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.