Banning rock bands from TV… clandestine gigs to evade tight state controls… You’d be forgiven for thinking that China doesn’t ‘do’ subversive music culture.
But, as Alvin Chan discovers, China’s capital is full of sonic surprises. And it’s one tiny gig venue that’s ringing the changes…
China’s oft-cited recent economic and political boom, in recent years, has brought about brave new definitions. The explosion of modern culture from the nation’s capital has not been limited to the contemporary art revolution, evident by the revival of the underground music scene.
With China as music industry fayre MIDEM 2008’s country of honour and Yeah Yeah Yeahs headlining Beijing’s Modern Sky Festival in 2007, the world is listening intently.
Saturday night at D-22 (located in Wudaokou, Beijing’s student ghetto) and, on the face of it, a generic musical sweatbox. No one can hear you scream within the angsty red walls, mainly because everyone else is screaming, bellowing, whopping and yelling. Milling around the smoky divebar, the usual mix of bespectacled artists, tipsy-to-borderline-drunk foreign students and Beijing’s answer to Hoxton dandies. Conversations ranging from the night’s ‘killer’ lineup to who the last person was to see you naked punctuated by the de rigeur soundcheck screeches. Music is everywhere, and everything is music – an all too familiar setting?
However, one would be mistaken to dismiss D-22 on the basis of infrastructural and punter-induced genericism. Lending to the truism that the creative thrive on proximity to reach a kind of critical mass, D-22 has established itself as the undisputed hub of musical innovation not only in Beijing, but China at large. Run by former Wall Street warrior and current finance professor/IMF consultant Mike Pettis on a virtually non-profit basis, the club opened its doors in May of 2006 under tough conditions, given that nearly all Chinese listeners had a penchant for sugary commercial pop.
But in less than two years the underground music scene has evolved at breakneck speed, with numerous Chinese bands using D-22 as a platform to make great leaps of faith into uncharted territory. The days of nameless cover bands and an unwarranted fascination with foreign acts are gradually being left behind. “Several years ago, Chinese bands were thought to be good to the extent that they emulated good American or European bands,” Pettis explains. “But now, backed by a more sophisticated scene, everything just exploded overnight.”
Free from the pressure to sound like their favourite foreign bands, Chinese artists have made strides towards establishing a distinct identity. However, Beijing’s burgeoning development as an international cultural centre means that local artists have continued to drink from the global fountain, embracing and intermingling sounds from around the world to great effect. “People sometimes come to China expecting bands to sound ‘Chinese’, which doesn’t make a lot of sense,” notes Pettis. “Kids who grew up in Beijing and Shanghai are urban kids who grew up listening to the same stuff that kids from New York, Cleveland or Sao Paolo listen to, so I don’t think it’s right to draw a dichotomy between ‘Western’ and ‘Chinese’ music.”
The scene’s most representative bands occupy a range of positions on the musical spectrum. The grungy, industrial electropop conjured up by Snapline is The Cure and LCD Soundsystem in equal parts, with a pinch of everything in between. Joyside’s charismatic frontman Bian Yuan has perfected the art of drunkenly rocking out to raw, hedonistic tunes. Experimental duo White have worked overtime to push the boundaries of sound, citing avant-guardists such as Einsturzende Neubauten as influences (in fact, Blixa Bargeld produced their debut album).
While all these bands have, at some point or other, referred to themselves as ‘D-22 bands’, no band is presently more deserving of the label than crowd favourite Carsick Cars. The critical darlings possess the impressive distinction of touring with Sonic Youth throughout Europe. Lead guitarist Shou Wang’s musicianship is nothing short of world class. The track Zhong Nan Hai, which makes veiled references to the walled lake compound inhabited by China’s top leadership, has become an indie anthem. “If Carsick Cars were a New York band they would already be untouchable,” Pettis remarks enthusiastically. “They’d be so big that you’d never be able to go to their shows.”
Things are unlikely to plateau anytime soon. Local indie acts are now receiving airplay on Chinese radio stations. Capitalising upon the scorching scene, Pettis, alongside local musical hero Yang Haisong of PK14, launched new record label Maybe Mars last September, promptly releasing long-awaited albums for Carsick Cars, Joyside and Snapline. With D-22 being the hangout of choice for local bands due to its unapologetic ‘musicians first’ mentality, the prospects for this label are boundless.
The scene has also been powered by the crowd’s desire to drown in quirk by embracing anything new, as well as the refreshingly high level of camaraderie between bands. For most Chinese audiences, a venue such as D-22 can aptly be described as a musical laboratory. The overarching sense of curiosity towards anything ‘experimental’ has delayed the inevitable segregation of the scene down genre lines.
Despite a house preference for what can loosely be described as ‘post-punk/noise’, the club also plays host to numerous acts which defy categorisation, such as the weekly experimental jazz nights featuring sound engineer and drummer Justin Padro. On a particularly memorable Sunday evening, leading American jazz pianist Matthew Shipp dropped by for a breathtaking performance with Padro and saxophonist Li Tie Qiao to the rousing reception of a crowd which can only be described as ‘eclectic’. “It’s amazing how an experimental jazz band will be playing and the punk kids will come to check them out,” notes Pettis. “Sooner or later the scene will segregate once the newness rubs off, but for now it feels like San Francisco in the mid ’60s – nobody knows what’s going on and everyone is doing their own thing, but somehow it works.”
The ‘fluctuating members’ structures adopted by many Chinese indie bands is also indicative of the closeness of the scene. Case in point: Shou Wang, the lead guitarist and vocalist of Carsick Cars, is also the founding member of White, while the other two members of Carsick Cars are also members of Snapline. It’s all so incestuous, trs Broken Social Scene. Pettis recognises that the ‘one big happy family’ band culture is just a transitory phase, and that fierce competition marked by increasing cut-throatedness is to be expected in 2-3 years’ time. However, he views this inevitable development as a sign of success, and regards any resulting battle scars as evidence of the long-awaited legitimisation of the scene.
With the onslaught of musical talent coming from out of the capital, China has ferociously marked out its spot on the global musical radar. Beijing is already rivalling Tokyo in the bid towards becoming the musical centre of Asia, but should it aim higher? While Pettis recognises that Beijing may never be the next London or New York, he is optimistic that in five years’ time, it could very well be on par with Berlin or Chicago. His final piece of advice? Don’t ever believe you have a firm grip on the scene, since its ability to surprise, and occasionally befuddle, is truly second to none.