Culture, Interviews — April 15, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Beijing Indie Big Bang

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When one thinks of the indie rock capitals of the world, Beijing does not immediately come to mind. But the capital of the world’s most prosperous communist country is currently experiencing a big bang of diverse, new and exciting indie bands that may very well be “the next big thing” on the international scene.

Rock music has a fairly short history in China, with the first wave of Chinese rock music known as Northwest Wind pioneered by the “Father of Chinese Rock”, Cui Jian who is best known for his anthem, “Nothing to My Name” first performed by Cui in 1984 and included on what is considered the first Chinese Rock album, Rock ‘n’ Roll on the New Long March, released in 1989. Dou Wei, formerly of the band Hei Bao or “Black Panther”, is widely acknowledged as being the pioneer of alternative or indie rock in China with the release of his gothic rock album, Dark Dreams in 1994. Some sources also cite the Beijing Midi Music School as the breeding ground for many acts in the current Beijing scene.

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It can be said that the nascent Beijing indie scene first captured international attention when one of its leading lights, Carsick Cars, joined Sonic Youth’s European tour in 2007 and opened for them in Prague and Vienna. As recently as November 2009, Beijing indie music label Maybe Mars Records organized an eleven-city North American tour from New York to Washington DC (featuring Carsick Cars as well as fellow Beijing band P.K.14 and folk artist Xiao He that introduced some of the Chinese capital’s most famous indie acts to US audiences. According to Charles Saliba, the tour manager, the bands sold almost all the merchandise they brought with them and nearly every show was sold out. Lately, Carsick Cars made another tour of the US in March this year and here is a clip of their performance at Ran Tea House in Brooklyn:

Other prominent bands in the Beijing scene include Yaksa (nu-metal, rapcore), AK47 (industrial metal), Liquid-Oxygen Can or Oxygen Can Band (nu-metal), FM3 (experimental electronica), Hang on the Box (eclectic indie all-girl band), Hedgehog (psychedelic, punk, noise pop), Joyside (punk), Rebuilding the Rights of Statues a.k.a. Re-Tros (post-punk), Snapline (post-punk, synth-pop, noise, industrial), Subs (No Wave-style post-punk), and avant-garde artists like Yan Jun, Zhang Shouwang (a.k.a. Jeff Zhang, guitarist/vocalist for Carsick Cars), and Shen Jing (a.k.a. Shenggy, former drummer for Hang on the Box) – some of whom have been attracting local and overseas admirers. One such admirer is American Kevin Fritz who documented Joyside’s shambolic 2003 nationwide tour of China in his film, Wasted Orient.

Besides Maybe Mars, some of the other important Beijing music labels (covering a diversity of genres from folk to rock to punk and hardcore to new wave/post-punk to death, thrash and even industrial metal) include Modern Sky Records, 13th Month Records, Hot Pot Music, Pilot Records, Scream Records, Mort Productions and the simply-named Indie Music label. These labels not only produce Beijing-based bands, but bands from other Chinese cities and provinces, as well.

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As in most cities with a vibrant music culture, it is the local Beijing pubs, clubs or “livehouses” (a moniker of Japanese origin that refers to clubs that feature “live” entertainment) that are helping to spur the growth of the Beijing indie music scene. The most famous livehouse was D-22, a club ran by American expatriate, Michael Pettis which closed last year. Located in northwestern Beijing, between the main entrances of China’s two most famous tertiary education institutions, Peking and Tsinghua universities, D-22 had gained a global reputation as “the CBGB’s of Beijing” (Country Bluegrass and Blues, the original bar/music club in New York City that is widely considered as the birthplace of American Punk Rock) as it was the spawning ground of many of the city’s best-known underground rock and experimental bands. Here is a clip of Hedgehog playing at D-22 in March 2008:

 

Other well-known Beijing clubs or livehouses driving the scene include Mao Livehouse, 2 Kolegas, Nameless Highland, Mako Livehouse, Jiang Hu Bar, Star Live and What Bar.

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I recently made contact with Guo Cheng, the founder of Indie Music store and its eponymous music label that is home to several of the key bands and artists in the burgeoning Beijing indie scene, and he kindly consented to answer the following questions by email:

 

What are the origins of the Beijing indie/underground music scene? Which year, do you think, can be considered the beginning of this music scene? Who can be considered as the pioneers of this scene? And are they still active today?

Firstly, I should clarify that it would be rock music that originated in Beijing. The period in which indie and underground music originate is not clearly defined. They have always been there but in different forms of expression.

It is certain that the founder of Chinese Rock is Cui Jian. Although his first album Lang Zi Gui (“Vagabond’s Return”) that was released in 1984, is no longer remembered by most people. It was probably in 1986 when rock music finally made its way onto the centre stage in China.

Subsequently in 1994, the concert in Hong Kong Coliseum with bands like Tang Dynasty, Black Panther, and artists such as Zhang Chu, He Yong and Dou Wei further popularised Chinese Rock.

In the hearts of the Chinese, Cui Jian is the leading Rock Star, always maintaining his position in the rock scene. Bands like Tang Dynasty, Black Panther, and artists like Zhang Chu and He Yong are still performing in Beijing as well as at large outdoor music festivals. Only Dou Wei has rarely appeared in public after the Hong Kong Coliseum concert. Even if he were to perform these days, he would be playing mainly instrumental music and he would hardly sing. His later and more recent albums have mainly been instrumental.

 

At present, what are the key bands/artists in this scene? Who are the more popular bands/artists in this scene at the moment?

There are numerous popular bands and artists, I would not be able to go into all the details. I would simply say that at the moment in China, the more popular ones would be rock bands. There are countless festivals of various sizes each year in China and over a hundred large-scale commercial events. Each of these has given bands with great potential a platform to be received by the general public. For example, Xin Ku Zi (“New Pants”), Tong Yang (“Miserable Faith”), Tao Pao Ji Hua (“Escape Plan”) are few of the most active bands in the scene at the moment.

New Pants was founded in Beijing in 1996. They have released seven albums. Their earlier style could be considered as punk. They have changed their direction to New Wave with their fourth album Long Hu Ren Dan (roughly translated as “Dragon Tiger Panacea”) introducing a new genre in the Chinese Rock scene.

Miserable Faith is another pioneering hardcore/metal band. After their 2008 album Bu Yao Ting Zhi Wo De Yin Yue (The Music Won’t Be Stopped), they have gone underground.

Escape Plan play indie pop and they are currently one of the rising stars in the scene. Their 2008 hit ‘Jie Hun’ (“Marriage”) has influenced many female followers in the literary and art scenes. In 2012, they released their first official album Shi Jie (“Earth”) which was awarded four local music awards that year including for best rock album and best rock band. 

 

When did you start your music label, Indie Music? Who are some of the artists/bands that you have released on your label, so far? Which artists/bands on your label are your favourites?

We founded Indie Music in 2011. We use this name simply because by looking at these words, most people would know what we do. Let me introduce ourselves. Firstly, we are a record store and we want to be one that is different from the others. We are also a music label. We have signed on A Ji Nai, a band from Mongolia and have released their eponymous album. Their music style can be called a fusion of folk and rock. But due to the constraints of other aspects of work, we were not able to sign on more bands.

Instead, we have decided to help other bands distribute and produce their albums. Indie Music label has distributed 30 heavy rock albums in the last two years. You might want to find out more about us from our Sina Weibo account and Douban website.

 

Besides your label and Modern Sky Records, can you name some of the other important music labels and distributors in the China indie music scene? Do these labels only produce bands based in Beijing or do they also release records from bands that come from other cities/provinces in China? 

There are many but the directions and music genres are quite different. Modern Sky focuses mainly on the bands that more active in China, trendy bands from both within and outside China including those from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. They are the biggest music label in China. They mainly organise large music festivals including Mo Deng Tian Kong Yin Yue Jie (Modern Sky Music Festival) and Cao Mei Yin Yue Jie (Strawberry Music Festival).

Other labels include Maybe Mars Records which mainly focuses on indie, industrial, and experimental music and often arranges overseas gigs for Chinese bands. Thirteenth Month is a label that specialises in folk artists. Fei Xing Zhe (“Pilot Music”) usually signs on heavy rock bands.

 

What is the stance of the Chinese government towards the China underground/indie music scene? Has the government banned any local indie records/albums or prevented any indie band/artist from performing in China for any reason? Is State censorship a big problem for Chinese indie/underground bands and how do Chinese artists/bands get around it?

At the moment, I feel that the Government has been quite liberal and accepting. Conversely, many years ago bands were banned for obvious reasons, mainly political. For example, a few years ago, the band, Jun Xie Shuo (“Ordnance”) was banned because their lyrics were extremely powerful and political. Being so, it is not convenient for me to talk too much about it. If chances arise, have a listen to their music.

 

Currently, how much airplay do these Chinese indie/underground bands get on state-run free-to-air radio and TV stations, if at all? Do you have any “underground” or “pirate” radio stations in Beijing or elsewhere in mainland China that play Chinese indie/underground pop/rock music? 

I am not too familiar with radio stations. I feel that as long as it is free from political ideas, it wouldn’t be of any issues to air it. The recent elected Chairman Xi is someone who is passionate about arts.

 

What is your greatest wish for the future of the Chinese indie/underground music scene?

Wish? I wish that everything will progress. In the past, we persevered in making rock music and hope in the future we enjoy making it.

 

[Much thanks to Elaine Chong for translating Guo Cheng’s answers and for additional information from Stacey Wu of Valleyarm Digital Music Distribution, without both of whom, this article would not have been possible.]