MP3 Monday: No Beijing
A brief history of some of Beijing's most influential recent bands ahead of their double-header at School Bar this Saturday. Tracing 'No Beijing'...
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No Beijing is the name of a compilation, a movement, a crew of musicians who stepped into the void of post-SARS Beijing and have come to define a generation of Chinese noisemakers. The "No Beijing" tag, which isn't really used by its members today, was cribbed from the seminal Eno-produced 1978 no wave comp No New York, a telling maneuver signaling a new trend of musicians drawing most of their influence from overseas. This was the crucial entry point for all of the no wave/post-punk/krautrock experimentation that has become today's zeitgeist.
The actual, physical No Beijing release was a double CDR featuring recordings from a 2005 live show at What Bar given by Carsick Cars, Snapline, The Gar, and White-2j. These bands and their various permutations famously precipitated the D-22 venue and, later, the Maybe Mars record label. The aftershocks of their initial peak — which happened somewhere in the halcyon days of 2007, before the Olympic crush — can still be felt in their continuing relevance and the influence they've exerted on some of today's up-and-comers, most notably the ragged band of experimentalists centered around the Zoomin' Night performance series.
The No Beijing crew has not been especially prolific: in eight years they've averaged two records per band. But the lack in quantity has been somewhat compensated by an uncompromising focus on quality and a deft grasp of self-promotion and international exposure. To this day, the No Beijing bands remain among the most visible, locally and internationally: Carsick Cars, The Gar, and White+ (a third- or fourth-generation incarnation of White-2j) are all making repeat appearances at major Austin, TX music industry conference South by Southwest next month, and Snapline is headlining events for two massive city-wide music festivals in Beijing this spring (JUE in March and Sound of the Xity in April).
Before all that madness, you can catch Snapline and White+ in the relatively low-key environment of School Bar, where they're playing this Saturday.
Snapline at D-22, April 2011 (photo by Psychokenny
Snapline is the only No Beijing band that's kept its original lineup intact. Where their peers have gone on to craft more salable rock'n'roll hits and substitute members mercenary-like from within a very small pool of local talent, Snapline have held fast to an unwaveringly difficult live performance style that has alienated spectators and won diehard fans in equal measure. Their debut album, 2007's Party is Over, Pornostar, is arguably the most influential among the early crop of Maybe Mars releases. Two of its three members — Li Qing and Li Weisi — were the original drummer and bassist of Carsick Cars, but they left in late 2010 to focus on their even more stark and potentially alienating band, Soviet Pop.
Snapline followed up with last year's Phenomena, one of the only real rays of light in an otherwise musically bleak year. As Wang Ge pointed out last April, Snapline is at this point a side project of Soviet Pop. On the surface this observation seems counterintuitive, but it makes sense in context. Snapline has always been unyielding to populist sentiment in their live shows and unrepentantly rigid in their recording orthodoxy. It took them five years to release Phenomena because they threw out a completed second album produced by PiL drummer Martin Atkins and re-made it from scratch. This happened in parallel with Li Qing and Li Weisi directing the bulk of their creative energy towards their modular synths and experimenting with reel-to-reel recording via their (now seemingly defunct) Rose Mansion label.
Phenomena makes Party is Over and the Martin Atkins record sound downright mainstream by comparison. The compositions are more spare than any other record I've heard come out of China that can still claim to feature actual songs. Chen Xi's vocals rarely deviate from monotone incantations, sometimes backed by Li Weisi's equally monotonous baritone, but still manage to fill the compositional headspace with memorable substance. I’m shocked that Snapline is still as popular as they are, but the real marvel is that they managed to get their vision on vinyl without breaking up, selling out, or alienating everyone they worked with in the process. For Beijing, that's a rare feat.
White performing at Waterland Kwanyin, 2Kolegas
Where Snapline has maintained a consistent style and lineup over the years, White was conceived from the beginning as an evolving musical project with no fixed style or personnel. The only constant has been Zhang Shouwang, the lead singer and guitarist of Carsick Cars. Shouwang selected the name White as a literal reference to one of his favorite guitarists, Glenn Branca, who played in the New York no wave band Theoretical Girls and has gained international fame for his symphonic arrangements for one hundred electric guitars. Inspired by this concept, Shouwang arranged similarly dense, guitar-oriented ensembles, most often performed at Yan Jun's long-running weekly 2Kolegas performance series, Waterland Kwanyin. Eventually White was whittled down to a duo, Shouwang joined by original Hang on the Box drummer Shenggy. They caught the attention of Einstürzende Neubauten frontman Blixa Bargeld, who lived in Beijing at the time and was a regular Waterland Kwanyin attendee. In 2007 they recorded their self-titled debut in Blixa's Berlin studio, where their abstract guitar and synth compositions took on subliminal influences from that city's storied history of minimal techno and industrial music.
Not long after the release of White, Shenggy moved to London and Shouwang went back to the drawing board. In 2010 he added Gar drummer Wang Xu and rechristened the project White+, redefining the band's sound and conceptual approach. Over the next few years, White+ evolved into a complex beast, incorporating Wang Xu's live drums (and other improvised percussion instruments — I once saw him bang on a trash can for fifteen straight minutes), synthesized beats, and Shouwang's ever-growing battery of circuit-bent keyboards, obscure synthesizers, vocal effectors, and loop processors. And, of course, the ever-present guitar. After refining the new sound over countless Zoomin' Nights, White+ finally released an album in 2012. Along the way, they collaborated with an impressive cast of graphic designers, animators, filmmakers, VJs, rappers, and supplementary musicians, resulting in a massive multimedia spectacle they toured through China late last year. Their Beijing release show was one of the most memorable of 2012, featuring lush visuals and a heavy live polyrhythmic percussion section rounded out by former Golden Driver drummer Bai Kai playing on a second full kit.
Two bands with a shared origin who've pursued very different styles and MO's. Both pretty important in the development of today's music scene. Whether you love them or hate them, or love hating them or hate loving them, you can catch them both on Saturday night at School Bar.