We asked Ola Fiedorczuk (who presents Ola’s Kool Kitchen across several independent radio stations) to interview Nevin Domer from Maybe Mars Records and The Brian Jonestown Massacre's Ricky Maymi about the "China Wave" scene currently taking Beijing by storm.
As a radio broadcaster of six years standing, Ola’s Kool Kitchen on Radio 23, Rock XS Radio and Magic Monster was created as a reaction to combat the myopic mediocrity present in mainstream media. It features an eclectic mix of genres while Ola travels the world both playing and recording lesser known new talent as well as established musicians. Put simply, good music has no boundaries.
A long time after Mao led his followers on the 'Long March' which would eventually change the face of China; there is an unlikely bloodless revolution going on now in The People’s Republic, a musical one! Most people will be vaguely aware of it because of Car Sick Cars, the main band to break through to Western audiences. There is, however, an amazing scene currently brewing there, and with only two indie record companies in the country, Maybe Mars and Modern Sky Records have an exciting roster of musicians reminiscent of Creation Records in its heyday.
I first came across the China Wave when I met Nevin Domer from Maybe Mars Records three years ago in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Earlier this year, Ricky Maymi from The Brian Jonestown Massacre was a guest on my radio show featuring indie music from Beijing. After that show in an interview with Ricky and Nevin for Drowned In Sound, we discussed the fascinating background surrounding the youth movement and looked at the current political and traditional influences on modern Chinese pop music. Further deliberation revealed the notion that the Western indie scene could be bogged down by the baggage of its own history and that China’s unique exposure to Western pop culture is creating a vibrant and innovative sonic fusion. With this injection of another vision/version from China comes a rebirth, worthy of appreciation and consideration by European audiences. Here are the fruits of our interview, including 5 important bands from Beijing you need to hear.
Ola’s Kool Kitchen: Why China now? What is happening there that has spawned this scene?
Nevin Domer: I think there are a lot of factors. China is going through this period of amazing economic growth. It’s the right time for this, Youth culture is sprouting up in China that didn’t exist a couple years ago.
Are there social, cultural or political reasons for that?
ND: I’ve been in and out of China since '99. I first moved to Beijing and got involved in the scene in 2005. At that time, it was still kind of the older scene. This is where Car Sick Cars and those bands were getting their start. A lot of those kids and the ones that came before, like P.K.14 were still coming from positions of privilege. Since that time, especially the Olympics, the underground youth culture has exploded. A new generation of kids with a disposable income have opened this up.
So would you say there is a parallel to the 50’s and 60’s in America where teenagers had a disposable income and became an economic force?
ND: Yeah, that’s what I’d say. When I say privileged that’s kind of a relative term, the kids at the beginning were privileged but they were also punk kids living in conditions that in the west we couldn’t imagine living in. They still came from a small group who actually had the freedom to get involved in this sort of stuff.
Their notion of class is relative and very different to the West?
ND: The majority of Chinese people are just trying to get by working 12 hour days. A lot of Chinese actually live at their work place and are involved full time in their job. When you get kids who actually have the freedom to do something else they are going to universities. That’s already pretty privileged compared to the majority of people living here. It’s not the sort of privilege we might imagine in the West. The number of kids that do have access and exposure to rock music through the internet to listen to it or whether it’s through the ability to buy guitars or through the freedom to pursue it is growing. Before that it was a very small number of people.
Ricky Maymi: Also my understanding of it is that to be in a band in China was the equivalent of being in a Dungeons and Dragons group. (laughs!) It’s not something you tell someone you do to win any points with them, It’s more like something you do with a certain group of people when no one else is around. You keep it to yourself, cause it’s kind of frowned upon. It’s not like a cool thing.
ND: That’s very true actually... I think that’s a really good point, especially when bands like Car Sick Cars were starting out. The kids at university didn’t go to bars, they didn’t go out. They just spent all their time studying. The whole point of university here is to study and graduate with the highest scores and the most connections you can so you can get a nice, well paying job. Being in a band wasn’t a cool thing to do. There was no affirmation from your peers for doing it. That’s starting to change now to. It also wasn’t financially rewarding. There weren’t any brands or sponsorship pre-2008, so kids were doing music really against the grain.
Ricky mentioned this before and it’s true, what’s coming from China is from nothing. Our reasons for originally starting to do rock n roll, have been watered down by so much baggage, expectations and so many other cultural icons, while China is approaching this from a void.
ND: Yeah I think it’s a good point. In the West you have that cultural baggage where you look at something and you immediately know the whole context behind it and how it fits in. A good example is P.K.14; when you ask them about their influences, they name everything from Glen Branca, Woody Guthrie and Fugazi and they pretty much discovered this music all at the same time. There is no real context for it. They just threw it all together to make their sound and image.
Yeah they were bombarded with it all at once. Bam here you go, pick what you like, interpret how you wish. Another example of this I found in the Red Rock (a book describing the birth of pop music in China), was this little guy in China in the late 80’s, who heard Norwegian Wood by The Beatles, wanted to find out more and looked them up in the dictionary only to be disappointed. He had to search to find out what or who they were. That’s just unthinkable in the West. We didn’t have to search for The Beatles. We have documentaries and zillions of pop books on the subject.
RM: You don’t know how little that guy was? (laughs!)
Let’s talk about the venue D22 in Beijing and its importance in creating the scene. The venue is gone now but there’s a legend about it and how it was at the heart of things.
ND: It was a really amazing place and it was the right time for it. When D22 started, the scene was beginning to grow. D22 created a home for it, a place where the bands could all play. It did the trick like CBGB’s and a couple of places have done, where any musician that plays there also drinks for free. That meant it was the place everybody hung out. Partly that and the fact there was no other club like it at the time. So you’d have the punk musicians hanging out on Sundays for jazz shows or for really weird experimental stuff. That brought the scene together and people started moving in weird directions with weird influences. It was an exciting time for music. It’s changing a little now, which is good and bad. It was great with D22 but to be honest, right now the scene is much bigger with more clubs, and in some ways it is much healthier than it was before.
The first band I’d like to talk about is P.K.14. There is a core of people that keep reappearing in the bands of interest. It’s an incredibly incestuous scene.
ND: If you look at the scene as it is now with Car Sick Cars, Snapline and those sorts of bands, P.K. 14 can be seen as the Godfather of that. They actually bridge the gap between some of this weird interesting music that was coming out in the mid 90’s to Car Sick Cars and the bands that started in 2005. P.K. 14 were playing in 99. They were probably the first band to really define the idea of playing post-punk inside China. When they started was also when punk hit. You had bands like The Board Contingent, which was like Brain Failure, 69, Anarchy Boys and Reflector. Those were the early punk bands here. At the same time, P.K. 14 were doing post-punk. The very beginning was Cui Jian with his ballad rock; then came arena metal like Tang Dynasty, which got really huge. After this came this really weird, if you’re trying to understand them in the Western context, proto-punk that bridges this ballad and arena metal with more experimental interesting stuff.
RM: I think P.K.14 are great. As Nevin said, they were the first band to merge these sounds. They have proven to be really influential.
ND: Yang Haisong is the band leader. P.K.14 really works with all four people writing the music together, but he’s the front man and the singer. He’s also a producer. He produced the very first Car Sick Cars album, which is the album that ushered in the 2005 wave of post-punk. That sound became what Maybe Mars is and what Beijing is now. He’s also starting his own record label and plays in a couple of side projects including Dear Eloise which is him and his wife. They’ve been extremely involved and supportive of the young scene.
RM: It’s like Nevin said, P.K.14 sort of naturally crossed styles. That’s what I noticed about their music as well, there’ll be instrumentation and melodic passages with things that are really simple, yet bizarre at the same time.
How are they bizarre?
RM: Just a different application of aesthetics with interesting song writing, but not in a try hard way.
ND: And super influential! I mean P.K.14, whether they’re doing Car Sick Cars shoe gaze type music or more experimental stuff is the band all the kids pretty much point to as an influence.
Everybody cites Car Sick Cars. If anybody is going to know a band outside of China it’s this one, yet P.K.14 is the precursor?
ND: You have to have the band that breaks out. I think Car Sick Cars, originally supporting Sonic Youth and then playing All Tomorrows Parties and Primavera are the first band that caught the attention of people abroad. When Car Sick Car started there was no possibility of making any money at this. Car Sick Cars is of the first generation of bands that are actually starting to support themselves through their music. P.K.14 being older with all of the members having full time jobs makes it a little harder for them to consistently tour.
This is an important factor isn’t it, that they can actually see they can make a living doing this? Within Chinese society, and this is also true of all the places I’ve travelled in South East Asia like Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia etc. there is no social security or welfare state. Your family is your complete and utter social network. You have much stronger familial obligations to fulfil than in the West. Whatever the pressures of being a musician in the West, there are triple those pressures or obstacles to overcome in China. There is no infrastructure, expectation or belief that you can make money as an artist. In the West you’re more likely to get more support from your family to pursue it.
ND: That’s definitely true for China. It’s not just about having support from the family. They are actively against them doing it because there is no future and no money in it. They are coming from this early middle class. Their parents have worked their way up and now they want the lives of their children to be better than the lives that they had. They feel like their children are shooting themselves in the foot by becoming musicians.
Not a lot these bands get to leave China. When a band does go abroad are their noticeable ramifications? Does it help their image?
ND: Yes. Especially if they go to the US, that’s a huge boon. If a band from China goes abroad all of the sudden they are perceived as a different band on a higher level than before they left. On a practical note it also helps them get more money for festivals and shows here. Also the audience pay a lot of attention to them because they’ve played abroad.
RM: Australia is like that. You’re sort of not valid until you’ve gone and done it overseas. They need confirmation that someone else cares about you elsewhere. They have a cultural insecurity about their identity. It holds more weight if it’s been validated elsewhere.
That’s interesting. Do you think the Chinese are insecure like that too?
ND: That is exactly true. Insecure is one way to put it; there might be other ways to pin that down. A lot of the music media in China didn’t pay attention to local bands. The media pre-2005 wouldn’t talk about local Chinese bands, it would all be foreign bands. Then as Chinese bands started going abroad getting press and playing festivals, all of the sudden the Chinese media was like “woah”, if the people in the US are paying attention to this band then we should too.
Back to P.K.14, what’s the new album like?
ND: The new stuff sounds amazing. It blows a lot of the other stuff away. P.K.14 are just surprising me. I love all their past work but their new stuff is actually a world above of it.
RM: What would you say the difference is sonically?
ND: It’s really hard for me to describe. The only word I can think of- and it kind of sounds a bit BS, it’s just mature.... RM: Yeah I can hear it going that way. I’ve been listening quite a bit lately to the three albums I have and the song writing has a got a little more depth perhaps?
ND: Yeah! If you take City Weather Sailing, Xièxiè, and White Paper; the early stuff was more rock and City Weather Sailing was a little orchestrated. Mix all those elements together, you have a more balanced sound that is also more mature.
P.K.14 performing '1984 Pt II' live off their new LP '1984'
Let’s talk about Mr Graceless.
ND: We came across them back at D22. We had Wednesday nights that were for university bands, this would of been about 2010. At the time myself and Michael Pettis (Maybe Mars founder) were going to every show at D22 and once in awhile we’d see a band that really stuck out. Mr Graceless was one of those. When they played they just blew us away and they added something to the scene that wasn’t really present before. They resonated with university students in China coming from a more pop audience. At the same time they reached in and drew from that experimental stuff from like Car Sick Cars and Snapline that are influenced by Sonic Youth and those sorts of bands that add noisy dissonance into the pop music they make.
RM: They write really great pop songs. The guitar parts, the vocal melodies just all staggeringly well written and beautifully executed. It’s like something you think you heard before, but you haven’t. They just managed to find this way to write these classic pop songs. It’s just another example of how it still can be done.
The singer from the Lilys has been in touch to collaborate with Mr Graceless. How did that happen?
RM: Kurt Heasley lives on ashram in Virginia. He is pretty inaccessible but he just happened to be in San Francisco when I got back there one time. I had a handful of these Maybe Mars CDs. I was just thinking about Kurt because I was listening to that Mr Graceless album and it really reminded me of the Lilys in an uncanny sort of way. You should have seen the look on his face as I played him the album. He was like, oh my god what is this band, who is this...this is great. We kind of had this moment. Ultimately the idea is to get everyone everywhere. We want to get Mr Graceless to America and it would be great to get someone like Kurt playing to audiences in China.
ND: Mr Graceless will be going to the US, if not this year then next. It would be great to hook them up to the Lilys there. I’m also trying to do the groundwork here to bring more musicians into China. That’s growing and becoming more and more possible. That’s the end goal.
Mr Graceless performing 'License To Capture' live from their album 'The Tree Ever Green'
Let’s talk about The Gar and their importance!
NK: The Gar came about from a precursor band, Nezha that were at the same time as this new 2005 Beijing sound, of Car Sick Cars, Snapline, White and Queen Sea Big Shark. They are a really amazing band. It’s hard for me to define, it’s as if you took Sonic Youth and Weezer and mixed them together.
RM: They don’t have an obvious sort of edginess to them. It’s pretty straight forward with a very melodic sound. I think anyone would like it. It should be said, none of their songs are sung in English. It’s all in Mandarin. Even though I don’t understand a single word he’s saying, it’s some of the most beautiful, emotive music I’ve ever heard. You really respond to it on a whole other level because you’re not rationalizing the meaning of his lyrics. It’s really engaging when you factor that in. I find it a very involving experience listening to the music, especially the newer stuff. It’s not edgy on the surface, but it is sort of edgy in its freedom of composition and the song writing arrangements. It’s very wild in places but never messy. Nothing happens by chance, it’s very meticulously put together. Lots of really beautiful guitar melodies that really remind me of Martin Phillipps from The Chills or David Kilgour from The Clean; a very distinctly kind of Southern Hemisphere melodic guitar-pop sound. I also know that a lot of the stuff that it reminds me of is music they’re unfamiliar with, so that makes it interesting for me on a lot of levels.
ND: One side note here about lyrics. I often find it really interesting when bands do sing in Chinese. P.K. 14, The Gar-Car Sick Cars is about half and half- do make really good use of Chinese. For most of the bands, English is not their native language, so the lyrics in English tend not to be as well written as when they do it in their native language.
RM: Which makes them brilliant to me and gives them a level of poetry we don’t get from Western writers.
ND: Some bands like Mr. Graceless pull it off amazingly, that’s also a point that makes The Gar special in that regard. When you ask the bands, why do you sing in English, they say they have a hard time writing the music in Chinese. The way pop music sounds is really based on the English language. So these bands, when they sing in Chinese, they have to learn how to make their language fit the music. They didn’t have a lot of models to look at, so they had to create these singing styles themselves.
'Cat' by The Gar off their album 'The Gar'
We talked a lot about bands from Maybe Mars what about a band that’s not on the label?
ND: An older band of the 2005 generation that is similar to a Maybe Mars band, but one that didn’t end up on our label is Hedgehog on Modern Sky Records, which is also one of the biggest bands inside China.
RM: Again, they don’t always sing in English. I have to stop and check what they are singing half the time. They’re quite clever with the Chinese sense of melodicism as well as the song writing; not a million miles away from The Gar in their aesthetic, it has a real universal appeal. They have an incredible drummer Atom, she’s like 5’2. She’s this dinky little person who looks about 15-16 years old and she is this lady that plays drums like it’s nobody’s business who is really an inspiration to watch. She’s very hard hitting, a consistently powerful drummer. In fact she could be in anyone’s band and make it better just by being in it. She is that good! ND: She actually steals the show a lot of times! The band is incredible but she’s the one people end up staring at in the front row! Not only is she hitting the drums so hard, she’s also singing quite a bit too.
RM: Yeah she really is in command behind the kit back there and it’s unusual and striking.
Hedgehog playing 'Surf With Shark' live off their album 'Sun Fun Gun'
Let’s move onto Snapline.
ND: When Maybe Mars started, it had three releases, Car Sick Cars, Snapline and Joyside. Joyside was one of the older ones, starting in 2001. They were more 77 punk orientated. Snapline and Car Sick Cars were the two bands that ended up defining what became D22 and the early Beijing sound. Snapline have been the more underrated of the two. While Car Sick Cars have got a lot of attention, Snapline have been a little more low-key. The stuff they’ve done has snuck its way into the sound of everybody from Hedgehog to Queen Sea Big Shark and to the new generation of bands.
RM: Their earlier stuff is like Chicago Wax Tracks meets cool kind of English post-punk guitar edgy minimalism. There is some connection there, because they did some work with Martin Atkins, who is from a band called Pigface and the drummer from Pil, which is directly linked to that very thing. So imagine that mixed with Colin Newman’s side of Wire, the way he wrote from Chairs Missing till now. It’s a nice combination of sounds, never that dense with a lot of space; it is pretty minimal.
ND: Yeah the way they use their instruments and the way Li Qing plays guitar, just astounds me. She definitely doesn’t play in any traditional sense, the way she wrangles noises out of it. A lot of that sort of experimentation with sound - also adding synths and then eventually oscillators - owes its influence in the Chinese scene to Snapline.
RM: Yes, influencing the bands in the scene to a more electronic sound. They’re a bit dark and mysterious without being too serious.
ND: A little bit of their history, like Ricky mentioned, Martin Atkins came to China in 2007. We set up some shows for him at D22. He checked out a lot of bands here, one of the bands he was really into was Snapline. Eventually he worked out a deal with them for Invisible Records and recorded and produced their first two albums. Both of which I thought were very brilliant and well produced. The band did take a little bit of exception to the second album and they actually rerecorded it and produced it themselves. Now their second album has two versions.
Why did they take exception to Martin Atkins production on the second album?
ND: Maybe taking exception is a little too strong a way to put it. Martin produced a very layered and a very dense version of the second album. That’s what they did in the studio, but between the time that they recorded it and the time that it was ready to come out, they changed their minds and approach to it. They wanted to simplify everything and take away this whole layered aspect. So they recorded another version and both versions are amazing, but it’s two completely different approaches to the same compositions. We released both of them together as a double CD. The album has two names Martin’s version is Future Eyes and their version is called Phenomena.
Is there any relation between the compositions?
RM: I’m wondering how they got from one idea to the other on some of them. They are a strangely intriguing group. Those are the kind of ideas people usually talk about and don’t see through. They actually saw it through with very interesting results, so good on them.
ND: The way they approached it is really interesting because they’re serious geeks. The singer is actually a programmer for Microsoft. The idea behind their side project, Soviet Pop was to create this idea of the Soviet Union, especially emphasising the time when technical engineers were shipped in the 1960’s from the Soviet Union to China to teach the Chinese these skills. They were playing with that idea and thinking about what pop music would be like in the Soviet Union. It’s a very laboratoryesque, technical and experimental music. That’s basically what they are, technical engineers that are trying to use that sort of training to make pop music.
'She Blinded Me With Science'! Right?
RM: Exactly, a scientific approach to rock music!
Snapline performinging 'Flu' live from the album 'Phenomena'
Any closing thoughts?
RM: I’m glad this is all happening and that this music is being made. From what I can see, it’s the most valid subculture movement happening in our time. I’m glad to have stumbled upon it in a place I wouldn’t have imagined. It’s all really intriguing for me and I’m really inspired by it.
ND: Going back to how we started the conversation, I would say there is a lot of youth in China starting to find a voice and an outlet. I do think the music that is happening now is something that will continue to grow and change. The bands we were talking about are spawning a new generation that instead of drawing their influences from abroad are actually taking their cues from inside China. Now is a very exciting time to see where this stuff goes. In China, the scene is literally just starting and that’s what makes it exciting.
Is Car Sick Cars the Beatles; the beginning of creating a cultural baggage of pop culture?
ND: Maybe they are creating this baggage but the beginning of this music in China is so different from other places. It’s going to head in a direction that’s completely new and interesting and that’s what is fascinating! That’s why I’m here. I came to Beijing and got so addicted to the music scene, it’s like a cliff hanger for me. I’m always waiting to see what’s going to happen next and I just can’t leave at this point because I don’t want to miss anything.
If you’d like to hear more from the Beijing scene, here's Ricky Maymi and myself playing the music and discussing it further on my radio show.