If you believe Martin Atkins, even he isn't sure why he decided to fly to Beijing in fall 2006 and record the best and brightest of the city's nascent underground rock scene. He already knew the American expats who run D-22, the top rock club in town, and they could tell him which bands to watch—but he's been touring for decades and has connections like that all over. And given his credentials—he leads Pigface and runs Invisible Records, and since the early 80s he's played with the likes of PiL, Killing Joke, Ministry, and Nine Inch Nails—he probably could've gotten a project like that off the ground almost anywhere. His best guess as to why he chose Beijing is that he was attracted to what he calls its Wild West feel. "When I moved to New York in the very early 80s, I think some of the time that I was waiting to get shot in Times Square," he says. "We were certaintly—although I was drinking and on speed—we were adrenalized, you know? I think that was part of the reason I went."
China's new reputation as a giant free-for-all has already attracted plenty of foreigners looking for thrills or profits or both. Atkins's friends in China convinced him to hire a bodyguard, but he didn't end up running into any of the sort of excitement that might've required one—the most dangerous thing he had to deal with was probably the air pollution. "Somebody said to me in Beijing, 'You should start smoking, because then at least some of the time you have a filter in your mouth.'"
But a Wild West atmosphere has upsides too—because the rules are still in flux if they exist at all, it's easy to feel like anything is possible. That's certainly the impression Atkins got from Beijing's rock scene. He describes it as a borderless community of like-minded but not similar-sounding musicians, all of them amped about the social and aesthetic power of rock and unhampered by the orthodoxies that keep self-conscious Westerners stuck in their genre pigeonholes. He saw twee-pop and punk bands that not only played on the same bills but shared members, and he was blown away by the scene's energy and variety. "I heard London, mid- to postpunk, New York in the early 80s, all of these things," he says. "And it wasn't mimicry. I heard all these bits and pieces and it wasn't... it doesn't feel strategized in any way."
Atkins set up a portable digital recording rig at D-22 and started recruiting bands, relying on a poster tacked up in a rehearsal studio and the expertise of the club owners. He spent five or six days recording there, sometimes during live shows, and when he was done he had the great majority of the 18 tracks that make up the compilation Look Directly Into the Sun: China Pop 2007, which came out this week on Invisible. If its cross section is representative, underground rock in China is all over the place stylistically but surprisingly good overall—especially considering there's only been a native scene for maybe a decade, and a "Beijing sound" has yet to develop.
In most cases it's easy to identify the Western influences the bands started with. Demerit's "Fight Your Apathy" has more than a little Rancid in it. I'm almost certain Queen Sea Big Shark want to be the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and that "Hold the Line" is supposed to be their "Maps." Snapline and the China MC Brothers sound like they know Atkins's work—at the very least they're fond of the same kind of industrial drum machines and ugly rave synths he is. The songs aren't merely derivative, though—it sounds like the source material has gone through several generations of mutations, and now these bands own it. It reminds me of how British Invasion acts failed, in fascinating and unique ways, to be American rock 'n' rollers.
Look Directly Into the Sun makes me wonder if a Chinese Invasion is imminent. Atkins thinks it's possible, and he's signed three Chinese bands so far. "They're absorbing, but also paying homage," he says. "It can either absorb and then regurgitate, like a mad bhangra thing, or it could just become a karaoke version and be trampled by all the real versions."
Of course, whether Chinese bands become a phenomenon in the States depends on more than aesthetic success. China is still, well, China, and the government's not yet sold on the sort of free expression that the arts both promote and require. The Ministry of Culture pulled Carsick Cars, one of Atkins's favorite finds, off a Sonic Youth show in Beijing this spring, reportedly due to SY's involvement with the Free Tibet Campaign, and in other arenas state control is even more complete. "I was sitting in the hotel room watching CNN," Atkins says, "and there was a flash on the screen: 'Shooting at the Tibet border.' Bzzt. The television went off. And then somebody from the government came on: 'There is no shooting. This is rubbish.' And I was talking to Michael from D-22, like, 'Did you see? What the hell?' He says, 'Did I see what?' 'CNN!' He just laughed and said, 'Are you in a five-star hotel?' 'Yeah, my crazy assistant put me in a five-star hotel.' He says, 'Only people in five-star hotels get to see CNN.'" But he also hopes China will come to see a thriving music scene as an economic and public-relations boon. "Anybody who lives in Wicker Park knows the value of art and culture as a real estate accelerator," he says. "And I'm sure that lesson isn't lost on them."
The handful of bands Atkins didn't record with his portable rig he invited to a rented studio, where he also got inspired to cut some tracks of his own. He asked his assistant to find some gnarly old Chinese folk musicians for a session. "I had the video all in my head, you know, the old guys with the beards," he says. "And it would be cool as hell, and I'd put that track on the next Pigface album." What he got were three schoolgirls who played instruments he'd never seen before—the lutelike pipa and the violinlike erhu, plus a bamboo flute, or dizi, and a free-reed pipe called a hulusi. Soon Atkins was recruiting other collaborators—members of Snapline and Carsick Cars, a traditional Tibetan singer, a scratch DJ—and in a week he had a second album, Made in China, billed to the Martin Atkins China Dub Soundsystem.
Atkins's project is an unlikely but viable hybrid, combining old and new Chinese sounds with his own blown-out electronic mayhem. It's a fascinating artifact of his time in China, which he's also documenting with a feature film, still in the editing stages. "I went to the Great Wall for two hours. I didn't go to Tiananmen Square, didn't do anything," he says. "I didn't eat any grasshoppers on a stick, scorpion on a stick. I was just in the studio. I thought, well, I'm so lucky to be shown this—this is it for me. This is my little postcard." I ask him what he considers the best part of the trip. "It's different things at different times," he says, "but right now it's the relearning of the total awesome coolness of making music with people. I didn't know that I needed to be reminded of that, but I did."v
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