At a small bar in Beijing, called D-22, sixty years of rock history are currently being mashed up in one thrillingly experimental moment. It’s almost like the entire canon of pop music has fallen out of the sky – punk, folk, reggae, rock, noise, rockabilly – and young Chinese musicians and their audiences are making of it what they will, taking a bit of Johnny Cash with a bit of Radiohead, Bjork and Joy Division and jamming it into something of their very own.
For the past four years, New York photographer, Matthew Niederhauser has been documenting this musical scene, posing his subjects against a red wall in the back room of the club or capturing them in action on stage. Joyside, P.K.14, AV Okubo, Carsick Cars, Hanggai and countless other Chinese bands have passed beneath his lens, mythologised by his consistent style and focus on D-22.
A selection of these photographs have recently been published in a book, Sound Kapital, which conveys the colour and dynamism of this scene. Click ‘Read More’ below to see some of these pictures, and to read Niederhauser describing what he calls the ‘creative orgy’ currently taking place in Beijing.
Christen Cornell: How did the project begin?
Matthew Niederhauser: The project first began when I got back into Beijing in October 2007. I was moving back from New York, and I had a friend from college who was out here unexpectedly, working on the soundboard at this music club, D-22.
I made a point of going to the club as soon as I got in. I went up there one night with my camera and I was completely blown away by the music. I saw this band called Joyside, and another band called The Subs. I went up there for 2-3 nights straight, and I was just so impressed. Lots of times when I had seen live music in China, in 2004 and 2005, it was certainly nothing to write home about. But everything had really stepped up.
I approached the club and said I wanted to hang out and take photos. They had this office on the second floor and I decided I was going to go in there and shoot some portraits of this band that needed images for their MySpace page. And that’s when I first took one of the ‘red wall portraits’. That was with a band called Hedgehog. It’s one of the most well known of those pictures now – the girl with the boxing gloves.
It was such a great photo and I imagined at that point that I would start shooting everyone who came through D-22. I’d create this consistent look with the photographs, while also showing that so many different music scenes were moving through this one club, whether it’s rock, or electronic, or punk, or folk, or experimental.
I did that for about two and half years – I still do it now. Shooting hundreds of performers from all over China. The club basically paid for my taxis and gave me free alcohol – and that was it.
CC: It’s mythologised the club in a really major way. It looks like a moment in history.
MN: For sure. And I’ve said that on few occasions. It’s part of the myth-making process, especially at D-22. It’s spurned this visual legacy. In many ways now everyone in the music scene now knows about the red wall portraits.
But it was also just practical for the bands. A lot of people needed photographs – stuff they could put on their Douban sites or Chinese social networking sites, or MySpace, so a lot of those picture saw a lot of use.
CC: I’ve heard people comparing this world to CBGBs in the 80s, or saying it’s the 60s in New York all over again. It’s tempting to make those comparisons – but would you?
MN: I don’t know. I wasn’t in New York in the 60s or CBGBs in the 80s so I couldn’t call it. But this scene is definitely grounded in China. I think it’s easy to use these purely visual cues to try to draw such a comparison in a strange way, but if you live here there is also something definitely Chinese about the whole thing.
CC: Could you to describe what that thing is? Maybe we should say what’s ‘unique’ about it. It doesn’t have to be nationalistic.
MN: I guess if you want to compare it to something like New York in the 60s or CBGBs in the 80s there is a really creative flourishing going on here right now. There are a lot of people in Beijing right now who, in the past 6 or 7 years, have been exposed to an exponentially larger amount of art and international music – and it’s just been like a shock wave. People are experimenting and playing with possibilities. I’ve often described it as a creative orgy.
But it’s still Chinese in a sense in that there’s a big struggle with identity within the music scene. Whether people are singing in Chinese lyrics or not is a very big political choice among some bands. A lot of these kids who grew up in the late 90s, and who over the past ten years have started to form bands, have had fifty years of Western rock or punk or everything just completely dumped on them. From Elvis, to the Ramones, to Nirvana … and now they’re picking that apart. There’s this very eclectic breaking down of all these musical forms. And the way it’s coming together is very particular to Beijing at this point in time.
CC: You can see that in your pictures. There’ll be a band in crocheted Jamaican reggae hats, next to a band in Iron Maiden t-shirts and headscarves, next to band that looks modelled on Blondie. You can see it’s all happening at once. It looks like an experimentation with styles that were created a while ago, but which are now being given new meaning.
MN: It’s a strange mash-up in a strange way. But then some people seem to be expecting some special, intrinsic, Chineseness to be come out of this as well. There is that with some bands who try to incorporate very specific Chinese musical modes, or who use classical Chinese instruments. But especially when it comes to rock and roll and hip hop, this is music that comes out of urban environments, and it’s not about being Chinese in some certain sense. These people want to work within an international community of musicians. It’s not about creating some special thing that is Chinese music. It’s about being involved in this creative world out there.
For a lot of them, their music is definitely … I hate using the word derivative, but it has evolved within a genre that is very accessible to Western audiences. So in that sense I think there are a lot of fingers being pointed, saying it’s not Chinese, or it is. But I think those terms just limit it. It’s hard to explain what’s happening on the ground here, but it’s very particular to Beijing, right now. And how Chinese youths are going through a sort of an opening up. It’s great. And the music’s awesome – that’s what’s most important. I’ve seen amazing live shows over the past three years and I don’t think that can ever be denied.
CC: Your pictures have been published in The Washington Post, New Yorker, The New York Times, Guardian Observer, Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine. Have you published these pictures within the Chinese media? Is there a Chinese Rolling Stone or similar?
MN: Yeah, they’ve shown up in local papers: China Daily and whatnot. There isn’t really a good musical press here in China in general, even less so one that would cover the scene that I cover.
CC: And is it true that most of what is there is in English?
MN: I think in terms of foreign press, Time Out Beijing, and those sorts of listings papers are the ones that listen the most. There are some Chinese language versions of Time Out, and I think they get listed in that. And they do get listed in some local Chinese publications. But in general there isn’t a lot of Chinese-language media support.
What really has been a big catalyst for a lot of this music scene has been due to the Internet in general, which is obviously one of the largest platforms for Chinese people to communicate outside of popular media. The popular media is of course completely state controlled, and are a bit anathema to publish stuff that they consider to be offbeat and controversial. So a lot of the information and commentary spreads almost exclusively on the Internet with regards to this music. The Internet is a major resource that contemporary Chinese people turn to, above The China Daily, or The Worker's Daily .
CC: Chinese subcultures may not have to develop a print, alternative media. They can just develop it online.
MN: That’s right. People do make zines and that sort of thing, but a lot of this community was formed almost exclusively online. People with what would be considered in China as very eclectic tastes in music, were finally able to converge and find each other. Now there are a number of sites, especially Douban, which host groups, music, discussion groups … it’s sort of the place to be and post your music and interact with people.
CC: You’ve talked about the fact that many Beijing bands sing in English; and a lot of these groups have English names too. Are a lot of these people bilingual, or is it more the idea of English than English itself?
MN: It’s a very bi-lingual scene in some ways. One of the biggest reasons people say they sing in English, even if they don’t even speak very good English themselves, is that one of the musical influences they love the most are sung in English. They feel like it’s almost easier for them to express themselves using that nomenclature.
CC: It’s like when Australian rock musicians sing in American accents, because that’s ‘how it’s done.’ It’s what they’ve heard.
MN: [laughs] Possibly. And it’s really case by case. Everybody has very specific feelings with regards to that. Some people feel very strongly, some don’t. Some people have band names that are very definitely their English name, or their Chinese name, and they’ll only use them in certain situations. Other people don’t really care. It’s hard to make a sweeping generalisation about language, but you find more and more that it’s a very bi-lingual scene.
And you can say that in general about the contemporary arts scene here in Beijing. Especially compared to Shanghai and other cities in China. What’s occurring here is a very international collaboration or community of people who are interested in that, and whether it’s artists, curators, or gallery directors – it’s a very eclectic mix to say the least. I feel that the contemporary art scene is much more Chinese, but people are thinking on a global scale now and trying to interact with international artistic communities. And in that sense there’s definitely a bi-lingual nature to it.
The music and the arts scene are what have kept me here. I moved back here in 2007 thinking I might stay a year but there’s been such a creative explosion I can’t leave. You also see a lot of the more experimental musicians, like Yan Jun, run in a lot of the same circles as the contemporary Chinese artists. A lot of their theoretical positions on creativity are very close.
CC: Documentary filmmakers as well.
MN: Exactly. One of the best parts about it for me in the past two years has been, technically speaking it’s still a relatively small scene right now, and there’s a lot of cross-pollination. So at D-22, you’ll have all these different bands which are exclusive to each other in terms of their musical genre, but they’re all playing at the same club. It’s the same in other venues. Everyone knows each other. Everyone listens to each other’s music. There’s a lot of inter-genre influence and interesting things being done.