2013 trend: more cameras, fewer things worth filming (photo via Genjing)
MP3 Monday is a weekly SmartBeijing column, serving up MP3s from bands living and making music in China (or coming to China, or thinking about coming to China, or whatever). Copyright holders: if you would like your song removed, please email us here, and we'll honor your request promptly.
I always have problems with year-end reviews. Selective memory I suppose. Shoutout to the 35 people who did the legwork for me in our crowd-sourced 2013 Best Music feature.
Actually, around this time last year, I had strong, mostly negative feelings about the Beijing music scene, and I wrote a 1,000-word rant about it that never got published. Good thing for everyone I didn't have this gig yet. This year I don't feel nearly so passionate about it. Was a pretty static year for live Beijing music, to be honest. While I was in it I didn't feel much happening. But in rearview, 2013 feels like a seeding year, and I think we're poised for a very interesting 2014.
Here are some notes from 2013, with music:
Local Talent: XP and School
The Dyne at XP (via Genjing)
I've always been biased towards the small venues. While Mao does a good job of showcasing new-ish hard rock and metal bands, and Yugong has continued to be a fine place to see a fairly well-known local band among 1,000 of your closest sort-of acquaintances (albeit usually with shit sound), this was the year that two small, black-and-red-box Gulou clubs really stepped it up with quality programming.
When XP opened in May of last year, it was immediately referred to as "the new D-22," though it never was. For one thing, XP didn't have the deep bench of talent that D-22 had when it first opened, regularly hosting sets for P.K.14 and then-unknown bands like Hedgehog, Carsick Cars, and Snapline. Many of the bands that cut their teeth at D-22 and subsequently signed to Maybe Mars are still around, but XP never captured the anarchic, exploratory environment of D-22, and never claimed to.
While XP struggled to find its feet at various points this year, it hosted some of the most interesting and exciting shows I saw in 2013. Most of XP's success at this point can be attributed to Deng Chenglong, who runs sound, manages the bar, books most of the shows, and does all the promotion. Working closely with Zhu Wenbo — who books XP's weekly Zoomin' Night experimental music series, as well as Douban's Behind the Billboard series — Chenglong has managed to provide an experimental lab for the aforementioned Maybe Mars/D-22 legacy bands and their various side projects while also giving a welcoming home to the furthest out sounds from across China and abroad. He actually cares about the live sound and works hard on it, and usually records the shows. Though this felt like a particularly fallow year, Chenglong's work at XP has provided one foundation for promising developments next year. Keep an eye out for that.
In the mean time, check out his excellent XPA podcast series, which features live recordings and interviews with some of the bands in XP's orbit. They're too long to upload but you can stream all seven episodes right here.
Rolling Bowling at School (via Genjing)
Of course, with its focus on "experimental music," XP comes off as cold and insular to some. Or just boring. For those people, there's School. If there is a new D-22, this is it. Same color scheme, same general layout, same built-in crowd of young rockers on benders. School is the one place you can walk up to on any given day of the week and be reasonably certain to find a decent local band and a solid crew of wastrels with whom to get smashed. The big factor of School's success is the system of promoters and organizers clustered around it. They have more event series than I can count, and while they tend to feature most of the same bands, they've nevertheless succeeded in creating a sense of community that no other rock venue in Beijing had in 2013.
Special nod to D.O.G., the booking collective most integral to School's DNA. Here are some songs representing the sound of School this year:
The best part about School and XP is that they're not mutually exclusive. There's been a lot of overlap: bands like Bedstars, Diders, The Dyne, After Argument, and The Big Wave all progressed significantly this year, and were equally welcomed on stage at both venues. School and XP also offered different perspectives and different audiences to touring bands like The Fuzz, The Observatory, and Stolen. These are the two big incubators of new talent currently, and while I wasn't particularly blown away by any new bands coming out this year, I saw a lot of seeds sewn at both places. Looking good for 2014.
The Default: 206 Gulou
Daikaiju at Temple (via Genjing)
This was the year that Dada and Temple really morphed into a swirling vortex of after-hours Gulou debauch. I used to do a thing called the Wudaokou double dip, which involved going to shows at both D-22 and 13 Club in the course of a night. Doing the same thing at Dada/Temple is virtually a pre-requisite of going to either place, and it's a unique experience in Beijing.
Though it just turned two in July, Temple has made itself an integral part of Beijing's live rock'n'roll fabric. It's pretty hard to stand out when so many new venues are opening each year, but Temple has done so by successfully cultivating a subtle, winning strategy: cheap drinks, free shows. The built-in audience is usually drunken expats, which maybe isn't so good for people who take their music a little seriously, but is great for bands that know how to work a crowd that's ready to be worked. Temple pays its artists pretty well, thanks to the fact that they actually have a drinking audience. And they started serving burgers this year, putting the finishing touches on a carefully crafted sloppy pub 'n' grub vibe. Some of the most raucous international bands that came to Beijing this year — Dean Dirg, Bob Log III, Dead Elvis, Daikaiju, M.O.T.O. — made an obligatory stop at Temple, and made more sense there than they would have anywhere else in the city.
Teddy Boy Kill at Dada (photo by Foukographer)
Meanwhile, downstairs, Dada somehow became the default destination for a whole new generation of F.O.B. 20-something liberal arts majors (English teachers) and Gulou hoodrats. And for good reason: they have the most consistently interesting and progressive program of live electronic music, DJs, and MCs in Beijing. In January I predicted: "This year it's all about the Beijing electronic music underground." While there may be some self-fulfilling prophecy/confirmation bias going on there, I feel that Dada has led the charge in making those words a reality and giving this music a home. The Dada shows I personally found most interesting this year were the 87FEI87 events — local promoters/producers Blake Stone-Banks and Einar Engström single-handedly turned "skweee" from an ostensible typo to a genre name you can throw out in a casual party conversation with a 90% rate of comprehension.
Dada was also well-utilized by some of the multi-site "festivals" this year, specifically JUE and Dong Dong. One of the best shows I went to this year was a Dong Dong double header featuring Emika from Bristol/Berlin and Teddy Boy Kill from Delhi — this show would have been unimaginable anywhere else. Same goes for the string of excellent gigs that Shanghai's Sub-Culture did in Beijing this year, as well as the shows by Antidote, the promotion label co-founded by Dada boss Michael Ohlsson, and Digital Freedom, the homegrown party label launched this year by a group of precocious 19-year-olds who, of course, practically live at Dada. This club fills a special niche and it's really improved the music landscape this year, even if a lot of the time it's just a default landing point for getting sloppy while awaiting dusk within the second ring.
Was a pretty quiet year for the two big indies. Modern Sky half-heartedly put out a handful of CDs that were mostly recorded last year, including some solid debuts from Glow Curve, Doc Talk Shock, Fuzzy Mood, The Fuzz, and CnDY:
Maybe Mars had an even quieter year, only releasing three disks. They were all pretty solid though:
The real label hero this year has been Genjing Records. Genjing put out a handful of singles and splits this year, and they were all killer. Label runner Nevin Domer has almost single-handedly built an international distribution network connecting Chinese bands with the rest of the world on a meaningful grassroots, DIY level. Despite the fact that it's an entirely self-funded operation, Nevin has massive plans for the immediate future. His release roster for 2014 borders on suicidal and it will be something to really look forward to in the coming year. Here's what Genjing got up to in 2013:
Probably missing a lot of self-released albums and stuff like that. Sacco has a pretty solid selection of his Top 10 over at SmartShanghai, and I'm sure Will at Live Beijing Music will have an even more comprehensive roundup of all the year's releases up soon. Again, 2013 felt like a seeding year. Nothing that came out on record particularly interested me. Most of the new bands from this year and last that especially excited me either evaporated or went on indefinite hiatus (shoutouts to Dice, Xin Ma You Jiang, Mr. Ray, The Last Three Minutes, Stalin Gardens). That said, here are a few more jams that, for me, represent movement or some sort of halting progress that was made this year and will point the way for next. I hope.
See ya on the other side.