Post Punk Magazine‘s great write-up about post-punk music in China offers a brief history of the underground music scene and introduces about 60 bands from 2000 to the present, with music videos accompanying 19 of the bands. Well worth a read and listen. Leave a comment if you hear something you like.
The Chinese indie music scene has roots in rock born of the political disaffection of the 80s but really developed as a result of the rise of indie and a rediscovery of post-punk pioneers in the West in the late 90s and early 2000s. In the early days before online music, Chinese audiences discovered western indie bands, old and new, through dubiously imported cut-out LPs, record, and cassettes, called dakou (打口). This exposure was a game changer. One blogger has said that every person who genuinely seeks musical freedom will have listened to dakou music. For many, these foreign bands were revelatory. Carsick Cars frontman Zhang Shouwang (张守望 / 張守望) says of hearing The Velvet Underground for the first time at the age of 17, “Until then I didn’t know that it was possible to make music like that. It sounded like everything that was harsh, beautiful or ugly about normal city life and made me realize that music and poetry could come from the streets and factories of every city, even my own city. Until then most music I had heard was either empty or had nothing to do with my life and the lives of the people I knew.”
The influence of bands like Sonic Youth, Joy Division, and Mission of Burma is clearly heard, and icons like Steve Albini (Big Black, Pixies), Martin Atkins (Public Image Ltd, Killing Joke), and Brian Eno (Roxy Music) have collaborated with Chinese bands, both blessing and guiding their Chinese admirers. Despite these western trappings, Chinese identity is at the core. B6, a Shanghai-based DJ and producer says, “The Chinese thing is in my soul and blood and in my bones. I do western music but I’m Chinese, so it’s Chinese music.” He and Abe, guitarist for the band Bigger Bang!, believe that this contemporary music culture is still young and will take some time to develop into something China can call its own. Abe says “[b]ecause of the Cultural Revolution the family tree in China is cut. We had 30 years of total emptiness here, no culture at all, so it’s very hard to build up…It feels like we don’t have roots.”
While the indie scene is thriving in Beijing, its bands are slowly being introduced to audiences outside of China. In 2009, Hedgehog, Queen Sea Big Shark, and Casino Demon did a couple of shows in New York and DC for an AIDS charity, and a month later Carsick Cars, PK-14, and Xiao He followed with six New York shows. The 2012 SXSW festival showcased seven bands from China. Chuck Taylors sneaker maker Converse teamed up with Beijing indie music label Maybe Mars to support a US tour. In perhaps the most ambitious foray into the Western market, Carsick Cars embarked on a 25-city North American tour earlier this year to support their new album, 3.
So, what do Americans think of this music? The comments from the Brooklyn Vegan pages relating to Chinese bands are overwhelmingly positive, but Chinese bands face challenges. Carsick Cars’ Zhang sees western presumptions that fetishize artists into dissidents and expect some “Chinese-ness”. He dismisses questions of whether they are sufficiently Chinese and tells The World Post, “I think it’s a stereotype that people in the West have about China, that life is just a struggle with politics, and it’s kind of like racism on some level. You never ask German bands why they don’t write songs about politics, but people think us Chinese have to deal with politics all the time. We’re living in a big city; we have the same lifestyle as people in San Francisco.” Three years earlier, Zhang summed up the worldview of Chinese musicians of his generation but could apply to their western counterparts, “I think what he [Cui Jian, godfather of Chinese rock] was singing about and the experiences he had are so different from what my friends and I have had. I think his music fit a more idealistic generation who knew less about music and city life and cared more about changing the world. I think we are maybe more pessimistic and also more interested in finding art that challenges us and makes us expand our thinking.”
Image: Screenshot from video for PK14’s 多麼美妙的夜晚 (How Majestic Is The Night)