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Gonzo Worldwide: John Yingling
We talk with the director of music doc The World Underground ahead of his (China-version) rough cut premiere on Thursday at Yugong
By Jul 9, 2014 Nightlife

American filmmaker John Yingling is back in Beijing. Maybe you've seen one of his Kickstarters. He spent two months in China last Fall, and filmed about six thousand bands for a project called The World Underground. Here's a short cut of all that:

John honed his "dude who goes to every gig and films with whatever camera he can afford at the time and throws it up on a blog or something" aesthetic while living in Chicago, starting the now-revered Gonzo Chicago archive in 2007. An interview with Montreal's Handsome Furs in 2011 sewed the seed for a trip to China, which John made happen through manic remote emailing, successful online fundraising, and the sheer will to pack up a camera and a few mics and jump on a plane with little in terms of a "plan."

So John's back now to embark on another tour — this time hitting China, Korea, and Japan — but first he's going to give a little something back to Beijing: tomorrow (Thursday, July 10) at Yugong, he'll premiere a rough cut of The World Underground: China. The screening will be followed by live sets from some of the bands featured in the film, including SUBS, Chui Wan, Residence A, Diders, and Stolen from Chengdu. Damn solid lineup.

Read on to learn more about John's process of getting out to China, his experiences sharing the van with PK14, what he had to cut out for the "China version" of the film, etc...


photo by the Foukographer

SmartBeijing: I remember talking with you in the early stages about coming out to film bands in China, but what was your process? How'd you get the idea for The World Underground, and how did you make it happen in China?

John Yingling: In China, it started with Handsome Furs. I interviewed Handsome Furs in 2011… It was the first and only real interview I did for Gonzo Chicago. They had just gotten done with their huge, huge China tour, and they wouldn't shut up about it. For like two and a half hours we talked about China. I was already interested in it, because I knew Hedgehog and PK14...

SmBJ: How did you first encounter those bands?

JY: Man, I don't really remember. I think it was a mixture of your site, pangbianr, and [that documentary] Beijing Punk. I don't remember how I found out about Hedgehog and PK14, but I knew of them. And yeah, [Handsome Furs] just gushed about China. They loved it. I didn't know that they were maybe thinking about moving here and the whole backstory at the time, but we just talked about it for a long time and I put the interview up. It turned out really good.

Handsome Furs at D-22, Beijing (photo via IndieRay)

Then I started to dig around, and that's when I got back to your site and dug through it for more than like a couple minutes. I just dug and dug, everything you did I just researched at length. And I emailed you, and you didn't respond... At the 7 month point I actually moved to Montana, and I had the idea in the back of my head. In Montana, I was like, "Well, this would be a great opportunity to test if I could go into a random city and just drop in and start doing what I did in Chicago, and just see if people are into it." And they were. It was really ridiculous to me, because I didn't ever expect any of this to keep going like that, to be sort of official. To me it was just a stupid thing that I did, and I didn't ever expect it to go anywhere, really. Because DIY stuff is pretty low on the totem pole, you know. But yeah, I moved to MIssoula, started just tearing into it, and it was awesome. People got on board right away. So, I emailed you again, and I emailed Alexei from Handsome Furs, and she responded back telling me that she had just gotten divorced from [Handsome Furs co-founder] Dan Boeckner, and sent me the heaviest email I've ever gotten. It almost made me cry, it was just so heavy. She was like, "You have to do this idea. And you have to do China first. Nobody knows, all the documentaries are shit, they're all about Beijing and they're all about like two bands." And I kind of agree in the sense that nobody really covered Guangzhou or Chengdu or Xi'an or any of that stuff.


So you responded, like, two days later … and then you forwarded it to Nevin [Domer], and Nevin made me jump on the PK14 tour. And that was that. I still didn't know a whole lot about what was going on, you started to throw bands at me and that's when it started to flesh out, but it didn't really get good in terms of my knowledge until I got here. Jumping in with PK14 I saw Meika Deer in Guangzhou, The Maples from Chongqing, and Hiperson and Stolen in Chengdu. Great, great stuff.

And from there… when I got to Beijing, the first 48 hours were White+, Duck Fight Goose, Residence A, Nova Heart, and watching Hedgehog practice. So by the time I settled into Beijing and started asking people, they were like, "Well, what have you done so far?" And I'd say, "Well, went on tour with PK14, filmed Hedgehog practice, saw White+, Residence A, blah blah blah," and everyone was on board right away.

Hedgehog in the studio

SmBJ: I basically just gave you contacts at the beginning, and you took them and ran with them. Once you got to Beijing, what were the circles you dropped in to? I know you filmed Diders a bunch...

JY: Yeah, I mean… it was everything. I went to everything that I could. You threw me every contact that I wanted, and I fumbled through it and just texted them, set up practice space sessions. School Bar was a big chunk of it. I went to every School Bar show that I could, which ended up being like fifteen shows [laughs]. And the Post Mountain thing, and the noise acts, just everything I could. I was here a month, and I went to every show I could, which ended up being 25 shows.

[After that] I bailed and went to Wuhan, hit up AV Okubo. And they were like, "Yeah, we're practicing tomorrow." Everything just worked out ridiculously well. Part of me thought maybe it was a movie, like I was being filmed Truman Show-style, just because it was so perfect. But yeah, I really wanted to catch AV Okubo. That was the only Wuhan band that I knew outside of SMZB, and [SMZB singer] Wu Wei agreed to meet, but they weren't playing. AV Okubo was like, "Yeah, we're practicing tomorrow." And then the next morning they texted me, "We're not practicing, but we have a show on Halloween in a parking garage." And that ended up being this crazy art-filled parking garage on Halloween. AV Okubo was great. They were really nice. The language barrier was a bit much outside of the singer, but China's overly accommodating. That might just be my demeanor or it might be the fact that everyone's hungry for an American media outlet to actually come and put out more than a 10-minute thing on one band from Beijing.

AV Okubo in a Wuhan parking garage

Then I went back to Guangzhou and wanted to talk with the Full Label kids a bit more, and that's when I met up with Yang Haisong, again, for like the 90th time. I couldn't get more than five minutes out of the guy in the whole tour, it was sort of like in that movie Almost Famous where he keeps trying to get the interview, and there'd be like a soundcheck, or they'd have to run, or he'd get a call, or he's hanging out with his wife, and he's like, "Let's just talk in Beijing." Back in Beijing he said, "Oh, my other band's gonna practice," and that ended up being After Argument. So I actually went early— his place is near Tongzhou almost, it's way out there — and I got in, and he's like, "Oh, we're done practicing." I was like, "Haisong, the whole point was to come and film After Argument practice and have a chat, will you play just a couple more songs for me?" They played four songs, and we talked for like two hours. I wish I would have put a little more of it in the rough cut [of the documentary]. I followed After Argument back to Wuhan, they played Wuhan while I was there, they played Guangzhou while I was there, and I ended up following them last-minute to Shenzhen. So I started the tour with Yang Haisong, and ended the tour with Yang Haisong. Really crazy full circle.

After Argument

SmBJ: Going back to the topic of getting out of Beijing, what were some of your highlights in other cities?

JY: I really enjoyed Guangzhou. Guangzhou was great because the Full Label kids were really excited that I was coming. I didn't know what any of these people were gonna be like, you know? I didn't know if it would be hard, if the language barrier would make it less interesting, but [Full Label's] Howie and Song were super nice, and they speak good English. I didn't realize they were so young, too. They're like 17 or something. Howie took me around, took me to see Vagabond Street, a local Guangzhou band. That was in the bomb shelter-type place where they have the recording studios and practice rooms.

Chengdu was amazing. I stayed with Jef [Vreys, New Noise]. Hiperson were just phenomenal. There was this moment when I was up in the balcony… the show was great, and Hiperson kind of clicked in my head as, like, a wild moment in China. I had no idea that there was such a great, young band.

John + Hiperson

The PK14 tour obviously was unbelievable. Beijing was a clusterfuck of amazing stuff. I don't think the kids here realize how good their scene is. I really don't. To me, all I do is go to shows and I thought it was amazing. And I didn't even see Snapline, I didn't see Demerit, Rustic.

SmBJ: So how do you take all that and edit it down into a one-hour documentary?

JY: I don't know. I don't know. I mean, my editor actually, when I gave him the footage he was like, "Wow, how the hell did you do this? You got a lot of stuff… it's all really good, but I think you've got a solid half an hour here." And I was like, "What?! No! No. Don't even think about it." I kind of forced him to put as much music as possible in. For the China cut, we had to cut a lot of the interviews. Because my focus was, "How are you dealing with the crazy development? How is the government now?"

SmBJ: Without naming names, can you tell us some of the quotes you had to cut for the China version?

JY: Offhand… There was one guy in particular that told me the full story on the police, and what they do, the enforced demolition and the fact that they can just go in and hold out their hand and say, "We want money." It was a really interesting contrast between that fellow's utter hopelessness, and a band like Hiperson, who were like, "We feel a new wave of culture rebuilding now. It's coming, and everybody supports it, and everybody has hope that it will come." There was that, and then someone else saying, "I don't know what to do, I don't have any hope, the whole country's fucked, it's all shit, and nobody can do anything. We're just fucked. The culture's gone, it's all been destroyed, and that's that." So it was really heavy to have that kind of contrast.

SmBJ: Will you do a cut that includes all that?

JY: Yeah, absolutely. Should be out maybe mid-September, end of summer. But translation has been a lot more of a pain in the ass than I thought it was going to be. Probably because I got Cantonese and Sichuanese and Hunanese, Beijing-style Mandarin, and everything else. It's really hard. I guess it's compounded by the fact that if I get more than a few translators on board, everyone has their own opinion on what they think it should be. Especially the native speakers, they're all very opinionated about how it should be, and they think that their way is the only way. So it's a lot harder than I thought it was going to be, especially remotely. I'm thinking about finding somebody in Montana, because I guess Montana has a huge language school for Mandarin, which I didn't know. Last place you'd think of.

SmBJ: So now you're back here for this tour with Noise Arcade and Guiguisuisui, hitting Korea and Japan in addition to China. What's the plan for that? Will it be The World Underground or a standalone thing?

JY: I'll probably release it as an episode, as well as its own standalone thing. When we had the idea for me to come, Dann [Gaymer] was like, "Why don't you do a rough cut screening of the film?" So I hit up Subs and The Dyne and Diders, and they all said yes. In a, day that show came together. Then I hit up Hiperson and Stolen, and I was like, "Hey, if I fly into Chengdu, will you play a show?" And they all said yes in a day. And that was the base of it. Xi'an was something that came together last minute, I flew there and met up with the System Error kids, they were ridiculously nice. They had their final show as a crew before they all move, so once again the timing was crazy. Again, I feel like I'm in some sort of movie.

But the idea is to just do the same thing. Get as many takes on what's going on as possible and film new stuff, and it'll just add into the archives. The idea is to release it online for a 5 dollar suggested donation, and then put up every live audio set, all mixed, make it sound as good as I can, and just archive it all. If you can't pay anything, just take it. I'd rather have someone have it than not know. The goal is to take those donations and I want to do Indonesia next, and Israeli kids and Sri Lankan kids have emailed me, I hope it just spreads everywhere. I just want to do it until I can't lift a camera any more. And when I'm done maybe I'll have a hundred episodes with 900 live recordings, and then it'll just stay there forever.

SmBJ: Anything else you want to put out there ahead of your event tomorrow?

JY: Email me. If you see this and you know a country or a city or someone that has come up to you and said, "Man, nobody's represented this scene well, we don't even have shitty YouTube videos," email me and tell me about it. If someone can pay my travel cost to come over, I'll film and edit for free. I just want to come and do it. So if you know of something, or if anyone wants to fund a couple episodes of this, hit me up and I'll do it as cheap as I can just to get it done. It's all about connectivity. So just hit me up:

Catch a one-hour rough cut of The World Underground: China followed by live sets from SUBS, Stolen, Chui Wan, Residence A, and Diders tomorrow (Thursday, July 10) at Yugong Yishan.

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