"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.
When I first met Jonathan Alpart, he struck me as a sort of doppelgänger of myself: some recent college graduate from Texas trying to find an entry point into Beijing's beguiling yet hermetic underground music scene. We crossed paths here and there, most often when I'd book his band UVB-76 at D-22. Now his primary project is a web series called The Sound Stage: a bi-lingual (subtitled) video series exclusively profiling rock bands in China, produced by the State-run media company China Radio International, now on its 45th episode.
It's the only thing of its kind, and frankly it's kind of shocking that it exists. The official Chinese media stance on rock'n'roll is not antagonism, but radio silence. Nevertheless, after persevering under constant threat of cancellation for the better part of a year, Jonathan has extended The Sound Stage to a series of live events (he did a short screening at Zajia last week and is planning a major showcase in September) and, even more surprisingly, a China-wide radio show that will air in a primetime slot every Saturday starting in August. Jonathan on how he got here:
SmartBeijing.com: So you're from Texas, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. How did you initially become interested in China?
Jonathan Alpart: It was actually a complete fluke. I was originally studying engineering. I was just kind of pushed into that by a variety of factors. After three years of failing miserably at that [laughs], I decided to branch out and try a foreign language other than German or Spanish. I wanted to learn something exotic. I actually signed up for Arabic, because around that time we were [going to] war, and I thought that could be useful or interesting. I've always had an affection for "the enemy," I've always been interested in the other side. At the last moment, I didn't pay my tuition on time and all my classes were dropped, then the Arabic class was full. So I chose Chinese as a second option. Before that I knew nothing about [China] besides Kung Fu movies, you know... just what most Americans know about China.
[That class] was actually my first A in college, and I sold my parents on it because it was an emerging nation, that kind of thing. My professors were saying, "This is such a great opportunity." The more that I studied Chinese, the more I became aware of China. I was more in tune with stuff going on, I paid more attention to [China] in the media. And it just became a feedback loop, just made me more and more inclined to stay on that path. So I switched majors, completely abandoned the engineering path and did a Chinese degree.
SmBj: How did you get to China in the first place?
JA: The first summer after I started studying Chinese, I came as part of this program to teach English. It was actually kind of a scam. Now that we know as much as we do about China and how things operate, it was totally a scam. But at the time it was awesome.
SmBj: When was this?
JA: 2006. I did that for two summers, and then studied abroad for a semester, and then moved here after graduation in 2008.
SmBj: When you first got here, what was your mindset? Were you trying to get a "real" job? Were you looking at teaching English?
JA: Before I moved here I was already set on music, at least in the backburner. When I came here in '07 to study is when I discovered the music scene. When I was here teaching, I wasn't really in Beijing a lot of the time. We'd only come here to see the Great Wall or something. So I really had no idea about it. And then when I studied for a semester in Beijing, I was just expecting to do calligraphy, maybe learn the erhu, and learn Chinese. And then one day in the dorm room there was a bulletin board where the RA would put stuff up that was going on around the city, and one of them was, "Do you want to see live rock music in China?" So I got a group of friends to go, it was actually at D-22. So we went there, and I think Hedgehog played, Fire Balloon, a couple of other bands. I was just like, "Wow…" I had no idea that any of this stuff was going on. From then it was just this constant exploration. I was on the internet, I became fascinated with it. I got really into New Pants. I was going to shows as much as I could. I would go talk to the bands and I was blown away by how open they were, just totally pretension-free and generous in conversation. So I wanted to try to bring these bands to America somehow.
So when I went back to Austin, I was determined to plan some kind of concert at UT. I didn't know how I was going to do it, but I thought, "Austin is a good music city, there's open-minded people." I joined this student club called the Music and Entertainment Committee. They would decide which acts would play at the university, and they would get funds allocated from the school so they could bring musicians. And I basically pitched this idea and sold them on it. I told them about New Pants, P.K.14, Hedgehog. They were really down for it, so they provided 5,000 dollars, which is not really a lot but it was something. So it looked like it was gonna happen, and I was talking to Modern Sky and all these people. I had never done anything like this before. Literally a week before it was supposed to happen, Bjork said her shit about Tibet. And it all got shut down. I looked foolish, it was awful. It took a long time to recover from that. That was in April 2008.
So I was just totally shattered, but I was like, "I'm not gonna give up, this is still really important to me." Around that time, I decided that I wanted to move [to Beijing]. At that point in my life I was like a hippie, living in a cooperative. I just thought I'd move here, be an English teacher, work 10 hours a week and just fuck around. But then I had a really great conversation with my Chinese professor, Jeanette Chen, right before I was moving. She said, "When I was in my 20s, I worked in English schools in Asia, and I met a lot of people like how you want to be. These English teachers who just do that forever. Before you know it you're going to be 35 and all you've done is teach English. You should do something more than that." So then when I moved here, I wanted to do something with music, and I did want to have a real job too.
SmBj: Eventually you became friends with some of the musicians you'd begun to admire in 2007, and became active as a musician yourself. After moving to Beijing in 2008, how did you go about becoming more engrained in the music scene?
JA: My first job out of teaching was interning at The Beijinger, even though it didn't pay. I applied for that in Texas over email and they said to come in. As an intern I was just writing event listings. I did a couple of email interviews, and then this really nice guy Paul Pennay, who now works at the Economic Observer, he was really cool and let me find my niche while I was there. He let me go out and do some music reviews for the blog.
But when I came back, I found that it was actually quite a tough nut to crack. I realized that it was a very vast city and that there were a lot of people trying to do what I was trying to do. I guess the first time I came, the subjectivity of my own experience was kind of isolating. Upon returning, it was quite difficult to create any kind of value for the music scene here. I didn't really do anything [music related] after that internship until I started working at CRI. In between I taught English, I worked at an education company, and I worked at Kro's Nest...
I did little things, though. I was always trying to be involved. I had a little bit of a footprint here and there. I translated P.K.14's lyrics for their last two albums. When I was a student I did it with my teacher for fun, and I emailed it to [P.K.14 drummer] Jonathan Leijonhufvud. And he said, "Oh this is really cool, if you want to do this go ahead, we won't stop you." And I wore a bunny suit at Guai Li's record release show…
SmBj: Yeah I was at that show. How did that come about?
JA: A good friend of mine, Richard Krause, came to visit me once, and while he was in China I was taking him around and we saw Guai Li perform. He's also a director, and he said he wanted to do a music video for them. And I was like, "Yeah, let me introduce you." And of course they were like, "Yeah, sure!" So he went back to the States, and I went to visit, and we shot this video. It was for the song "Devil Rabbit," and in the video I'm wearing this rabbit suit that he bought online, murdering people. So then he sent them the video and they liked it, and somehow through the grapevine they found me and asked if I would wear a rabbit suit at the show. I said, "Goddamn right I will!" [laughs]
SmBj: You mentioned that you translated P.K.14's lyrics for their album inserts. This is remarkable to me, since Yang Haisong's lyrics are exceptionally imagistic and poetic. The translation must have been a very rewarding task, but also very difficult. What were some of the difficulties you encountered?
JA: Well, I did City Weather Sailing, which was in '08, and I did , which is coming out now, next month. The first one, it was really overwhelming. I was just this wide-eyed fan, and I'd met them at a show. I was like, "Hey, I'm a student, I'm translating your lyrics…" And he said, "Great, email them to me!" So when he asked me if I would do the whole thing, it was like meeting your idol or being touched by God or something. At the time I really idolized them. It was really scary. I was still in Austin, in my dorm room, while they were here [in Beijing], and I still had my dreams of moving here. It took me a really long time. They gave me months to do it. Every night I would pore over it, just sit there editing.
This new one, it's kind of funny to compare… For my show I have to translate lyrics for every episode, so I was like, "I can do this in my sleep now." I kind of just treated it as any other band, although of course since this was something they asked me to do, and it wasn't just under a deadline, I did put more thought into it. But definitely the first time was intimidating. I used every resource imaginable. Online, friends, I would get Chinese people to proofread it, teachers, stuff like that.
SmBj: You just mentioned your show, The Sound Stage, which airs on the China Radio International website. How did you start working at CRI? What were you doing originally?
JA: I got the gig originally through a friend of mine, Lance Crayon, the director of Spray Paint Beijing. He got his foot in the door first, he was there for a number a months. At the time I had just finished working at this God-awful education company, and I really needed something. So I applied. And I don't know if it's just CRI, but State media takes a really long time to get into. It took six months for them to process my application. When I finally got officially hired, I was a copy editor, even though I'd shown them videos I'd made. I guess they didn't want to put me in the video department until I'd eaten shit for a while. So I did copy editing for nine months, and then they put me in the video department where I was doing reports about dogs, cheese being sold in China and whatever.
SmBj: What exactly is CRI? It's a State-run media company, but it seems to focus heavily on international stories.
JA: CRI is purely a State media organ. I'll actually have a caveat for this later, but for the moment: it's a completely State-funded organization. All of its budget comes from the government. It's as much of a mouthpiece as Global Times or any of the others. They broadcast in 60 or so languages. It's a 17-storey building and every floor is a family of languages. Latin languages, English, Germanic, Slavic. So the CRI that you're familiar with is the English department, and they focus on expats in China and stuff like that.
SmBj: What is CRI's main focus, content-wise?
JA: I would give you the PR answer, but I don't even know what that is. Essentially just to present China to the world, I guess. To give the "China perspective" on world events is something they like to say.
SmBj: After you got into the video department, how did you go about pitching the idea for your own music-focused show?
JA: I was doing video reports, and although I thought it was a great opportunity, it was really stifling because I wanted to do a lot more. At that time, there was only so much you could do with video reports for CRI. It was kind of maddening. Especially because they're radio people, and when I was there it was in a period of transition when they were literally just learning about video. It was quite painful at times. I was actually thinking about leaving. But then right around that time, one of the managers approached me about doing some kind of comedy news show, something like The Daily Show, and asked if I'd be interested in hosting or producing. And although that didn't work out, that did spark the idea that there could be more. There's a guy at CRI named Rob Hemsley who's been doing a show since around the time when I started called Reel China, about Chinese film. He was already doing this show, and I thought if he's doing a show about movies, it's only natural that we would have a show about music, especially since there's this incredible source that nobody in the Chinese media is talking about.
So I tried to think of the most tactful way to pitch it. Basically I was thinking about soft power, about how America is really good at it and China just seems to utterly fail at it over and over. I thought this would be a great opportunity, win-win for everybody. I'll get to pursue something that I've wanted to for years, and they'll have an exciting program that people will want to watch about local content that needs to be developed. So with that I made a Powerpoint presentation, and I think it was really just the right moment. I feel that China as a country, and CRI as a microcosm of that country, is very capricious. So literally that week was probably the perfect time. I pitched it and some people who were supportive of me at the moment said to go with it. There was some resistance at first. It was actually technically a series that was under threat of stoppage at any moment for a long time.
SmBj: And now you've done over 40 episodes. After the first few, did you get a lot more internal support?
JA: Not really. I was pretty much on my own up until a month or two ago. It was like, "You work here, you get a salary, you have access to our cameras, you want to do this show, go do it." And that was it. I don't even have a sound engineer. I don't have anybody helping me. I rely on interns who are constantly coming and going, and have their own lives and their own vacations. For a very long time, I felt like they just wanted to see what I could do. So only very recently did they decide to do [more with it]. On September 6 we're going to have a Sound Stage concert at Yugong Yishan. We're inviting six bands that we've interviewed, and it's also going to be an award ceremony. We'll make trophies and give them to the best punk band, best folk band, that kind of thing. But you know, it's a promotional event for the show and for CRI. A year ago, I would have never imagined that would happen. But now [The Sound Stage] has a small marketing team, there's a girl making phone calls all day, there's somebody who's making a website.
I really feel there's been a huge wave of support, and that's connected to that caveat I mentioned before. CRI has recently undergone a huge reform. We now are more profit-oriented. Before it was all government funding, but now we kind of have to make our own way. Now content is king. So I think people are starting to get behind it.
SmBj: You've done some writing about the Chinese music scene as well. I remember one piece you wrote in particular, a feature for Al Jazeera. How did you conceive that piece?
JA: I'm a member of FCCC, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, which is this social club for journalists. So I'm on this email list and someone from Al Jazeera sent an email out to everybody soliciting stories. I asked if he'd be interested in a story about rock music in China, and he said, "Well, we're more interested in hard news, but see what you can get together." So I sent it to him and that was basically it. One thing I want to say is I didn't really like how they editorialized the story before I even wrote it. They said, "We want you to focus on the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong and all the restrictions." I'm like, "That really has nothing to do with anything now."
SmBj: Right, because that piece is about Residence A, and obviously those kids were not even born when all that was happening.
JA: Exactly. So one thing I try to do is just break away from that narrative and re-write it into something that makes sense now.
SmBj: The approach you take with The Sound Stage is interesting because it's more documentary and anthropological in nature. Even the name is straightforward. It doesn't sensationalize the content at all. It's direct, and I think it's an interesting choice. Can you talk about the overall concept of the show?
JA: It was actually kind of by necessity. My original idea was that it was going to be something like a talk show in America, like David Letterman, but just the last part where he introduces the band and talks to them a little bit. CRI has some pretty nice studios with serious cameras. I was kind of expecting it would be something like that. I thought it'd be very talky, that I'd be like, "Hey, welcome to show, I'm here with so and so," and then it cuts to them on a couch hanging out, and then they play. It was a rude awakening when they said, "Nope, you're just gonna go to some shit-hole practice studio. Good luck!" So my friend and co-worker Wang Buwei, my cameraman, he and I were thinking, "What are we going to do with this? How are we going to make this compelling and interesting?" I think it was after we shot the second episode, Low Wormwood, when he and I hit on something. We thought we needed to draw out the contradiction that lies in the music scene. How does this music exist here? Especially when you consider the pre-conceived narrative that people have about China. So it's always been playing with that narrative, and destroying that narrative with contradiction.
So in the Low Wormood video, in the intro I'm acting like this jackass fan. I barge into their hotel room, which is a 7 Days Inn, some shit-hole, and I'm like, "Hey, let's get wasted! Let's trash this place!" And they're looking at me like I'm an idiot, because they don't do that. So it's always been a clash of these two worlds. One theme that I was always push in some of my more developed, comedic intros is I'm trying to bring in this Western misconception of what rock music is, and then it's just completely shattered. I think the best way to show that is just, like you said, anthropological. Here it is. The camera is on, this is all you need to know. A lot of people have commented or criticized that I'm not in the show more. I'm never in the interview. Once the intro is over, I'm gone. I kind of like that. In the intro I always bring in this false conception of what the band should be, and once that's destroyed I'm just like, "You guys take it from here." Hopefully by the end, when the credits roll, people realize what's really going on.
SmBj: Your approach is really different, certainly from other State media treatments of local music (which are virtually non-existent), but also from other informed and independent music critics in China.
JA: There are a lot of people in China who are trying to promote the music, which is fantastic. We're all on the same page. But what I feel is a unique thing about The Sound Stage is I never say, "This band is good" or "This style is what you should be interested in" or "This thing is cool." I think that's an important distinction because on the one hand, as Westerners… If there's truly going to be a creative environment, then the best thing you can do for the artists is remove all restrictions and labels and let them do whatever they want to do. And I'm the same way, I'll see a band or I'll think about how the scene has developed or progressed or regressed over time, and I'll think, "Ah man, what are these bands doing?" or "These bands suck" or "I wish these bands would do this." But as I've been doing the show I've come to realize that this is a movement happening with or without us. The best we can do [as foreigners] is offer support, or even be a part of it with our music. For me, doing the show, I've always just wanted to let the bands do their thing. This country is so one of a kind, not only in its history and in its culture but in its current situation. And nobody can predict the direction it's going, whether it's economically or politically or whatever. So I think the same thing with music, I'm really just curious to see what it's going to be. I don't think it's happening just yet, but I think it's only a matter of time before China invents its own musical language.
SmBj: Which Sound Stage videos do you think have been especially successful in shattering this preconceived notion and creating a different idea of what "Chinese rock" is?
JA: Across the board, one theme that comes up quite a bit is how the bands don't really make much money. I've always thought that was kind of interesting, because that begs the question, "If they're not making money, then why are they doing this?" One conclusion I hope a Western viewer would draw is that if they're not making money, it's because they must love the music. For me personally, if somebody loves the music, I think you can tell. And that makes me like it. I like all genres. I'm into anything if I feel like I can hear the love. So that's something that I hope comes across powerfully. Another thing [we address] is... I don't want to say apolitical, because that seems apathetic, but how these bands are not political. I've seen so many things where people are talking about rock music in China, and they always focus on that angle. Bob Dylan, change is coming, protest songs, blah blah blah. But why does it have to be political? Why can't it just be young people singing about getting fucked up, or whatever they want? That was actually one of the hurdles at the beginning at CRI. People were very concerned that it would be political. They brought this up directly. And I said, "Please be assured that it's not. These bands play in public every night."
I think the lack of a developed market proves some kind of authenticity. I think the fact that it's not political is shocking to a lot of people. Second Hand Rose had a lot of interesting things to say in the interview. [Lead vocalist Liang Long] said a lot of stuff without really saying anything at all. It was all very metaphorical, completely open to interpretation. One thing that he says — literally his words — is that Chinese rock music exists in a crack. There's only a very, very narrow, marginal area where it's allowed to exist, and it has all these rules that it has to follow in order to not be diminished by the powers that be. Again, it was very abstract… At the end of the day, what I hope people take away from [the show] is that here is an environment where there are a lot of restrictions, but [the bands are] still able to express themselves in a way that nobody would predict.
SmBj: Most of the bands you've featured are from Beijing, but you mentioned Low Wormwood from Lanzhou, and you've also covered bands from Shanghai and Xi'an. What is your sense of the geography of rock music in China?
JA: Actually there's a lot of other places I want to go. I think it's definitely centered in Beijing. All bands want to come here. I did an eight-episode series in Shanghai last summer, and Shanghai was not nearly as developed as Beijing. There were like two or three venues, only a handful of practice spaces. In Beijing, I just did the 45th episode, and I'm still going to new practice rooms. Apparently there's a great scene in Wuhan, and Chengdu as well. There's a lot of bands that come from Ningxia, like Wu and the Side Effects, Li Dong, Liu Miao from 2 Kolegas is from there. I don't know how many bands are [still] there, but there's certainly a lot from there. I think Kunming has a scene too. Qingdao as well. There's this weibo called "Qingdao Rock'n'roll Friendship Group" or something that added me, it has a lot of fans. I guess it's like a circle of bands or something. But certainly it's centered in Beijing, without question.
SmBj: Now you're parlaying The Sound Stage "brand" or title into a radio show on CRI's Easy FM 91.5 station, which seems to me to be a pretty big milestone. How did this come together? What is your plan for the radio show?
JA: Again, it was just the right place at the right time. When you live and work in this country, I think you have to develop a sense of… It's a very political country. I mentioned those reforms [at CRI]. When the reforms happened, there was word going around the office that if you wanted something, now was the time to bring it up. Because CRI was very willing to try new things and see what works. So I made a demo and got some of the most palatable Chinese rock music that I could find, and I pitched it. At the time I had already had some support that was building up. So it was really just an alignment of the stars. To be honest, I really don't even know why they agreed. Had it been a few months ago, I would have said there was no chance in hell. It's just the way these State-run places operate. So I pitched the show, and then the manager of Easy FM was like, "Yeah, this is really cool, this is something we want to do." The plan is, it's going to be every Saturday, 6-7pm, which is phenomenal. I was expecting it to be 3am on a Tuesday. I thought it was going to be one of those shows that only weirdos and superfans listen to, congregating together in some bar with a little radio saying, "Wow, they're playing my band's music!" So when they told me the time slot, I was just like, "Holy shit! This is really happening. This means something." I don't know what it means yet, but certainly it means something. So yeah, the plan is to continue doing both of these shows, just kind of at the same steady, snail's pace I've been going at, trying not to rock the boat but just do what I'm allowed to do and see where it goes.
Tune in to Jonathan's radio show on Saturdays from 6-7pm on Easy FM 91.5 starting in August. You can stream it here. You can catch The Sound Stage crew live on Friday, September 6 at Yugong Yishan, when they host their first awards ceremony and feature live sets from past interviewees Nova Heart, Misandao, Rolling Bowling, The Twenties, Dream Spirit, and Dirty Little Secret. In the mean time, you can stream all of The Sound Stage's 40+ episodes here.