Sunday, August 31, 2008

Public Enemy Interview


Public Enemy bassist Brian Hardgroove provided key insights to the music scene in China. Public Enemy not only performed at the Beijing Pop Festival last year, but Hardgroove then returned to help nurture the nascent punk rock scene, producing two up-and-coming bands. In our interview, he also discussed how badly Bjork fucked up matters, how the guy from Pigface is trying to turn Chinese bands into the next a-ha, how Tibet will get free, and just why the government of the PRC likes them some PE.

When did you Public Enemy go over to China?

August of last year. Public Enemy played the Beijing Pop Festival.

When I went out there, a few expats told me you had to play as “PE” rather than “Public Enemy.” Was that the only sort of censorship you bumped against?

It was the most obvious thing. Everything else was kind of minor. A lot of people were surprised that Public Enemy was able to go, considering the political nature of the lyrics. I said to everyone that asked me that question is that Public Enemy was never critical of the Chinese government. PE was critical of western governments and abuse of power, so naturally the Chinese government would love Public Enemy coming.

They didn’t fear the critiquing of government in pop music?

They don’t see it that way. The Chinese government tends to view things a little old-fashioned and also, those that are responsible to translate may be translating it in a very one-dimensional way to get a certain result so you never know how that plays out. The point is, Public Enemy is clearly critical of the US government, so naturally China’s gonna roll with that. That took the mystery out of that for a lot of folks. In regards to changing the name, that’s not the first time it happened to me. I was in a band called “The Ancestors” and we had to change that name because that was “offense to the general culture of China because of how they viewed their ancestors. Those were the two things we had to deal with regarding government influence.

So what is your take with the recent developments, with Bjork saying “Tibet!” onstage and the fallout from that.

Bjork made a big mistake. That was a big mistake for Bjork to make. I don’t think the position that Kid Rock took regarding Pres. Bush --I’m paraphrasing now-- but his general sentiment was: “Musicians should stay out of politics; I support George Bush.” Well, he just made a political statement. To relegate musicians to be western citizens that was ridiculous on his part.

That said, Bjork wasn’t talking to an American audience, an Icelandic audience, she was talking to an audience that she clearly didn’t understand. There’s a process in place…let me not say she didn’t understand, maybe she just didn’t care. But what she did was damaging, not only to herself, but to people who can influence and make a change in a more gradual (and gradual may be too slow for some people) and effective way. Her statement was ineffective.

It was inflammatory.

She offended people who were into her music. When I was in Beijing, the Beijing version of Rolling Stone and magazines put out this big section about the show. You have to understand the cat and mouse game going on, you have to know what you know and don’t know about the circumstances. A woman from the magazine asked me what I thought about Tibet. I knew that was a loaded question. So what I said was ‘Well, if people anywhere in the world are restricted from moving about, most people have that problem. Not that I know if the people in Tibet are or not.' And then I said ‘But, regardless of my answer to you, are you allowed to print my response?’ and they started giggling and went onto the next thing. That was just a loaded question and they know they can’t talk about it publicly.

Bjork didn’t utilize her time wisely. She offended the very people that would fight possibly to change what’s going on in Tibet. Why? First of all, they’re even open enough to go see an artist from the West. They might be open enough to look at their government’s control over that region as not necessarily the best thing to do. That didn’t happen overnight and it’s not going to change overnight. Bjork was irresponsible. She made it harder for guys like me who are actually over there working inside the community. She’s not working inside the Chinese community.

She just played and left.

She wasn’t smart. I hope you print that.

I hope so too. It’s an important thing to bring up. I read about the government canceling a music festival, tightening tourist visas, scrutinizing westerners who live there at present.

You can rest assured that her actions were cited as one of the reasons for doing that. for sure. She gave them an excuse and she shouldn’t have.

I feel just communicating over there is watched anyway. I have this paranoia at not getting through to people.

That’s always been a problem. It’s a problem inside the country, to get anything out. I had difficulty checking my bank statements.

I couldn’t see beta blog.

The reasons are obvious. They’re trying to keep a lid on things. But back to Bjork, if she’d done a little bit of research (which I don’t think she did) or whatever, she would realize that the Chinese government is loosening the screws on that society ever so slightly every once in awhile. And there’s progress being made, but you only see it if you know what you’re looking at. She didn’t know what she was looking at. She didn’t realize that the Chinese people will free Tibet. Not Tibetans nor the Tibetan government. The Chinese people will free Tibet.

And no rich artist from the West is going to free Tibet either.

The Chinese people, that’s who you have to influence. Civil rights movements anywhere in the world, it’s the people that are in the position of dominance that eventually lift the yolk of the people who are suffering. Because the people in the position of dominance realize they shouldn’t do it. You have to influence those people in a different way. You can’t say “You’re wrong you’re wrong, go to Hell!” It doesn’t work like that. they just hide behind their own government and perceive you as a threat. The Chinese people will free Tibet, that’s what it’s going to take.

Right. Well, let’s talk about when you went over there to record Chinese punk band Demerit.

The timing was good for me to come over and work with Demerit (via Michael Pettis). I was producing the record in a quick time frame, but because of the lack of technological…all the technology is there, but the expertise and the understanding (still lags) and the culture of differences we didn’t finish in the time frame I had. I had to go back. I was asked to do another band, Brain Failure. I went back and recorded a single and stayed over to finish the Demerit record. My experience in a nutshell was those two bands.

Considering they call themselves punk bands, which they are, they’re level of expertise far exceeds the average punk band from anywhere in the world. Their level of expertise far exceeded the average punk band here. I was curious as to why that was. As I got to know them and got to know the culture, what the musicians had to deal with, then it made a lot of sense.

If you choose to do music as a career as a young person in China, you pretty much seal your fate regarding doing anything else. There’s no part-time jobs. You can’t work part-time and then rehearse at night. You’re working 12 hours a day. Here, you work your day job then do your band. Your day job might be your career, but you do your band and hope you get lucky. Those kids don’t have that option. A lot of expats have that option but the Chinese nationals don’t have that option. They either do it or they don’t. They spend their time getting good. The one child law means musicians have no siblings and are spoiled by their parents. Their parents support their musical decision. So these kids really have to hussle to make it work. So they get very very good. The musicians in Demerit are fine players. Brain Failure are fine players.

I didn’t know that at all. Another topic that has come up is their view on mimicry in their art. Did you see perceive that? I saw some bands that were dead-on in what they copied. An adherence to genre, a specific way of doing things.

No more so with them than with anyone else. How many bands in the states sound like something unusual?

Obviously, I’m coming as a westerner. I see more blends and recasting of ideas. But the bands I saw in China hadn’t quite synthesized things in a way.

There’s truth to that, yes. I think, for the most part we were looking for something to be different. We expect everything they do to be different because they’re “different people.” They are influenced by western art and music. You’ll hear that one band’s influence.

With Demerit sounded like three bands clearly; They sounded like AC/DC, Metallica, The Clash. They have chord changes that had classic 1960s rock’n’roll harmonies. I don’t hear that in American music. They clearly embraced the best parts of rock. Brain Failure on the other hand, sounds just like the Clash and nothing else. It will either serve them or it’ll be the reason no one ever hears of them.

I don’t have any more questions. Any last thoughts?

Just that music scene is very very rich and (the question becomes) would it explode? In a good way? There will be a very strong tendency to exploit that scene very quickly and they’re very vulnerable to be exploited, simply because of cultural differences. The young musicians are very much “What’s in it for me?” kinda thing. And when you’re that way, you can be divided and exploited.

Take Martin Atkins. Martin signed up a lot of bands and a band I wanted to produce: Subs. The lead vocalist is really powerful. They’re one of the older bands. When Martin went in, he signed bands to agreements he’s yet to fulfill. When I was there last, I had a sit-down with those groups, all staunch competitors. I said: “Look, you‘re in good position to be prominent bands. You have to help your scene. It doesn’t do you any good to have one band come out of China. That’s already happened.

I can cite two instances. The first one is called Loudness, a band in Japan from the 80s. Loudness was produced by my friend Eddie Kramer, Jimi Hendrix’s producer, he did Led Zeppelin’s engineer, Kiss, and Eddie produced Loudness. They came out of Japan, made a little bit of noise, they were always viewed as a Japanese band and no other band followed them. They were always viewed as a novelty.

Another band was a-ha, and no other band came out of Norway with any power because they were a novelty. I said: “If you guys have one band come out of here, you’re not going to last. You’ll always be viewed as a Chinese band in the West and then when you don’t have a hit, they’ll forget about you. If you help your scene and put out a successive flow of music from multiple band, you won’t be looked at as a ‘Chinese band,' it’ll just be great music.

This way when your band doesn’t have a hit this year, it’s not viewed as ‘that’s not happening anymore.’ My thing was to get them to really unite and work together, because they will be exploited. And they will be separated. And Martin attempted it. There’s a couple bands are trying to get out of that situation.

I went over (to China) because of why I started playing music to begin with. I play music because I’m more of a social/ political individual and music is the best tool. For Americans, we need to look outside of America. We’re very isolated here. It’s not necessary, it’s terrible, tragic, it’s shameful, we should be ashamed of ourselves. So we need to look outside of here, not with shame for our homeland, cuz I would never go outside of America and criticize it, this is my home.

But I’m a citizen of the world and we have to start behaving as such. China might be a great example of what should’ve happened in America. One thing is for sure: when the screws are loosened enough, you’re going to have tens of millions of Chinese nationals marching across Europe. That primarily is what Europe doesn’t want. When a repressive country changes, people tend to leave, they want to be somewhere else. You’re going to have millions leaving in the next ten years for sure. It depends what our western governments do, Europe is very concerned. It’s more than just music, my friend.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Michael Pettis interview

Random Chinese Robert Plant-esque statue in front of a Starbucks sign.

Professor Michael Pettis, when not teaching economics at the university in Beijing, brings a bit of early 80s downtown New York City to Beijing with his club, D-22. A hub for the new crop of guitar bands in Beijing, it was packed every night we were there. There were local Chinese rockers, curious local students, and European expats hungry for "rock" and what have you. But Pettis is a Svengali for the scene as well, nurturing players and turning them onto music previously unavailable in China. And he has the connections (not to mention funds) to bring over under-appreciated players like Matthew Shipp, Alvin Curran, Elliott Sharp, and Ex Models, furthering the dialogue between our two cultures. Additionally, he is an incredibly hospitable and thoughtful host.

So why Ex Models?

They are one of the most-admired recent bands among musicians here in Beijing and quite a few musicians have asked me over the years if I could bring them here. When I saw them for the first time in NY last July, I realized that what they were doing was particularly interesting to the Beijing scene. Young Beijing guitarists are, in my opinion, doing some of the most interesting guitar performances in the world, and there is a big Glenn Branca/New York noise influence here, and after seeing the kind of guitar-driven stuff Ex Models were doing, I thought it would be great to have local audiences see it upfront in small, intense performances.

Do you think they opened the doors for more bands coming over?

Definitely. Money is always a problem because, for all the hype, Chinese are still very poor and for musicians and artists it is especially difficult, but little by little we are building a reasonable circuit that will at least limit the losses. I hope in particular that the Ex Models trip leads to a flood of New York performers coming here because the really serious music scene here has a strong affinity for a New York kind of aesthetic, and what goes on in New York is very closely monitored out here...

Do you think they inspired Chinese bands as well? Do you think there will be a greater dialogue between New York and Beijing music now?

Yes and this is one of the things I really want to help develop. Although there is a strong Britpop element here, the most serious musicians see New York as the absolute center of the world and everything New York is studied and hoarded -- this is true of artists and writers as well as musicians. In particular, a young musician like Shouwang, who is considered by many to be one of the most important musicians to come out of the Chinese scene, sees himself almost as a New York artist living in Beijing. Anything that increases the relationships between leading New York and Beijing musicians will significantly increase the ties between the two art scenes. It was great that Ex Models played with one of the most important of the older bands -- PK14 -- and the two most important younger bands -- Carsick Cars and Snapline -- and the relationships between them were so easy and friendly that I expect that they will perform together again in China and in the US.

Over the past few years a lot of second rate European bands have come out here, sponsored generally by local cultural institutions, but Beijing audiences are no longer as impressed as they once were, especially as local bands have become so good and so much more innovative. A few years ago anything foreign was taken very seriously, but with bands like Sonic Youth and musicians like Elliott Sharp, Martin Atkins and Blixa Bargeld taking so much interest in the scene, Beijing musicians are no longer easily impressed and have become much more confident and aware of their place in the world. The tour by Ex Models was very helpful because they are considered a really serious band and their tour showed that they take Chinese musicians seriously. It really helped that the guys in Ex Models were so friendly and so respectful of local musicians. Some Chinese artists still lack confidence and are a little intimidated by New York, so the way Ex Models threw themselves into the scene really inspired a lot of local musicians.

What did you notice about Beijing when you first came?

In terms of music I nearly immediately started going to clubs to check out the music scene. What I noticed was that the Beijing music scene in one sense was extremely provincial – most of the bands were not too good, they were ranked in coolness to the extent that they did good imitations of cool American or English bands, the audience was small and not very adventurous and preferred the familiar to the new. In fact Chinese audiences so lacked confidence in their own musicians that anyone who did something different was either ignored or criticized, and bad no-name foreign bands who happened to be touring in China regularly drew much bigger audiences than good local bands.

At the same time however I noticed that there were a few bands – PK14, Joyside, Glorious Pharmacy, and Hang on the Box being the most obvious – that were very good and quite original and fighting hard to be taken seriously as local bands. There was also a huge amount of talent among the much younger musicians and a real frustration about their being forced by audiences and clubs to play safe imitations of the more popular cool foreign bands. These musicians not only impressed me by their talent, but also by their sophistication – they knew so much about music and loved some very important but often obscure musicians and bands.

If my math is correct, Jeff didn't learn about even Michael Jackson (and Warhol) until 2001 or so? Is that right? When did you meet him?

Yes. I met Jeff in 2002. He already knew a little about American music and was a fan of Andy Warhol’s, hence the VU t-shirt. He didn’t know the music of VU and most of the music he knew was either by bands that were very well-known and popular in China, like Nirvana or Radiohead, or from CDs that he had picked up randomly, like the Ramones (who of course are quite big in China, although Jeff didn’t know much about music then).

What prompted you to start D-22? What struck you about Beijing musically? Could you see the promise of a new scene beginning there?

It just seemed to me that Beijing had most of the conditions to becoming a major musical center. It was the capital of a very important and large country going through enormous social transformation and taking up a more central place in the world. It already had a thriving art scene. There was so much talent everywhere and a lot of musically very sophisticated people. The only thing it lacked was a good audience and artists willing and able to take risks. I started the club because I thought that if we ignored commercial pressures and just kept programming the most interesting artists we could find, building their self-confidence, and encouraging them to chase their wildest ideas about music, eventually over the next four or five years we would have great music and the audience would naturally develop.

Actually it took us only one year to realize that we had been sitting on a volcano of talent and all it took was one club very serious about agitating the scene to create the explosion that followed. At first we worried about getting enough good bands and musicians to fill our weekends, especially since most of the well-known bands, with the exception of PK14 and Joyside, we didn’t like or else they didn’t want to play at our club because we were very openly disdainful of the older scene and their passion for imitation.

But the musicians, especially the younger ones, were waiting for something like this and they responded in floods. And it was not just young musicians. The three ladies in Ourself Besides Me had been around for several years, but they are so wrapped up in their music and so indifferent to audiences that they never wanted to play anywhere, until about a year ago when they first started playing in our club. Their first show left us open-mouthed in amazement (this is not an exaggeration), and we knew that if they were a NY band they would already be the queens of the Lower east Side or Brooklyn scenes. They are now one of my favorite bands and we are just finishing the the mixing of their first CD, which PK14’s Yang Haisong has produced.

Now we have thirteen house bands (bands who are part of the D22 scene, who play at least once a month at the club, and who are now generally considered the most important bands in the Beijing scene), and are adding three more soon, as well as dozens of new and younger bands from all over Beijing and other places in China. It has reached the point where some of the older, famous bands are bugging us for gigs because everybody wants to be part of this new scene. We also have too many good bands and performers to fit into our schedule.

We knew this would happen, but we had no idea it would happen so quickly and so explosively. Already all around China there is this sense of excitement about the Beijing scene and everyone wants to come here. Smart college students who two years ago couldn’t name a good Chinese band are now forming bands that cover songs not just by Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth but also by Carsick Cars and the Gar. During our second anniversary celebration, while nearly every good Beijing band was at the club performing, we were really touched by the fact that several bands from outside Beijing sent us phone messages congratulating us on our birthday. We didn’t even realize that they knew.

What are your thoughts now, as the Olympics loom, and other things mount? Do you think the music will play a vital role in changing perceptions?

It can’t help but change perceptions about what life in China is like. Beijing, and some other parts of China, are much more open and sophisticated than people realize, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the music scene. Nearly every day we receive foreign tourists who express their shock and amazement at the quality of the music and at how wide-open and varied the scene is. Yesterday was university-band tryout night – so the bands were all new and inexperienced – and three girls from University of Michigan in their first week in Beijing were there. One was very involved in the Ann Arbor indie music scene and all three told me they were amazed at how good the bands were and how they never expected music like this in China (although we thought only one of the five were worth booking again). This happens nearly every day.

One annoying problem, and this is especially a problem with European visitors, is that many visitors come here already having a very clear idea of what they want and expect a Chinese music scene to sound like – something vaguely ethnic and “Chinese” – so since Beijing is a major international urban center whose young people have grown up with the same noise, stress, traffic, music and culture as kids anywhere else have, these visitors are often disappointed by the lack of “authenticity.” But that is really silly. Beijing musicians have just as much access to the world of musicians someone in Cleveland or Brussels or Sao Paolo, and they treat all music as their playground. They expect no more to be restricted to “authentic” Chinese music than Ex Models feel the need to limit themselves to playing authentic cowboy music or the Fall feels the need to Morris dance.

How do you perceive the infrastructure there (in terms of sound equipment, record labels, management, and the like) changing in the next few years?

Money is always a problem but things are getting better so quickly that it is almost hard to keep track. Recording studios are opening up in Beijing and nearby cities (where life is much cheaper) and independent labels are springing up. The amount of attention and help we have received from the US and Europe has also helped a lot -- for example Brian Hardgroove of Public Enemy fame, is in Beijing right now producing, at cut rate prices, the CD of local punk band Demerit. But our real strength here is just sheer talent. With a population of 1.3 billion, even if only 20% of the Chinese are plugged in enough to the modern economy and educational system to participate in an urban western life-style (and over 40% of the population is urban), that is still as big as the US or Europe. The difference is that Beijing is unquestionably the artistic center of China and there are no rivals, so everyone really serious about music ends up in Beijing. That gives us a huge pool of talent and with more and more foreign musicians moving here to take advantage of the low prices and burgeoning scene, we have the makings of a real musical explosion.

I was wondering what your final thoughts on the whole experience was.

Last night I was at a show at Yugong Yishan and one of China's most famous experimental guitarists, who I hadn't seen in months, walked up to me and thanked me profusely. He said that he has always been a huge Ex Models fan but could never afford to go to NY to see them.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Carsick Cars Interview

The very night we landed in Beijing, we were ushered to Beijing rock club, D-22. Our first night there, we saw both a carbon-copied "post-rock" band that was seriously Spiderland crossed with Explosions in the Sky (complete with a brooding frontman who rocked sweatpants(!), a first in over a decade of going to shows) as well as this crackling improv group. A one-off between guitarist Zhang Shouwang, D-22's sound guy on drums, and this fellow who played the gnarliest morse code tapper(!), it keyed me to the fact that Zhang was one of the most-gifted musicians of any scene, something that was only reinforced by seeing Zhang's main band, Carsick Cars over the ensuing two weeks. He's obviously a gateway for many western ears, featured also in Alex Ross's exhaustive survey of the Beijing scene but he has the ear and ability to transcend the 'gimmick' of being a Chinese rocker. We talked often during my time in Beijing and Shanghai, but this brief interview was conducted via email earlier this spring.

Where were you born?

I was born in Beijing in 1986. Both of my parents are also from Beijing, but my father was actually born in Dongbei (northeast China). My grandfather was a professor and well-known intellectual so early during the Cultural Revolution he was forced to leave Beijing and live in a small town in Dongbei where my father was born. When the Cultural Revolution was finished in the late 1970s they were allowed to move back to Beijing and my father met my mother there.

What was your first exposure to American/ western culture?

I knew something about American culture from TV at an early age but the first thing that I really knew and loved about American culture was professional wrestling, which I still love. In fact I am a big Jeff Hardy fan and I desperately wanted a Jeff Hardy T-shirt, which I have never been able to get. In music the first thing I remembering listening to, when I was about 15 or 16, was Michael Jackson. I am still a fan of his although I don't listen to him as much. Later I began to listen to Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins because one of the kids in high school who never studied and always did bad things told me about them, and even though I was one of the good students I thought he was so cool, so I started listening to them. That is what made me like rock music.

I also liked American artists and when I was 17, I read an article in an underground magazine about Andy Warhol, and I became really interested in him, so I started to look for his pictures in the books in the art stores and I was even able to buy the Velvet Underground T-shirt with his banana design. In fact that is how I met Michael (Pettis, D-22 club owner) and got seriously into music. I was wearing it one day while walking around the park in Houhai, and a foreign guy pointed to my T-shirt and said he loved Velvet Underground. When I said I didn't know their music he said we should go right away to a CD shop and get the CD. As soon as I heard it later at my home, I became completely crazy for Velvet Underground and decided I wanted to be a musician. Then Michael started giving me a lot of other music from that time, like Suicide, Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth, John Adams, DNA, Steve Reich.

I know we discussed this when I was in China, but can you tell me again about how you came to find American music in Chinese markets, via cut-outs?

In the beginning that was the only way to get foreign CDs. I think that the US manufacturers had made too many and so they threw them away, but first they made a hole in the CD. You could still hear most of the music but some of the songs would be lost. In China some companies would buy boxes of those cut CDs and distribute them to some small music shops in Beijing, Guangdong, Shanghai and a few other cities. Every time a shop got a new box all the kids who really liked music would find out when it was coming and would run to the shop and go through everything and grab whatever they thought might be good. It only cost 4 or 5 RMB and there weren’t many good ones, so people would do anything to get them first. The first time I went to one of those shops I was 17 and I remember there was a boy next to me and his hands were bleeding from a cut he had gotten in the rush to get the CDs. At first I thought it was crazy but I met many friends that way because we all did the same thing. Everyone who really loved music would do that, and that is how I met some of the people who later became musicians and writers and artists.

Were these records, CDs, cassettes? What sort of titles are we talking about?

They were CDs. Most were crap and some were really terrible, but even if we didn't know the music we sometimes bought the CD if the cover was cool. I once got a 3-CD set of Ramones and I had never heard of them but the cover seemed interesting. That was so cool and of course that is when I started to love Ramones. I also learned about White Stripes that way – from the cover. And I got a really cool set of traditional Indian music, which I had never heard before and which I still love.

What did you think of the music at this age?

Even though many of the CDs now I think are crap it was still really great to hear so much strange stuff that we never heard in China. In China the music we always heard was really bad Hong Kong or Taiwan pop or the mainland copies, or the patriotic and old-fashioned songs on radio and TV. The western music we heard was Kenny G and the Carpenters or some Western classical music arranged in a simple way. When Titanic came out Celine Dion became the favorite foreign singer in China and we heard her everywhere. Of course before I started going to the CD shops I never really liked music. It seemed so stupid.

What was Chinese music like at the time?

I started going to clubs when I was about 17 or 18. I was still in high school and so it wasn't easy because I was preparing for the national college entrance exam and my parents were strict. Once I went to college it was easier to go. The first bands I saw all seemed so cool to me. To hear rock and roll live in a small club with people that looked like criminals or troublemakers was scary, but the music was so exciting and I wanted to be like the musicians and hang out with them, but I was too shy. I didn't know it then but now I realize that most of those bands just copied American or English bands, but it was still great to hear it. After one or two years I realized that there were three or four really good bands, Hang on the Box, Joyside, PK14 and ReTROS and most of the other were just simple copies. There were also a lot of heavy metal and death metal bands, and old school and new school punk. I think it was only in 2004 and 2005 that suddenly so many very original bands were born and the music scene became so good, but at that time I didn't really know. It was all cool and I went whenever I could afford to.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ben Sisario Interview

Before I left for China last December, New York Times writer Ben Sisario published two fascinating and perceptive articles about the nascent China rock scene which were crucial reads before visiting myself. Bumping into him during SXSW, I asked for more of his insight into Chinese rock and he provided the response below.

"I found myself perplexed and disappointed by what I saw as a widespread aesthetic of mimicry among Chinese rock bands of all stripes. Beijing, a city of 17 million, is like a provincial college town when it comes to its rock scene: there are four or five venues, which week after week play host to the same dozen or so decent but unexceptional bands, each recreating the sound of a different brand-name alt-rocker. There's (at least) one that sounds like Sonic Youth circa "Goo"; another is a ringer for Gang of Four; another sounds a bit too much like Sigur Ros and Radiohead; the girl-punks could very well be lip-synching some 1992 riot grrrl act from Olympia were the lyrics not in Mandarin. And those are the progressive, creative bands. Metal, the most popular and established form of rock in China, is stuck in a Queensryche-meets-Faith No More time warp familiar to any Westerner who flipped on Headbanger's Ball in 1990.

"Part of the reason for this is simply the novelty of rock in China and the difficulty it's had establishing roots. Tiananmen quashed its early momentum, and throughout the '90s other factors like the scarcity of imported records and the lack of a basic music infrastructure (venues, instruments, studios) kept it in a retarded state. Many people I spoke to said the Internet changed everything starting in the late '90s and early '00s: suddenly kids could hear EVERYTHING instead of just the miscellaneous cutouts that made their way across the Pacific. If the Internet was a big deal in the West, imagine the effect it had on a formerly closed Communist nation. Chinese people will never say "rebellion" or "revolution" in public, but in their society rock music is still alien and dangerous (literally), and choosing to play in a band and live a rock 'n' roll lifestyle is a significant act of nonconformism.

"The absence of new ideas in Chinese rock is partly due to a lack of confidence among the musicians: they haven't fully figured out what it means to play rock music in their culture, what Chinese rock should sound like. All their musical heroes are Westerners, and they're still making their way through that influence. It's like England in the early '60s: everybody's still playing Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley covers, still learning a foreign musical language. (One thing I suspect but never investigated was the problem of Japan, which has an extensive and mature rock culture but is hated by the Chinese, who like many other Asian societies have never forgiven Japan for its wartime atrocities. Purely personal theory.)

"Westerners also bear some responsibility for the arrested development of Chinese rock. There is a large expat community in Beijing -- and also in Shanghai and elsewhere -- that has supplied the scene with many of its club owners, booking agents, artist managers, record label honchos, journalists and assorted hypemongers. These people provide guidance, pay for recording sessions, book tours, and have a hand in most other aspects of a band's development and marketing, such as it is. They didn't create the sound of Chinese rock, but they're helping to keep it static.

"One of the most interesting things I was told while in China was that the idea of imitation has a much different cultural connotation there. In the West the idea of one artist copying another is usually seen as creative deficiency, if not fraud. But in Eastern societies, imitation can be an important part of the educational process, where a student learns by emulating a master. I don't know enough about Chinese culture in general to know how valid this theory is in explaining the sound of Chinese rock, but it's an interesting one. And many of musicians I asked about this said that they did not see what they were doing as outright copying. They saw it as absorption of an outside influence, and many pointed to their lyrics for signs of innovation: their meanings are lost on any Westerner who doesn't speak the language (like me), but whenever song lyrics were explained to me, I was impressed with their artistry and depth. The best bands even manage clever social commentary by employing complex wordplay to avoid the censors, such as Carsick Cars' song "Zhong Nan Hai," which puns on a brand of cigarette that is also the name of a Beijing neighborhood where party bosses live. Others get in oblique comments about Tiananmen and other unspeakable issues.

"Tibet is a fascinating question. I have no idea how it could affect Chinese rock. But I do think that much of China's politics are dictated by its economic situation, and as long as Chinese factories keep running and the money keeps rolling in, I don't think there'll be much change at all with the government or its laws. I also have little faith in Western consumers and businesses (and governments) to protest the Tibet crisis by boycotting Chinese goods or engaging in any other economic sacrifice on moral grounds. Out economies are so intertwined at this point that it may be impossible to do anything like this. But we're enabling the Chinese government to do whatever it wishes in Tibet. Unfortunately I think the Olympics will go off without a hitch and this will all be largely forgotten about, just like Seattle in 1999, Genoa in 2001, and all the others. Maybe it'll make for some good rock songs."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Matthew Shipp interview/ Elliott Sharp Interview

As noted last week, I'll be posting interviews from my China rock piece (see here). Below are email responses from jazz pianist Matthew Shipp and guitarist/ composer Elliott Sharp. Both gentlemen have been to the country in the past year, and had this to say about their time.

Matthew Shipp

"I was surprised to get an offer from China-I assumed there was not much of a market for what I do but was surprised to find out there where people who knew about me. I started out in Shanghai and it felt like New York on speed- It was pure energy and had the rhythm of a hyper urban jungle.everything seemed to run by money.This was my first time in China. Bejing seemed a little more relaxed than Shanghai and seemed a real interesting mix between the old city and a college town.

"I don’t know if my music had made it over there-there where people who came up with cds for me to sign but I have no idea where they got it from-I have no idea what is going on in black market in China-I saw nothing of jazz inprov scene in China –I did see some really good straightahead players at a jam session-I was in China for a week-I'm pretty focused about being me when I play and the local does not influence me.

"I did get a sense that people there look up to New York and New York musicians-there are musicians every where on the planet that mimic and there are some everywhere that have moved beyond that. I have no ideaa where things will move as far as jazz growing in China. The cuisine was great-I never knew there was such a variety of Chinese food and different types of cuisines in different areas."


"I know that Michael Pettis brought some of my music back for Chinese musicians to hear and a few I met there seemed pretty knowledgeable about my work and others on the NY scene. I didn't see my CD's on the black market as people most likely just traded CDR's and mp3's - it's a pretty small niche there.

"There was a definite vibe about my concerts re: "NYC music" - there's always mimicry (a lot in Japan when I was going there often in the 80's and 90's) but not so much of what I do as it's pretty hard to fake. Jeffray (especially in his band "White" with Shen-Jin [Shenggy]) and the circle of musicians around Yan Jun are pretty original sounding which is what makes their work exciting. Those that tour internationally get to hear a lot more and meet more musicians as well as "test" their work on audiences outside the somewhat-insular Beijing scene. it's really quite underground there still - reminds of NYC in the early 80's - audience mostly of other musicians and artists and interested foreigners - the feedback keeps the scene bubbling.

"Despite being "shut off", as I mentioned, people were quite knowledgeable about art & music movements. The sons & daughters of the preofessional classes all had pretty open access to web info so I don't feel they were out of the flow at all (though it's different when it's ONLY via the web).

"There were many great players there (guzheng player Wu Fei and gu zin player Wu Na especially come to mind - fantastic technique in the classical sense (along with knowledge of Chinese classical music) but also open ears and vibrant sense of improvising sonically. Hard to say what will happen as governments are unpredictable. One hopes the old guard will just die out and let things grow and expand. The genie's out of the bottle in China and there's no putting it back and this will certainly extend to all cultural activities. China wants to be part of the world marketplace (is already, needless to say!) but they need to allow the musicians to be their ambassadors and welcome the cross-pollination that foreign musicians coming to China will bring. The Chinese have almost always made use of the strengths of foreign ways and brought them into their own way of operating."

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

china beta

While I still haven't seen the August issue of Paste (guess getting the cover story doesn't warrant a copy?), my piece looking at the current Chinese rock scene is in it. Entitled "Daydream Nation", it touches on how NYC noise-rock inspired a new generation of Chinese rockers. While I wished there was more room to expand on such sub-topics like the woeful audio engineering/ management/ recording company infrastructure of the country, I was pretty proud of the piece (and thought the illustrations were pretty sweet). Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting several interviews stemming from the piece with folks like composer/ guitarist Elliott Sharp, club promoter Michael Pettis, Carsick Cars' guitarist Zhang Shouwang, and Public Enemy bassist Brian Hardgroove.

Friday, August 01, 2008


After going without for far too long (and having an acquaintance string me along for an extra six months with unfulfilled promises of selling me hers) I finally broke down and bought a new turntable. If you are a PR person sending me CDs in the mail, you might want to hold off for the next three months, as I have loads of LPs to catch up on and a few familiar favorites to revisit. A quick list of what's getting spins:

LL Cool J: Goin' Back to Cali 12"
Prince Language: Editions Disco Edits (Paul Simon, Belle Epoque, Arthur Russell, etc.)
Keith Hudson: Flesh of My Skin, Blood of My Blood
Pharoah Sanders: Tauhid
Pharoah Sanders: Wisdom Through Music

ZZ Top: Eliminator
Jimmy Giuffre: Clarinet
Waylon Jennings: Lonesome, On'ry and Mean
Erik Satie: Piano Music Vol. 1
Ocrilim: Octis

Prince Douglas: Dub Roots
Mickey Newbury: I Came to Hear the Music
Franz Schubert: Music for Violin and Piano
Grace Jones: Nightclubbing
Butthole Surfers: Locust Abortion Technician

Mad Professor: Dub Me Crazy Volume 5
Wade Nichols (a/k/a Todd Terje): Horse With No Shame 12"
Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Music for Port-Royal
Al Green: Let's Stay Together
Al Green: Explores Your Mind

Zapp: s/t
Holst: The Planets
Disco Not Disco Volume One
Xanadu OST
Bohannon: Stop and Go

Low Motion Disco: Love Love Love 12"
Chopin: Ballades
New Order: Thieves Like Us 12"
The Temptations: Masterpiece
Lovejoys: Lovers Rock