Godfather of Beijing’s Indie Music Scene Dissects China’s Experimental Soundscape
China’s alternative-punk music scene has evolved from a genre that represented the rebelliousness of a niche group of well-off educated urbanites to one that’s international, hip, and popular. Chinese bands now play to sold-out gigs not only in old “hutong” bars in Beijing, but also at some of the most popular clubs in New York.
The Chinese capital was a rock-free zone until the mid-1980s. But it’s underground music scene today runs the gamut from hip-hop to grunge to noise.
“Right now, Beijing is probably among the five or 10 most important cities in the world for new music,” said Michael Pettis, a former Wall Street banker turned music entrepreneur. “Beijing tends to be almost a bit like New York or Berlin in the sense that it’s much more intellectual about its approach to music.”
Gate to Otherside, a band with the Maybe Mars label, performs at School Bar, a popular live-performance bar in Beijing near the Lama Temple. Photo: Ma Minhui/Caixin
Carsick Cars’ lead singer, Zhang Shouwang, was even anointed an “indie rock wunderkind” by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross in his latest book The Rest is Noise. Listening to the 20th Century.
D-22 also helped spawn one of China’s biggest Indie Rock record labels, Maybe Mars, which two Chinese entertainment companies are now eyeing for a possible purchase, according to Pettis.
Pettis’ love affair with punk goes way back. While working at Bear Stearns Cos. Inc. in New York, he supported a few labels and was the owner of a club in Lower Manhattan that hosted bands like Sonic Youth, Swans and composer John Zorn.
“I am very lucky in that I get to pursue what I really enjoy,” he said about his dual life as as economics pundit and music impresario. “I found finance and economics a lot of fun, and I just love music.”
In 2012, Pettis opened an experimental music venue called XP after winding down D22. He closed XP in 2015, but most nights, when he wasn’t busy teaching or writing copious columns on the Chinese economy for Bloomberg News, The New York Observer or the Carnegie Foundation, where he serves as a fellow, Pettis is seen hanging out in smoky bars scouting for talent, trying to find the next ‘cool’ Chinese bands and artists that needs a platform.
Alex is the base player of the band Gate to Otherside. Photo: Ma Minhui/Caixin
Caixin: In your opinion, how has the music environment in Beijing evolved over the past 15 years? What kind of styles do you hear?
Pettis: When I started D22, in 2005-06, one of the things that struck me was that there really wasn’t a scene in Beijing, largely because there was a complete lack of confidence among Chinese musicians. There was a sense that anything foreign was treated with more respect than anything local. But I saw some really amazing musicians so when I started D-22, our goal was to really focus on the musicians. In a way, it was a very snotty New York club where the musicians were at the top of the pyramid. I think it was the first time they had been treated like such. We were very lucky because around that time, Carsick Cars and its lead singer, Shouwang, had put together a group of bands, all of whom have become legends now. We immediately turned over our club to them because they were just so talented.
(Since then) there was a sort of explosion. Within D-22 in two or three years, it was clear to us that there was this amazing music coming out of Beijing. I think what they needed was just a platform, and someone to take them seriously. Within a few years, people and musicians from around the world were talking about Beijing as a city with a great buzz with a lot of stuff happening; that’s just continued. This year, Carsick Cars was the first band to headline the Psych Festival in Sydney. I would say right now, Beijing is probably among the five or 10 most important cities in the world for new music.
Sun Heting (guitar) and Jiang Mengyang (drums) of the band Gate to Otherside perform at a recent concert. Photo: Ma Minhui/Caixin
But, some critics say ‘Punk is dead in Beijing.’ What do you think?
Well, punk has been dead since 1977; punk is as much an attitude as anything else. But there are very different ideas about punk. There is the sort of “London punk” and the “New York punk.” The London punk was all about a certain style, certain attitude, the right haircut, which bands you had to like and which bands you had to hate. The New York punk scene spun out so many different kinds of bands, from the Ramones to Talking Heads to Blondie. So depending on what you mean by it, it is or it isn’t dead in Beijing. If you mean dressing that certain way and following that whole punk methodology, yeah that’s not really a Beijing thing.
Beijing’s become much more intellectual in terms of its music. Experimental music is very, very big. But if you mean the New York definition of it, which is, “You just do something that you want to do” and not imitate what other people do, then I would say that this form of punk isn’t really dead. But to give you an idea, take our next big project. Beijing has become one of the best new music cities in the world except in one area, which is composed music. There, we’re nothing. In part, it’s because the traditional schools for composers are extremely conservative here.
Yet some of our musicians have already written pieces that have been performed abroad. Most importantly, Shouwang wrote a piece for Bang on a Can, which is the most important new music ensemble in New York, in my opinion. They premiered it last year in January. So what we’re going to do is, if I end up selling all or part of Maybe Mars, I will use the money to start up a chamber orchestra group here in Beijing that will specialize in composed music and then we’ll go commission our young musicians to write music for us. I think there’s a lot of excitement about that idea. That sort of typified the Beijing music scene. It’s much more intellectual, much more exploratory. They’re much more into improvised and experimental sounds. If I had to express the difference between Beijing and most other important music cities, what I would say is that Beijing tends to be almost a bit like New York or Berlin in the sense that it’s much more intellectual about its approach to music.
How difficult is it for Chinese bands or artists to be internationally recognized?
It used to be much harder in the sense that nobody really expected Chinese music to be any good. If (someone) came to support it, they brought a whole set of stereotypes, which by the way is the same problem in China, with (many preconceived notions about) what Chinese artists need to sound like. In the last 20 years, massive (socioeconomic) changes have inevitably created a huge disconnect between the young urban Chinese and mainstream Chinese culture. So they’re in the process of creating this new culture. We don’t really know what it’s going to be like, but everybody has ideas about what it’s supposed to sound like — older Chinese, foreigners etc. But the music (being produced) didn’t fit into those cultural stereotypes at all. So that made it quite difficult in the beginning because people sort of knew what they wanted to hear, but the artists weren’t interested in replicating that. The young artists were interested in music that made sense to them.
Sung Heting, lead singer and guitar player of Gate to Otherside, is the former drummer of the iconic Beijing band Carsick Cars. Photo: Ma Minhui/Caixin
There was an article in Foreign Affairs a month or two ago titled Why is China so uncool? I think the answer is that it isn’t uncool, it’s just that we’re not seeing it because we’re expecting to express coolness in a different way. There’s a lot of really exciting things happening in Chinese culture; it’s mostly been artists who have been the first to recognize it. That’s why our first really big audience was young musicians in the U.S.; they were sort of the first to discover the Chinese music scene.
What inspired you to create Maybe Mars or D-22? Did both happen simultaneously?
It was first D-22. There were so many good bands coming out of there and not a lot of opportunities for them to record. So we created Maybe Mars. It was supposed to be a very small label, just to support some of the best bands. There weren’t good producers in China at the time; now there are. Back then, it was very difficult so we wanted to bring in foreign producers, and a lot of really famous people came at very low prices to help us out. They started producing some of our CDs. It sort of then mushroomed. As the owner, it’s hard for me to be objective about it, of almost every serious list of the best CDs that have come out of China in the last 10 to 15 years, if Maybe Mars doesn’t have half of them, I am a little bit shocked.
How was it as an American to set up your company in Beijing?
Well, there is often a role (that outsiders can play). If you look at the U.S. in the 1920s, there was a lack of cultural self-confidence there. The assumption was that if it was any good, it had to be European. It was very much the Europeans that broke that view. Robert Frost was a famous poet in England before he became a famous poet in the States. The French were really into jazz, whereas we weren’t taking it seriously. That often happens. That’s sort of what happened here in Beijing. I think it needed a foreigner who is very plugged into the New York scene to have the credibility to come along and be able to say in a credible way that these musicians were just as good as anything abroad. So I think that made it easier.
What were the disadvantages, if any?
The disadvantages are just the disadvantages of supporting young artists. It’s very unprofitable. It takes a while for the artist to become profitable and become well-known.
No problems competing with local businesses?
None at all! In fact, that’s why two Chinese companies are trying to buy us. But remember that we’re a very different type of business. We are not a business that’s been driven by the need to make money. We’ve been driven by the need to find artists that we think are going to develop into really good performers and then helping them to develop. We have Yang Haisong, the leader of PK14, one of the most influential bands in China and one of the top producers. We were just able to find great bands. We would see a band and get really excited by it pretty early on in its career and life. I don’t know, we just had the ability to pick really good musicians. It’s very hard to find a really interesting band or musician, certainly one in the rocker or experimental scene that didn’t come out of Maybe Mars or D-22 or XP. It’s always been something that we were quite good at.
Where do you think this experimental culture of music in Beijing is going?
That’s sort of the point; the changes that have taken place in China are so great that the only thing we can say for certain is that they’re going to invent a new way of being Chinese, a new type of Chinese culture, and there is no historical precedent. So we have no idea what it’s going to sound like. Our job is not to have any preconceptions, but to just listen to what the most interesting young artists are doing and try to understand it, and it’ll go off in some interesting direction. China has a fifth of the world’s population, it’s gone through massive changes that has to lead to some very interesting cultural (developments). So we’re just curious to see what it is.