Undercurrents is an ongoing column on SmartBeijing in which we talk to creators of Beijing cultural content within the context of the large economic and social landscape in the city. These are the manufacturers of cultural capital. This is the business of art, craft, and music in Beijing.
Meet William Griffith. If you've gone to any live music event in Beijing at any point over the last five years, there's a 90% chance you already have. Will's the founder and chief engine of LiveBeijingMusic.com, which has, for years, provided the most comprehensive documentation of... live music in Beijing. Will's an omnivorous fanatic, an equal opportunity rager with the music. And he always has his camera, which he uses to share his love of the scene with the world.
This year LBM has taken some steps offline, organizing a string of showcases that Will hopes will get new eyes on bands he feels to be flying under the radar. Live Beijing Music's 2014 coup concludes with a two-day rager called Fake Fuzz Fest, going down on Saturday and Sunday at DDC. Ahead of that one we had a chat about why he swims so deep in this city's musical undecurrents:
photo by David Mondin
SmartBeijing: Quick self-intro: Who are you? Where are you from? How'd you find your way to Beijing?
William Griffith: I’m William Griffith, five-year resident of Beijing, founder and editor of Live Beijing Music. From the cozy state of Connecticut, U.S.A. Found my way to Beijing via a British Airway standby tickets and an older brother who was residing in Beijing at the time. Had visited during my summer college years, so was quite familiar with the lifestyle before my brother convinced to "give Beijing a try" after graduating. Before I knew it, I had taken over a duplex full of kooky roommates and my brother was hightailing it the hell out of Beijing. The ol’ switcheroo.
SmBJ: I remember seeing Live Beijing Music when it was just a "coming soon" teaser for like a year... When did you first have the idea to do the site? What was your motivation?
WG: Geez, had forgotten how long we had sat on that domain name. The idea for Live Beijing Music came a good year after I had settled into Beijing -- when nights of Wudaokou wankery and months-long getaways to Southeast Asia became too much of a nuisance. I had started seeking out anything music-related, and brought my camera out each and every time. Filming for the sake of filming. A good friend of mine at the time, Rich Garrabrant, began ragging on me to put up the videos I had been taking. So we sat down one evening and developed the idea of starting a music blog -- a way to "show" rather than "tell" what exactly the music scene here had to offer. We bought a domain name, shopped around for help, learned the ways of WordPress, and by the time we were ready, my buddy was shipped off to Guizhou to work on the railways, essentially leaving me with a site with zero content. So, it was either let the site wither away or get blogging. My cheap nature won out in the end, and I began posting.
SmBJ: Why focus on Beijing? You were living in Hong Kong before, right?
WG: Simple: location. Since the focus of the site was live footage of the bands, I really had no choice but to focus on the music I was directly interacting with. I was popping in and out of Hong Kong a lot for visa runs as well as visiting my brother who had moved down there. Being older and everything, my brother would lecture me on how writing about music in Beijing doesn’t pay the bills, which was actually how I came across pangbianr, as a Hong Konger told me to hit up some guy named Josh Feola when I got back. Funny how that works.
SmBJ: Over the years your coverage has expanded from a one-dude-with-a-camera blog to a pretty big operation with a rotating crew. How did you recruit people to help out with your mission? Have you gotten any funding for this or is it all a DIY, labor of love thing?
WG: Labor of love, through and through, though of course, I’m more than open to the idea of funding. The multi-cam idea was inevitable -- there are literally hordes of filmmakers, photographers, and folks with cameras out here. It was only a matter of time before I was bumping shoulders with some like-minded people, many of whom I call friends now. Added to the fact that I was able to entice friends from back home to "give Beijing a try" just as my brother did for me, and spend my hard-earned money on some extra gear. I was able turn the site into something a little more legit. Still, at the end of the day, it’s DIY -- if I’m going to a show, I’ll send out a WeChat to my buds, and usually if I can get one of them to bite, then I’m a happy camper. I’ve been paid a few times for my endeavors (thanks Tom!) and I’m always looking for ways to monetize our work, but at the end of the day, if I’m at a show with a camera, chances are I’m going to shoot it no matter what.
SmBJ: What have been some of your biggest unforeseen obstacles or straight up failures in running LBM? How have you adapted?
WG: Language is and will continue to be the biggest hurdle to me. Heck, even the English language baffles me still to this day, so learning Chinese has been my Achilles' Heel -- one that I’ve cowardly avoided all these years. I’ve adapted for sure, and have figured out everything from Weibo to Douban through trial and error, but not being able to have a conversation in Chinese with a band I adore or the manager of a venue has kept me at a distance. But that’s foreseeable. If we're talking straight up hindrances, then not having the site in Chinese is my top pick and is something that has always irked me. I’ve tried a few times to find a Chinese editor, writer, or even straight up translator, but it’s difficult to find someone committed to writing about music five days a week. Who’d have figured.
SmBJ: So, you go to a fuck-ton of shows... gonna force your hand here, what are your top three current Beijing bands? Why?
WG: Yup, had a feeling this one was coming. And no way I’m prepared to answer this confidently. But I’ll give it a shot. First off, Second Hand Rose are on a entirely different level in terms of performance and offering audiences a truly singular experience that fuses Chinese opera with good old fashion rock and roll. Had my soon to be mother-in-law from Xi’An going mental at their Strawberry Festival performance this year, and that is something that will be engrained in my brain forever. Out of the Maybe Mars camp, I’m finding myself constantly in awe of White+ and how much they have elevated their game, even just in the past year alone. It’s bold music that digs deeper and deeper each time I hear them. And for all my indie rock indulgences where a simple melody is enough to get me prancing about like a schoolgirl, Residence A can’t be beat. I have a funny feeling they’ll eventually fall down the mainstream, over-produced rabbit hole too far but till then, it’s the bee’s knees.
SmBJ: You've also done some field trips outside of Beijing. Where all have you filmed shows? What other music pockets have you found in greater China that are worth a look?
WG: I’ve taken two trips to Shanghai, both of which happened to fall upon Record Store Day. Friendliest people down there. One to Dalian earlier this spring for the Dansheng Music Festival organized by Echo Book Store and some of the musicians there -- one of the best lineups I’ve ever seen. Also, managed to make it to a show in Hong Kong to catch Pairs. In a bakery of all places. Any trip I’ve made outside of Beijing has only been due to the gratitude of other folks, be it bands or organizers. Without them I’d just as likely be sitting on my ass in Beijing. Shanghai is an entirely different beast, whereas Dalian has this very laid-back vibe that I feel has nurtured some great talent. And after hearing the vast amount of amazing music coming out of Hangzhou, Xi’An, Xiamen, and various other nooks and crannies of China this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if I schedule a few more trips next year. Mark my words, the next big thing will not be coming out of Beijing.
SmBJ: In addition to your documentation work, you've also produced a few music videos for bands. Can you describe your concept and method for the MVs you've directed?
WG: Loads of fun those were to do. The Streets Kill Strange Animals one stemmed from singer Leng Mei’s insistence on using a bus and using their ex-drummer as the main character. And of course, the idea of shooting on a bus with a band was enough to get me all wide-eyed so we just took it from there. Hell of a day that was. And for future reference, kids: only a thousand yuan to rent a city bus for a day. The other two were a lot simpler, mainly due to keeping it smaller scaled and dealing with two artists with definitive sounds and ideas surrounding their music. Spend a day or so on concept and then just roll with it the day of shooting. That laser pointer used in that Lantern Festival video -- found that on the walk over to the shoot. Those paintings covering Dann’s wall in the Guiguisuisui video: we had him draw them the night prior to shooting. Little blessings in disguises. Geez, just writing about it has me itching to shoot something else next year. Good times.
SmBJ: This year you've started making some moves offline, booking gigs at XP and School. There are so many different promoters, labels, brands here... What do you offer that's different? What's your unique perspective?
WG: One of the most primal pleasures I get out of going to shows these days is bringing a friend who has no idea what’s in store for them. And throwing your own show is a surefire way of getting fresh eyes on bands you are nuts about. Really doesn’t go beyond that. I’m a fanboy first and foremost, and it doesn’t matter what label you’re stuck with, who your guitarist used to go out with, or what crowd you roll with, if you’ve made me move my ass; you made me crack a smile; made me toss my body like a rag doll though a crowd, then you’re one of the good guys.
SmBJ: You're ending 2014 with a two-day rager at DDC, Fake Fuzz Fest. How did you put the lineup together?
WG: Have to thank Dann Gaymer for acting as my muse again and getting the ball rolling with this one. Dude is always looking for the next wave and I’m more than willing to take it on with him. We just started throwing around bands we liked, had missed, were under the radar, and luckily everyone we asked agreed almost immediately. We wanted to keep Saturday night a bit more loud, whereas Sunday we wanted to give the first half of the day to some of the scene's more offbeat electronica artists, before giving way to more melodic material. And for some reason, I was obsessed with having Gum Bleed give an acoustic performance. My one request! But really, our main goal behind the festival is to bring a swarm of DIY forces in art, food, and music together for bash. As well as the bands, we have seven artists who will be exhibiting their work during the two days as well as food from so of the city’s most buzzed fooderies. A bit ambitious but there was no way we could not deck out DDC’s lovely space.
SmBJ: What's the master plan for Live Beijing Music going forward?
WG: There’s a laundry list of things I want to do: find more contributors, make more music videos, translate the site, throw on more shows, make a dime, release music, bring bands over to the West, make a magazine, kickstart my way to a new video camera. Throwing all my eggs into one basket is all I’m known to do, so why stop now? Let’s take on this festival first, and we’ll see what next year holds for Live Beijing Music.
Catch Live Beijing Music's FAKE FUZZ FEST this weekend (SAT Dec 13 + SUN Dec 14) at DDC.