These days, however, B6 is far better known for his electronic music and production work. The breakout was 2008's Post-Haze, B6's solo debut. Post-Haze established B6 as one of China's most mature producers, and paved the way to the string of successful projects he's had a hand in since: the long-running party series Antidote, which he co-founded with Dada Bar boss Michael Ohlsson in 2005; the creative consulting firm Neocha, of which he was an original co-founder; and, most recently, Reformer, a new venture that B6 hopes will help him bridge electronic music with popular culture — and, of course, pay the bills.
B6 is playing a rare Beijing show on Saturday at Dada under the Antidote banner. Read on to learn about his experimental music pedigree, his subsequent transitions to electronic and pop, and how he's peddling his own vision of music and art in the corporate world:
SmartBeijing: When did you first start making music? What instrument(s) did you play? I know that in the late '90s you played in some post-rock and noise bands, like Godot and Junkyard...
B6: I started making music in high school, around '98 or '99 I started playing guitar. I don't think I can play any instruments (except computer), according to the standard definition of "play." But yeah, at that time I really liked noise and No Wave, even now I really like that kind of music.
SmBJ: When did you first become interested in visual art and graphic design? Was this a separate, parallel interest with music, or did these two sides of your creative practice evolve together?
B6: It's because my major in university [was visual communications], I thought of visual art and music as the same thing. Both are ways to express thoughts inside your brain. Only the means of expression are different. Yes, both sides can completely develop together. But university was really just a boring place, really wasting my time...
SmBJ: What was your first experience with experimental music or sound art? When did you start working in these fields? Were there many other people in Shanghai doing it at the time?
B6: The earliest should be around '97 or so, I accidentally bought a cassette. At the time I had absolutely no idea what it was, I just thought the cover was cool. It was Burning Blue Soul by The The. That was one of the biggest, most significant coincidences of my life. It decided everything that came after. Because of this album, I decided that afterwards I wanted my work, life, and making music to become linked, inseparably close. I thought turning into [The The singer] Matt Johnson, or someone like him, putting out this cool music, that was my true dream at the time. (I'm not sure if this album in the end is considered "experimental" or "indie rock.")
After I started playing music, I was listening to a lot of experimental, industrial, and electronic music influences, like Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten, a lot of Cold Meat Industry releases, Aphex Twin. After that it was a bunch of Japanoise and French [musique concrète] influences. In short, at the time, the context for this music wasn't very developed... Making this kind of music totally required a lot of blind fumbling and imagination. But every time I go back and listen to the music I made at that time I always feel it's really hard for me to make music that cool now, haha.
SmBJ: You described a recording done by an art collective you co-founded, Intelligent Shanghai Mono University, as: “Orientalized violence, refined tastes, and some inspirations from free jazz." What do you mean by "Orientalized violence"? Or "refined tastes," for that matter? How are these concepts relevant to your earlier work as a sound artist?
B6: This side project is a composition using relays of a source signal ... I started it, and then four people relayed it. In the end it came back into my hands for the final processing. The rule for the ensemble was we could only use samples, and most of the samples had to come from Chinese pop songs. As for "Orientalized violence" and "refined tastes," I guess it was something for the music critics at the time to decode. Maybe it's because we used a huge amount of sounds from Chinese-style pop music, then we repeatedly processed and refined them and re-composed them into our own work. I just make music, actually I'm not good at using words to describe music. This is more the specialty of music critics.
SmBJ: You started your own label, Isolation Music, in 2000. What artists did you release? What was the aesthetic of Isolation Music? Was there a strong community involved with it in Shanghai at the time?
B6: People doing this kind of experimental music at the time were very, very few. There was no way to publish it. Now it's totally different. You have a lot of different scenes that are familiar with all kinds of music. But at that time I just self-published my solo project and band. Aesthetically it was a state of Isolation, like the name. With my own label, I just wanted to publish anything outside of the "independent" music scene, away from any outside influence. That time, not only in Shanghai, but all over China, the experimental music scene was very small. We were basically all friends. Unfortunately a lot of people from that time eventually abandoned music.
SmBJ: In 2006 you started producing electronic music with more of a pop sensibility via your duo IGO. A few years later, you released your first solo album, Post-Haze, on Modern Sky, which eventually re-branded you as one of China's leading electronic producers. How did you become interested in this kind of production work?
B6: Yes, that's when my solo music career really started to develop, I had a lot of projects and music-related work. I was just always looking for a path to allow me to do the work I personally liked, in keeping with my practical abilities, and at the same time reasonably able to exist under China's special cultural environment. Shanghai is a relatively dream-like city. And I personally feel that, for me, music and art and pretty much my work.
SmBJ: You've performed extensively across Europe, and have also had your visual and sound art work exhibited in galleries across the world. In your experience, is there much awareness about China's independent music and/or art scenes abroad?
B6: I think the outside world mostly knows China because China's economy is taking off. In terms of culture, China is just now moving down the path of developing its own system. It's very much a conservative, "post-Cold War" path. I'm more concerned about China's relations with the rest of the world, or for Chinese people talking about culture to understand the ways of the world. Our problem lies in the government's unceasing destruction of things that we're familiar with, or have an emotional attachment to. At the same time, it closes us off from receiving benefits from outside groups that want to help. Foreign culture can only be allowed to enter the Chinese people's field of vision, music, fashion, art, etc, after passing through a series of business operations. These circumstances bring about a situation that I personally feel is very "experimental." When looking for positive aspects of this situation, however, you can see that China makes people excited about this "experimental" point. This kind of excitement is very hard to find anywhere else in the world.
SmBJ: Last year, you started working with singer-songwriter Li Quan, moving even more into the arena of pop music. What is your dynamic with him? What do you hope to accomplish with this project that you haven't done with B6 or your other previous bands/solo works?
B6: Right, we've already collaborated on a batch of new songs. The lyrics are all by Li Quan, my team and i are in charge of the music. The original intention of our collaboration was that both Li Quan and I, since we were small, really liked a lot of the same music. The dynamic is a bit like it was in IGO. At the same time, I also hope to be able to put electronic music into mass-consumed, popular music platforms. I've already seen electronic music slowly begin to permeate mainstream music. There's really no conflict between the two sides. On the business end, it's a really attractive investment for me and my company. Overall, I think this project follows from me and my team switching from electronic to pop music composition and teaching ourselves, slowly feeling out how to improve China's standard of pop music.
SmBJ: You're still actively doing experimental music projects. You did a webcast performance with Beijing-based artist Sheng Jie's SHAN Studio in 2011, and I saw you perform at the Sound Art China opening in Shanghai last year. What are you exploring now in your more experimental works, and how does this relate to your mainstream or pop work?
B6: That's a project from two years ago. My starting point was to make a work of conceptual sound art, something without any direct connection to mainstream or even electronic music. It's more connected to contemporary art than music.
SmBJ: In 2005 you and Michael Ohlsson co-founded Antidote. How active have you been as a booker or promoter in Shanghai? You're playing an Antidote show in Beijing this weekend... what can we expect? Will you play a mix of different styles, ranging from more experimental sounds to very poppy stuff? Or do you have a focused plan for your set on Saturday?
B6: Young and crazy years. Actually Michael was the primary person in charge of booking and PR, I really only did performances and design. Over the last nearly ten years I became really good friends with Michael. I also have that period of time to thank for giving me such precious and beautiful memories. After my good friend moved to Beijing and opened Dada there, it quickly turned into one of Beijing's most important venues for independent music. I'm really happy about that. It once again proves Mr. Ohlsson's skill and taste in music. He's still a good friend, but the show on Saturday is not just an obligatory thing. The music will still be mainly the kind of techno and house I played before. To tell the truth, these days I do club DJ performances very, very rarely. But I'll try everything in my power this weekend to show Beijing friends the charm of the Antidote parties from back in the day.
SmBJ: Seems like you have a lot going on... what are the main projects you're focusing on for the rest of 2014? Anything else that you're looking forward to in the near future?
B6: The main thing this year is setting up my company, Reformer. In the future, this company will consult on custom-made artworks for domestic and international businesses and brands, and produce multi-media installations. My team and I have been working on this for a year and a half now, we've invested our life's blood into it. We really have a lot of projects at the moment. One I can leak: this year Cadillac will do an art exhibit, which will include a large installation piece by my company, as well as a few visual artworks and ad design projects. We have a lot more projects coming out that should excite people… but I can't mention them now. We signed a contract.
Catch B6 at the Antidote party on Saturday, April 19 at Dada. Cover is 66rmb. Includes free condoms...