Zhang Shouwang, frontman of Beijing rock group Carsick Cars and experimental band White, is possibly the most famous musician in Beijing’s indie music crowd, famed for his support of Sonic Youth and for being the man behind Beijing rock anthem Zhong Nanhai among other tunes.
Such is the openness of Beijing’s cultural scene that, only a week after I’d started asking around for his number, I was sitting on the grimy steps outside D-22, sharing a beer with the man himself and talking over the drones of a noise outfit playing inside.
Christen Cornell: Carsick Cars is an awesome name – very strange.
Shou Wang: A lot of Beijing bands have really cool English names – like Ourselves Beside Me, Snapline, Big Shark – because it’s not their native language. I find it more interesting to write songs in English. Sometimes if you write songs in Chinese you think too much about what other people will think: if this line makes sense, or it’s a little bit wrong. But I think if I write it in English I don’t need to think that way.
CC: You’re kind of free.
SW: Yeah. I just hope that people can understand. That’s enough for me.
CC: When did you start playing music?
SW: Six years ago I think.
CC: Is that all? That was when Carsick Cars began.
SW: Yes, that was my first band. Maybe when I was in high school I might have got an electric guitar and played some noise or something, but I didn’t really know how to play. I took some lessons from a heavy metal guy in the guitar store, but I found it really boring and hard for me to study guitar that way. So I quit, and just taught myself how to play.
CC: What were your influences?
SW: To start with it was lots of American pop music, like Michael Jackson. Then I had the chance to hear bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, and then I found bands like Sonic Youth and The Velvet Underground and lots of experimental, avant-garde stuff too.
I’ve been listening to Velvet Underground for more than ten years now and they’re still one of my favourite bands. They’re like a library for me. Every time I need something I can go back to them for inspiration.
CC: Were there influences from within China as well?
SW: P.K.14, and Joyside – and then a very old band called No who were very experimental. They were all just a bit older than me, and before I started playing I went to shows every weekend to see them play.
CC: Where? Here?
SW: No, D-22 has only been open for about five years, but there were a couple of clubs in those days. One was a very small bar near Qinghua called Lu Shang – they closed and are now Yigong Yishan. That’s a bigger bar and we play there a lot now.
D-22 has been an important place for my generation of musicians. It’s a very cool feeling to play here but sometimes it can get a little too crazy – it can get very crowded and you can hardly move. We’ll come back to play New Year Shows and D-22’s anniversary, but there are plenty of other kids coming up now. It’s good to see them play here, like we did when we first started out.
CC: It's interesting that you sing in both English and Chinese. Is your life a mix of those cultures as well?
SW: I think I have more foreign friends than Chinese friends. And I probably speak the languages half and half. English and Chinese are such different languages and I find it really interesting to explore them both. Every time I want to write a song that is like talking to the audience, I'll choose Chinese; but if the song is very personal I prefer English. It’s easier to say something personal if you have that distance.
CC: Does your audience understand English?
SW: In Beijing, we have a large foreign audience, but also lots of Chinese college kids who speak pretty good English and would definitely understand. Our lyrics are pretty simple – like The Ramones [laughs] – so they’re not that hard to understand. I like simple ideas that can go straight to your head. But also ideas that are not too clear.
CC: You’ve played overseas a lot. Would you say most of your audience are overseas, or in China?
SW: I think they’re mostly in China but the first few times we played overseas we were really shocked to see how many friends we had abroad. The first time we played in the UK it was at the ATP Festival [All Tomorrow's Parties] and there were like a thousand people – and they knew the lyrics and were singing along! I don’t know, they must have found out about us from MySpace or something. [laughs]
CC: Can you tell me a bit about your last album, just to wrap up? It was a cassette, yes, not a CD?
SW: Yeah, we recorded two songs, like a single, and thought it would be cool to put it only on cassette [available with Pangbiar].
CC: How very DIY, to only do a cassette.
SW: Yeah, it's popular these days. In fact there's a label in Beijing called Rose Mansions who only do cassettes. That's the world today, I think. The internet the difference between countries is so small, so you'll find musicians in China picking up on these same trends that are happening everywhere else.