The rise of Beijing’s underground music scene
by Ashish Lohani, guest writer; illustration by Callie Tappe, staff artist
Chinese pop music, known as C-pop, dominates a scene reminiscent of America’s musical environment in the 1990s: countless boy bands and R&B singers crooning sentimental ballads. Record companies carefully manufacture these highly commercial groups that boast little talent aside from their vocal abilities. Rock music in China has broken free from the stifling grasp of the pop world, but still struggles to find open-minded and appreciative audiences outside of major cities like Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing.
Before my two-block class in China last semester, I resolved to make an effort to find that underground scene and go to concerts whenever I could. (Unfortunately, most of my musical encounters involved the electronic/dance scene at bars and clubs.) In talking to my friend Dostav, who is intimately familiar with underground music in China, I found out that the Beijing scene is the origin of the most interesting Chinese bands I’ve found so far.
Before 2006, the Beijing rock scene was saturated with cover bands respected for how well they imitated famous rock bands. As in many developing countries enamored with popular Western music, innovative groups with original compositions that strayed from the beaten path were too adventurous for most audiences. Clubs and bars were forced to hire minimally creative, boring, and safe cover bands. There were, however, a handful of bands that refused to compromise their sound amidst criticism or, even worse, lack of attention or press in the music circuit. Everything changed with the 2006 opening of D-22 in Beijing.
D-22 is a dive bar and a music venue in Wudaokau, the Beijing student ghetto area. Matthew Pettis, the unlikely owner of the venue, is a finance professor at Guanghua School of Management at Peking University. His resumé includes opening a short-lived music club in New York’s East Village called SIN (Safety in Numbers) in the early 1980s that featured influential bands like Sonic Youth and the Swans. A successful financial guru in New York, Pettis first vacationed to China in 2001 to get away from the unfulfilling daily grind. As a dedicated music connoisseur, the potential of the talented yet unrecognized artists in the local scene compelled him to stay longer.
Pettis conceived D-22 as a non-profit performance space that would ignore commercial pressures and concentrate solely on nurturing the most interesting and talented local musicians by providing them with a practice space and a venue that allowed absolute freedom to pursue the limits of their musical imaginations. The management initially worried about finding exciting bands to fill in their weekends, as they were adamant about being selective and not allowing popular exclusive cover bands from Beijing to perform. It only took a year for the music to catch up with the audiences—far less time than Pettis and his partners had predicted. D-22 now has more than ten house bands that perform at least once a month and are considered to be the vanguard of the Beijing music scene.
Pettis created Maybe Mars Records in 2007 as a recording label for the bands playing at D-22. The label is relatively small, employing only eight people, along with three others in its sister management company, Sound Destruction. The label’s primary goal is to create the best possible recordings for its bands, to be distributed internationally. In terms of artistic influence, the management sees the label as a parallel of Factory Records in the UK, which in the 1980s supported seminal bands like Joy Division, New Order, and Happy Mondays.
Maybe Mars Records recently brought a number of D-22 bands to the United States for appearances at SXSW and an East Coast tour, where the bands received critical acclaim in the US press. Investors who fund these endeavors, however, see little profit at the end of the day. Pettis is not worried, according to an article from Bloomberg News, as he believes that these recordings will have a long shelf life and that these bands are the Rolling Stones and David Bowies of tomorrow.
Lately, D-22 has been busy promoting the self-proclaimed Generation 6 bands, a clique of young Beijing acts. Instead of turning westward, the Generation 6 bands are more influenced by their predecessors at D-22. Bands like Birdstriking and Mr. Graceless cite the local scene heavyweights like Carsick Cars and P.K. 14 as their influences, yet their own sounds are distinctive and confident. The venue also recently introduced a weekly concert series called Zoomin’ Nights, which allows experimental musicians to showcase their discoveries in the study of musical boundaries. The event strives to promote the unconventional and inaccessible, and functions more as a forum in which artists exchange and elaborate on musical ideas than as a traditional concert. With its constant desire for progress and its successful execution, D-22 seems to be well on its way to leave a significant mark in the annals of music history.
Recently, P.K. 14 was hailed by TIME magazine as a band to watch and New Yorker critic Alex Ross named a solo performance by guitarist Shou Wang of Carsick Cars as one of the top ten classical music events of 2009. It’s not a stretch to compare D-22 with legendary music venues like the The Hacienda in London or CBGB’s in New York that provided promising artists—the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Sex Pistols—with a platform from which to express their music. In an interview with the website China Music Radar, Pettis said, “Beijing is one of the most interesting cities in the world right now for new music.” For the sake of music in China and around the world, I hope he is right.
Here is a brief overview of some Maybe Mars artists and their albums:
Carsick Cars – Carsick Cars 
Political. No Wave guitars. Harsh noise. Carsick Cars erupted onto the Beijing music scene during the mid 2000s and hasn’t looked back since. Headed by the guitarist and vocalist Shou Wang, a strict student of Glenn Branca’s compositions, Carsick Cars have perfected the art of creating instantly catchy rhythms that have a tendency to break down into glorious discordant passages of feedback and noise. Their debut album includes the song “Zhong Nan Hai,” which has become the unofficial anthem for the underground scene. One of their poppier tunes, it changes midway into a two minute exercise in dissonance before returning to the exhilarating sing-along with which it began. The term “zhongnanhai” has a dual meaning: it’s a brand of popular cigarettes and also the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party. The band denies their political stances—a necessity to get through the Chinese censors, who keep a strong watch on the lyrics of all music releases. The band is also recognized on the international circuit, having opened for groups like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr.
Snapline – Party is Over, Pornostar 
Snapline sounds like a less funky Gang of Four melded with the noisy rock of Big Black. The sound is held together by resounding industrial drum machine loops that would only be played at claustrophobic nightclubs in the seediest part of the town. What started out as a side project for the drummer (who switches to the guitar) and bassist of Carsick Cars evolved into a band that was different enough to hold its own in the Beijing music scene. The album as a whole has an ominous tone, with synthy and screeching guitars, beefy and dominating bass lines, and urgent, high -pitched vocals that lament urban desires and dissatisfactions. They are also signed to Invisible Records in the United States and have released a 7-inch single of their hard-hitting “Close Your Cold Eyes.”
P.K. 14 – City Weather Sailing 
Founded in 1997 in Nanjing, P.K. 14 is one of the most revered and enduring bands in China. Their sound has been compared to that of Sonic Youth, Television, Joy Division and the Cure. The band seamlessly switches from dark and brooding post-punk to beautiful arrangements reminiscent of early progressive rock, as is evident in their latest album, City Weather Sailing. The lyrics, which are exclusively Chinese, tell stories of disaffected urban youth trying to come in terms with sorrow, pain and loneliness associated with their surroundings. The band is known for its energetic live shows, which haven’t ceased to electrify audiences despite being in the scene for so long.
Ourself Beside Me – Ourself Beside Me 
This trio of girls has been cited as one of the most original and exciting acts to hit the Beijing music scene. The band experiments with natural harmonics, melodicas, bike bells and a myriad of other sounds that provide a solid backdrop for the dissonant guitars, steady thumping bass guitar, and the loud yet restrained drums. Their sound reveals a mix of more accessible No Wave (harsh guitar sounds) and subdued Can-esque krautrock (repetitive German music) influences.
AV Okubo – The Greed of Man 
A melodic instrumental band from Wuhan, AV Okubo embodies an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. Their sludgy bass riffs counter the heavily synthesized keyboards and the erratic, spastic guitar lines that seem to be the perfect accompaniment for B-grade action movie sequences. The album is just under thirty-three minutes, yet never lets up its frenetic energy, forcing you to nod to the chaotic rhythms. The production of the album, however, is bit disappointing, as the integral bass lines get lost in the fairly trebly mix.