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.