Legendary New York noise-rockers Sonic Youth – 26 years and counting – visited China for the first time ever earlier this year, playing a pair of shows in April, in Beijing and Shanghai. DiS got on the phone to the band’s Kim Gordon to talk about their trip.
Hi Kim. How was China?
Well, we really had a great time. The promoter was great – he took us out for great meals – and we were happily surprised with the audiences, as they were mostly Chinese. There’s a big ex-pat presence there, but the audiences were great, some of the best ever ones we’ve played to.
And you played just two shows, in Beijing and Shanghai? How did playing before totally new audiences affect you?
They knew most of the songs, and they seemed to know the news songs more than the old songs. I guess that’s because it’s more recently available, and there’s access to the internet, too. Although I don’t know what kind of restrictions there are on the internet in China, if there are any. I think there is some moderating, and I remember seeing something about Google about how they’re in cahoots with the Chinese government, because when you search for Tiananmen Square you only get all these beautiful tourist sites, and no information about what went on there. So there definitely is some censorship going on, but Thurston [Moore] found some Chinese nose musicians through their sites, so there is information out there for sure.
Did you do much research before going to China? Did you have to leap through any hoops to get there?
I don’t know, because we didn’t really have to take care of that. I know it wasn’t as difficult as one might think. When Lee [Ranaldo] was in Japan – he went to Japan before we did – he had to get his visa there, and that took only a couple of days. It’s opening up more for western artists, but I’m sure it’s very bureaucratic from the promoter’s point of view. I don’t think it’s as difficult as getting a visa to Russia though, bureaucracy wise.
Did you have any concerns at all about how full the shows would be? Did you go into the shows quite blindly?
Ha, yeah, I guess we did. But I figured that if the promoter thought he’d get a good turn-out… well, we wouldn’t have been brought out there if they thought we’d be playing to an empty cave. I also think there’s a big enough ex-pat community there – one of the biggest in the world – so I think we’d have been okay. We didn’t know that, but they knew that.
I read that there were problems with tickets in Shanghai, and that the venue was taking a very high percentage from their sale…?
I don’t really know. I think the venue – which was a state-run place, a really beautiful theatre – could decide whatever percentage they took. They wanted twenty per cent of ticket sales, and then another twenty per cent if they sold them on the day of the show. We didn’t sell any personally – we had nothing to do with it – but the promoter sold some out of a van.
So what were you doing while the business side of things was being sorted? Did you get to see the sights?
In Beijing there was this great artists complex, built out of these industrial factories. This French woman we met took us there – the promoter introduced us to her, and the artist who started the complex, and they showed us around. We had so little time that we basically hit all the tourist spots – the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and Tiananmen Square. They had a tour guide for us, and we weren’t used to that! We wanted to go look at the old parts and wander around, but no… But I lived in Hong Kong when I was twelve, so I was pretty familiar with Chinese culture. I think one thing you don’t get, in the cities there, is the impression that outside the cities ninety per cent of the population lives in poverty. You see people living in crowded circumstances in the older areas, where they’re on low incomes, but you don’t really get the sense that it’s worse elsewhere.
So it was as much of a vacation as a business trip?
It was, but it was also very moving to play there, I think. China is one of those countries that has been so inaccessible for so long, and it’s so mythic. More western artists will go out there. We did feel as if we were breaking some ground – I’m surprised that bigger bands on our management haven’t been there. We’re the first, but Beck’s not been there yet, and nor have Foo Fighters, but they will go in time. It’s interesting that there’s no network of commercial western influence there, so for a band like us it’s interesting that we have such a high standing – people there haven’t been brainwashed by MTV, and made to like certain things. There aren’t labels out there, working all these records. Most of our audience seemed to really be fans, which was nice.
So did playing China make you think about shows elsewhere any differently?
No, but it did make Coachella seem like something of a let down. It was like, “Oh, we have to go do this…” But festivals are always kind of touch and go. It wasn’t a brilliant Coachella this year.
So would you go back, to China that is?
Oh definitely. It’s such a huge, vast… it’s our future master, China. The manufacturing machine that it is…