Beijing is Sinking
June 3, 2015 12:59 AM   Subscribe

This weekend, the seminal Beijing band Chui Wan will launch their (self-titled) second album after an extensive U.S tour. Their new single, The Sound of Wilderness, debuted on NPR last week - quite possibly a milestone for the Chinese indie scene. The album's highlights include the seven-minute closer "Beijing is Sinking", a swirling, chaotic song about staying afloat in a torrent of change. An apt metaphor, perhaps, for all the musicians in Beijing's fiercely iconoclastic indie underground. Initial reviews for the album are buoyant. It's seen as a coming-of-age moment for the band, for its influential record label Maybe Mars, and perhaps even for the small, vibrant Beijing indie community. So let's turn back the clock to the early 2000s, to post-SARS Beijing, and see how we got here.

There are many places to start, but to understand Beijing indie music today, it makes sense to begin with "No Beijing." Here's writer Josh Feola, on the 2005-06 movement:
"No Beijing is the name of a compilation, a movement, a crew of musicians who [have come] to define a generation of Chinese noisemakers. The "No Beijing" tag, which isn't really used by its members today, was cribbed from the Eno-produced 1978 no wave comp No New York, a telling maneuver signaling a new trend of musicians drawing most of their influence from overseas. This was the crucial entry point for all of the no wave/post-punk/krautrock experimentation that has become today's zeitgeist."
The bands on the Double CD "No Beijing" compilation - Carsick Cars, Snapline, The Gar, and White (later White+) - precipitated the rise of D-22, a famous live music dive bar in Beijing's Wudaokou university district. Even as the scene grew in multiple directions, they remain some of its most influential names. In the heady and censor-heavy period just before and after the 2008 Olympics, D-22 was a creative refuge, and the epicentre of independent music in the city. Its weekly Zoomin' Night
sessions, with an emphasis on improvised, experimental music, helped a 100 side-projects bloom.

The predominant sound of this new/no wave was a curious intersection: the classic rock Bon-Jovi-meets-Chinese-folk stream of Chinese indie music (starting from Cui Jian (崔健) in the late 1980s to Black Panther (黑豹乐队) and Tang Dynasty (唐朝乐队) in the 90s) run over by the experimental tradition (driven by folks like Yan Jun and Li Jianhong) drawing on Viktor Tsoi and the 80s Leningrad post-punk sound, and the Japanese avant-garde (Otomo Yoshihide and Sachiko M) by youngsters who'd grown up listening to "surplus" cassette tapes that were dumped in China, the so-called dakou or 'gashed tapes' era. This black market ensured a surprisingly extensive prevalence of Joy Division, Nirvana, Metallica, The Cure and other oddities in China.

The photographer Matthew Niederhauser chronicled the halycon days of the D-22 era in his book 'Sound Kapital', capturing the exuberant, almost unhinged creativity of these bands at the time. The No Beijing crew was joined by other seminal names - the punk trio Hedgehog (刺猬), the fierce Queen Sea Big Shark (后海大鲨鱼), P.K.14, Ourself Beside Me and absurdist neo-folkers like Xiao He.

D-22 was co-founded by Peking University Finance Professor Michael Pettis, and he started Maybe Mars in 2007, wanting to help this fledgling community get their music out. They've been at it since then, slowly but surely building audiences across Asia, Europe and at festivals like SxSW. The first wave of Maybe Mars bands are still active - some acting as mentors to the music scene (like Yang Haisong of PK 14) or influencing the sounds of the generation to come (such as Zhang Shouwang of Carsick Cars).

In 2012, D-22 shut down, and Maybe Mars moved downtown to a new venue called XP. By this time, Beijing's music festival boom was well underway, and it was impossible to define the scene through one label or cluster of bands. Shen Lihui's Modern Sky label, around since 1997, represented some of the biggest names in the domestic indie market - the aforementioned Hedgehog, Omnipotent Youth Society (万能青年旅店), Second Hand Rose (二手玫瑰), Rebuilding the Rights of Statues (重塑雕像的权利). A second wave of Maybe Mars bands were defining the capital sound - Birdstriking, AV Okubo (AV大久保), Mr Graceless (不优雅先生). A remarkable folk renaissance was unfolding, with tons of melancholy, incisive migrant folk musicians - such as Song Dongye and Zhao Lei - playing to rapt audiences in Beijing's intimate, smoky live-spaces.

This time next month, XP will play its final show before shutting down. Maybe Mars is relocating to a nearby courtyard compound, with a renewed on producing music rather than running live shows. But the music will continue - at Mao Livehouse, Yugong Yishan, School Bar, Old What Bar and a hundred other dives, shrouded in Beijing's infamous smog.

Further Reading/Watching: Music:
Maybe Mars Bands: Modern Sky Bands:
posted by beijingbrown (17 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
Awesome post.

Some of these bands, and D-22, previously on Metafilter: 2009 and 2010.

I'll copy my comment from 2010:

"I was in a record store in Beijing, wanted to get something, but didn't know what. The proprietor didn't speak English and I don't speak Chinese. The problem was solved in the following way; the proprietor pulled a CD off the shelf, held it up to me, and said "Chinese R.E.M." He held up another and said "Chinese Dave Matthews Band." A third was "Chinese The Cure." Anyway, PK-14 is apparently "Chinese R.E.M." though the sonic resemblance isn't actually very clear to me."

"Beijing is Sinking," wow.
posted by escabeche at 1:47 AM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Though the label's comparison of PK14 to Television is a lot closer than the record clerk's comparison to REM.
posted by escabeche at 1:48 AM on June 3, 2015

Thank you so much for this!
posted by flippant at 4:03 AM on June 3, 2015

Amazing post!
posted by djeo at 5:04 AM on June 3, 2015

That PK14 track is very Mao-key Moon...
posted by Devonian at 6:09 AM on June 3, 2015

And I should also say - thanks very much for such a sumptuous post. It'll take a while to work through, but I'm digging, I'm digging...
posted by Devonian at 6:38 AM on June 3, 2015

A treasure trove. Thank you so much for this post!
posted by mondo dentro at 7:09 AM on June 3, 2015

Fantastic post. Thanks!
posted by togdon at 8:35 AM on June 3, 2015

The 2010 documentary Beijing Punk is excellent, and it features Hedgehog, among other bands mentioned in the post.
posted by vibrotronica at 9:37 AM on June 3, 2015

Very cool! I was in Beijing for five weeks in the summer of 2004. I really like "The Sound of Wilderness" so far...
posted by Slothrop at 1:13 PM on June 3, 2015

Great post! I just wanted to brag that I've seen every band mentioned in the post live. I'm definitely biased, but my favorite Maybe Mars release was Sports from Duck Fight Goose.
posted by bradf at 5:13 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

bradf: Me too! Re:Tros (and PK14 on a good day) are probably my favourite Beijing live band. I love Duck Fight Goose but couldn't include them because they're from Shanghai.
posted by beijingbrown at 7:16 PM on June 3, 2015

I listened to Chui Wan's self titled album three times today at work, and just bought a copy after putting my kids down for bed (note that it's a bit cheaper on iTunes, if that's your thing). I couldn't put my finger on what was so perfect about it earlier but my lovely wife just did... it functions similarly to instrumental music. It's (more than) interesting enough to engage my brain, but I have no clue what they're saying so it's in no way distracting.

Anyhow, thanks again. I'll have to check out some/many of the other bands.
posted by togdon at 8:54 PM on June 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Wait a minute. I thought I'd been to D-22. But it opened in 2006, and I was in Beijing in 2005. So what club did I go to? It was near Beijing University, there was a record store next door, and I saw Carsick Cars and the Angry Jerks.
posted by escabeche at 4:05 PM on June 4, 2015

escabeche: D-22 was 2005-06, so it's possible you went there! Especially if it was in a black, squat building with red curtains.

The other famous live music dive in the area was 'Scream Bar'.
posted by beijingbrown at 5:53 PM on June 4, 2015

Definitively an interesting way to communicate. I like it and you will kinda know what you're getting.
posted by gregerrr at 5:15 PM on June 5, 2015

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