma with China, it doesn't enjoy the same international connectedness. Diplomatically and geographically, it's a very inward-looking culture. Things are changing and people in Taiwan are very aware of what's going on around the world. But I suppose they appreciate the composed quality of my music. It expresses the sounds and feelings and emotions of a pure wilderness far away."
Taiwan's love affair with Lien began in 1995, when Bleeding Wolves, Lien's second independently produced album, was picked up by a tiny Taiwanese record company at a trade conference in France. The album, a mournful lament inspired by the Yukon government's wolf-kill program, sped to the top of the charts, reaching multi-platinum status in Southeast Asia within a year of being released. (For its 10th anniversary, Lien remastered and rereleased the album in 5.1 surround sound. Sales have already topped 10,000 units in Taiwan).
His initial success was helped along by inmates at a federal penitentiary who had written a best-selling book about their emotional responses to his music. On his first trip to Taiwan, he performed a concert at the very same Tingwan Prison in the remote Penghu Islands.
"It was like staging a prison break," Lien recalls. "Many of the inmates had their eyes closed as they listened. I can't tell you how incredibly rewarding that is -- using music to bring people into a beautiful place when their own place is so miserable."
During the cross-country tour that followed, Lien performed in many small communities where Taiwanese musicians don't typically tread. Along the way, he picked up a strong following among aboriginal people, who had discovered a kindred spirit through their shared connection to the land. Lien himself is of Norwegian, German and Iroquois descent.
His most recent release, the Golden Melody Award-winning A Journey of Water, was commissioned by the Yi-Lan provincial government. Two years in the making, the double-CD involved more than 90 musicians (including an old man singing in his tea field) and 100 hours of unique nature recordings.
Seamlessly weaving traditional instruments with drips, gurgles and roars of water, it follows the pathway of the northeastern region's ecosystem, from the 3,000-year-old Cypress forests in the mountains of Chi-Lan, across the plains of Lan Yang and all the way down to volcanic vents, located 40 metres beneath the sea at Turtle Mountain Island.
"The underground volcano is still spewing out gas and boiling hot water. It makes an unusual sound," explains the self-professed tech geek. "I had to find out if we could record it."
Lien arranged the complicated ocean dive, using specially manufactured hydrophones with extra-long cables. But because sound frequencies move too fast underwater to discern location, the team didn't even know until they got back to the boat if they captured anything at all before the microphones melted.
"It did work and it sounds so cool," Lien exclaims. "There is a story from that island about a great general being cast into the ocean by a dragon king. The thundering sound of the volcano is supposed to be his heart still pulsating. To hear it so clearly is amazing."
Lien says he does find it somewhat perplexing that he hasn't received much recognition in Canada, where he's been making similar nature recordings since the 1980s. Originally from San Diego, he spent his summers in Whitehorse, where his father lived. At 16, the self-taught guitarist and pianist made a permanent move to the Yukon, surviving for many years by playing popular pub tunes in smoky bars.
His profile in Canada is largely restricted to a comprehensive website, http://www.matthewlien.com, but he is set to ramp up his Canadian visibility later this year to support the release of a new album.
Arctic Refuge is his latest project for the Caribou Commons Project, a coalition of environmental and aboriginal representatives working to protect Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas development.
"It's still in peril," Lien says, sounding deeply worried. But should he not succeed, he can always drown his sorrows in beer.