Rock It! A Crash Course in the Chinese Indie Music Scene

Rock It!

I just got back to Beijing from a three-day crash course on Chinese indie music.  Namely, the Rock It! music festival, held in Shanghai on June 29, 30, and July 1.  Organized by a musician named Wu Jun 吴峻and his music studio 13D (278 Wuxing Road, Shanghai), the concert brought musicians together from all over China.  Thirty six bands, twelve per day, starting around noon and ending at 11 pm.  All of the bands were Chinese, though a couple also had westerners or Japanese in them.  More than half of the bands were from Shanghai (though the band members weren’t necessarily Shanghainese).  Around ten bands were from Beijing (ditto).  The rest hailed from other cities in China, including Dalian, Chongqing, and Kunming.

Overall I was deeply impressed by the diversity of sounds and by the passion and energy that most of these bands brought to their music.  Especially given that professional indie bands are few and far between in China, that they are struggling to survive in a hostile environment, and that many of these guys have day jobs.  Though many of the bands were hard to peg in terms of genre, there were detectable influences.  Some were clearly drawing from heavy metal (and its various sub-genres), others from punk, hardcore, ska, reggae, hip-hop, new wave, no wave, Britpop, electronica, grunge, funk, folk (including Chinese folk music)--you name the genre, it was represented by at least one band.  

The venue for this concert was Dino Park 热带风暴, a large water park located in the Minhang District south of Shanghai.  It cost 150 RMB to enter the park regardless of the concert, which was held at an artificial beach in the middle of the park, complete with an artificial “ocean” fed by a wave-making machine.  Great place to beat the summer Shanghai heat.  The majority of people were obviously there for the beach and the waves, not the concert.  Lots of families, young and middle-aged couples, kids, people who would not normally have any exposure to this music, but got an earful of it anyway.  Judging from the number of people who parked their inflatable rafts on the beach to watch the concert, they were at the very least intrigued by the scene, if not entranced by it.  Most were probably there just to gawk or kan renao 看热闹 as the Chinese say.

Given the distance of the park from the city, the variety of other events going on in town that weekend, plus the high cost of entrance, the concert attracted only the most diehard fans.  Many of the audience were band members themselves, or else people in the media.  Apparently there were 400 tickets sold on Friday, 1500 on Saturday.  According to Wu Jun, half were there for the park, the other half for the concert.  I don’t know how many  came on Sunday, but the crowd was comparable to Saturday.  Many who attended the concert were obviously there just to see their favorite band.  Relatively few stayed for a whole day, and only the staunchest warriors lasted the whole three days.  Most people came in the early evening.  There were also a lot of media people there, representing various magazines and a local TV station, Dongfang Weishi 东方卫士。According to Chinese media rules, rock music can’t be broadcast unless it’s part of a news show.

I saw and filmed every band but one, from just about every angle imaginable.  Mostly I operated the camera from one or the other side of the stage.  On average I filmed one or two songs per band, around five or ten minutes of footage per band, and filled two 60-minute tapes a day (three on Sunday).  I got there on Friday afternoon at 1:30 pm, when the concert officially began.  They were just setting up.  It was a good time to introduce myself to the organizers, who were friendly and supportive from the get-go.  It took them another hour or two to get the stage going.  Each band was given around a half hour to perform.  Setting up the sound system for the next band took 15-20 minutes on average, sometimes longer depending on the needs of the band.  Great chance for a break and a short swim before the next band came on.

Most bands featured a lead singer, always positioned at center stage, one or two guitarists, usually on the right, a bassist on the left, and a drummer at the back.  Some bands featured a keyboardist, usually placed behind the bassist, and a few of the bands had additional instrumentalists, including some traditional Chinese instruments, as in the case of 山人and Pow-wow 巫师来了, two folk bands from Yunnan and Chongqing respectively. The smallest band, The Retros (from Beijing) consisted of two musicians, a male guitarist and a female bassist, who both sang (plus a drummer--see below for more details on that band).  The largest band had maybe eight people in all.  But four was the average size.

To go through each of the bands that played at the concert would be a dull and thankless task.  There were thirty six of them after all.  Ranking them “High Fidelity” style would also be unfair, since there were so many different genres and styles.  In general, a few of the bands were outstanding, most were decent, and a few had a long ways to go.  Reminds me of the standard bell curve.  If I were to teach a class of 36 students, I’d probably see the same range of final grades, with around 5% high distinctions, 20% distinctions, 50% credits, and 25% passes.  Nobody failed by the way.
Naturally, assessing these bands also depends on one’s own musical tastes.  Personally, I preferred the bands that had a distinctive sound, tight arrangements, close communication with each other and a strong rapport with the audience.  I was turned off by the bands that indulged in self-gratifying experimentation with “new sounds”--like art students hellbent on creating the most grotesque collages imaginable.  If there was art in there, it would take a lot more effort to draw it out and focus it down to its essentials.

The organizers of the concert arranged the bands so that the best--or at least, the most popular--were always at or near the end of the night.  This doesn’t mean that the bands that played first or in the middle were bad--there were some really strong ones early on, but it was obvious that most people came to see the bands that played at night.

Folks familiar with the indie music scene in China will have heard the names of the bands that impressed me most.  One was Flying Fruit 羽果, a name that may sound cool in Chinese but is likely to be misinterpreted in English.  No, this was not a gender-bending band, but rather a solid rock quartet that delivered a powerful set of Brit-poppish tunes (one detected a strong Coldplay influence).  Bass, lead singer (on guitar--always a good sign), lead guitarist, and drummer.  They had a good rapport with the audience.  They were dynamic onstage but not overly theatrical.

Another band that left a deep impression on me was Crazy Mushroom 疯狂蘑菇团 .  This band served up winning a combination of hip-hop, funk, and Seattle-sound rock--think Pearl Jam meets Def Jam.  These dudes were showy and theatrical, but in a good way.  What impressed me most about this band was the intense passion of their lead singer, who sports a mowhawk.  Offstage, aside from the ‘hawk he looked like any other dullwitted, slackmouthed,pimple-faced kid from the sticks, but man could he belt out a tune.  He was joined by two other rappers.  The audience, mostly young girls in tight bikinis (a constant yet welcome distraction to my filming) loved them, and jumped up and down gleefully as they strutted and pranced like roosters onstage, doing a rock-rap version of “What’s Going On” which included an unforgettable call-and-response session.

The highly-touted Beijing band New Pants 新裤子, which got the Chinese audience dancing on Friday night, was also a fun show, in 1930s-Cabaret style.  They had an electronic beat reminiscent of Kraftwerk, with some ‘80s Hong Kong style disco pop thrown in, which the audience really enjoyed.  At one point the keyboardist took his pants off onstage, revealing a flowery white one-piece women’s bodysuit.  He then did a sort of robot dance onstage and threw himself into the audience.  The crowd went absolutely mad at this absurd bit of showmanship.  Still, I didn’t find their music all that compelling.  It was obvious they were there to have a bit of fun and stir some glue, in Shanghai parlance.

I had no trouble filming the bands from just about any angle onstage, and got some great closeups of each band member, as well as a lot of shots of the audience.  The sound quality of my footage is terrible though.  Fortunately the entire concert was filmed and recorded by a company, whose people I got to know over the three days.  We will probably do an exchange of materials at some point, and I do plan to incorporate some of this footage into my film.

By Sunday evening I was absolutely exhausted from three days of filming, fed by a steady diet of hot dogs and chicken nuggets, the only food available at the venue.  Worst of all there was no beer or alcohol of any kind, as the park forbade it (though a few people snuck in a can or two).  If it weren’t for the wave pool, which I jumped into now and then to cool myself off, the sticky summer heat would have been unbearable.  Occasionally a light sprinkle of rain came down, which was refreshing, but it didn’t affect the concert other than  cutting down the potential audience a bit.  

I was going to leave early on Sunday, but everybody said I had to stay for the Retros.  Then a fellow Yank named Dan with a distinctive handlebar moustache came to the rescue with an over-the-counter bit of Chinese pharmacopia, which got me going again.  Dan was the only other westerner I met who stayed through the entire event.  My thanks goes out to Handlebar Dan for helping me to fulfill my mission and film the entire event.

The Retros, who played on Sunday night (they were the penultimate band), were another highly touted act.  They were like a minimalist version of the B-52s, but without any of their charm and fun.  It was pure Dadaist angst, with the male singer spouting out poetic nonsense--in English!--and the female bassist, her face hidden behind her long black hair, echoing him in a maudlin voice.  I found it a rather pretentious act, only interesting from a sociological standpoint: i.e. who is their audience in China and what do they get out of this act?  Then again, they might have a greater variety of tunes that I’m not aware of, so I don’t want to write them off completely.

Joyside, a Beijing-based band which played Saturday night, was another standout act.  They had a hard-driving punk/new wavish sound that some liken to REM but which reminded me of early Ultravox! A lot of their songs had a very danceable beat and got at least some audience members (including a memorable bikini-clad young lady) shaking.  The lead singer even sounded a bit like John Foxx, though with his mullet, which partially hid his face, he looked more like Jon Bon Jovi.

Although I’m not a big death metal fan, I was impressed by the band 45, which preceded Joyside.  They had a powerful stage presence, complete with all the acrobatics that you’d expect from metal guitarists.  The lead singer, a tall, lithe dude with a goatee, looked like he’d just clawed his way up to the surface through a smoking crack in the earth.

The Honeys 甜蜜的孩子, a Shanghai-based band, which followed Joyside on Saturday night, was also one of the better known bands in the lineup.  They had a sorta psychedelic pop sound, with a slight, bald male lead singer with melodious voice, and a beautiful lady on Chinese zither 古筝 thrown in for good measure.  They were joined onstage by guitarist Wang Wei from Crystal Butterfly, one of Shanghai’s oldest and most respected bands, which played on Friday night.  According to Lisa Movius, a Shanghai-based journalist who has followed the rock scene (and dated the lead singer of Butterfly) Wang Wei is one of the most talented and respected rock guitarists in China.  If that’s the case, he didn’t get much of a chance to show off his talents.

One of the things I noticed about this concert is that it tended to emphasize the lead singers at the expense of other band members, who were given precious little time to solo.  I don’t recall any standout guitar solos, and only one drum solo.  This strikes me as a particularly Asian phenomenon--at least, the pop music scene in Asia tends to focus on singer/personalities, few of whom actually write their own songs (sort of like the pop diva phenom in the West) rather than instrumentalists, and I wonder if the rock scene is similar.

Another noticeable lacuna was the lack of blues influence.  There was very little in the way of a bluesy sound.  No Jimmy Page or BB King wannabes here.  Nor were there any hints of Hendrix.  This made me think of what blues guitarist Matt Cooper, who plays the Cotton Club in Shanghai and has been on the scene here for years now, once told me in an interview.  Chinese musicians tend to have great musical chops, but they have a lot of trouble playing the blues.  Of course I may be proved wrong over the next few months, but this seems to be one of the genres that’s missing from the rock scene in China.

I could probably ramble on about some of the other bands that played at Rock It! but I think this is a good place to stop.  Overall, it was a great intro into the growing diversity of the indie music scene here.  I plan to follow up on some of these bands in Beijing and Shanghai, and during the concert I made some good contacts with people in the industry.  Wu Jun, the concert organizer, had a lot of fascinating things to say about the scene, and I intend to sit down with him for a more formal interview next time I’m in Shanghai.

So kudos to Wu Jun, Chris Tang (a friendly chap who organized the filming and the amenities for the bands), all the band members, and the others for putting together such a great event.  Wu Jun promises that this annual Shanghai-based event will continue to build, though it could be many years before it vies with the MIDI festival in Beijing.