On big nights when the club is full – it can take about 300-350 people – the bands are surrounded by the audience, above, below, in front and around one side. That generally gets them pretty juiced up. In the audience we typically get a lot of repeat customers – mainly lost wild kids, musicians, and people involved in the music scene. I suspect that they like to come often because we never charge them for admission or drinks and it’s the only time and place in which they are treated like stars. Maybe because of that repeat crowd we sometimes get accused of being cliquish, but I am not sure that there’s much we can do about that, and it’s easy to become part of the clique – just show up often and talk to the musicians. Everyone is pretty friendly."
Michael Pettis is the guy behind D-22, and the record label, Maybe Mars, which runs as a side-project to the club. An ex-merchant banker, equities trader and professor of finance, he also has a love of music – specifically finding new bands and being at the generative core of new scenes. Pettis has played a huge role in the flourishing of Beijing indie rock, providing the venue, the label and a profile for the music overseas. He speaks passionately about the club, the personalities involved, and what might well be a history in the making. Read on ...
CC: Who’s in the crowd?
MP: The audiences really vary depending on the shows. Every Tuesday night, for example, the club is turned over to a group of anywhere from 10 to 30 pretty fierce young experimental musicians from Beijing and Tianjin, under the watchful eye of the talented and strange Zhu Wenbo, who organises the shows that night. The musicians range in age from 17 to 22 and they have a self-confidence that was almost inconceivable in the Beijing music scene just five or six years ago. The club that night is really their workspace, with most of the audience consisting of young musicians and artists trying to one-up each other, and we’re never sure what they’ll do. Frankly that’s my favourite night because you really get the feeling that these guys are creating a whole new scene and just don’t care what anyone else is doing.
On Wednesday nights we have untested university bands, organized by Bei Bei, and they tend to bring a heavy crowd of local college kids – on some nights it is totally packed. Bei Bei is pretty open-minded and pretty clever about his bookings, and some nights you can watch a death metal band play just before a Nick Cave clone and just after a sweet young indie-pop band singing love songs. Wednesday can often be our worst night for music quality, for obvious reasons, but it is also the night where you can really get surprised. It was during the Wednesday series that we discovered Rustic, Mr. Graceless, Lazy Camels, Birdstriking, Me Guan Me, and several other great young bands, so I am always there that night. More recently we’ve become intrigued by Bedstars, NMLB and Soft Drink – three very new bands that need a lot more work but who could end up becoming really interesting.
Other nights tend to be more mixed, with both foreign and Chinese audiences. Fridays and Saturdays are generally reserved for bigger bands, and the audience really depends on who is playing. About a year ago we decided to reduce the number of gigs from some of the more famous bands that came out of our scene, so as to keep our focus on developing new talent. Bands like Carsick Cars and PK14 are now more likely to do unannounced gigs on Tuesday nights than weekend shows because otherwise it gets too crazy. Yu Shin, the manager of the club, was not too happy about the idea of dropping our famous bands because we had finally started to break even after three years, and obviously attendance and revenues dropped a lot after we made that decision, but we figured that finding and developing the next generation of Beijing music is the only thing that justifies all that work, so Yu Shin lost that argument.
CC: You opened in May 2006, is that right? How has the indie Chinese music scene, changed since then?
MP: It is hard to describe the change. Five years ago Beijing musicians lacked self-confidence, and any crappy foreign band would be taken more seriously than a really good Chinese band. That lack of confidence really prevented the music from going anywhere, but now the music scene has gotten so good and so self-confident that attitudes have changed dramatically.
For me the key “aha!” moment came in September 2009. I met a kid called Wang Xinju from some godforsaken industrial city in the northeast of China. He had just graduated from high-school and had come to Beijing to college mostly because he wanted to be near PK14, Carsick Cars, Snapline, and all his other favourite Beijing bands, which was in itself pretty cool, I thought. It was only his second night in town, but he had come to the club alone, very early, just so that he could look at the famous posters along the balcony, and it was funny to see him glance upwards as if he were in the Sistine Chapel.
We started talking and eventually, after a lot of nervousness, he gave me a CD he had made when he was in high school. The music was actually good, but what knocked me out was that on the inside cover of the CD the band had listed their top-three favourite bands in the world: Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth and Carsick Cars. This was the first time I had seen a really cool Chinese kid who was fanatically into music (he knew everything and everyone from the last thirty years) list a Chinese band in the same space that he would list a legendary New York band. Nowadays that has become much more common, and we see a lot of young, very sophisticated Chinese kids who include Beijing musicians in their personal pantheon, but for me that was the first time I had seen that happen, and I was eagerly waiting for that day.
By the way Wang Xinju within months joined He Fan (who is also part of Carsick Cars) to form a band called Birdstriking, which has since become one of the best young bands in China. He also hangs out regularly with people like Shouwang and Li Qing and just recorded a CD produced by PK14’s Yang Haisong. He sometimes tells me that he still can’t quite believe that he is now an inside member of the scene that he dreamed about in high school. Now there’s a nice story with a happy ending, right?
CC: I know you’ve compared this movement to America in the 1960s, but is there a countercultural movement going on in Beijing right now, or more an experimentation with style?
MP: The reason I compared it to the US in the 1960s is only because in both cases there was a small group of cool musicians and artists who had more or less given up on mainstream culture and went off to play for themselves, thinking that no one would ever pay much attention to them. But they were wrong. Probably because of the huge generation gap that left parents, who in China went through the truly awful experience of poverty and the Cultural Revolution, and kids unable to understand each other, the whole culture shifted and it unexpectedly went in the direction of the weirdos. I think we are going to see something like that here. I can’t tell you how many smart, alienated kids I meet who read Jack Kerouac, Catcher in the Rye, and their Chinese equivalents. They are still a minority, but you can sense the cultural shift.
Otherwise there isn’t much of a comparison. Beijing today is very, very different from New York in the 1960s. New York then already had a deep cultural history, but in Beijing it feels like there has been a huge gap in that history, and so everything feels very new, very unfinished, and very uncertain. The old China has been demolished and the new China is in the process of being invented, and no one knows what it is going to look like but these young people have to live in it anyway. One thing, however, is that they don’t act as if they want their music to be restricted to Western stereotypes of what “Chinese” culture is. They want to try everything.
CC: Perhaps it’s misleading to compare Chinese rock with that from any period in Western history, since it’s a freedom from that history which defines it.
MP: Absolutely. Imagine what it was like for young Chinese musicians suddenly to have had one hundred years of totally new music just dumped on them. Imagine if you had never heard music by John Adams, Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman, the Ramones, Velvet Underground, Suicide, Cabaret Voltaire, Sex Pistols, Messiaen, Sonic Youth, Charlie Parker or anything that happened in the past century – even Schoenberg and much of Stravinsky were unknown. You might have read about them, or heard that someone you knew really liked them, but you didn’t know what they sounded like. And then suddenly within two or three years all of this legendary stuff becomes easily available over the Internet.
There is this sense of exhilaration in the music – almost like throwing a kid unsupervised into the world’s largest toy store. He runs over here and grabs a doll, and then picks up a set of Leggos, and then jumps on a skateboard, and then rushes over to the colouring books. That exhilaration is for me one of the main characteristics of the Beijing music scene.
CC: Can you tell me about Maybe Mars? When did it start and who are its biggest bands at this point?
MP: We started nearly three years ago mainly because two of the young bands we had worked with a lot and really loved, Carsick Cars and Snapline, weren’t happy with the way they were being treated by other labels who wanted to sign them, and two of the most famous of the older bands, PK14 and Joyside, were unhappy with their existing contracts. In fact Yang Haisong, from PK14, was the original president of the label until he decided that he hated the unavoidable business aspects of running a label.
We never planned to get much bigger. When we started I said that after four or five years I wanted to have maybe a dozen bands and musicians that we worked with, and no more, but – now its my turn to feel like a kid in a toy store – there was just so much good stuff happening around us that we couldn’t help ourselves. We tried restricting ourselves to Beijing music but Nevin Domer, who works for the label, kept coming up with “this cool band out in Wuhan” or “some weird kid in Nanjing” so even that plan failed.
So I raised a little more money, took on a few extra jobs, and we kept putting stuff out. I think we have something like 30 CDs out, and lots of side projects. I can’t really say who our biggest bands are. Of course Carsick Cars, PK14, Xiao He and Snapline are better known than most others, but when we listen to Demerit, Ourself Besides Me, Offset Spectacles, Guai Li, or any of the others we get pretty excited about them too. If you haven’t heard Ourself Beside Me, three very sweet and very bizarre women, do so. They could well be the coolest band in the world.
CC: What’s its biggest market?
MP: I have no idea, and I suspect no one is really sure how to make money in the CD business any more. We just try to keep our losses down while getting as much exposure and work for the musicians as we can get. When we plan projects, tours, recordings, or anything else we first discuss how much money we’re prepared to lose and then build the project around that, so I don’t really know.
CC: The label has toured Chinese bands to States, yes? And elsewhere? How are they received?
MP: From almost the very beginning we have been organising tours and recordings in the US and Europe as part of the process of building connections between our musicians and their peers abroad. Last year we sent Xiao He, PK14 and Carsick Cars on a 13-date tour of the East Coast, with four shows just in New York, and every show was packed and several sold out, including the show at Glasslands in Brooklyn, which for us was the most important.
That was probably the best tour that we did, but even as we speak Carsick Cars is playing South by Southwest for the second year running (we sent six bands there last year) and Demerit is setting up the Warped tour this summer, in which they will play more American cities than I have even visited.
Our musicians have toured everywhere in Europe and the US and the reception has almost always been very good – Beijing seems to have a buzz right now so a lot of people come to the shows – but our main focus has always been China tours because we want to build up the Chinese audience. We have done shows in over thirty cities in China, and in some places only twenty kids will come to a tiny bar to see a band that can sell five hundred or a thousand tickets in Beijing or Shanghai. Its tough but that’s how you create a scene. We have also decided to pay much more attention to building a regional scene, and so recently we’ve sent bands to Australia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia and we want to do a lot more of that. Its just a question of raising the money – a few thousand dollars can pay for a small tour.
MP: I love music and always have. I used to run a club in the East Village in the 1980s when I was in grad school and I also had a record label. I am smart enough to know that the only role I can play in music is discovering and supporting great musicians – I myself am not good enough an artist to be one of them.
CC: China’s economy is often described as the most dynamic and vibrant in the world right now. Can it and the music scene be compared?
MP: Actually China’s economy right now is not so much vibrant as it is coked up and feverish, a lot like Japan in the late 1980s. We will have a very difficult few years ahead of us. I think the music scene is in much better shape and may even benefit from a downshift in the insane race to make money that seems to affect many people here.