Daydream Nation

Long indebted to New York noise, the Chinese rock scene prepares to declare independence

Music Features
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It’s a Tuesday night at 2Kolegas, a squat, rundown bar at the edge of an anachronistic drive-in movie theater. In a joint packed with local denizens and cigarette smoke, it’s a crush to find standing room, much less a deep breath. Tonight’s bill includes Islaja, a Finnish electronic loopmaker, recently off of her tour opening for Animal Collective; a red-draped Japanese-Korean duo named 10, which deploys a laptop and a bevy of toys for its sound; and Knyfe Hyts, a mask-wearing sludge-rock trio from Brooklyn. A Chinese saxophonist named Li Tieqiao joins the latter band on stage, the resulting sound not unlike something off The Stooges’ Funhouse: raucous, noisy and full-bore. The crowd goes nuts. Just another night in Beijing.

China’s capital city—the focus of all eyes as it readies itself to host the Summer Olympics in August—is undergoing a transformation on a scale unseen in the history of the world. As the opening ceremony nears, China and its most prominent cityscape are renovating themselves around the clock so as to present a glamorous façade for the international community. Yet the smog is so thick you can’t even make out Beijing until you’ve almost touched down on the runway.

Ensconced in taxis, one of the first things foreigners see is the massive National Stadium—also known as the “Bird’s Nest”—that will host the Summer Games. Throughout this city of 17.4 million, other avant-garde architecture beckons: There’s the new CCTV headquarters (called the “Twisted Donut”), along with the National Centre for the Performing Arts, an audacious titanium-and-glass dome known as “The Egg.” Behind the scenes, Chinese musical culture has also been busy absorbing avant-garde influences.

Observing the burgeoning alternative-rock scene in the Imperial City of Beijing, what resounds loudest is something strangely familiar: their debt to New York guitar noise as pioneered by the likes of iconic underground band Sonic Youth, the mountainous detuned guitar symphonies of composer Glenn Branca and the trashy synths of Suicide. The seedy, scabrous sound of the Lower East Side in the early 1980s has blossomed decades later and half a world away, in China’s post-communist Cultural Revolution. Still, just as Western-influenced pop has begun to break through, China’s notoriously restrictive government has delivered stiff pushback. Chinese rock bands may have absorbed rock history, but their future depends at least in part on a political climate as hazy as the Beijing air.

"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,” says former New Yorker Michael Pettis, an ex-adjunct professor at Columbia University, and now a visiting professor of finance at Peking University. His hair now starting to turn silver at the edges, Pettis was once a downtown denizen himself, moving to NYC in 1975 and opening a club in the early ’80s (even employing Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore as a doorman). In the new century, he finds himself centrally positioned in the Chinese music scene as an ardent supporter, cultural beacon and mentor for young musicians. Over a dinner of Mongolian hot pot, he tells me: “The most serious musicians here 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.”

Upon relocating to China in 2002, Pettis was startled by the lack of sophistication exhibited by most local groups. For an international city, “most of the bands weren’t too good; they were ranked to the extent that they did good imitations of cool American or English bands.” On the other hand, he realized that “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 foreign bands.”

In Pettis’ own day, Lower East Side club culture nurtured the burgeoning underground noise by giving budding musicians a chance to experiment in public. Pettis, in turn, opened two-tiered Beijing rock venue D-22 near the university in the northern Haidan district. “I started the club and just kept programming the most interesting artists we could find,” he says, “building their self confidence, and encouraging them to chase their wildest ideas about music.” In two short years, the club has become a hub of the scene, along with venues like Yugong Tishan and 2Kolegas. On any given night, Chinese teens and culture-hungry expats can mingle and see a new crop of bands like Snapline, Ourselves Beside Me and Demerit. Yet Pettis’ biggest influence on the scene stems instead from a chance encounter in a Beijing park.

The first thing that I really knew and loved about American culture was professional wrestling, which I still love,” says the soft-spoken Zhang Shouwang, 22-year-old guitarist/frontman of feted Beijing rock trio Carsick Cars, over a meal of Hakka province cuisine (including eel, duck and prawn) before his band’s show with local legends P.K. 14 at Yugong Yishun. Also known by his Americanized handle “Jeff,” Zhang has collaborated with the likes of Branca and German krautrock legend Manuel Göttsching, and he has contributed to a number of other projects, such as experimental electronic duo WHITE and improv group Speak Chinese or Die!

Carsick Cars—his trio with bassist Li Weisi and drummer Li Qing—has opened for both Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. in Europe, but the Chinese authorities notoriously barred Carsick Cars from opening for Sonic Youth’s 2007 concert debut in Beijing, a move stemming in part from SY’s participation in the Free Tibet concerts of the mid ’90s in New York’s Central Park.

Back then, the young Zhang (who was born in 1986) was wholly clueless about Western music. His grandfather, a professor and well-known intellectual, was forced to leave Beijing during the Cultural Revolution and relocate to the small town of Dongbei. Once the smoke cleared from the upheaval that left destitute innumerable religious, cultural, intellectual and artistic institutions, Zhang’s family returned to Beijing, but he wasn’t even aware of Michael Jackson until age 16, which means that his first exposure to the King of Pop occurred circa 2002.

“When I was 17,” he tells me in an email exchange several months later, “I read an article in an underground magazine about Andy Warhol, and I started to look for his pictures and bought the Velvet Underground T-shirt with his banana design. 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.” That foreign guy was Pettis, who—incredulous that the teen didn’t know the band—marched Zhang to the first music shop he could find to buy him pirated copies of the first two VU CDs. Thus began a mentorship. “As soon as I heard them,” Zhang recalls, “I became completely crazy for the Velvet Underground and decided I wanted to be a musician.”

Experimental rock couldn’t be further from the painfully bland diet of Kenny G and Celine Dion that inundates listeners on government-sanctioned radio. Trucking in the overstock, cut-out and deleted titles of American artists, black-market CD shops in Beijing had a curious shaping influence on music-hungry teens, who would do whatever it took to be at these shops when the new Western discs would come in. Through these stores and their feeding frenzy, Zhang circuitously learned not only about The Ramones and The White Stripes, but also struck up friendships with like-minded musicians, writers and artists on the scene.

Today, China’s alternative-rock scene is growing and thriving, with songs offering insight into the changes taking place within the country. Nevertheless, “it’s really quite underground there still,” notes guitarist/composer Elliott Sharp, who has been invited twice in recent years to perform and workshop with eager Chinese players, including Zhang Shouwang. “It reminds me of NYC in the early ’80s: an audience mostly of other musicians and artists and interested foreigners.” Yet, in Pettis’ estimation, all the elements are there for the music scene to explode. “Beijing has most of the conditions to becoming a major musical center,” he says. “It already boasts a thriving art scene, and it’s unquestionably the artistic center of China. That gives us a huge pool of talent.”

Listening to Carsick Cars’ self-titled full-length album, one could argue that they’re derivative of Sonic Youth: Their juxtaposition of non-Western-tuned guitars, abstract noise and structuring invokes Daydream Nation (as well as the catchy dynamics of the Pixies). Their song “Gun” builds into a noisy barking of garbled English and six-string slashing that wouldn’t sound out of place on Sonic Youth’s earliest albums, while the anthemic “Zhong Nan Hai” offers a parallel world where the Kim Gordon-sung “The Sprawl” influenced a generation of rockers. These trappings demonstrate the trend of mimicry in Chinese music, wherein bands copy specific sounds of certain rock sub-genres. “In the West, the idea of one artist copying another is usually seen as creative deficiency, if not fraud,” says New York Times culture reporter Ben Sisario, who also visited China in late 2007. “But in Eastern societies, imitation can be an important part of the educational process, where a student learns by emulating a master.”

While “spot the influence” is a relatively easy game to play in Beijing, the Chinese-sung lyrics show just how much is at stake for the musicians. On one of Carsick Cars’ few English-sung songs, “He Sheng (Rock n’ Roll Hero)” (included on this issue’s Sampler CD), Zhang shouts “this is all about your dreams / You should fight all the time,” then describes the song’s protagonist as “the only one who wasn’t scared to fall apart.” While tackling a well-worn rock-star trope, the song also offers an example of defiance in the face of oppression.

Which is where China’s music scene gets tricky. As discontent swells, as forbidden topics get broached in public, as the Olympics and international pressure mounts, and the government loses face from torch-relay demonstrations and the earthquake in Beichuan, what’s to keep another crackdown on dissonance and democracy—a la Tiananmen Square—at bay?

Take, for example, Björk’s live performance at the Shanghai International Gymnastics Center in early March. Finishing her song “Declare Independence,” she shouted “Tibet! Tibet!” from the stage. As talk about Tibet is strictly forbidden (along with hot-button topics like Tiananmen Square and Falun Gong), the old-guard regime responded quickly to this and other incidents, including protests surrounding the Olympic torch relay as it passed through the country. Innumerable visas for foreigners were suspended, and the government even canceled the Midi Festival, China’s longest-running pop/rock music fest. Westerners and expats working within the country now face increased scrutiny. And Chinese artists who speak out face even more dire consequences. Take the case of Cui Jian, deemed “The Father of Chinese Rock.” After his song “Nothing to My Name” became the unofficial song of the student protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Cui was banned from all major venues in Beijing. Only in the past few years has he been allowed back on stage in the capital, appearing with the likes of The Rolling Stones and Public Enemy.

“Björk made a big mistake,” says Brian Hardgroove, the bassist for Public Enemy (who played the Beijing Pop Festival last year with Nine Inch Nails and The New York Dolls). The fact that a politically outspoken band like Public Enemy could even make the trip is a testament to the sea change already at hand in the country. [But] what Björk did was damaging. She offended the very people that would fight possibly to change what’s going on in Tibet, [people who] are 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. Tibet didn’t happen overnight, and it’s not going to change overnight.”

A change will come though, for better or for worse. “The Chinese government is loosening the screws ever so slightly,” Hardgroove says, “…and there’s progress being made.” It’s this very notion of progress that leads him to pour more of his efforts into the Beijing music scene, to nurture this next generation of Chinese bands as a producer for up-and-coming Chinese punk outfits Demerit and Brain Failure (who recently released a single with a guest vocal from Chuck D). “I went over because of why I started playing music to begin with,” he says, “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. 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.”