In the last five to ten years, there has been a buttload written on the supernova of new bands that have come from Beijing’s indie rock explosion. Some heralded it as the Montreal of the 2010s, and its bands as “pioneers” of a new sound, and among the newer faces of this diversifying Beijing scene, there is a fierce blend of experimentation and punk attitudes. Dr Liu & The Human Centipede bring a balls out approach that plasters melodic synth squiggles onto Ramones-esque punk, After Argument are the natural nuclear fall out of Fugazi, and Carsick Cars managed to take their no-wave drenched indie sound global last year with tours across the US and Canada. But raise your head above the hype in Beijing, and it's easy to see that some cracks are beginning to form.
Helen Feng, lead singer of the capital’s most exciting new band, Nova Heart, isn’t peddling out any delusions as she sits in front of me on the afternoon before the final date of her band’s latest tour in China. When I ask if the city’s band scene is healthy, she frowns and lets the pizza slice in her hand droop.
“Well, the music scene in general is not in a healthy state anywhere in the world,” she says, sat in a café-bar in the increasingly gentrified lane house area of Dongcheng. Venues in this district—like the sticky-floored School Bar, Mao Live House and XP, where the touring Iceage recently played—help form the epicentre of the music scene here. “It’s become more mainstream in Beijing, like New York or Berlin,” Helen continues. “There are too many established borders to have the energy of the very beginning [when rock first geared up in China].”
As a Beijing veteran, who had been in numerous bands before Nova Heart, Helen has a bit of a world-weary, seen-it-all-before attitude to her home city. But as a newcomer to living in Beijing I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen so far. To me, rock still feels like the same underground prospect here, in this metropolis sprawl of 15 million people, as it did on my first visit in 2007. Back then I saw the likes of sludge-rockers Hedgehog (listen below) destroy capacity gigs as they became one of the focal points of the cascade of scene articles that followed their emergence in 2005. In 2015, they are still going strong.
But, despite the vibrancy, being in a band hasn't become any more straightforward in Beijing to catch up with the indie rock boom. For one thing, China’s government places nurturing home-grown artistic talent far beneath, say, encouraging people to sing the national anthem while not using mobile phones on its priority list. President Xi Jinping was recently quoted as declaring that all Chinese art should serve to promote Chinese values, and bands are required to submit lyrics for approval before releasing music. Just in case there are any messages on the couple of hundred hand-painted copies of the latest hype band’s debut EP likely to incite a mass storming of Tiananmen Square (there usually aren’t).
Helen of Nova Heart took the bold approach of setting up her own label Fake Music Media—the label encourages all of its artists to "get native"—through which she has just released their self-titled album. “I don't have kids, I don't have a house, I don't even have dogs right now, but what I do have on my checklist of personal milestones is my first full-length record release,” she wrote on her Facebook page between album sleeve packing sessions. “This has been a long time coming. And like everything, we had to do it the hard way.”
For musicians with her mindset, going DIY in China brings yet more logistical hurdles. In the West, hype around bands spreads at fibre optic speed and labels start sniffing around before acts have even thought up their snappy, zeitgeist-seizing name. In contrast, a flimsy Chinese industry infrastructure has been crippled by mass piracy—the industry was valued at almost $5billion in 2012, yet digital music spend was less than $100million in 2013—and it leaves few options to make a living from music.
Here, indie labels are understandably scarce. Well-run sets ups like Modern Sky and Maybe Mars sign decent local acts, but not exactly on "let’s-snort-your-band-name-in-cocaine" deals. “I’ve had friends who wanted to leave their label but couldn’t because there are no other options,” says Helen. But thinking outside of the restrictions of the traditional and flawed industry framework in China brings new opportunities. Music festivals, for one, have rocketed in the country, finding themselves in a powerful position of influence, and the opportunity for new unsigned bands to find themselves on a decent sized stage has become a matter of just being good enough, and talking to the right people.
What goes down at Nova Heart’s show, at the Yuyintang venue the night after I meet Helen, suggests that while she is aware of the fragility of a music career in Beijing, she has faith in making a DIY approach work. The Ladytron-esque electro-throb likes of album opener “A Drive To Our End” and the sparse “My Song 9” combined with her oscillating silhouette, create an atmosphere that sends ice ripples through the crowd, made up of roughly a 60/40 split of locals and expats.
“What they have done is a rarity in the Beijing scene,” says Liz Tung, who reports on local bands for Time Out. “There isn’t a strong widespread DIY culture or mentality. Most bands here sit around and wait for opportunities to be handed to them. A lot of great bands in Beijing have put out one album and then fizzled out, or just started building a fan base and then broke up.”
This gig feels different to the Beijing sweat-fests I’ve witnessed so far—Nova Heart seem to be pretty much the only band here thinking about visuals as well as tunes. Their pulsing light screen show, along with their dystopian music, helps build a Blade Runner-esque feeling in the distinctly non-Blade Runner-esque surroundings of the school hall-like venue.
At the end, Beijing scenesters, equipped in whatever streetwear garb they got from Gulou that morning, scramble to get hand-packaged copies of Nova Heart’s album. Not long before the albums get stuffed in elegantly weathered tote bags, Helen and her label colleagues were hurriedly hurling together the CD packages themselves.
“Nova Heart are different,” says Jonathan Alpart, producer/presenter of The Sound Stage, a weekly Beijing rock radio show on state-run station China Radio International, says. “It’s a bit of a supergroup as the musicians she plays with have been playing here for a long time,” he adds. “But their live show is an experience, far more so than other bands here. They’re captivating and you feel like you’re a part of something when you see them play. The music, lights, her drunken swaying… they’ve got something.”
And the enormous effort it’s taken Nova Heart to get to even this point has made it all the more rewarding. While this makes them Beijing’s current anomaly band as well as its best new one, Helen is hoping that if things get bigger other Beijingers will be tempted to convert to a more DIY system and shake up the dead end banality of current opportunities.
“I don’t see what we’re doing as a model, but an influence,” she says. “China has the possibility of being one of the last hopes in music, there is such a huge amount of untapped people and their brains are starting to open up to new ideas. When you put a little magnet on the compass, you can start shifting things.”
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