Twenty-two-year-old Li Yan, better known as Lucifer from the Chinese band Rustic, is throwing some serious shapes. Dressed in a striped jacket over a polka-dot shirt, with shades and red skinny jeans, the singer pogos around the stage at a show in Beijing, poses with his foot up on an amp and after stumbling over, attacks his guitar lying flat on his back. It’s an exhilarating performance and it’s heading this way soon. The show’s called Bye Bye South By and it’s sending off four Chinese bands to America’s biggest music festival.
In total, a record seven Chinese bands will be at South By Southwest (SXSW) this year, and all but one all hail from Beijing, a city that is rapidly overcoming decades of isolation to become a major hub for new music. “We are starting from zero,” says Zhang Shouwang, singer and guitar player for Carsick Cars, who are returning to SXSW for the third time. “Chinese culture really stopped for thirty years, because of the Cultural Revolution. We have no history of modern music.”
Zhong Nan Hai by Carsick Cars
Rock first reached China in the Eighties, and started growing slowly: a few protest singers, the odd touring band, a couple of small music venues. When Carsick Cars formed seven years ago, Zhang Shouwang says, “Our generation of bands would play in a very small club near the Forbidden City. We could only fit in maybe 20 people.” Now there are more than a dozen clubs, including metal bars, jazz clubs and folk venues, and Carsick Cars have played with Sonic Youth and toured the world.
There is more than one reason for Beijing’s creative explosion. Firstly, there’s the internet: Lucifer says that he learned about rock music by watching YouTube (which is officially blocked in the country, although it’s not too difficult to hack into). Then there’s China’s growing prosperity and the rise of a generation who aren’t haunted by the Cultural Revolution. But some credit must go to Michael Pettis, a former Wall Street trader who opened a club called D22. “He changed a lot,” says Li Weisi of Soviet Pop, another Beijing band going to SXSW. “If we didn’t have a venue like D22, maybe 60 or 70 per cent of the new bands would have no place to play.”
Pettis defies stereotyping as much as any of the bands on his label. A finance professor at Peking University, he advises world governments on banking and writes for Business Week and the Financial Times. What’s not mentioned on his influential blog is that he has also been promoting experimental music since the Eighties, when he ran a club called Sin in New York. After discovering Beijing’s embryonic arts scene on a short trip a couple of decades later, he decided to move there permanently and launched D22 in 2006, and a label, Maybe Mars, a year later. Now in his fifties, he’s still evangelical about the city.
“Beijing’s got a great cultural scene and for Americans and Europeans it’s dirt cheap,” he says, comparing its influx of arty émigrés to Paris in the Twenties. He calls it a “major destination city” and says that already “serious American and Canadian musicians” are making the move.
One of those drawn to Beijing’s new underground was Lucifer, who moved from the northern province of Hebei in 2008. His band released their debut album on Maybe Mars last year, but as only children in an era of unprecedented social mobility they come up against intense parental pressure. Lucifer pacifies his parents by studying the clarinet at university, but they are still “not happy” with his chosen lifestyle. “They don’t understand me,” he says. “Now they can see that I am flying to other countries to get more experience, but when I was in high school they thought I was a weird guy. They thought they brought the wrong person to the world.”
Censorship is another challenge: there are no official rules about what’s acceptable but government-owned “publishers” have a set number of ISBN numbers to allocate for new releases, and they are conservative in their choices. Sites hosting foreign music online are monitored too, and “vulgar content” can be blacklisted – it was recently reported that songs by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry were among those banned from Chinese streaming and download sites. Helen Feng, whose band Nova Heart also played Bye Bye South By says that although this sounds oppressive, having to veil any provocative opinions can make bands more creative.
A pressing matter, in Feng’s opinion, is Beijing’s lack of industry infrastructure – it can be hard to find a good tour manager or studio engineer – but it may also be one of the reasons the scene feels so adventurous. In Pettis’s words, “You don’t have that weight of history on you so you can do whatever you want. There’s a lot of freshness.” It also means that everyone’s ready to adapt to a marketplace in which recordings are no longer lucrative. “Thanks to piracy the CD business died here earlier than anywhere else,” Pettis says, “so in one sense China is ahead of the rest of the world.”
D22 closed in January this year because – perversely enough – it had become too popular, with queues around the block for its era-ending final show. Co-manager Charles Saliba explains that the club fulfilled its goal to help the scene grow; now he and Pettis want to focus more tightly on bands that are “trying to do something genuinely new.” They are about to hold a meeting with some of their favorite musicians about what to do with the club’s as-yet nameless successor; plans include incorporating a shop selling comics and vinyl, a rehearsal room, a recording studio and the headquarters of a magazine. “I just got the keys to the place,” Saliba said on a recent weeknight, days before the club launched with a two-day festival heavy on loops, noise, classical instruments and FX pedals. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”