When Americans think about indie rock bands, they don't normally imagine a band from China. But a new tour featuring artists from China has been introducing cities on the East Coast to a fresh new sound.
Solo artist Xiao He, and the bands Carsick Cars and P.K. 14, all from Beijing, blasted China's version of indie rock to a crowd of about 80 people last week in Gerrard Hall on the University of North Carolina campus.
Xiao began his set by showing off his expert use of his guitar effects pedal. Imagine the on-stage antics of American Keller Williams mixed in with the music styling of Australia's Xavier Rudd and you'll essentially have the essence of Xiao's music.
His guitar and pedals were connected to his computer and which gave him the ability to change the sounds associated with each string. One minute you'd be hearing a gong coming from the g-string, the next, a bird's whistle.
As Xiao played, the crowd, which was still growing in number, sat on the floor or stood silently watching as he programmed all his pedals.
When Carsick Cars came on, the band's lead singer, Shou Wang, told anyone in the balcony to come down and dance. And dance they did.
From the beginning of the first guitar riff to the end the students were dancing, jumping in the air and starting less-than-aggressive mosh pits. The band itself was solid from beginning to end, sounding like a mix between Sonic Youth, The Ramones and Cheap Trick.
"They're definitely some TV on the Radio sound to it, too," said Greg Strompolos, 21, a University North Carolina junior who attended the show.
"One thing you have to realize is that in China, the Internet is just opening up in a lot of ways," Charles Saliba, the Carksick Cars manager, said. "It's unlike here in America where music is a generational thing and everyone listens to music from the previous decade. In China, the past 60 years of music history have opened up all at one go, and that's why bands don't really sound a like there."
'This Is What Sounds Good'
And Saliba was right. When P.K. 14 hit the stage, it turned from light indie music to an all out punk show. P.K. 14's lead singer Yang Hai Song was jumping off the drum set, high kicking his way across the stage like he was a youthful Mick Jagger or David Lee Roth. The band kept the heavy tones coming, very reminiscent of The Sex Pistols and the Vandals.
The students raged on through the set and were spent of energy as P.K. 14 left the stage.
"It was ridiculous," Strompolos said. "They represent their country well because they show an incredible interest in actually making music."
As for Xiao, Strompolos said he had seen him play in Beijing last year and didn't see any difference between the two performances.
"This is what sounds good," he said. "It doesn't matter where it comes from. He's a great live performer."
The bands were discovered by Saliba, part owner of D-22, a music club in Beijing. Within a few years, Saliba and the bands that regularly play at D-22 started a record label, Maybe Mars. After attracting more local talent, the Beijing indie music scene exploded.
"At the club we give these bands a home that puts musicians first," Saliba said. "They have regular gigs and we've built that support structure that music needs to thrive."
Survival for bands in Beijing is harder than it sounds. According to Saliba, there are several different hurdles to overcome in order to make it big.
One of the major ones is obtaining a space to play in. D-22 is only issued a one-year lease on the building, which Saliba said makes it hard to make any major investments because "you don't know if you'll be there in six months or not"
Another obstacle is the culture surrounding the club. Saliba said that about half of the people coming to their shows are foreigners, not Chinese locals, because going to clubs on a nightly basis is engrained in European and American youth, not in Chinese culture. He added that the Chinese are more study and work driven, which makes it hard for the bands to be seen and spread around.
Beijing's Music Scene Faces Challenges
The D-22 club is located in an area of Beijing that is in close proximity to 25 universities. Though the possibility of luring the college students from their studies sounds easy to us in the states, but it can be much more difficult in China. The club and the bands are helping to change that.
"If you're at [a] university in China, their culture has caused you to become a studying machine at a very young age," Saliba said at a pre-show question and answer sessions with students. "Now it's evolving. Wednesday night is college night and it has turned into our most popular night of the week at the club."
Mark Katz, associate professor of ethnomusicology at University of North Carolina, commented on the magnitude of the three bands coming to the U.S.
"It says a lot that these bands even exist when you hear about how they have defied the different demographic, economical and cultural odds," Katz said. "Just listening to their culture and how they don't go out to bars like college students do here, suggests how hard it was for these bands to break through. It's a real treat for the people here and flattering that they came to Chapel Hill."
During the Q & A, students asked the bands if they had any political messages or tended to speak out against the Chinese government in their music.
"We are musicians. Our job is to write songs and recording," Song said. "We shouldn't be affected by politics. The most important thing is to be honest to yourself."
"Many people have a very limited view of China," Wang said. "Bands in America see politics as a fashionable thing. Our job is music not making people think we're doing special Chinese stuff."
As for the remainder of the U.S. tour, Saliba is optimistic about how the bands will be received and said the main goal for this tour was to expose the Beijing music scene to America.
"We need to expose them and build an audience," Saliba said. "Once the exposure is there, the music sells itself. It's international. Everyone can enjoy it."
The Chapel Hill show marked the fourth stop of the first U.S. tour, which started in New York and has three more stops scheduled: one in Waterville, Maine, and two more in New York City.