"Culture Bureau" is an ongoing SmartBeijing interview series in which we take long, meandering strolls down memory lane with pillars of the Beijing cultural community.
Late last year I sat down with Baidu International Communications Director/Sinica podcast co-founder/pioneering Beijing longhair Kaiser Kuo for what turned out to be a very long conversation about life and music in the capital, and how it's all evolved over the last few decades. Read on to learn about Kaiser's views on the history, the good, the bad, and the "aesthetically very ugly" components of our beloved/often quite frustrating music scene.
...And by long conversation, I mean loooooong conversation. You might have to take a few runs at this one. Fair warning.
SmBj: You first started coming to China in 1981, but didn't stay for longer than a few months until 1988. What prompted the move? How did you initially get plugged into the Beijing music scene?
Kaiser Kuo: I was playing in a band in college and through a business connection of my father's, my band was invited to come to China to play. It didn't end up happening, we couldn't get our shit together. We were supposed to pay for the airfare, and that was it. They would cover all our costs. I was very excited about it. But not all of us had the wherewithal to do this, and in particular one of our band members was really insistent that we be entirely self-sufficient, that we bring our own PA and we bring our own board. I had shown him the list that they faxed over, and said, "Look, this is the backline, there is this gear." And I kept repeating this to the point that I was like, "Why is there this gear? There's gotta be somebody who's using this in China. Why would they have these guitar amplifiers?" And so, it became this sort of obsession with me that as soon as I graduate, I'm going to China with my guitar, and what gear I can carry, and I'm gonna find these guys. And it didn't take long at all.
I arrived in August of 1988. By October I was already rockin'. Before I even knew there were shows, I was playing in them. We called them "parties" back then. Basically if you said there's a "party" at such and such a place, it was assumed there was gonna be a band there. The gear was awful. There were a handful of musicians. I'd say everyone involved in the actual rock scene numbered no more than a hundred people. It had solidified originally around a core of the Cui Jian crowd. A lot of it had to do with the fact that there were, in Beijing, a lot of long-term expatriates. Mostly children of diplomats and journalists who were here for a while. Prior to '88, there was already sort of an incipient scene. This journalist named Graham Earnshaw, for example, was already playing back then. He tells a funny story about how he had this band called The Beijing All-Stars, and one day a young trumpeter came and tried out for them, and after jamming a few songs they kinda said, "Sorry Xiao Cui, I just don't think you've got what it takes." [laughs]
The scene was tiny, and it was not really genre-differentiated. The other sort of nucleus, besides the Cui Jian crowd, was the Black Panther crowd. That's where a lot of people who went on to be pretty prominent in the scene would coalesce. Ding Wu, who was the co-founder of Tang Dynasty, was at that time one of the lead singers of Black Panther. Black Panther wasn't so much a band as a confederation of musicians all playing under that name. They would play shows at universities, sometimes ride the rails and go to these little towns with these sort of vaudevillian acts. [They'd play] these shows that would throw together everything under the sun… there would be guys doing tango, and then there'd be a guy playing accordion and singing traditional songs, and then there'd be a breakdancer, or what they called breakdancers, guys that would pop and lock. Then there would be a heavy metal band. It was a traveling variety show. That was sort of typical for what we'd play.
And then there were these parties where Cui Jian would play, and there'd be a band or two that would play. I remember back then playing in a reggae outfit at one point, sitting in with this Polish bass player and a guitar player from Madagascar. I think he was Eddie from Cui Jian's band's cousin. But you know, I dug. I asked around about what the real early origins were, and I heard mostly consistent accounts about bands like Bu Dao Weng, and another band called Micro Organisms. A lot of the guys who either drifted into the Cui Jian orbit or into the Black Panther orbit were members of these different bands.
The whole thing was an embrace of Western music. There's no question about that. I think that the really important things to tweeze out here are: who were the outside influences on these guys early on? You cannot understate the role of a guy like Eddie [Randriamampionona]. He was the son of a Malagasy Republic [diplomat], he ended up in China for an awfully long time. And he's this guy with this crazy great rhythmic sense, incapable of playing something that isn't wickedly syncopated and really groovin', you know. He's got the greatest right hand I've ever seen on a guitar player. That was a huge influence on Cui Jian. That's where the really early world beat, afro-rhythm and reggae element comes in to Cui Jian early on, there's no question about that. Then the other guys, the Black Panther faction, they were very influenced by the music that was current at that time, as bad as it was. There was a lot of that blues-based rock, but more sort of the Bon Jovi and hair bands. If you talked to any of these guys back then, they didn't have genre commitments or affiliations. They really were so eclectic. You'd see Black Panther and they would play a Bon Jovi song, or they would do stuff that had distorted guitar, heavy pounding drums, but then they would also do George Michael songs, and they would do covers of stuff that are unquestionably from the pop world. They didn't have an idea of what the division was. And it was even more the case in the listening audience, who would've classified rock stuff together quite easily with Madonna or Michael Jackson. They didn't have a clear sense of what divided pop and rock.
[Cui Jian] had his own direction. I would say that he was much more mature at that point, as a listener, than any of the other guys that were playing. He had a clearer sense of what he wanted to do. And he had something really distinct. The other stuff was clearly very derivative. There were bands that sort of crossed between these… they weren't factions or cliques or anything like that. They were just recognizable threads. They hadn't diverged radically at all. They were playing the same venues and playing the same parties, hanging out with the same people.
SmBj: What was the background of people in the late '80s Beijing rock scene?
KK: A surprising number of people had a military background. Their parents were from these jundaoyuan, these big military family compounds. Some of them actually had military intelligence backgrounds. None of them were from abjectly poor families. There were some who were from working class families. The other big group were people who had a gewutuan — State-sponsored song and dance troupe — background. So they came from the big compounds in Hepingli. That was basically it. There were a very few of them who were children of the incipient entrepreneurial class. That was very very rare. I would say most of them were military.
SmBj: In all those cases it seems like the people in the rock scene had some means, there was no one coming from really poor circumstances.
KK: I mean, none of them were conspicuously wealthy. What they did have was foreign friends, and especially foreign girlfriends. Thank you to all those ethnomusicologists who came to China and fell for long-haired rock musicians and bought them guitars!
SmBj: At that time, '88/'89, how were people getting access to outside music? Was it dakou, or was it people like you bringing it in?
KK: No, dakou didn't happen until the mid-90s. Before that it was almost all foreigners. People could really idiosyncratically imprint… I mean if there was a guy who happened to come to China, as was the case, who was a huge fan of The Police, he would bring the entire oeuvre as it stood by '88, and play that religiously and explain why this was the best, why Stewart Copeland is the best, and people would accept that. I was a proselytizer of my own with progressive rock from the US and the UK. You could leave an indelible impression and see the tapes that you made for people or the CDs that you had happened to bring floating around years and years and years later.
SmBj: What kind of bands were you pushing?
KK: You know... Rush, Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, old classic rock stuff like Blue Oyster Cult. Nobody had ever heard of them back then. Or early metal stuff like Sabbath, Judas Priest. That's what I was proselytizing.
SmBj: So was it basically like, there's this small group of people, and you're all going to each other's houses listening to this?
KK: Yeah, that's really what it was. My house was one of the main gathering points, because we had a relatively nice stereo system. We'd all often go to Zhang Ju's house, the bass player of Tang Dynasty who died in 1995. He had this tiny little place. Seriously, it was a nine-square-meter room, and there would be like twelve guys sitting in there with their knees folded, playing song after song and just listening to music.
SmBj: When did this phenomenon begin? I know there have been foreigners here at pretty much every point, but I assume it must have been sometime after Nixon when there would have been more and more people coming in. Was it monitored? If you were bringing music into the country, was it something that you were nervous about?
KK: During the Cultural Revolution, popular music was absolutely extirpated. There simply was none. At the height of the Beatles' popularity, nobody was listening to the Beatles. That was the pinnacle, to them, of bourgeois decadence. You know, [the Chinese government] actually wrote a pamphlet called "How to Distinguish Decadent Music," and it would say things like "the rhythms of jazz are contrary to the psychological needs of man." This was very much rooted in the Communist Party's then perception of art. It wasn't until 1978 that there was even a trickle of pop, when people could actually sing about things that were personal. Things like love, personal aspirations, longings. Every other song prior to that was just a paean to the greatness of the Communist Party, or to their love for country. The other thing is, the role that music has played in Chinese life, except for in a few Westernized areas like Shanghai, was either really rarefied and highbrow, talking about poets with their zithers in the bamboo grove with pots of good wine, or courtly music, which, again, has its origins in the early days, the ritual music of Confucius. You know how musicians were treated in society, they were barely above the level of prostitutes. There were no Chinese people who listened to music for music's sake. There were a handful of classically trained musicians, but that was it. It was an extremely rare thing.
The other thing is, the means by which to listen to music was in almost no one's hands. You had radios, but then you can't play your own media on radios. To buy what we would now call a boombox back then, you had to know someone who had access to foreign exchange currency and could then spend it at the Friendship Store. That was the only place where you could buy a decent stereo system. If you gave someone something like that, it was like giving them a good bicycle. It was just incredibly valuable. When I came to China [in 1986] and I had a Sony Walkman, people were just so blown away by this thing. They couldn't believe the quality of music that was coming out of these little headphones.
SmBj: When would you say it was common that you could buy a cassette player outside of the Friendship Store?
KK: Not until the early '90s.
SmBj: So before that what could people even use besides the radio? Did people listen to vinyl?
KK: No, there was no vinyl here. The distribution of this stuff was entirely State-controlled. There were no private record stores. The only way that you could get your hands on Western music was to have people bring it in from outside China. To be sure, there were no limits on this. You didn't have this stuff inspected in the airport as you came in, so that was fine. The first time I came to China in 1981, I brought a suitcase full of cassette tapes, and I gave those tapes away to my friends because I had the albums back home. I remember giving away Blue Oyster Cult's Extraterrestrial Live to a friend. I gave away some Rush tapes. But it wasn't until '88 when I came back that I really started aggressively giving stuff away to people who were in the rock community. I remember spending many, many nights laboriously copying out the names of songs, the names of the guys in the bands, the label it was on, the year that it came out, the lyrics. I had a typewriter at my parents' house, so I would type some of this stuff, fold it up and stick it in the cassette.
SmBj: So you're making these tapes for people. But out of ten people you knew, how many would even have a tape player?
KK: Maybe two or three. The musicians all had them, but it was incredibly rare. The important thing was to have a boombox with two tape decks so you could dub. I don't know if you're even old enough to remember this, but there were very different types of cassette tapes back then. You wanted to buy what they called high bias tapes. There was low bias and there was high bias, and then there were metal tapes that would have chromium dioxide or whatever. But it was such a difference in how the music sounded. [With] the low bias tapes you lost all the high end after a couple of plays and it just sounded like you were playing it through a drawer of socks. And then the high bias tapes, there was plenty of hiss and everything, but at least you could hear the hi-hat, you could hear everything. So that was the other thing: you couldn't buy high bias tapes. You couldn't buy the metal tapes, except in places like the Friendship Store.
That's why it took so long. There was simply no knowledge of music from the outside world. The number of English speakers was vanishingly small. All sorts of factors conspired. It was only in places that had the possibility for long-term exposure to Western presence where you could see it even happen at all, and that was Beijing.
SmBj: What kind of venues would you play in '88 and '89? Where would these parties be?
KK: There were some near what's now Liangmaqiao. Maxime's was down by the train station. Really all over the place. That was the case well into the '90s. The venues that were hot in the late '90s even, they weren't clustered in any particular area at all. We had this place called the Firefly, which was just up the street from where my parents lived on Yangrou Hutong. There was this place called Club X where a lot of bands used to play. That was on Zhichun Lu, out in Haidian. The only club that was near Sanlitun at all where people actually played live shows was Keep In Touch, which was near the Kempinski hotel.
Kaiser jamming at the Keep In Touch
People would play in a bunch of tiny little clubs. There was one called the Seven Stars Bar where they would occasionally have shows. There was a guy named Nick Driver back then, he and a couple of his buddies would organize shows. The first one I ever played was in October of '89 at this Peking Duck restaurant behind the Shangri La hotel. Occasionally there would be venues at universities. We played at the Traditional Chinese Medicine college, the auditorium there. I think that was like a Christmas show, it was very funny. People were there because they were largely curious. There wasn't anyone who was truly appreciative of the music. [It was] definitely a variety show. You'd still have people coming out doing xiangsheng [cross-talk]. You'd have guys playing pure pop, like singing to a backing track. Live bands were still relatively few in number. They were awful. For the most part we were all terrible.
SmBj: Where were people living in the city at this time? What would the equivalent of a bunch of hipsters living in Gulou now be?
KK: They were really spread out. There was no core at all. Nothing like that. People lived all over the place. I didn't have quite the sense for Beijing's geography that I do now. I had a very limited range. I only understood the world within the second ring road. Zhang Ju lived in Xicheng, Ding Wu lived way far south. There were people who lived on the far west side. Very few people lived on the east side, that's for sure. It was more a west-side phenomenon.
SmBj: When exactly did Tang Dynasty start?
KK: We were already playing together in the nucleus of the band by November of 1988. It wasn't formal until February of '89. At that point, I had gone back to the States for a little while to get more gear, and basically to convince my old drummer to come to China as soon as he graduated. When I came back, Ding Wu met me at the airport, and on the way back he told me, "There's this filmmaker from Xi'an who's doing this movie about a pop singer who falls in with a bunch of long-haired rockers, and learns that what she's doing is bullshit, what we're doing is genuine, and she gets converted to rock, and he wants us to put together a band." And so that's how Tang Dynasty actually started. We all met at this old commune on the north side of Beijing in February of 1989. In the first meeting we said, what's this band going to be called? And that's when I suggested the name.
SmBj: So before that, in November of '88, you were jamming together, but in '89, this movie instantiated the band?
KK: Right, it really was because of the movie. Wanr Yaogun de Feng Pozi, "The Crazy Chick Who Played Rock'n'Roll." It never got made. Or it may have gotten made, I don't know, but not with us, because '89 happened. But not before we had written quite a bit of material, you know, which all went into the first Tang Dynasty album.
SmBj: So after '89 did you have to take a step back from all this?
KK: I had to leave. But they didn't stop at all, they didn't slow down. They got Laowu, the guitarist who's like the first shred master in China. And they kept going. '89 kind of had the opposite impact. It didn't actually put the kibosh on rock at all. Because they were bidding for the Asian Games, China really wanted to show a more open face. So they allowed this concert with six bands to happen at the Beijing Exhibition Center. And that's why Tang Dynasty got signed, and that's why a lot of these other bands got signed.
SmBj: When was that concert? Who else played?
KK: I think it was like February or March of 1990. There was one band called 1989, Jailbird, and there was Cobra... I can't remember the other ones.
SmBj: So would you say that Black Panther was kind of the first core, then Tang Dynasty and these other bands came afterwards?
KK: Yeah, I think it's fair to say that. Dou Wei was of course one of the first lead singers [of Black Panther], him and Ding Wu were both singing in that band. Like I said, it was a confederation of musicians. Ding Wu's then girlfriend would go up and sing a song once in a while, they'd switch guitarists. The only guy who was sort of constantly in that band, the real guy in that band, was Li Tong, the guitar player, who was a fabulous player.
SmBj: When did Tang Dynasty record the first album?
KK: It wasn't until September or October of 1991. I was in grad school, finishing a Masters program. So in '91 I was here only for the summer. The original schedule was that we would go into the studio in July, then I would be able to record the stuff, but it didn't happen. But I did record some of the demos.
SmBj: Were you in touch with people here while you were in grad school?
KK: Yeah, I was sending letters, but I could barely read Chinese back then, and I certainly couldn't read handwriting. Nobody had computers. Occasionally you would risk a phone call, but that was it. We were barely in touch. Really from '89 to '91 I wasn't in touch at all. I had no idea, none of these guys had reliable postal addresses or anything. I sent a couple of notes but they were never replied to. But when I showed up in '91, I knew where they lived and I knocked on the door, and we all just freaked out. It was such a delight. They were so happy about what had happened in the intervening years, of course. I was unbelievably happy. I just couldn't believe how polished they had gotten.
I did a couple of things in '91 that I think were important. When I got there in May, it looked like Zhang Ju was going to be the singer of Tang Dynasty [instead of] Ding Wu, which I thought was just stupid. Because Zhang Ju didn't have a good voice, and Ding Wu has such an interesting voice, and I forced that issue. I insisted that Ding Wu be lead singer. Some of the stuff they had written was just way too poppy. I said, "Look, guys, you need to make a clear break. You need to make sure there's a consistent genre on this record." And I pushed them to be more metal at that time.
Kaiser Kuo with Tang Dynasty
SmBj: Something that's always mentioned about Tang Dynasty is the "Chinese-ness" of the music, pentatonic riffs and all that. Was that a conscious decision?
KK: It was definitely a conscious decision. From the time I started playing in China, I was looking for a way to insert some element of Chinese-ness that wouldn't seem artificially tacked on. I'm glad the process took a while. It would have been easy to sort of take a zither and throw that in there, but fortunately there's a happy coincidence that a lot of Western rock music is essentially pentatonic. That the sort of core intervals in Chinese music, the fourths and the fifths, are also core intervals in Western music. Fortunately there's also a martial tradition in Chinese music as well. It's not well explored, but I went to the stacks and listened to that stuff, and tried to find the music of warfare in Chinese tradition. And I was able to stitch something like that together.
SmBj: What kind of stuff did you find?
KK: The most obvious example is that pipa classic, "Shi Mian Mai Fu." "Ambush" or "Surrounded on Ten Sides." It's quite driving, and it has a lot of clash in it, and it's dramatic. It's got that distinctly masculine, distinctly metal element to it. That was one of the key pieces. I'd heard that when I was a kid, it's very famous.
Pipa classic "Shi Mian Mai Fu
And Ding Wu and them, they were able to play for me a bunch of stuff that they thought was in the genre. We had a very clear shared vision about what it was supposed to sound like. And I think we succeeded. We also really wanted to meld some Xinjiang elements into it. It's very conspicuous on songs like "Taiyang." We weren't just gonna stick with pentatonic scales, there was gonna be melodic minor stuff, Arabic scales. We were gonna do stuff like that as well.
Tang Dynasty - "Taiyang"
It wasn't just the music. Why call it Tang Dynasty? Here we are, trying to take this genre of music that's utterly foreign, utterly alien to 99.9% of Chinese people, and make it somehow accessible, right? What's the vehicle we can use to do this? The name, first. If you ask any kid on the street what was the greatest dynasty in Chinese history, they'll tell you the Tang. Why? The more intelligent among them will point to the fact that it was embracing of foreign influences. If you look at the art of the Tang period, if you look at the themes in the art, if you look at religious and intellectual life, there was a cosmopolitan-ness to it. It was actually this, almost, celebration of the exotic.
So the name was supposed to subliminally suggest that, and I think it really worked. But at the same time, Tang also worked because it's this period of high heroics. It's a time of unbridled savage poetry, drunkards and stuff like that. That all fits. Tang is metal. And if you had a bunch of these tall northern boys with long hair and battle banners on stage, and sword tassels hanging from the guitars, you could evoke that. Because there was another thing that I knew we would tap, which was the Wu Xia, the martial arts epic. Everyone I knew in the rock scene grew up listening to or watching iterations of these martial arts epics. They all knew them by heart, they knew all the characters. I knew that there was this connection between metal and that. It's got chops, it's got a hierarchy of whose kung fu talents are superior. It's got this master-disciple element in it. It's got that testosterone and aggression, all that stuff is in there. But also a sort of celebration of the cerebral, of the warrior-poet. I knew that if you could work that imagery into a band, it would appeal to Chinese people. So that was all the thinking behind Tang Dynasty.
SmBj: Were there any other bands that payed this much attention to concept or stagecraft at the time?
KK: I don't think so. I think that's probably why we did as well as we did. We also looked like what people thought a rock band should look like. Ding Wu especially, he was so incredibly charismatic on stage. And Lao Wu too, he was a guitar hero. He would strike all the right poses, and could throw his guitar around and do all this crazy shit, and people dug it. They had just the right amount of flash, and just the right amount of class, and just the right amount of nativism.
SmBj: So when you came back in '91, that was just for a summer?
KK: Yeah, it was just for a summer. And then I came back again in '92 after I had finished my Masters program, and then it was decision time. Do I continue on to a PhD, or do I come back to China and play? The thing that kept me from staying was that the drug problem was getting really bad here. That's why I decided to go back [to the US]. I was seeing heroin already in the summer of '92, and I just knew it was gonna get really bad. And basically, my family had ties in the public security bureau, and they were saying, you gotta get out of here. Things are gonna get really ugly for your little circle of friends.
SmBj: In '92 you started seeing drugs… at what point did Tang Dynasty become a massive band?
KK: '92, when the record came out. It was recored in '91 but it didn't come out til '92 because they did it right. [The label] Magic Stone — back then it was called Rock Records — put a lot of money into the promotion. They spent a lot of money shooting really phenomenal, groundbreaking music videos. They were incomparable. Nothing like that had ever been done for a Chinese band. They spent the marketing money, they bought airtime.
SmBj: Could you play it on the radio at that time?
KK: No. They had television commercials. And yeah, it went crazy. It went absolutely crazy. By '93, everywhere you went there were cab drivers playing it in their cabs. It was just the weirdest feeling I could imagine.
SmBj: So did Rock Records actually have distribution in the mainland?
KK: Oh yeah, by '92 they were able to distribute in mainland China. They did it in cooperation with China Records.
SmBj: Was that one of the first distributed local rock releases?
KK: Right around the same time, JVC signed Black Panther [and] put out their record. That actually came out [a few] weeks or months before Tang Dynasty's record. Cui Jian of course had [records out] already, but this was the first time that non-mainland labels — in this case a Japanese and a Taiwan-based company — were distributing in mainland China. You could only distribute through [China Records]. It was originally a State monopoly. Later on there were other State labels that had distribution rights, that would distribute for Warner, or for Sony or for Universal.
Left: Black Panther - "Black Panther"; Right: Tang Dynasty - "A Dream Return to Tang Dynasty"
SmBj: I assume that by then you were playing in pretty big venues?
KK: That summer we went down to play cities in southern China, like Shenzhen and Zhuhai and Jiangmen and Guangdong, all over Pearl River Delta. And there were some really big venues. Generally, there would be some guy who would have access to some venue, and knew people in Beijing who could organize the artists. It was really sort of entrepreneurial. Usually they lost money, half the time they wouldn't pay you, they'd run away. There were already guys who were emerging as jingjiren, as managerial talent for these bands. It's kind of shameful to admit, but I never took an interest in the business side of things at all. I still don't, I have no interest at all in the actual business of music. For me it's just always been this happy lark. I never gave a fuck about making money. I thought that money polluted it. I didn't want to spend a second thinking about the commercial side of it, the business. I think that was a negative contribution of mine. I probably should have been a lot more realistic. But I was a kid, I came from a well-off family. I didn't have to think about that.
SmBj: So I guess the other members of Tang Dynasty weren't on the same page with you, they were thinking more in terms of pursuing it as a career?
KK: Actually, yes and no. At least in the case of Ding Wu, he was on the same page with me. He thought that the role of an artist is to be an artist. He would often say to me and to people who would interview him, "I don't think about what the audience thinks, I think about if I like it." Which is very solipsistic, but it was true in his case. I mean, they went off the rails. I came back in '96 after being away for four years, and this time I was asked back, because the band was on the verge of breakup. Lao Wu and Ding Wu were just not getting along, and Ding Wu wanted to bring me back into the band. Zhang Ju had died, and the band was really falling apart. When he played me what they had recorded in my absence, it's clear that they weren't thinking about commercial success. They were doing these seventeen-minute-long weird, ethereal things that were just totally nonsensical and completely unlistenable. And it was clearly the impact of certain bad habits that they had picked up along the way. I mean it was like, "Oh God, this is… maybe this is my fault." [laughs]
SmBj: I guess that gets back to the reason you left in '92, people going in a bad direction with drugs. Did that really affect the music?
KK: I think so, yeah. I think it's part of the reason why Tang Dynasty was utterly unproductive during that time. There were other guys who were really talented musicians who either died, went to jail, or just sort of fell off the map. It was pretty bad. A lot of people were caught up in sweeps. There was one in '92, another one in '97. They'd get everybody. It was usually pretty innocuous stuff, like marijuana. But later on it was for heroin and for crystal meth and stuff like that. It was bad. And I kept hearing about it, and it kept me away. I cut my hair short in '95, I was like I'm ready to not do this any more. I lost my chops such as they were, I'd not been playing. I was in grad school, teaching all the time, trying to write a dissertation. I just didn't have time to fuck around on guitar. So I came back and I was rusty. But the first job was to clean everyone up, make sure everyone was not doing smack any more.
SmBj: When you say you were asked back in '96, how did that go down?
KK: By that time it was much easier to stay in touch. Part of it was my sister was in Beijing through most of that time, and she was very close to all these guys still. At that point Ding Wu and my sister were actually dating, and my sister was really heartbroken because she had just discovered that he was using again. So it was partially for that, to rescue that situation, and partially because Zhang Ju had died. I felt really awful that I couldn't get back to China for his funeral. I just didn't have the funds, didn't have the time. And so I managed, finally, to get back. I quit grad school after the Fall semester of '95, and basically started scraping together money to get back to China. I ended up going back in the summer of '96. And the first thing that we did when I got back was we recorded this tribute album to Zhang Ju.
"Zai Jian Zhang Ju" tribute album
Then, Tang Dynasty was breaking up. I did my damnedest to keep them together and still not play in the band, but by September of that year it was pretty clear that they weren't gonna stay together. So I acquiesced and re-joined. Not really wholeheartedly, I have to say. I still thought I really had to go finish my dissertation. I still cherished hopes of becoming an academic again. But everything was on such an upswing. We were playing shows again, everyone was healthy, we were writing stuff I really loved. These were some of the happiest years of my life, '97 and '98. It was phenomenal.
Tang Dyansty's second album, "Epic"
I wrote, I'd say, most of the second album. Which didn't do nearly as well, the recording was awful. We did it very indie. We were no longer with Rock. I have no idea why they went that way, it wasn't my choice. We brought in a Japanese producer who seemed to very much know what he was doing. Our big mistake was mastering it ourselves and not sending it off to a mastering studio. One of the biggest problems with the album is that the volume is very low. They forgot to turn this knob in the studio. But I stand by a lot of the songwriting, I think it's really good. And it was a very different album. It was much less metal and more progressive rock.
SmBj: When you started playing again in '97, were there any bands that had come up in the interim? Who were you playing with in the late '90s?
KK: Chao Zai was one, Gao Qi's band. He was part of the old guard too. But his band was great! Their first album especially, Overload, I absolutely loved it. There were bands like Iron Kite, their guitarist later on replaced me in Tang Dynasty for a brief period. Crazy, wonderful bands like Confucius Says. They're sort of China's Primus. Bands like Thin Man, for a while [they were] really great. They got super annoying, but when they started off I was quite good friends with them, and they were great. I'm still really good friends with their first guitar player. Second Hand Rose, I thought they were doing some really interesting stuff. Xu Wei, if you listen to his first couple of albums, was actually quite rocking. Kind of Seattle-influenced back then. There was a lot of that happening back then, a lot of the sort of grunge stuff coming in. A lot of bands that were inspired by groups like Jane's Addiction, alternative rock stuff that was really groove-heavy, and I loved that stuff.
SmBj: By this time there was dakou?
KK: Yeah, it exploded in the mid-90s. Suddenly it was impossible to keep track of everybody. And then also the genres had differentiated by then. There were people who were suddenly self-consciously part of the punk movement, and people who were self-consciously metal by that point. I wasn't aware of any punk bands until about '97 or so. He Yong kind of styled himself as a punk. You wouldn't have called him "punk" back then, but by '97 or '98… And also Xie Tian Xiao, his band Cold Blooded Animal, they had elements of post-punk. You could call them grunge or you could call them whatever. You saw that it was coming in. But it was interesting because in China, the grunge thing preceded punk really. It was this sort of odd chronological order. It was interesting too because a lot of the guys who were punk weren't really ideologically punk at all. I find out later that these guys who played in Reflector or Brain Failure went home and listened to Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. It was like, "Ew, really?! You're supposed to be punk!" You can see bands that really crossed genres like that.
Demerit - "T.Z. Generation"
One of the bands I really dig [is Demerit]. What do you call them? Do you call them a metal band? Do you call them a punk band? Punk bands aren't supposed to have wailing guitar solos. But you look at a band like Demerit, what are they? They're cool, whatever. I met those guys just a couple of years ago at a show we were playing. There's these guys who kind of look punk but they're wearing Maiden t-shirts. I'm like, "Are you wearing that ironically?" "Oh no, we love Maiden!" And they get up there and they're playing Maiden songs in soundcheck. That's wonderful, I'm glad that that's happening. They actually have technique, which is refreshing. I get punk, I understand what it was a reaction to in America. I don't understand it in China. Show me where there was overproduction, technical bombast, and too excessive self-seriousness among musicians in China. Would that that had happened, I would be happy, but it never happened. So what is it supposed to be rebelling against? In terms of musical rejection, what was it repudiating? It didn't make sense for me at all. Show me a band that was any good, that got too good… None of them were. They all sucked! Tang Dynasty included. They didn't know how to produce, they didn't know how to record. So I thought it was weird and it was out of context. I get it in the West, I see why disco and progressive rock needed to be taken down. It had become too much of an elite priesthood, too much of a so-called meritocracy. It needed some leveling. We weren't done with it in China by any stretch. Same with post-rock in China. Why are we ready for post-rock? We haven't even done rock right yet.
SmBj: Yeah, even now there are so many post-rock and noise rock bands in Beijing.
KK: Yeah, that's what I can't stand. I think it's been hurtful to the scene and not helpful. What you end up with are these posers. I want to see musicians slog through the actual material. Otherwise it's just hollow. It's like post-modernism in literature. Show me that you can write first, show me that you know the canon first, that you at least understand the body of literature that you are now professing to critique. Don't do an end run around that, get up on this hill and then adopt some post-modern critique and snipe at it that way. That's not honest. It's the emperor's new clothes. This Carsick Cars bullshit, and [people] talking about him like he's some fucking virtuoso. I don't get that. I've seen him, and it's like, ok, so he can make his guitar feed back… I don't get it. I don't see what he does that's so special. I can hold up Steinbeck and I can hold up Dan Brown and I can tell you why Steinbeck is a better writer than Dan Brown. And I can do the same for music.
At least in the US I can understand it better. It doesn't have that sort of transculturation element, it's not just imported out of context into a weird soil. I get it in the United States a little bit better. I think destructivism has its place. The iconoclastic teardown thing has its place. And I've seen that at least some of the punk guys have gone on to do interesting things. Others that have just dived into more senseless hedonism and nihilism. There's so much worship of Joy Division and stuff after that, New Order, and from there into basically shitty club electronica, that downward, 24 Hour Party People idiocy. I really loathe that stuff. But on the other hand, you see other guys who have taken that same rebellion against the excesses of prog and disco in the late 70s and then done interesting, truly musical stuff. Like Big Audio Dynamite, stuff like that. There were musical ideas in that. You can keep some punk aesthetic. I mean one of the bands I love the most, a band out of England called Cardiacs, obviously has its roots [there], and people have called it "prunk" or "pronk", you know, prog punk. I think the energy, the anger of punk can be harnessed well. Where it converges with metal and hardcore, that stuff is insane. A band like Helmet, that's great. But what they all have in common is that it didn't end at a repudiation of musicianship. It offers something positive in its place.
SmBj: Let's go back to this word, "poser." The other day you referred to Zuoxiao Zuzhou as the "biggest poser." Do you see something similar in his approach?
KK: Exactly. He could never play a lick to save his life. That whole No bullshit that he was doing in the late '90s, it was just the kind of thing that the foreign art crowd here built up. He was a product of that. He was just sort of this poser, a big ass poser. He's still a poser now with Ai Wei Wei.
SmBj: You think he was specifically part of a foreigner art community?
KK: Yeah, all these things are tied together. Arts and music, it's the same thing. You've seen this happen a million times before throughout the last century, where there's this battle between people who say you ought to be able to paint photorealistically, you ought to understand light and shadow, you ought to understand depth, and then you can go on and be a Picasso. And you can see that when Picasso does what he does, it's different from a five-year-old. People who say that Picasso's later stuff looks like my five-year-old could have done it, they're wrong, but there are painters now who are no better than my five-year-old. And there's also this whole type of art which I call "McStruggle." You take cultural revolution iconography and pop art and blend the two, and it's really cynically turned, and it's aimed at a Western audience. That's what I feel like a lot of these musicians are doing. I think a lot of the punk scene was guilty of this, a lot of the post-rock scene is guilty of this. They know what's gonna bring all the hipster students from D-22 to the show. And it's not honest. The English lyrics and all that stuff. Or the insertion of politics that are really flimsy. They don't believe this, they don't know this. They know what's gonna sound good as a sound bite on CNN.
So-called "experimental music", or noise rock or whatever... I think that the idea is not inherently bad. Of course there are bands that are classified as avant-garde or experimental that I absolutely adore, like Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. I think they're one of the greatest. But, these guys are so crazy gifted, there's nothing that they can't do. They can play any other genre of music. I have this argument all the time with [Maybe Mars label founder] Michael [Pettis]. We are so philosophically, diametrically opposed on this issue. He really believes that musicianship has nothing whatever to do with music, and for me, to overstate my case, I think that's like saying literature has nothing whatsoever to do with literacy. I certainly am not a virtuoso, I'm nothing close. I'm not very good. But I can hear it, I know the difference. I don't pretend for a moment that I have attained anything like that. And yes, I absolutely recognize that there is such a thing as going way overboard, as doing virtuosity for its own sake, and that is repugnant to me too. But I think that if music is about expressing a range of emotions, that expression is best achieved by possessing mastery of the expressive tools. If I'm a painter, I want to be able to paint whatever image comes to my mind. If I lack the ability to do that image, I'm frustrated, I'm stymied. I'm not able to do the art that my imagination can summon up, and that's a problem.
SmBj: What about a band like FM3, who are classically trained musicians playing experimental electronic music?
KK: My beef with this is that, look, there are so many other time signatures than 4/4, there's so much that you could do that would be sort of interesting atop a 4/4 beat. I feel like it's important that we continue to explore electronic music, but we're nowhere close to actually combining the technique and the technology. We're nowhere close to having those things converge and become art. I haven't listened to FM3 in years, but I'm not into that stuff. It doesn't emotionally speak to me at all. It doesn't have the impact on me that the Beatles does, or that Led Zeppelin does. It feels so inhuman.
SmBj: You mentioned that around '95, Tang Dynasty was going in some pretty weird directions. Around that time Dou Wei was also starting to do more ambient electronic stuff. What's up with that? Was it drug-related?
KK: I think a lot of it was related to drugs. Dou Wei at that time was a big stoner. Ding Wu and Zhang Ju were doing heroin. I don't know about Zhang Jian or Christiaan [of FM3]. At that same time there were also a lot of metal bands getting started. In '97 and '98 you started seeing the first extreme metal bands getting started, which was pretty insane. And then you started seeing the first thrash bands, bands like Tomahawk and Suffocated. You started to see the first death metal bands. So I don't know what the dominant wave was. In '95, I don't know, I wasn't here. But there were some not really wonderful results at that time for Tang Dynasty.
SmBj: What did Tang Dynasty recordings from then sound like?
KK: What I most clearly recall was this seventeen-minute long thing. Ding Wu explained it as a conversation between a dying man in the desert and his camel. It was just crazy. It was music of the insane. It made very little musical sense to me. In that same period they'd also written some stuff that was usable, that we incorporated into some of the songs that went on the second album, including some of my favorite songs on that album. There were elements that came out of that period that were wickedly mystical. They had both gotten pretty into Buddhism at that point, so a lot of Buddhist themes had worked their way in. Which I think was always one of the nice things about Tang Dynasty, that kind of Zeppelin-esque mysticism.
SmBj: What did that seventeen-minute jam sound like?
KK: It was very ethereal, there was a lot of backward playing, backward-recorded guitar. There was also backward vocals on it, like conversational vocals. If you've never heard Mandarin Chinese spoken backwards, it's very, very strange-sounding. There were long passages with no drums at all. It was just utterly strange. You know, psychedelic, but psychedelia still has some patterned order to it. This didn't, at all. It was really, really random. It seemed deliberately random. I was so appalled on hearing it, I was like, "Oh my god, you guys have run completely off the rails." And he admitted to me, it was entirely the result of tripping. They weren't just doing heroin, they were doing some psychedelics too.
SmBj: So '97/'98 were the halcyon days, what did you do after that?
KK: I left in '99, and that story's been told a million times, all the reasons for the departure, the Belgrade bombing and all that stuff. And then I took a real break from music until the end of '99. It wasn't until early 2001 that I started playing again. A guy that I had met in Kunming, a guy named Yang Meng, I'd met him probably in late '98 when we were touring before our second album came out. We became pretty good friends after one long night of acoustic jamming in a bar. He had the same vision as me, Chinese folk with Western rock mixed together. I really liked his melodic sense, he has a really good voice. So I said, "We've gotta do something together some day." In late 2000 he started to come around and say, "I want to get you back in the scene, you gotta play in a band again. I have this great idea for a new band." And I said, "I'm done. I'll help you guys out, but I'm not playing in any more bands." So he came back again, and this time he brought a guitar with him, and said "I'm gonna show you some of the stuff that I'm doing." And I said "It's really good, I like this, I'll help you out however I can, but I'm not gonna be playing." Next he came with this other guy, this guy named Kou Zhengyu. "I want you to meet this other guitar player, you and him would sound so good together. Let's do this, let's start this band." And he basically swayed me at that point. The stuff that he had done to show me was so compelling, I said ok.
Left to right: Kou Zhengyu, Yang Meng and Kaiser Kuo in Chun Qiu (Spring and Autumn)
So we started Chun Qiu in January of 2001. And it was a slow start. We spent a lot of time rehearsing and writing. We threw out a whole bunch of stuff that we wrote, only kept about eight or nine songs that we liked best and then finally in 2006 put it all down. We were always sort of underground. We played festivals, we played some bigger shows, but I had told them that my rule was: you cannot count on me to do anything. I'll show up at rehearsal, I will write songs, I will always not let things get in the way of gigging, but I'm not going to lift a finger, I'm not going to make our website, I'm not going to leaflet, I'm not going to book shows. That's what you guys have to do. I'm not going to lift a finger. You can use the fact that I was in Tang Dynasty all you want, but I'm not going to do a thing. And I stuck to that, I never did. So we only have the one record to show for all these many years. We've played hundreds of shows, and it's always been fun. And for the last couple of years we've done a lot of unplugged shows, which is a really interesting new direction for us. The time's just gone so fast. In '03 I got married, in '04 we had our first child, '06 we had our second. I've had very demanding jobs all along the way. As a freelancer supporting a small family, I had to write an awful lot. And then working for Ogilvy, and then working for Baidu, these are full-time, very demanding gigs.
SmBj: You never really left Beijing from the time you moved back in '96, right? And in '99 you left Tang Dynasty. What was your career progression after that?
KK: In '99 I joined an internet company, and that went until about 2001. And then in 2002 I started freelancing. Writing, supplemented with speaking. Mostly tech. I still am deeply interested in the internet. It all started because in '99, when I quit the band, I took stock and said, "Ok, what can I do? What's happening? Where can I possibly find gigs that I'd be interested in?" I looked at my abilities such as they are, and realized that my best bet is to find editorial work at one of these new internet companies that are being funded left and right. There's so much venture capital sloshing around in these channels in Beijing, so I almost willed it into existence. The very next day after I left Tang Dynasty, I got a call from a guy who had just started an internet company and had gotten investment. It was called ChinaNow.com. Jerry Chan used to work there, a lot of people who went on into the That's Beijing world and the Beijinger and all that had roots in ChinaNow.com. We had VC funding, and we almost got acquired. It was a heartbreaking story, but it was one of the more fun jobs I've ever had. I was the editor of the English side of it. We had great people writing for us, we had guys like Rob Schmitz, who's now an NPR correspondent in Shanghai. We had Pete Hessler writing for us, who's now quite famous. A bunch of guys who were very talented.
After that it was pretty easy to segue into writing about the internet. From there I got a full-time job as bureau chief of a technology magazine called Red Herring. So naturally as these advertising companies were looking to remake themselves for the digital age, a lot of them looked to people who were prominent [in that field], so that's why Ogilvy approached me from Red Herring. I didn't find I liked the advertising world much at all. It wasn't a perfect fit for either side. And then I stopped and started doing consulting work and PR for [Chinese video site] Youku while I was working on a book. Seeing our savings starting dwindle, I took my wife's — you could euphemistically call it "advice" — and started taking meetings with the headhunters who would call. One of them was working on behalf of Baidu, and it was such a perfect fit. I saw right away, I could just kill this. The offer was great.
SmBj: When did you join Baidu? What is your role there?
KK: 2010. International Communications Director. English and any other language or country outside of China. Whether it's France or Germany or Brazil or whatever media outlets want to cover us. As long as it's not China/Taiwan/Hong Kong. And it's not just media, I'm also responsible for government relations outside of China, and for brand evangelism.
Left to right: Kaiser Kuo, Baidu bear, US Ambassador to China Gary Locke
SmBj: Is there any overlap between your current professional life and your previous time in the rock scene? I'm sure people you interact with professionally must know...
KK: Yeah, everybody knows. There's basically no overlap at all. The only overlap is that I have a personal mission. Whether I like or don't like the work that I'm doing or the thing that I'm involved in, I feel like I'm fulfilling that personal mission, which is to build people-to-people bridges between the Anglophone world and China. Try to encourage a little bit of fucking empathy where there's sadly little these days. I'm absolutely doing that right now with my Baidu gig. I was certainly doing that with Tang Dynasty and Chun Qiu. I probably wasn't doing that while I was at Ogilvy, and that's probably why I wasn't very happy there. That's the only place that the two worlds really touch one another. It isn't a similar skillset, exactly. I'm always gonna play music in some capacity. It's a great outlet, it's a great way to burn off whatever creative juices that aren't easily directed into whatever day job stuff. Baidu is very demanding, I can't keep too many balls in the air at the same time. I have this podcast that I do, and that actually does have a little more relationship to work, because I need to keep current. It's not a bad thing for my job for me to be in a room with leading journalists every week. But music's increasingly difficult to fit in. Family has to take precedence. So even musical outlets there… I spend more time sitting at the piano with my children or teaching my daughter to play guitar. We're a long way from being able to jam together, but she's into it. [My son] likes really hard stuff, he likes stuff that makes him bang his head. He likes Lamb of God and Slayer and stuff that's just super aggressive. And he also likes early '90s vintage gangster hip hop stuff, like NWA. Anything that sounds super aggressive. He's overflowing with testosterone already at [age] six. He definitely likes metal. They've discovered Baidu music, and I make little playlists for them.
SmBj: When did you start the Sinica podcast?
KK: We had the idea in the early spring of 2010, Jeremy Goldkorn and I. There was a dearth of podcasts about China, and both of us know so many people who could be guests. Jeremy had the brilliant idea of approaching Popup Chinese with this. We both know the guy who was doing Popup. He has a studio, he already is producing podcasts daily, he has a readymade audience. We meanwhile could bring him business and bring in traffic to his site. So it was a perfect marriage. We started it with a week's preparation, just said, "Ok, let's do this. Get a couple guys, go into the studio, let's see if it works." And we've kept it up ever since. Two and a half years now, a hundred or so episodes. We kind of found roles for each other. I'm the straight man, he's the guy who's gonna fly off and get angry about Communist Party malfeasance. I'm the one who's sort of the level-headed moderate, not spouting so much my own opinions as moderating the conversation.
SmBj: Is it a for-profit venture?
KK: No, nobody sees a cent. We don't pay guests. We have a little bit of a budget that Popup Chinese gives us if we want to fly people in domestically, so if there's somebody doing interesting work in Xinjiang we can fly them out to Beijing to be on the podcast and put them up in a hotel for a night or two. We can pay for that. But no, it's entirely for fun. It's just because I'm interested in doing this. Again, it's part of the mission. It's building bridges of understanding, and hopefully trying to put a little nuance into the way that China stories are covered.
SmBj: And you started that concurrently with starting at Baidu?
KK: Yeah, almost exactly at the same time. I mean, we started Sinica just before, and then I wanted to keep it going so I talked to my boss at Baidu as I was being interviewed, I said, "Look, I do this, and I'd like to continue doing this, and I hope you will see that it will have benefits to the work that I do. I'll always make sure that I'm not conflicted, I'll always make full disclosure about my Baidu affiliation on the show." I definitely don't leverage the show to help me at Baidu. Only just tangentially, yeah, sure I do my job better if I'm considered somebody who's legitimate, trustworthy, and credible.
That's about it, that's about my whole story.
SmBj: Ok, last question. You're not as active as a musician now, but what about as a consumer? Earlier you mentioned some of the trends in the contemporary Beijing music scene that you find disturbing. What current Beijing bands do you like?
KK: That band I saw the other night, The Last Three Minutes. I thought they were really interesting. What they're doing... I mean, let's call it what it is: it's prog. They never go three measures without changing time signature. Their stuff is so deliberately atonal, it's almost like they steer so deliberately away from the ordinary, from major or minor scales, from anything that sits easily on the ear. And of course that's gonna be alienating. They're a band that's only gonna appeal to people who are musicians. And even then, most of them are gonna find a lot of what they're doing to be aesthetically very ugly. I mean it is, it's very angular and ugly and jutting. But it's also super tight. You can see that these guys are in it. They're great in that way. They also suck because it's just so awful, it's at once really musical and very unmusical. I can't say that I like it, but I can say that I find it incredibly interesting. The first few measures I was like, "I can't believe how bad this is." But then I said, "Ok, now I get it. Now I see what they're actually doing." But it felt like it was just horribly bad mistakes for the first thirty seconds or so. I felt like, this is gonna be punishing to listen to. And it would have been if they had played more than three songs. I probably would have walked out. You've already made your point, I get what this is about. If I could tell them, "Ok, here's what you should do," I would have them do some of that stark and ugly stuff, but juxtaposed with... Show people that you actually do have a normal person's harmonic sense first, jar it once in a while and it would actually be more effective. Show them that you can lay down a wicked groove. They were so soulless. And that's fine, you can do that, but show me that you have melodic sensibility that you can then go defy.
The Last Three Minutes (photo by Jeff Yiu)
Bad Mamasan, I fucking love them. I think Jaime Welton is probably the single most talented musician working in Beijing today. He's not Chinese, but so what. This is a cosmopolitan town. They're mind-blowing. Amazing Insurance Salesmen, again, they suffer from some of the same problems as The Last Three Minutes, where their abilities as musicians are on such conspicuous display sometimes, but they're very good. They can lay down a nice fat groove. I especially like their bassist.
There's a whole bunch of metal bands that I absolutely love, that's taken for granted. The one that I would point everyone to is called Yu, they're called Die From Sorrow in English. They're fucking out of this world. So, so good. Their songwriting is so mature, very smart. It's the metal idiom, people compare them to Children of Bodom. They're super, super chopsy, but it's all chops in service of musical ideas, rather than for its own sake. Suffocated, of course, still an old venerable metal band, sort of melodic thrash with deathy vocals. But wow, they're so good. Their guitar players are so good. That's about it. Those are the metal bands that I would watch for. I mean, Yu is produced by Kou Zhengyu, who is Chun Qiu's other guitar player, and he's also the main guitarist in Suffocated. He's one of my favorite musicians.
Kaiser Kuo playing with Bad Mamasan at Yugong Yishan, Beijing
More Kaiser Kuo at the Sinica podcast.