Updating Comments Section

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All this recent activity has been very humbling, but a bit much for a lad from the suburbs of Sydney. My site groans like an ageing donkey, well overburdened. The comments section is its old, worn saddle, and could not sustain the weight and speed of replies to my recent post, just as this silly metaphor can’t sustain itself.

So I’m updating the comments section, I guess is what I’m saying.

Someone who knows more about running a blog on the intertron than I do suggested I use Disqus. And I have taken that suggestion, because I’m pliable like an aging donkey, well overburdened and hey wait a minute…

And the only reason I’m posting this is out of courtesy. While my interblog syncs with Disqus’ interblog and the interleaved networks are pinging and other technological words, there are some comments that are not displaying. They should be up soon enough.

It is, however, a great opportunity to resurrect some 90s ‘under contruction’ gifs!

Sorry! I love you.

No Hats to be Dissed, Here

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A few weeks ago, I sent an email to Pitchfork Media. It was long, perhaps too long to warrant a reply, and I didn’t expect to get one. I was basically drawing attention to the fact that there are no mentions of Chinese bands on their website, at least as far as I found as I trawled the archives.

Slagging off Pitchfork is of no interest to me. Criticisms of the their editorial style and musical tastes are fair and well-spoken for. The fact remains that, as a critical and promotional vehicle, Pitchfork Media has considerable clout and has been able, through enthusiastic coverage, have a very positive influence on the careers of a number of musicians.

So I tapped out a subject for my email (“Who gets blessed?”) and sent it away, with no expectation of reply and a single, central question: if China is fast becoming a dominant economic, geopolitical and cultural power, how does it make any sense for no Chinese bands to get mentioned on the website?

I should have written one more question that I didn’t think of at the time. If Chinese music – or at least the music I concern myself with – so exemplifies artistic and commercial independence, how can it be of no interest to a leading independent music publication?

Not long after sending it – very much to their credit – I got a (short) reply from one of Pitchfork’s editors. He didn’t answer my question at all. He probably didn’t have time. But he did ask me which bands I would recommend.

So I rattled off a few, mostly the well-established Beijing bands. I added that they were not really my sort of thing, and sent him links to bands that were: Duck Fight Goose, Pairs, Next Year’s Love and Boys Climbing Ropes. I could have said more, but didn’t really want to push it. A good mixture of artistic and local significance, I thought, as I sent the email. I didn’t expect a reply this time, either.

But just a few days ago, I got a reply. It was terse as the first email, and said that he’s not really into any of these bands. Let him know if I could think of any more. I thanked him in my polite way, and left it at that.

The response – the complete lack of it – didn’t surprise me. I’d never expected anything more. But the outright dismissal started to nag at me after a short time, and upon reflection I find his response seriously lacking in foresight, if not civility.

There are no bands in Shanghai (China, as well?) who really satisfy Pitchfork’s particular editorial preference for Johnny Two-Hats, hipster quirk. They talk about all kinds of music, and a lot of music I really like, but there is a consistent air of vague ‘indieness’ that surrounds a lot of the musicians they write about. It’s a legitimate editorial policy, I suppose, but it does seem to water down the ideal of independence into a fashionable, saleable thing.

An adopted shabbiness, a wild – but concerted – grasping at that which is fashionably odd. Trying to seems like you don’t give a fuck, rather than just plain not giving a fuck. The music I know and love in Shanghai, and other cities too I’m sure, demonstrates a true independent spirit. It’s rooted in a DIY ethic, commercial constraint, proactive and direct relationships with local audiences and music that seeks to honestly reflect – if not always successfully – the local environment that inspires and supports it. Independent, not hipster-indie.

While it would be nice, and supremely helpful, if international media took an active interest in what’s happening here, the unfortunate fact is that journalists, whatever they happen to be writing about, tend to look for subjects that match their preconceptions, so they might  better fit the story’s narrative (and hence the journalist’s own ambitions and ends).

Just after I came to China, I caught an episode of Australia’s Foreign Correspondent. It’s mostly an excellent and long-running investigative journalism program. The episode was about the sustainability of economic growth in China.

It wasn’t about music, but the reporter interviewed the band members of Rustic to get their thoughts on China’s economic progress. Needless to say, he didn’t get much.

(Just to clarify: aside from the fact that I don’t like their music, I’m not criticising Rustic here. I know I bring them up a lot, but this is a criticism of the journalist for his poor investigative judgement.)

The reporter (who is otherwise really good at what he does) could easily have found other bands in Beijing; bands who could have provided a more nuanced contribution to the issue, as well as given an incidental but important hint at the more subversive side of music in China. But that wouldn’t have fit the story. The reporter, his producers, the audience – whoever – wanted a carefree group of young chaps to provide a glamorized, obligatory voice of “hope” in the report.

You see it all the time; it’s a convention of contemporary investigative journalism. The grocer in the Gaza strip, and how his daily struggle is symptomatic of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict. The family doctor in outback Australia, and how his life reveals the lack of government funding of isolated medical practices. The youthful band members of Rustic, and how they represent the emergence of China onto the world stage.

Why can’t the grocer just be a grocer,  the doctor a doctor and the musicians musicians? Why shape the subjects into representations, and editorialize every word they say, when you can just show them as they are, and let others make their own conclusions?

The problem, in the case of the story with Rustic, was that it made the idea of expression through music in China seem farcical. Something whimsical and glamorous, bordering on artificial.

So. A prejudiced and compromised international media. High profile independent music publications that don’t much care for independence, but rather a commoditized ‘indie’. Where does this leave bands in Shanghai?

Well, not in such a bad state, based on a fairly incredible month of musical prowling I’ve been doing. I will write about that another time – but not here! Bloody hell, not now. I’ve gone on long enough (this is why I don’t write very often).

Given all this, the overriding questions is: does music here need external legitimacy and patronage? I would argue that it probably doesn’t, but that it also would hurt. In an interview after their recent tour of the US and their show at SXSW, Han Han from Duck Fight Goose said how “you always think that as a Chinese, the foreign band will always be better. But I’ve seen that it’s not true.”

And it’s not fucking true. I found the same thing when I returned to Sydney last year and saw a few local bands. There is great music being produced in Shanghai just as anywhere else, and some of it is truly, astoundingly good. Stalin Gardens (pictured) are the latest band to really amaze me. Another post, another time, I guess. Also – and their Douban page is a bit ambiguous about this – but I think, I think they may be looking for a drummer, and it would be your privilege to play with them.

That’s not all. Bands have been coming up with really nifty ideas to engage their fans, and draw in new ones. Giving them something more, as a friend said to me the other day. And it does compel me – should compel everyone – to appreciate what we do have, which is a truly independent music community. No arts grants or hipster-journo blessings or earnest news reporting, but some great grassroots initiatives. And the music, always the music.

It’s Rock O’Clock!

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It was rock o’clock, at any rate. A few weeks ago.

One city, one music scene. The sounds people make on stage here all come from the same place, even if they come from different places, so to speak.

I don’t think there’s a division in Shanghai’s music community, but to a regular, just-going-out-to-see-some-music punter, there is a feeling of discontinuity. As though you’re seeing a city with two personalities. Like that’s an unusual thing, anyway.

There’s nights involving bands with local members and local audiences, and nights involving bands with expatriate members and expatriate  audiences. Rock Your Life was the former.

Efforts are constantly being made to get more young chaps and chapettes to go and see some bands – cheap gigs, afternoon gigs, lots of promotion. Bringing fans and music together, all that lovely stuff. They’re often successful events, because young people are curious and music is powerful. There’s such an event on Sunday, and it is absolutely worth going to.

The Rock Your Life show I went to the other week was, by any standard, a successful event for a number of talented, local bands. The fact that they are not talented in a way some people like is irrelevant. That being said, I may as well do what I came here to do…

I can only be honest. I have absolutely no interest in lovey-dovey, rock balladry. I hear only worn old musical tropes, I hear cliché running rampant. I don’t think it suits a place like Yuyintang, but a good hundred or so young folk would have disagreed with me, I’m sure.

It was Naohai first, who’ve been stepping up a bit recently, getting strong reactions from all sorts of crowds. They sometimes strike me as being all smoke and mirrors, without the magician. I’ve seen them a few times now, and I remember liking them more in these earlier shows. They distinguish themselves by playing along with a pre-recorded backing track; nothing gauche or over the top. They use it as an added layer of sound; synthesized basslines and arpeggios. It unifies their songs, seems to lift them well above other bands who play similar music. Not so much this night, though.

They were standing in a row for most of the set – guitar, bass, vocals, guitar from left to right. Somewhere near the end of their set, the vocalist and the bassist fell back, and the rhythm and lead guitarist sidled into the centre, soloed in unison for a dozen bars; feet on the rail, groins a bit thrust out, tongues-a-waggling, all rock ‘n’ roll. They finished, the line reformed, the song resumed.

This was my dominant impression. It was an example of set piece purely as set piece. Their performance seemed composed of so many pre-rendered slabs that the music became obscured by the shapes and forms that make up the artifice of performance.

These forms – solos, fills, twists, smiles – are devices that good performers use to relate to an audience. But they are also barriers that get between a performer and a listener. Used too carelessly, these devices will have a musician competing with the structure of their own song to elicit emotional responses.

A listener wants to see the musical human being behind the solo, rather than the solo itself. Surely, that’s what it’s all about.

But Naohai do seem popular, and they’re good at what they do. I just don’t want to see them turn into Rustic (review), because I like some of their songs and I think they’re a band who might shine this year. That being said, Rustic are touring the US, on the way to significant success. My judgments are probably deeply flawed.

Da Fresh also played straight rock that veered on the chick-pop side, but they played a fast and compact set – all power chords and eighth notes. In contrast to Naohai chaining themselves to a pre-recorded backing track and pre-rendered tricks, Da Fresh played on a timeline that belonged to the place and the audience – not in some weird, artificial space. Again, Naohai were stronger when they played with less overt showmanship.

I saw Guts, whose sappy handsome-rock didn’t quite live up to their name. This isn’t my music. The people for whom it is intended seemed to enjoy the performance thoroughly. Young females, mostly. As well as a creepy old man who was recording a video of the lead singer for the whole show. Rubbery lips drawn back, teeth braced in a pleasured grin, reflected light playing on a layer of saliva. I’m guessing it was the singer’s dad.

That doesn’t make it better.

Tang Trio were an unexpected delight. They played a really measured set, with varied, rather technical basslines that gave their songs little dynamic peaks and troughs; a “pocket” is the expression, I think. The drummer as well, he moved casually between sparing taps on the snare drum and heavier rock grooves. They were the only band who played any chromatic tones. There was a sense of motion and dynamics to their performance, a certain weight. I’d gladly see them again.

And Biubiu, the shiniest of the evening! Probably less groovy than Tang Trio, but on the whole more interesting and fun. Although I’m incapable of saying otherwise about bands with chicks singing and playing guitar. They played a song that hit me, named ‘Call’. Anchored in a spacious, octave-based groove, varied in rhythmic shapes, and with a few distinctive tonal changes. Biubiu came up before Tang Trio, and by this stage in the evening there had been an overflow of saccharine, indelicate swoon-rock. Biubiu played a deeper, bluesier set. Same as Tang Trio – I’d see them again any day. And I will, because they are playing on Sunday

I simply can’t remember Cosmicake, which is a case for me writing these posts more speedily.

More regularly. There’s all the reason in the world to write, and more importantly to go and see shows. This is a lovely music community to be a part of. Let’s hope this year is a good one for bands, and for people who like supporting them.

In fact, as I write this I have at least one – absolutely certain – reason for knowing that it will be excellent.

Duck Fight Youse!

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There was a time when I used to post about music here. I even went and saw music shows and stuff!

Hasn’t been happening so much of late for utterly unspectacular reasons to do with work. I hope that this post marks a return to regular writing for me. Oddly enough, I think that writing about music was the thing that really compelled me to go out and see bands, rather than the other way around.

In any case, I’m here to talk about Duck Fight Goose, and the significant changes they’ve undergone in the last year.

They were the first band that really gave shape to my conception of music in Shanghai. Yuyintang had seemed to me no more than a little bar with a little stage. But they got up and played ‘Ghost is Online’ and the place suddenly became youthful, subversive. So large that I could barely feel myself as a presence there.

It is a great feeling; a dizzying sense of shared experience not unlike being part of a mass crowd at a sporting event. The other music I’d seen at YYT went from being (super nifty) pub bands to a part of this massive, lively thing. It’s one of the reasons I haven’t written as much lately. It’s hard to cast a critical eye upon bands who, in my mind, are all part of one incredible musical city. Duck Fight Goose are not entirely responsible for this. There are bands here that I like just as much, and even more. I hope to write about some of them soon.

But Duck Fight Goose were the first to give me that blissful feeling of disembodiment.

I saw them twice in September. The first time I felt nothing, and the second time I felt everything – including a modicum of resentment that they won’t play their older songs. But mostly good feelings, like happiness, arousal and smiles.

The Tenori-on no longer hangs around on stage with them, shoving its bleep-blippity silliness into their songs. They still basically finance the Roland Corporation, mind you. But they use every bloody loop pedal, synthesizer and vocoder you see on stage. They stomp all boxes.

And this is one difference I have picked up in their new songs. Duck Fight Goose have always played music that accumulates; drawing attention to moment-to-moment changes, and lulling us into a comfortable stupor in the wake of larger, more striking dynamic shifts.

This hasn’t changed. There’s just a hell of a lot more going on. One of their new songs – something about a “highway”, or some such - is a new favourite of mine. It’s faster than anything on the Flow EP, driven by a clean guitar riff, and is the most rocking-muscular song I’ve heard from them.

The guitar just goes and goes, and doesn’t try to resolve itself in any melodic sense. The whole song is like a taut string that would break if not for the precision of it all.

Yet bearing down upon this dangerously tense thing is a careful weight of timbres, mostly vocal, mostly Han Han. It’s a brilliant song; an example of incredible tension created not through narrative or lyrical indulgence; not through harmonic conflict and resolution.

Just the physical, acoustic tension of packing a space – both physical and cerebral –  with as much meaningful sound as possible without it falling apart into a distorted, meaningless tangle. The tension of watching musicians manipulate a stage full of equipment perfectly while they move across this tight-rope of a song. Easily – as though it’s scarcely an effort for them.

They rock, in other words. I’m sure a lot of this comes down to mixing. In fact, I know it does, so cheers to Brad who, I understand, is responsible for that side of things.

Duck Fight Goose are still a defining part of my notion of Shanghai’s music. The exhilaration I feel when they play is more than a physiological response to loud, rhythmic noise. It’s the sense of being a part of something cool.

Although it must be said that I’ve been stolen away by Next Year’s Love. They deserve some kind words also.

Hopefully soon. I don’t want to spent so long away from music or blogging again.

 

Here’s Your Chance (although probably not)

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I haven’t written very much this Summer, have I? Long hiatus, and all that. I didn’t reply to a comment from Kev of Girls Like Mystery on my Rustic post, either. Totally forgot. Sorry Kev! I spent the better (and the hotter) part of Summer in Australia, which is my home country but is also cooler in July due to the axial tilt of the Earth on its orbital plane (true!).

I’ve spent the past week (and most of my dignity) living in a hotel in Yangpu District, because my landlord is a bastard. But now I write, and with good reason, no less!

Bleep, the online music-store-thing established by Warp records a few years back, are running a competition. It’s called Bleep: Filtered, and is basically a call-out for unsigned artists (which is a fancy word for musicians – also true!) to have their music released and promoted by Bleep, and then mastered and put onto a bleepy CD.

Bleep, as an online retailer, have got some serious clout, principally because of their association with Warp. And Warp shouldn’t need much of an introduction; they’ve released music from some of the most influential electronic musicians over the past two decades, like Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Autechre, Boards of Canada, Battles, Grizzly Bear, !!!, Flying Lotus… It’s a pretty long and storied list.

Anyone familiar with these musicians/bands will be familiar with Warp, and will therefore know the sort of music that Warp’s A&R department will be looking for in this competition. That being said, we’re talking about a fairly diverse collection of musicians here, so it might be worth writing something about electronic music. It also gives me a chance to rant a bit while I wait for my socks to finish soaking in the hotel sink (again, true!).

Electronic music, broadly and uselessly, refers to a stupidly huge range of musical styles and practices. In the most general sense, it  denotes music that has, in some way, been informed by electronic processes or instrumentation, or otherwise by past electronic music practitioners. That could mean anything though, and in the age of digital production it almost certainly can refer to everything.

More specifically – and people who are familiar with the musicians I mentioned before will know this – Warp’s particular brand of electronic music is quite as arbitrary as any other musical style. So, punk rock where the guitar happens to be mangled by digital processes (delays, harmonic modulation) probably wouldn’t fit with Warp’s overall sound. But if it’s just guitar, and you’re singing with a fishbowl on your head about pastoral shit in a vaguely folksy way, then you might have a chance.

Similarly, if you’re just a Live-whore who indulges in a bit of casual beat wizardry, you probably should re-think your entry to this competition. I dunno, try OverClocked Remix, or something. But, if you’re a producer with idiosyncratic, slightly experimental techniques, and some sort of characteristic sound or feel, then go for it.

I realise this probably doesn’t help. Obviously, everyone should try this. Why the hell not?

I am yet to hear a remotely talented or interesting producer in this city, but there are one or two bands in Shanghai who might just be right for this competition. Duck Fight Goose are an obvious one, because electronic processes definitely inform, and are pervasive in, their music. Although they’re signed or something, right? That would exempt them from this competition, unless they submitted music that isn’t subject to a contract.

Snapline… Yyyyyyes. Maybe. I don’t know. They fit, just a little.

Next Year’s Love. Now there’s an interesting one. They haven’t released any music, and are totally new, but there’s something about them that is a bit truer to the sound and spirit of Warp than Snapline. The electronic percussion and synthesizer melodies push them in such a direction, but it’s more than that. There is a hazy, harsh atmosphere about them that evokes the folk side of Warp’s repertoire; musicians like Bibio and Grizzly Bear.

There’s probably others. I’m a long way off being able to comprehend all the dimensions of music in Shanghai, let alone China.

Most of all, I just think news of this competition should be spread far and wide. It probably won’t happen now, but I have a feeling that a time will come when labels, music historians and journalists, academics and wankers will be climbing over each other to say they were there (here) when it (music) happened.

(Image of Next Year’s Love stolen from Douban. Don’t call the cops!)

Requiem for The Dudettes

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Pictures don’t speak louder than words, but moving pictures with audio do a pretty good job. The following video describes the Dudettes festival better than I am capable of with words alone.

It’s Simon from The Instigation singing ‘Like a Prayer’, and it felt like a celebration, and sweet goodbye, of The Dudettes.

 

 

I’ll have some words soon enough, but for now this seems more appropriate.