A talk with Jane Penny, TOPS’s vocalist, at her home back in Montreal
Always been curious about the music scene in other cities outside your own little cocoon? We assumed you were! So we feed your hunger for insights and secrets in the Scene Report. This month we talked with Joshua Frank, a musician and filmmaker, who grew up in Beijing and lives there currently. He plays bass and synthesizer in Hot & Cold with his brother, Simon
Words by Joshua Frank
Photos shot in Beijing, China by Joshua Frank (& Cola Ren)
I was born in Montreal, but have actually spent more time cumulatively in Beijing than any other city. Hot & Cold, too, has shifted between Beijing, Montreal, Toronto, New York, New Delhi and Taipei. We’ve released music on our own collective label, Rose Mansion Analog, as well as Beijing’s Genjing Records and US labels Night People and Moniker Records. Our latest record is a split 7” with another brother band from Florida, Tonstartssbandht. I also play in two other Beijing duos, the percussive bass and guitar group 工工工 (Gong Gong Gong) and electronic project JDK-X.
Beijing is the closest thing I’ve experienced to home, and the only place I’ve really engaged with in a meaningful way as a little kid and teenager as well as throughout my twenties. It’s also the harshest, most inhospitable place I’ve ever lived – hot summers, cold winters, smog. The boulevards were built for military parades rather than pedestrians, and old buildings are torn down and refigured as new replicas of traditional architecture.
The first show Hot & Cold played at an actual music venue was in Beijing in 2006. It was at D-22, a seminal bar that was the spiritual home to a new wave of rock, punk and experimental groups from 2005 until it closed in 2011. Our duo began as a no wave-inspired noise band, with smashing gongs and shouting through megaphones, and gradually warped from that into post-punk, transnational blues and barebones psychedelic electronic music. I think we would still consider ourselves a band born out of Beijing.
Beijing’s reputation tends to be one of a rock music city – raw, uninhibited and tough – which stems from its urban environment and climate. Shanghai is more polished, and there’s a greater emphasis on electronic music and DJs. There’s more and more interaction between the cities’ scenes, but Beijing and Shanghai are respected for different styles of music, and still attract different musicians and audiences.
There’s a narrative in a lot of international reporting on Chinese music, which goes, ‘Look at these Chinese punk-rockers opposing Communist rule!’ In reality, there aren’t many bands that have an explicitly anti-government message, and the few that do, honestly, don’t make very interesting-sounding music. Actually, the most threatening thing that a band or producer can accomplish is to build a grassroots community. That’s what arouses government suspicion, however unjustified it seems.
The positive response to a lot of music venues facing government pressure is that more alternative spaces are hosting performances, which has had an interesting effect on the atmosphere of music events, and I think made them feel friendlier in a scene where people are sometimes too shy to strike up conversation.
The weekly experimental music series and label Zoomin Night emerged out of the D-22 scene in 2009. When D-22’s younger sibling, XP, closed down last year, Zhu Wenbo, the organiser of Zoomin Night, started hosting shows in an underpass beside the airport expressway near his apartment. By playing at the mouth of the tunnel and turning your speaker or instrument in different directions, you can alter how sounds reverberate through the space. The audience sits outside the tunnel, on a stairway that forms an auditorium-like semicircle.
Lately, more shows have been happening at fRUITYSPACE, a stageless venue and mini-record store in a long basement underneath a hotpot restaurant near the National Art Gallery. Because of noise complaints from neighbors, most performances are matinee shows. It makes for a good weekend afternoon, and everyone usually goes out to eat together afterwards.
The audience sits outside the tunnel, on a stairway that forms an auditorium-like semicircle
At the start of this year, my brother Simon, my band-mate Tom Ng from 工工工 and I organised a mini-festival in Beijing. It was scheduled at Aotu, an improbable gallery and hair salon tucked in a grimy alley behind a subway station, but we had to change venues at the last minute. We ended up switching the location to one of our favourite bars, SOS, which had never hosted a performance before. It’s a small spot run by a couple; free jazz saxophist Wang Ziheng and drummer Zhou Qi. There’s a bar counter on one side, a fridge full of beer on the other, and a massive foam Japanese tengu mask stuck to the ceiling with its nose hanging dangerously close to people’s heads. People DJ music off their phones, and on a good night the tables are covered in empty bottles and sunflower seed shells.
That’s how I’d say you should spend a good night in Beijing: get hotpot with friends and bring your own bottle of whiskey, go see a show in an ad-hoc venue, hang out on an alley rooftop, wander in the smog.
Labels: Genjing Records, Maybe Mars, Nasty Wizard, Sinotronics, Zoomin Night
Promoters and events: Antidote, Do Hits, Miji, Pangbianr, Subjam, Zoomin Night
Venues: Aotu Studio, Dada, fRUITYSPACE, SOS, What Bar
Music: Alpine Decline, Bu Zai Hua Xia, Chui Wan, Charm, Earsnail, Hot & Cold, Li Jianhong, Menghan, Wang Ziheng, Wenliang, 工工工