The music scene in China's capital encompasses post-rock, pop, punk and experimental electronica.
Beijing music scene evolving daily despite censorship
The 22-year-old Li Yan, better known as Lucifer from the punk-pop band Rustic, is throwing some serious shapes. Dressed in a striped jacket over a polka-dot shirt, with shades, red skinny jeans and a Beatles haircut, the singer leaps around the stage, poses with his foot up on an amp, and after stumbling over, attacks his guitar lying flat on his back. He’s onstage at a rock club in Beijing, and the suitcases stacked by the drum riser are a reminder to the audience that it’s a farewell show: in a fortnight’s time, Rustic will be playing at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, as part of the biggest-ever contingent of Chinese bands heading to the festival.
Since 2010 the Beijing indie label Maybe Mars, started by the former Wall Street trader Michael Pettis, has been putting on a “China Night” at SXSW to get its bands international exposure. This year, seven Chinese bands, most of them on the label and all but one from Beijing, will be making the trip. Maybe Mars have put on the farewell show, dubbed “Bye Bye South By”, and it’s an exhilarating taste of the diversity of Beijing’s indie scene, encompassing post-rock, pop, punk and experimental electronica. The gig ends with a jubilant rendition of the anthem Zhong Nan Hai by Carsick Cars, a band who combine chiming guitars with bursts of distortion and melody.
The Beijing scene exploded a few years ago and it’s still evolving daily. A couple of days after headlining Bye Bye South By, Carsick Cars’ frontman Zhang Shouwang is across town playing at a festival of experimental music with one of his side projects. This time he’s playing lap guitar opposite a collaborator with an electric violin; both are hooked up to a tangle of effects pedals, and at one point Zhang starts humming a note and encourages the audience to join him. It’s the first show to take place at an as-yet unnamed venue that will replace D22, the rock venue run by the Maybe Mars team, which is often credited with helping kick start Beijing’s home-grown indie scene.
“We think Beijing is on its way to being the most important city in Asia,” says Pettis, who analyses Chinese financial markets and teaches at Peking University when he’s not setting up gigs. “Already, we’re not just getting musicians from all over China coming to Beijing, and not even just musicians from Korea and Japan and Hong Kong and Taiwan. We’re starting to get some serious American and Canadian musicians deciding to move here.” He compares the situation to the influx of artists to Paris in the 1920s, which had “a great cultural scene and was dirt cheap”, and suggests that the same applies here.
There is already cross-fertilisation going on. Zhang Shouwang, the lead singer of Carsick Cars, will be going to Austin for the third time this spring; his band has toured with Sonic Youth. Rustic’s singer Lucifer, who lists among his idols Tom Waits and Sum 41, says that he owes his musical education to watching YouTube, which is banned in China, and clicking through to automatically suggested music videos. “The people around me, they don’t know what rock and roll music is,” he says. “They don’t know what Green Day is. Maybe they will never know in their life, so if I didn’t have the internet maybe I would be like them, just another [pop music] fan boy.”
It’s an exciting time, although not without its challenges: censorship is one, forcing bands to be oblique about any political criticism; a lack of studios, PR firms, labels and other industry infrastructure are others. Then there’s parental pressure on Chinese children to study hard and launch successful careers. Lucifer studies clarinet at a university in Beijing to appease his parents, who are “really not happy” about his rock career. “They don’t understand me,” he says. “Now they can see that I am flying to other countries to get more experience, more stories; but when I was in high school they thought they brought the wrong person to the world.”
Both the generation gap and the lack of a professional rock industry stem from the fact that, in Zhang’s words, “the Chinese culture really stopped for 30 years because of the cultural revolution”, but this effect has positive sides too. As a Chinese musician, Pettis explains, “you don’t have that weight of history on you so you can do whatever you want. You can be a classical musician and have a punk band. There’s a lot of freshness.”
There are few audiences more jaded than the industry insiders at SXSW, but Lucifer’s not worried about grabbing their attention. “Our records can sell like Adele, like the Beatles, like the Rolling Stones,” he says, adding that if it’s not Rustic who breaks out into the international market soon it will be another Chinese band. “Everybody has something deep inside,” he says of the bands’ passion. “Everybody’s hungry.”
China Night at SXSW will be held on March 17
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