'At That Moment I Thought, I Thought I Really Saw Music'

Posted by Pete DeMola on 20. Jul 2010

BEIJING, JULY 20 -- On a warm weeknight in early-June, a kid set aside his guitar, dropped to his knees and began to moan -- pulling at strings and twirling knobs -- before losing himself in the squalls of ringing feedback, shifts in modulation and ambient noise that his band, Carpet of Let, concocted behind him.

"I'm nervous and shy," the kid later said. "I like to make noise like a zombie."

Zuo Wei, a mild-mannered 20-year-old chemistry student at Tianjin Normal University, is one of the most active figures working to nurture a new offshoot of Beijing's music scene, one that is embracing a more DIY, community-based ethic as the independent music industry enters a new phase of commodification.

Since Fat City, Hot & Cold and Sister Oriented kicked off the first session in early-August of last year, Zhu "Rainbog" Wenbo's weekly Zoomin' Night series at live music venue D-22 has given birth to a thriving new creative community where musicians, artists and photographers are facilitating a culture of experimentation and seeking to upturn conventional sonic boundaries by using the night as a springboard for collaborative performances and creative departures from their usual projects.

It's just a normal day, said Li Weisi. "The difference is that the bands playing on that day are more weird and unconventional. It is a very cold night sometimes -- even in summer."

Li, who performs with Soviet Pop, Snapline and Carsick Cars, explained that while nights are hit and miss, just about everyone knows each other. The most important feature, he feels, is that it showcases the many possible ways of creating music.


The definition of "experimental music" differs as much between the community as the sounds constructed within its parameters.

Li explained that experiments are operated through hypothesis, application, verification and conclusion. "Experimental music is just an experiment on music. I can`t say it is a good or bad music, but there are many successful or failing experiments."

Zoomin' Night Art Director Lin Yanzhu sees it as the exploration of sound and a clash of the unknown: a mercurial process of cancellation and reformation that expands the boundaries and perception of music itself.

"Noise, sound and melody are all equal," he said. "While you can never be sure of the end result, it's always fresh, vital and ultimately defines itself."

Zuo likes to think of it as strange and seductive, a form that isn't restrained by the chains of the classical structure found in rock and blues.

Carpet of Let

He studied the accordion for 11 years before eventually realizing that he didn't like music with so much constraint. "When you study the instrument, you don't study how to really perform it -- you just learn how to play it."

Experimental music is creative, not rigid, he said.

His bandmate in Carpet of Let, Mao Shizhou, feels that each member of a live unit has different ideas while playing the same song during an improvised performance.

"You can feel the change in each performance while your emotion and mood is changing," said Mao, who also performs with Ice Seller, another band from Tianjin. "And this is something that you can't feel while playing at any other rock and roll bar."

Tianjin, by the way, doesn't even have a platform that facilitates collaboration, said Zuo. The closing of NIC Club earlier this year left the city's musicians bereft of venues conducive to experimentation.

Spectator V, a multi-instrumentalist and producer who performs with the Offset: Spectacles, argues that new language needs to be articulated to describe the current paradigm.

"Ninety percent of the music we hear [at Zoomin' Night] has roots in well-developed aesthetic lineages," he said. "If we were living in the 1980s, then you could probably still call it [experimental]. But being 2010, I think it is time for us to articulate a new set of language to describe all the new music pumping out from these bands."

V said that he'd like to see more accurate naming conventions taking shape as musicians continue to develop new sonic blueprints.

"I have been thinking about how to describe Soviet Pop, and the only thing I could come up with was Oscilla-folk," he said. "And that sounds kind of lame."

Semantics aside, the music pumping out from these myriad projects are varied.

It spans a wide spectrum, ranging from more traditional post punk and noise rock (Wanderlust, Golden Driver, Birdstriking), dancehall (WHITE +) free improvisation jazz (Li Tieqiao, Jackson Garland) to the surreal oscillator phase noise emitted by Soviet Pop.

Zuo (pictured below, far left) himself is a musical polymath.

In addition to his accordion training ("My mother chose it for me when I was two-and-a-half because she thought that it would make me more clever"), he plays guitar, bass, harmonica, theremin, melodica, drums, keyboards and manipulates effects pedals and oscillation devices during his solo sets.

Next up: the alto-saxophone, to feed his growing fascination with free jazz.


"I think when the door of perception of music is open, you can study and play any instruments you want," he said while ticking off an encyclopedic list of genres that his two bands tackle:

Krautrock, psychedelic improvisation, acid rock and human voice experimentation (Carpet of Let) and post-punk, experimental noise rock, noise pop, industrial and New Wave with "free-jazz-and-noise-post-punk-guitar" (Wanderlust).

"The very young and often very aggressive musicians and other artists who show up every week are in the process of defining their music and will inevitably play a very important role in creating determining the most important Chinese music of the next decades," said D-22 founder Michael Pettis.

He sees Zoomin' Night as the most interesting and exciting of the venue's regular event series.

"Zuo Wei is one of the most thoughtful musicians in that scene, and he will not only play a role as a musicians but also as an organizer."


While performances are open to the public, the weekly sessions aren't so much traditional shows as they are the epicenter of a new community coalescing around common interests and doing what they love, explained Nevin Domer, D-22's Booking Manager and a creative team member of the club's associated record label, Maybe Mars.

Some nights, he said, people take the role of the audience. On other nights, they are the performers. "In the end, the focus is on the community and an exchange of ideas -- not the number of tickets sold."

"It's typically a small crowd made up of mostly die-hard listeners and musicians," said Spectator V, adding that the two aren't mutually-exclusive. "It's outliers playing dubious post-apocalyptic genres, some being more exciting than others. And a great soundtrack in between sets."

Birdstriking (and fans)

Zhang Shouwang (WHITE+, Carsick Cars) sees Zoomin' Night as the natural predecessor of Waterland Kwanyin -- the now-defunct Tuesday night series curated by Subjam Records and music critic Yan Jun that ran from June 2005 to Oct 2008 at 2 Kolegas -- and the No Beijing movement, a group of affiliated bands and musicians who, drawing inspiration from the proto-punk and avant-garde minimalism that oozed from New York in the mid-1970s, gave birth to the bands that eventually became Snapline, Carsick Cars, WHITE and the Gar.

"It was a smaller scene: we were playing new kind of rock stuff for new audiences," said Zhang. "We would try different things, work together and have some side projects. That's what the Beijing scene is supposed to be -- creative and fresh."

Johnny Leijonhufvud, drummer for highly-influential local band P.K. 14, said that bands are really pushing themselves to do something different, not only for themselves, but also for the audience.

Leijonhufvud demonstrated that reciprocal ethos by participating in a very special performance earlier this month where, under a bruise-colored sky and unseasonably cool temperatures, P.K. 14 blasted though the entirety of their seminal debut record Whoever, Whoever and Whoever (2004, Modern Sky).

Three-hundred plus fans sang along, held transfixed for an hour by five musicians at peak form (Spectator V lent an extra pair of hands on the guitar) as they performed those cathartic anthems, ten songs that have been seared into the collective consciousness many times over.

Eight songs in, as the humidity in the room hit the breaking point, came "燥眠夜," the song after which the series was named.


A new DIY cassette label and zine, Rose Mansion Analog, has also sprouted from this freshly-tilled soil.

The project was launched out of necessity, said founder Spectator V. Analog recording fell by the wayside about a decade ago due to advances in technology and recording studios slowly phased out the technology, resulting in a near-total absence of analog studios here in China.

"We set up a mobile studio, like how Alan Lomax did it back in the day," he said, referring to the legendary preservationist of world music. "But instead of recording country bluesmen, we record sound-based oscillator duo, keyboard rock and loud folk music."

The Offset: Spectacles

The lo-fi aspect isn't something intentional, said Spectator V (pictured above, top right), but more due to technical and financial limitation of doing it on their own.

He likens the analog versus digital debate to making rice: "You can choose to use a rice cooker, or you can use a microwave. No matter what, you'll get fluffy, steamy rice at the end -- but the latter method basically nuked all the nutrients out of the rice."

Rose Mansion Analog's first round of releases -- lavishly-illustrated cassettes by the Offset: Spectacles, Hot & Cold and Canadian lo-fi outfit Dirty Beaches -- were released on Tues, June 15.

Other participants in the project include Spectators O and K -- Spectator V's collaborators in the Offset: Spectacles, tackling art direction and engineering, respectively; Joshua and Simon Frank, the two Canadian brothers who perform both as Hot & Cold and as solo artists; Li Weisi (dubbing and spiritual guidance), Li Qing (graphic design and dubbing), Yang Fan (engineering) and Zhu "Raindog" Wenbo, taking care of all things web-related.

"We stayed up one World Cup night and did all 120 cassette sleeves in one go," said V. "It was really fun and emotional."

More will follow in the future.

In addition, Maybe Noise, a branch of Maybe Mars Records, are readying the release of a Zoomin' Night compilation record.

P.K. 14 frontman Yang Haisong recorded 57 songs by about a dozen bands in mid-January and spent six weeks narrowing the selection down to nine cuts from performers who make up the backbone of the scene, including Carpet of Let, Fat City, Wanderlust, Ice Seller (pictured below), Cardiac Murmur, Sister Oriented, Lu Xinpei, A4 Destroyer and Zhang Shouwang.

Ice Seller

"It was really hard to leave all these beautiful songs behind," said Yang on the tracks left on the cutting room floor. He envisions releasing the complete sessions in the future.

Plans are underway to support the compilation record with some gigs in southern China later this year.

However, Zuo's parents -- a military surgeon and chemical engineer -- remain unaware that he shuttles back and forth between Beijing and Tianjin to indulge in his sonic tinkering.

"I don't know how to tell them," he said. "If they find out, they may confiscate my instruments and start keeping a lookout."

Zuo ultimately envisions working as a scientist by day and playing music at night. He sees the two as perfectly compatible, citing the white collar careers of Lei Weisi and Snapline's Chen Xi as examples.

"Maybe they will think I am crazy. But when I tell them this after I graduate, they will know that I am right."

Zoomin' Night, Tuesdays at D-22.

Cover image: Fat City. All photos courtesy of 林衍竹.

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