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Feature Fri Oct 26 2007
If Chicagoans are familiar with the 48-year-old drummer Martin Atkins, it's probably for his traveling industrial rock collaborative ensemble Pigface, known for high-energy performances featuring a constantly changing roster of dozens of musicians playing at the same time both on stage and in the studio. Those familiar with punk history, however, know him first and foremost for his time in the early-'80s English punk band Public Image Limited, which was founded and lead by former Sex Pistols lead vocalist John Lydon (a.k.a. "Johnny Rotten"). In between, he has founded and collaborated with a multitude of bands including Brian Brain, Ministry and Murder, Inc. and also started the Chicago-based label Invisible Records to help push it all out into the music world.
This past year, Atkins has set his sights on the rock and pop scene in China, where he traveled in October of 2006 to record tracks and live shows from over a dozen bands performing at the D-22 Club in Beijing. Never before have the conditions been so favorable for Chinese pop: As the world's focus on China grows increasingly intense in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, government officials seem to be slowly loosening up their censorship.
But while conditions are more favorable than ever, they aren't perfect. And despite the "underground" label that Atkins uses to describe this music, bands performing in public must do so with the blessing of the Ministry of Culture, which actively prevents obvious anti-establishment songs from being performed. Public Enemy, for example, felt compelled to refer to themselves simply as P.E. when they participated in the Beijing Pop Festival this summer. And to get around censorship, Chinese bands often write their lyrics in English only to provide censors Mandarin translations that obscure the true meaning of what they wrote. Music in China, it seems, is becoming more and more like a cat and mouse game.
Still, the Chinese bands have a rare opportunity to show the world what they've got, and Atkins is positioning himself to be their principal conduit to the outside world.
In today's Beijing, and particularly at the D-22 club Atkins says that he feels a similar kind of energy as CBGB's embodied when he arrived in NYC over 25 years ago, and observes the development of the same sort of underground collaborative punk culture that existed in 1970's London — a scene of which he was a central figure.
The result of his China trip are two interesting albums that Invisible is releasing this week: Look Directly Into The Sun, a compilation of 18 Beijing pop, punk and rock bands and Martin Atkins' China Dub Soundsystem's Made In China, a fascinatingly intricate, clubby mix of sounds gleaned from the tracks on Into the Sun, traditional Chinese instruments and Pigface recordings.
Look Directly Into the Sun features 18 tracks from as many Chinese bands, some of which have opened for western bands touring in China and some have even gone on tour themselves. Carsick Cars (Myspace quote: "Enjoy our panda noise!"), who have yet to release a debut album, opened for Sonic Youth in Beijing last summer and toured in Vienna, Prague and London. Their track on the album, "Panda," uses a simple descending three-chord pattern, strong percussion and subdued grungy vocals that float over the music to create a melancholy, and nostalgic but energetic feel. Kind of like the Go! Team if the without the cheerleaders (if that's possible to imagine). And take a look at their photo…is she, the drummer, wearing a Chairman Mao outfit ironically? Does this suggest the beginning of the (definitely way out into the future) end of Communism in China? I'm optimistic.
Three bands that opened for Nine Inch Nails at the Beijing Pop Festival this year (apparently a really, really long opening) are also featured on the album. One of them, Snapline (MySpace quote: "Let the false pornostar spinning in" — wtf?), performs the opening track "Close Your Cold Eyes," a Fitness-esque electronically mixed song sung in (limited) English, featuring a guy repeatedly singing, "I always want…you…to" for the verses and "close your cold eyes" for the chorus, with high-energy guitar scratchiness performed in the background throughout. And don't forget the aloof backup singers.
What's different about the second track on the album, a hip-hop tune called "Jai Jung" by the China MC Brothers, is that it has the most to say (literally) of any of the others songs on the album. A faster, highly produced dj-backed track, melodic rapping occurs through almost the entire piece. The difference is immediately apparent when compared to the rest of the disk. Perhaps American rock and punk is just as minimalist when it comes to lyrics, but that foreign words just don't stick. Or maybe Chinese bands hold off on lyrics in order to prevent lengthy, bureaucratic censorship proceedings with the government? Who knows. I hope that, when the album comes out, the lyrics that do exist are posted either with the CD or on the website.
I love the final track, "We Just Free" by Rococo, because it has the spunk and optimism of Blitzkrieg Bop. Poorly recorded, but short, melodic and fun, while listening I imagined the Ramones performing their first concerts. In fact, despite all the talk about China's materialistically obsessed youth culture, fascinated with that which middle-class Chinese have only recently begun to experience — money — the first thing I noticed about this compilation is the innocence and pureness of it all. These Chinese kids just want to have fun.
If you were hoping to hear traditional Chinese elements in this music, look to the album produced and mixed by the Chicagoan. Martin Atkins' China Dub System's Made in China is a fascinating mix of traditional and new Chinese sounds, intricately mixed, sometimes thick with layers of electronic drum and bass and vocals and at other times acoustically minimalist. This album is less an authentic survey of today's Chinese pop music than a great experiment in sound mixology. After all, it seems that Atkins may have created a sound that westerners have come to expect from that part of the world, rather than what actually exists in China, and it works for me, but would people raised with Erhu music think to make something similar? Maybe they have already, maybe not.
While experimental electronic-ish music often induces fatigue after the first track, the variety on Made in China keeps things interesting. Need something for your upcoming hip, international asian-inspired club party? Track #1: Radio China. Looking for delicate Erhu accompanied by powerful taiko-ish percussion for your Cirque du Soleil skit? Track #2: Mostly Hulosi. My favorite track, Pink (#8), manages to pull together traditional-sounding high female vocals with a scratchy backbeat and constant blips in the rhythm (ever seen a French new wave film where they cut frames out of the film for a skipped look? Yeah, like that).
Neither album will make your iTunes "Top Played" list mostly because, unless you speak Mandarin, they're hard to sing to (and the English tracks don't have many words). But both are a great adventure into what is still unknown territory for most of us. Hopefully, we'll be able to watch these bands, and Chinese popular music, mature (along with their government) for years to come. For now, we'll let Martin Atkins be our guide for what appears to be just the start of a new Chinese music revolution (red optional).
I asked Martin Atkins a few questions last week about his experiences in China. Atkins, who is currently on tour in the United States, sent his responses via email.
Gapers Block: Why China?
Martin Atkins: I think it had something to do with the idea that I didn't know anything about the scene or the country — that I'd be un-plugged from any connections??? I'm still trying to make sense of it — VERY pleased I went though!
GB: What about the music scene there had you heard that prompted you to check it out for yourself?
MA: I don't think I had heard anything — it was a kind of entrepreneurial challenge — a chance for adventure and, as it turns out, a very
different result than the one I had imagined.
GB: Is there a particular reason why you went in October of '06? I read that you were there for about 10 days.
MA: I just wanted to go! I was there for 16 days in the end — I extended my stay and the studio time there.
GB: Did you record all of the tracks on Look Directly Into the Sun
yourself during that period?
MA: Yes, I used a PreSonus box with 8 inputs and recorded direct to
digital using Logic LE. I was supposed to be there with my engineer — but at the last minute I realized that there was a TON of work going on in the studio in Chicago and we couldn't lose him — so I ended up doing it myself!
GB: In the press release it says that you set out to "create an album that reflected what [you were] seeing and hearing in Beijing." Would you consider Into the Sun to be, above all, a journalistic endeavor?
MA: maybe, but it's through my lens...I have recordings of maybe 40 other bands — so this is the scene as I see it...so, errrr, no!
GB: Do you feel that you could get a truly accurate view of the scene in Beijing in only 10 (or however many) days?
MA: Well, in 16 days I very quickly gave up any traditional sight-seeing — I DID spend a few hours at the wall but cancelled a few days in Shanghai and a few other things — I figured that the stuff that was happening in
the studio was a once-in-a-lifetime experience — I can always go back and see Shanghai, Tiananmen Square, etc., etc. but this experience was priceless…but, what this trip has done is create an interest in me that keeps digging around....like, did you know 144 Ferraris were sold in China last year? that there are 55 Starbucks in Beijing???? I am
still finding out about the Cultural Revolution and the attitudes that there are towards it — and, interestingly, where those attitudes have come from...so, that answer to your question is, NO — of course not.....
GB: Did you encounter or witness any censorship or self-censorship amongst the Chinese artists while there?
MA: Not really but, an awareness of what is acceptable might be built in to their DNA almost?? So, I didn't see it right in front of me — at one point a girls started saying some really really filthy stuff on one of the tracks — I think the engineers might have been a little upset by that...
GB: What about the music is "underground" if bands apparently have to obtain various approvals from the government?
MA: They don't — bands traveling there from abroad have to submit lyrics, etc. for approval and bands releasing CDs have to submit them with lyrics
etc months before release date. At some magazines a government official actually sits at a desk in the office so that they can get approvals (or whatever) more quickly...bizarre shit!!
GB: I didn't hear very many (or any) traditional
Chinese instruments on Into the Sun, but they have a large presence on
your China Dub Soundsystem. Has it occurred to the Chinese to mix the
traditional instruments in the way that you did or is that something
that us Americans expect and want to hear upon learning that music (of
any genre) is from China?
MA: Well, these bands (on LOOK) are doing their own thing with instruments that are appealing to them — I wouldn't expect an American band to get all excited about a new song with Banjo in it??? FOR me, it was like being an artist and finding three new colors to use — it was awesome and, really, underlined the power of music - many of them didn't speak English — but we all meshed together very very well.
GB: Any more Chinese collaborations in the works?
MA: Yes — Xi (the singer form Snapline) sings on the new Pigface album and I'm trying to get some of them to come over and tour. We're just
finishing up the documentary of the whole thing — it's fucking awesome!