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Quit punkin’ around: Interview with John Lake

What happens when a Wellingtonian photographer resides in Beijing for three months with a camera, no Mandarin and a passion for punk music?

Kiwese caught up with John Lake of Up the Punks down at his current BEIJING DAZE exhibition in Newtown.

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Hey John! Favourite punk bands in Wellington at the moment?

The Johos, Johnny and the Felchers, Awkward Death.

Where did your interest in punk stem from?

I grew up listening to punk. Wellington had quite an active punk scene in the 90s that was all about participating – kids putting on gigs, starting their own bands, playing at a community halls instead of bars; people making their own magazines and releasing their own tapes. For me, that was always the main appeal of it, an act of community culture that you could participate in, not something you had to buy into.

How did Up the Punks first get started?

Up the Punks began during the end of the 90s, early 2000s. I was doing design at Wellington Polytech and was interested in how there was a whole different generation of kids coming through – which got me interested in how that generation interpreted different bands and ideas, so I started building an archive of my own photographs. There is a lot of documented material about overseas punk that we are familiar with, but there hadn’t been a published history of punk in Wellington, a scene that went back to the late 1970s. A lot of the music would be independently released on tapes, sit in people’s collections and eventually degrade and disappear. I just do it in my free time – I work full time in a dead end job.

Where did the idea come about to go to Beijing last year?
Asia New Zealand and the Wellington City Council were putting out proposals for the Wellington Asia Residency Exchange and they were interested in projects that interacted with the local community. So I chucked together a proposal and said this is what I’ve been doing for ten years, I want to see what the cross cultural interpretation of punk is and create a NZ interpretation of Chinese people interpreting a ‘Western’ cultural paradigm. I handed the proposal in on the last day and was quite surprised when they accepted it.

Unregenerate Blood 2nd CNHC Festival, September 7, 2013. Mao Live House, Beijing, China.  Photo courtesy of John.
Unregenerate Blood, 2nd CNHC Festival, September 7, 2013. Mao Live House, Beijing.
School Bar. Photo from John.
Another night at School Bar.

Beijing was your first foray into scenes outside of Wellington, how did you manage to get involved with it?

I went over and basically hung out for three months and followed the same model as Up The Punks by just going to gigs, meeting as many people as I could in that time with my limited ability to communicate with them. The thing I was interested in the Wellington punk scene is not to present it as a wacky subculture of people doing things, it is more of something to participate in and document and build it. So going over to Beijing I was very conscious of a number of documentaries that had come out since the 2000s like Beijing BubblesBeijing Punk and Wasted Orient – there is this dialogue which goes alongside them, where a Western reporter comes in and is like “Wow! Isn’t it crazy that they have punk in China?” For me it was more about meeting people and trying to set up a collaborative thing, rather than being a fly on the wall.

As capital cities, are Wellington and Beijing hubs for punk music to converge?

I guess Beijing and Wellington both have more established reputations as being centers of culture and politics together. People don’t talk about Shanghai or Auckland in ‘go check out the culture’ kind of way. Wellington is all a nice little compact city, and it also markets itself as a cultural center, which Beijing does as well. As political centers, I guess it attracts a lot of people who are interested in the arts.

Discord at Old What Bar, October 31, 2013
Discord at Old What Bar, October 31, 2013
Johnny and the Felchers, performing at Black Coffee for the Beijing Daze launch.
Johnny and the Felchers, performing at Black Coffee for the Beijing Daze launch, April 2014.

What kind of approach do you have towards exhibiting?

A lot of the process over in Beijing was documenting and gathering information on things. The exhibitions I have in the past have tried to move away from the traditional frame of portraits and gallery space – so they have been done in community spaces as opposed to gallery spaces. Black Coffee, which is run by Johnny from Johnny and the Felchers, has a retro punk aesthetic and following, so it is a good space for this exhibition about Beijing punk. I wanted to mirror what I did down at Dirty Monsters Club in Tongzhou – where I exhibited a range of photos of the Wellington punk scene. They are still up on the walls there, a good four months later.

Wellington punk photo exhibition at DMC, Tongzhou, Beijing. Photo courtesy of John.
Wellington punk photo exhibition at DMC, Tongzhou, Beijing.
Beijing Daze @ Black Coffee
Beijing Daze photo exhibition at Black Coffee, Newtown, Wellington

What interested you in taking Up the Punks to China?

I’d been following a lot of documentary photo essays and things like this about the rise of punk in Asia in general, from Burma, Indonesia and Thailand, with all of these punk scenes that did not exist more than ten years ago. They are all distinct in their own way and there is a lot of music coming out of there. It is not just a case of Asian cultures taking a Western cultural genre and copying it, the music is always getting its own dialect and its own spin.

How did you see those influences being reworked in China?

Its not just that they are getting the material, it is arriving in China in a different way than when first generation punk music turned up in New Zealand during the 70s, where it would take three months for records to be shipped over, or just a newspaper, to get over here. In China, they got a compressed thirty years worth of punk music all at once, so they are interpreting things in a different way.

Hell City at Old What Bar, 31 October 2013
Hell City at Old What Bar, 31 October 2013

You set up an Up the Punks kiosk at Changying BHG Mall, how did that go down?

The aim was to do nothing more than confuse people with random information about New Zealand, an obscure side of New Zealand that a lot of people wouldn’t either know or care about. I got Sochu Legion 烧酒军团 to come down and play – they were one of the first bands I saw in Beijing and they played all the time. They had a real sense of humour and a style of punk that is similar to what I like in Wellington. I’m not sure if they understood what was going on – we were coordinating through this big phone chain because I had no Mandarin and they had very little English. They were really nervous when they turned up and the set up was in a mall with a bunch of aunties and random mall-goers gathering round to watch.

Check out the GREAT MALL OF CHINA video here, where punk rock meets unsuspecting locals.

Changying Mall
Changying Mall

How did you feel the anti-establishment attitude associated with punk played out in Beijing?

There is a kind of chilling effect with the political censorship situation in China. Whereas in Wellington, we have a very active engagement with political ideas in punk. Over there, some of the bands are singing songs about various issues, but I didn’t experience the kind of hard-left anarcho punk scene that has existed in the West since the 80s. I was told there is a three-tier warning or demerit system they have, where if you are on the third tier you are basically one step away from getting into some serious shit. But punk is not the only voice of dissent in China, and maybe it’s an ineffectual or futile one. Punk provides a means by which people can complain, but is not the only place where people will say they are pissed off at the Government or pissed off at work or pissed off at whatever. It’s just one language.

Old What.
Old What Bar.

How do you feel the scene there responds to the political situation in China?

The Chinese Government seems to have bigger things to worry about than teenagers singing songs about stuff. There are issues going on. I was over there during the attack on Tiananmen Square in October. A dude I was meant to be interviewing was like an hour late because all the traffic had shut down in the area – all he could tell me was there was a plume of smoke rising over the Forbidden City. It was all going up on Weibo but the posts were getting deleted straight away. At some point Chinese society is going to have to address these ideas because people are becoming more informed. There is more invested wealth in the country and people are going to want to have a voice. When you’ve got the latest corruption case with that dude from the military who has embezzled like six billion dollars, people are gonna see this stuff and say ‘we are being taken for a ride.’ That’s how you would feel in the West if you saw this stuff going on.

The Flyx, DMC, October 5, 2013
The Flyx, DMC, October 5, 2013

What did you enjoy about China?

The energy and the buzz of the place. Wellington is great and everything but it can get a bit sleepy if you’ve been here for a long time. It’s the first time I’ve been to anywhere in Asia, so it was interesting to go somewhere where I didn’t really speak the lingo. Everyone there seemed very friendly. The food was really awesome – I got really into hot pot. It was all pretty luxurious staying on a three month paid for holiday, where the whole thing you’re doing is just to go hang out in bars for three months.

You were spending a lot of time with the local bands and people at gigs, did you pick up any Mandarin?

Uhh.. “Wo bu hui shuo zhongwen.” [‘我不会说中文’ ‘I can’t speak Chinese.’] I said that a lot. “Ni hui shuo yingyu ma?” [你会说英语吗? ‘Can you speak English?’] The guys from Unregenerate Blood gave me the name Hu Yuehan 胡约翰, which means John not of the Han.

Old What Bar
Old What Bar

How did you go about conducting the interviews?

You can always find somebody who has a limited amount of English. The interviews – were really difficult. In a lot of cases I’d find one person with a limited amount of English and get them to ask the questions in Mandarin, then I’d try get them to provide a basic idea of what was said. There was opportunity to take a translator out with me through the residency, but it was financially too much of a burden, and some weeks I’d be going to six gigs a week and staying out in town till stupid hours of the morning. I had a translator for the first day at the anarchy mall kiosk who was obviously not getting why any of this was going on.

Up the Punks, China issue zine
Up the Punks zine, Issue #1, China Syndrome.

How did you go about compiling the bilingual China issue of the Up the Punks zine?

I waited till I came back to Wellington to send all the audio from the interviews over to the translator, who then translated it from to English and produced the written Chinese transcriptions. I have no idea what the Chinese says, hopefully it wasn’t all just run through Google Translate. I’d like to get some copies over to some people in China who have been asking for some. I’m interested in doing one every three or four months with issues about the Up the Punks projects. The zine is a good opportunity to pile them together online as a PDF and in a print version. I’d like to curate the material into something a bit more cohesive like the China issue.

Hard copies!
Hard copies!

Is there more China on the cards at all?

I’m hoping to go over there later this year, this time with local band the All Seeing Hand. They are gonna be working with Tenzenmen and going through Australia, South East Asia and China around October, or maybe even as early as July. I want to go through and document it with them, with the idea of producing a touring guide for overseas and New Zealand bands in China. It could cover the costs for experimental or punk bands from China to come over and play some festivals or something. Touring would be a good way to make some contacts and get a decent grasp on what’s going on outside of Beijing. Hotpot Music seem to be very busy with promo for bands coming through China at the moment.

ALL SEEING HAND. From their Bandcamp.
ALL SEEING HAND. From their Bandcamp.
Black Coffee. Open till 3pm.
Black Coffee. Open till 3pm ish.

The UP THE PUNKS archive of Wellington punk music which stretches back to the 1970s is online here.

Check out the BEIJING DAZE exhibition down at Black Coffee in Newtown!

Many thanks to John for sharing some of his photos from Beijing and Newtown.

Verrrry much looking forward to seeing the All Seeing Hand buzz people the fuck out in China this year. To be continued…

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High Times with Shanren

Back in January, Kiwese hung out with the boys from Shanren 山人 (mountain men) in Beijing to chat about ethnic music fusions, tourism development in Yunnan and their upcoming trip to New Zealand for WOMAD.

Shanren are a band from the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau in the south-west of China, where the mountains are tall and majestic, the people are warm and hospitable and the traditional cultures of various ethnic minorities thrive away from the scurry of the metropolitan centres. The band, consisting of lead singer and guitarist Qu Zihan [瞿子寒], bassist Ai Yong [艾勇], drummer Ou Jianyun aka Xiao Ou [欧建云], vocal instrumentalist Xiao Bu Dian [小不点] and Sam [夏天] on percussion, are all multi-instrumentalists who possess an artillery of instruments, such the qinqin [秦琴] (a three stringed lute with high frets), the Yi banjo [彝族月琴], the sanxian [三弦] (a type of three stringed banjo), bamboo flutes, tooth harps and a smorgasbord of percussion. It’s a wonder they can all fit it all on stage.

Shanren's logo. Easier to appreciate the epic simplicity if you can read hanzi.
Shanren’s logo. Easier to appreciate the epic simplicity if you can read hanzi.

When Sam said they could meet for an interview at the Sheraton Hotel, I was somewhat puzzled. Aren’t these guys based in Beijing now? Why are they at a five-star hotel? All was to be revealed upon my arrival, as I walked passed the gaggle of Yunnanese girls in full ethnic headwear, costume and make up, past the illuminated signage full of curated snippets on the beauty and splendor of Yunnan [lit. south of the clouds] and through to the back room where the band had stationed themselves away from the formalities.

I shook their hands as I went round the room and asked them all to sign my guitar, bestowing Qu Zihan with a plastic bag full of Tsingdao cans, which Xiao Ou soon descended on with boyish glee. They seemed knackered, potentially hungover, and keen to wrap up what had been a morning of performing for people who were not exactly like regulars from their usual habitat of reggae bars and festival stages. Nervously placing my iPhone on top of a beer can, we commenced the interview.

Ai Yong was sprawled out on the chairs, while Qu Zihan was in a more able state to answer questions. “The band formed at the end of 1999, then it was on and off for a while,” he explained “at first, it was just me and Xiao Ou, followed by a bassist who is not with the band anymore. Then Ai Yong came along. And Sam. Then in 2007, Xiao Bu Dian joined in too. That’s pretty much how it went.”

Aside from the geographic significance behind the name, Qu Zihan says the phrase ‘shānrén’ also gives a nod to ancient figures in Chinese history who would choose to live a hermit [隐士, yǐnshì] existence away from the public eye, in order to dedicate their lives to art and culture. Think of reclusive but brilliant Tang poets, tucked away high up in the mountains, writing in perfect solitude. Kind of Romanticist in a way.

Shanren with some of their folk instruments. Photo from Jue Festival site.
Shanren from left: Ai Yong, Qu Zihan, Ou Jianyun, Xiao Bu Dian. Photo from Jue Festival website.

Though the band have been around since the late nineties, it’s only in recent years that they have released some studio recordings, including a self-titled EP (2009), the highly praised ‘Listen to the Mountains’ [听山] (2012) and their latest offering ‘Left Foot Dance of the Yi and other Chinese folk rock anthems,’ (2013) released last year to excited appraisal from international and Chinese music critics alike.

Listening to the album is a rollercoaster ride, underpinned by voices that bounce back and forth through the call and answer group vocals – a style that is perfectly realised through the crispness and succinctness of Chinese syllables. Bluesy hammer-ons and bends on traditional lute strings swim through the song ‘Thirty Years.’ The pop choruses heard in ‘Bi Li Tong,’ are starkly contrasted with haunting, dystopian wails atop bustling city soundscapes in the duel tracks ‘Wandering’ and ‘Lost.’ Hip-hop even rears its head in ‘Song of the Wa,’ featuring a rap from Ai Yong in his native tongue and record-scratching effects produced with a mouth harp. ‘The Crab’ is a reggae-infused mojito getaway, followed by the upbeat vibes of ‘Yi Wa’ which layers Chinese flute, rumbling percussion and loud group calls not unlike a Samoan sasa.

Qu Zihan saying it like it is. Image from Shanren douban page.
Qu Zihan saying it like it is. Image from Shanren’s Douban page.

“At first we called ourselves ‘ethnic rock,’ but it didn’t feel accurate,” says Qu Zihan of their inimitable style, “so we came up with the name ‘agricultural metal’ [农业金属]  partly inspired by ‘industrial metal’ [工业金属] in the West.”

The album is a triumph – the techniques, instruments, dialects, rhythms and melodies a cohesion of both the mountainous highlands of China’s south-west, and the influences they have encountered from lands of other altitudes – The Beatles, Nirvana and Bob Dylan were names that floated round the room.

“We try to bring the atmosphere of the mountains to the stage,” says drummer Xiao Ou of performing in a stage environment, “of course there can be a distance, but the audience can still dance and feel the vibe even if they are behind the handrails.” Xiao Bu Dian, who fashions a long plait of black hair, counters the point, “our music is not traditional – it’s a fusion with modern aesthetics,” he says “to me there is no difference in the delivery between being on a big stage and being in the mountains.”

Xiao Bu Dian rocking it on stage last year
Xiao Bu Dian rocking it on stage last year. Image from Shanren’s Douban page.

‘Drinking Song’ [酒歌] is Shanren’s signature track; the Chinese answer to ‘Bliss.’ “Xiao Ou probably drinks the most,” Qu Zihan says, as he ashes his cigarette in a recently drained beer can. “In Yunnan we have paojiu,” Xiao Ou explains, while cracking open another Tsingdao, “which is like baijiu steeped with things like quince, jujube, snakes and stuff.” Hold up, wait, what?! I was as perplexed by the concept of preserved snake liquor as they were by fermented apple cider. Laughter ensued and more beers were shared round.

Since forming in Kunming, the band have now moved from the fresh air of Yunnan to ‘the big smoke,’ where the phrase takes on a more literal sense with regard to Beijing. “That video was shot near Beijing,” Qu Zihan says of the video for ‘第五期,’ set alongside lush, flowing rivers and green foliage, “though these kind of places are getting rarer and rarer due to the pollution. Sometimes the entire region from Sichuan to the north-east is completely covered in smog. But most places in Yunnan are still good.”

Taken in Shangri La, 香格里拉, Yunnan last summer. The town was renamed after the mystical land in James Hilton's novel in 2001 for tourism reasons. Originally known as Zhongdian [中甸], it continues to remain so on most public buses.
Taken in Shangri La, 香格里拉, Yunnan last summer. The town was renamed after the mystical land in James Hilton’s novel in 2001 for tourism reasons. Originally known as Zhongdian [中甸], it continues to retain this name on most public buses.
In addition to the landscape, Yunnan can boast a healthy music scene, with Dali long having been considered the ‘hippie capital’ of China for musicians, while the capital Kunming provides a hub for local artists in the region. “I think the music scene in Kunming is great at the moment – nowadays there are a lot of music venues and it’s a definitely being included by more touring independent artists,” says Qu Zihan of his hometown. “There are definitely more opportunities for us here though, in smaller places there is not always an audience,” he says, “in Beijing, you just have to get on stage and people will be there to listen. That is the nature of this city.”

Mountain men. Photo from World Music.
Mountain men. Photo from World Music.

Shan Ren’s application for funding to play at WOMADelaide and WOMAD New Zealand were rejected by the Chinese Ministry of Culture – but instead of canceling, WOMAD agreed to fund the band themselves. “We are really looking forward to seeing acts from all over the world play in one place,” beamed Xiao Bu Dian. Hanggai, who Shanren have performed with on the Beijing circuit for years, played at the three-day camping festival back in 2011, which was extremely well received by the festival’s eclectic mix of sunburnt jivers. “Hanggai said WOMAD was a big platform for sharing music,” says Qu Zihan, “and I heard that New Zealand is where they filmed Lord of the Rings,” he added, “I wanna see that – it’s beautiful.” The boys will also be doing a cooking workshop at the Kunming Garden area, as fate would have it their hometown and New Plymouth are sister cities!

Xiao Bu Dian surprised me by with his knowledge of hongi custom and the didgeridoo of Australia, though the band are no strangers to touring outside of China – working hard with crowdfunding campaigns to get to Europe, South East Asia and the States in recent years. “Unfortunately we won’t have time to travel in New Zealand after WOMAD,” says Sam, who has been involved with the band for several years as a percussionist and dancer, “we are going to Australia for about a week, then Ecuador before that!” It’s a shame we can’t show off a bit of New Zealand ‘shan’ while they are here, I thought.

Typical me being a fan and having a photo with the band.
Typical me being a fan and having a photo with the band.

“Great t-shirt,” Qu Zihan remarked, pointing at my tie-dyed ‘大理风景’ [Dali Scenery] t-shirt bought on my recent trip to Yunnan. We talked about the rapid increase of commercial tourism in Yunnan, which was why they had been brought in to play at the Sheraton.

Ai Yong, who had been silent for the duration of the interview, uttered his first words.

“A lot of things have disappeared. Old villages are being torn down [拆, chāi] and local people are being told to move out. It changes people’s traditional lifestyles, but they come and cut down the rambutan trees, then smile together and have a toast. Even when we were kids I remember it being like this. Though it is happening not only just here in China, but all over the world.” Its not difficult to see what he means, when campaigns like this are fast becoming a reality. Note: apocalyptic music.

The symbol for 'To be Demolished,' 拆 [chāi] is a more and more common appearance as China work towards modernising the country. Image China Daily.
The symbol for ‘To be Demolished,’ 拆 [chāi] is a more and more common appearance as China work towards modernising the country. Image from China Daily.
The band feel strongly about preserving and maintaining the native mother languages of their regions, in an age where standardized Mandarin [普通话, pǔtōnghuà] is the expectation in schools. “In Kunming, there have been times where if you are wearing ethnic clothes and get into a car, they say Wa people have to give more money,” he says, closely followed by the only English of the interview: “…fuck you!”

The mixture of personalities and often-contrary opinions within the group is something I loved about Shanren. The banter and jokes that went down at each other’s expense – often dished out in a Yunnanese dialect, reflected the way they interact as a band who are never content to conform with one standard.

“There are some policies that give special consideration for ethnic minorities to attend school,” commented Xiao Bu Dian, who is of the Buyi People, “I think its okay.”

“Dude, you look heaps like this New Zealand rapper called King Kapisi,” I mention to Ai Yong, who has grown up in places all round central-northern Yunnan like Dali, Lijiang and Kunming. Turns out, the Wa People are of the Austronesian ethnic group, who have connections to the migratory history to the Pacific Islands.

“Stay and eat with us!” they warmly entreated at the end of the ‘official’ interview, exuding that warm hospitality that is often bestowed by the Chinese, “really, you should come and eat a bit.” Having had such a great time with them and even jamming some guitars, how could I refuse?!

Woah. A large banquet hall was set up for the ‘Colourful Yunnan: Quality Travel’ [七彩云南: 品质旅游] event, a Sims build mode-esque theme song played on repeat over the speakers while delegates in suits and cocktail dresses chattered away exchanging business cards beneath the faux chandeliers. Once we had sufficiently ravaged the buffet of vegetables, meats, seafoods, snacks, eggs, salads, cakes and fresh fruits, a high heeled hostess addressed the table in extremely polite putonghua and presented each of us with beverages and glasses with robot like efficiency. “There’s no word for ‘cheesy’ in Chinese,” Sam laughed, “I’ve been trying to explain it to them for years, but they have no concept of it.”

Having a feed with Shanren at the Colourful Yunnan expo.
Having a feed with the boys at the Colourful Yunnan expo.

Having visited Yunnan as a tourist, it was insane to see the other side it – the industry behind those upcoming, half-completed luxury resorts in Xishuangbanna. “What do you think of these adverts?” I asked Qu Zihan, as I shoveled more vegetable rice into my mouth. “They’re so boring,” [非常无聊, fēicháng wúliáo] he said, flicking through the glossy picture advertisements of Yunnan tourist statistics and new developments.

While the left foot is dancing the Yi, the right foot is treading a distinctive path of its own – and the world is listening.

Shanren. They are the ones truly representing Yunnan.

Shanren Schedule for WOMAD this weekend:

  • FRI 14th March: 8.15pm @ Chimney Stage

  • SAT 1pm @ Dell Stage – doing a workshop!

  • SAT 4pm @ Taste the World – doing a cooking class!

  • SUN 4pm @ Chimney Stage

Special thanks to Lin Yin for her help with transcribing and translation, Sam for sussing the meeting, Colourful Yunnan for the free food and of course the Shanren boys for being champs! See you at WOMAD!

Carb on Carb, Rice on Rice

Got munchies? Aucklanders (奥克兰人 Àokèlán rén) Carb on Carb completed an epic eleven date tour of the Middle Kingdom back in November with good buddies God Bows to Math. Kiwese followed them from Beijing to Suzhou and recently we reminisced about their first foray into Asia and how Chinese cabbage and eggplant dishes are exponentially more delicious than in New Zealand.

carb heart

I first met the duo behind Carb on Carb, epic diva (天后, tiānhòu, lit. ‘Heavenly Queen’) Nicole Gaffney and handsome guy (帅哥, shuài gē) James Stuteley in the grungy merch area at MAO Livehouse in Gulou, Beijing. I quickly scrawled the phonetic pronunciation of “da jar how” [大家好, Hello everyone!] on Nicole’s hand before they took the stage for the first show of the tour when it struck me: these guys, fresh outta the Auckland underground, are here playing their music around China. That’s gotta mean something. It is awesome.

Carb on Carb are the kind of people you wanna be mates with. Their outlook is fresh, fun and friendly, they are really nice, keen to chat and down for whatev. Their music is like Crunchy Peanut Butter machine-gun fire that makes you wanna thrash about like a voodoo doll, yet its stripped back in a way equally suited to lying on your bed with headphones, dreaming about your crush.

Self described as post-punk/noise pop/pop-gaze, Carb on Carb do most of their shit themselves, from the recording, mastering, poster design, album art and photos. They embody a genuine DIY spirit, not in a Mitre 10 Dream Home sense, but in a similarly inspiring way that shows what can be done if you put your mind to it, work hard and do it for the luv of it. From seeing them sell their CDs for a criminally low price, to the “All content is free for you to enjoy and distribute as you please” message on the Papaiti Records website, it is clear these guys are playing music just cos they wanna play music. Word.

After we drunk a bottle of báijiǔ chased with beers, I made the executive decision to follow the bands to Zibo, a small town out in the wops of Shandong. Waking up on a friend’s couch the following morning with no information about Zibo (ie. where da fk da venue??), I decided to push ahead and catch them down in the river town of Suzhou instead, known as the ‘Venice of China.’ Despite the small, sedentary nature of the audience at Wave (New Zea-land hip hop / stand the fuck up!), Carbs were well-received, scored some free booze and made some choice mates after the show, which is the point after all right? 

You can/should download and emo out to Carb on Carb’s EPs no body perfect (2012), Ladies Mile (2013) and their single Eden Terrors, which was released just before coming to China. All their songs are free to take but koha where you can aye! Also the new video for Eden Terrors features some exxxclusive China footage and is the best thing on YouTube right now.

James and Nicole aka Carb on Carb
James and Nicole aka Carb on Carb

Hey guys! You’ve just spent quite a lot of time in China and South-East Asia, any weird reverse culture shock back in Nu Zilland?

J: It was strange to not have such overloaded senses all the time, no bike bells and horns, people and noise. To come back and feel like your senses are deprived cos its not loud and it doesn’t smell [laughs]

N: After being in Asia for so long we’d gotten used to not understanding the language around us. I found myself getting really annoyed when I heard the way people were talking about others, like “hey don’t be so mean!”

How did you guys get involved in the China tour? GBTM says they had a connection with Pairs. 

N: During the Pairs tour of NZ, Rhys talked about China as a really achievable kind of goal after doing Australia. We thought that instead of doing America or Europe we may as well do China, because it’s closer, cheaper, we can get by with contacts and play to a hungrier audience.

J: I guess also once Die! Die! Die! and So So Modern had done it, the idea became more realistic.

So how was it? Did you have any expectations going into it?

N: Having the time to go sightseeing was incredible, but obviously I loved the shows too.

J: I had some sort of expectation but actually being in China made me realize how little we know about it. Coming from a Western culture and not knowing much about the history of the hugest country in the world, then seeing all these crazy castle complex things like the Forbidden City which have immense histories, but we just think of them as sights. I studied the Manchurian invasion in high school but that was it. I really didn’t know about the Nanjing Massacre.

N: Yeah, the Nanjing Massacre Museum was pretty intense.

Carb on Carb rocking a symmetrical pose at the Forbidden City
Carb on Carb rocking a wonderfully coordinated pose at the Forbidden City

Is there a community of local NZ bands that are looking towards China? 

J: I don’t really think there’s a ‘community,’ but there’s certainly bands interested in doing it.

N: It seems like mostly Wellington bands have done it in the past, as well as Die! Die! Die! from Dunedin. But for a small band like us to tour China, we can talk to other bands in Auckland about our experiences and help them to see China as a doable thing. We are telling people they should do it! Why not!

The ~*Internet*~ seems to be an important tool for getting your material out there. How’s your online presence in China?

J: We made a Weibo page which Nicole has recently updated. We also got Rhys and Tom [This Town Touring] to make us a Douban because working out the Chinese was just way too confusing. Thankfully Bandcamp isn’t blocked in China.

N: We have a Youku as well! We tried to research a bit about it just to put our stuff out there. Even if it was in terrible translated Chinese, at least people would get the general idea: that we were a band and we were coming.

Carb on Carb discovered that this is how Shenzhen perceives New Zealand
Carb on Carb discovered that this is how Shenzhen perceives New Zealand

I know I’ve said it before but I love the tour poster! Got a signed copy from all you guys from the Beijing show.

N: Thanks! I drew it when I was at work [laughs]. My boss was pretty excited though, she’s from China.

The tour poster. Art by Nicole.
The tour poster. Art by Nicole.

I saw some pretty impressive use of dramatic hand gesturing and sign language from you guys in China. How did you find the language barrier?

N: The language was really hard. But having our tour manager Vivian with us made it a lot easier. I wish we learned a bit more, it would have been really cool to communicate with the people who liked us at shows, even just to be able to thank them properly and understand what they have to say. I used the ‘Da Jar How’ at every show!

J: It was interesting to experience what its like to not be able to speak the dominant language, it helped us understand how other people might feel. In New Zealand we just expect everyone to speak English. Very educational to be on the outside.

How was it coming from the NZ scene where you are quite familiar with the crowds to China where no one knows you?

J: It was pretty bizarre being presented as ‘Kiwi Rock Night’ in Suzhou.

N: That’s what I love about touring, just getting to meet new people and not playing to the same crowds over and over again. So it was really exciting to see fresh faces and have people react freshly to our music when they haven’t even heard it before.

Mao Mao billz yo
Mao Mao billz yo

So you guys hit up some pretty niche places, tiny towns in Shandong that no ones ever heard of. What’s the scene like down there?

J: At the show in Zaozhuang there was a big group of about fifteen friends and they were real keen to talk to us – they’d try out their English with a few words, then we’d say a few words, and all of were just cracking up. These guys were crowdsurfing and moshing with no one else in the bar. The people were really cool, they just had less barriers. They would spend more time talking with us and taking photos with us, generally way more excited to see some bands.

N: Yeah, they kept buying us loads of beers, being almost forceful with it! Hanging with them was really fun and different from other crowds we’ve met. The bar owner in Zaozhuang also took us out for an amazingly delicious dinner before the show and shouted us the meal! He even drove us to the train station in the morning! People at all of the shows were so generous – it was pretty overwhelming.

Stage antics with the fans in Zaozhuang
Stage antics with the fans in Zaozhuang

Were they actually into your music?

N: We were selling our EPs for 20RMB and they literally bought all our merch! The people we met were having a good time and having the experience of meeting us and talking to us. The same was with Randy who gave us the wine in Suzhou! He was just as keen to meet us as we were to have free wine [laughs]

Red wine/watermelon/assorted mixed nut platter after party with Randy in Suzhou
Red wine/watermelon/assorted mixed nut platter after party with Randy [far left] in Suzhou
As far as touring and performing goes, did you guys have any issues?

N: At our first show in Beijing I found the indoor smoking quite intense from a singing perspective. Before coming to China, we pretty much knew there were gonna be loads of bikes on the roads, but with the smoking in bars I wasn’t quite prepared!

J: It was quite hard not playing with support bands at every show, though we did play with a few locals like Illness Sickness. Next time we would definitely try have a local band play at every show.

Sound checking at Wave Livehouse in Suzhou on a v. high stage
Sound checking at Wave Livehouse in Suzhou on a ridiculously high stage

Any little things in China you found yourselves appreciating?

J: It was really cool to be able to take food and drinks anywhere, I was surprised how much I enjoyed that, in NZ if you walk in to a place you cant take your food in. Hot water was available everywhere too… we just used it to make noodles and drink tea.

N: Ohh I miss it so much! Buying a beer at a bar here and your like “WHAT? $8?!” You feel like a king in China.

Cheesy question – what kind of advice would you provide to other NZ bands hoping to come to China.

J: Talking to you probably [all laugh].

N: Learning a bit of the language would be good. Mentally prepare yourself. Eat as much as you can. Drink as much as you can. Yep, those are my tips.

Next time? Is there a next time in China on the cards?

N: We definitely wanna come back. I know God Bows are planning another tour for 2015!

J: I’d like to visit Xinjiang, the Tiger Leaping Gorge and the Three Gorges Dam. It would be great if bands started coming to New Zealand as well, it’s only an extra hop more. If anyone asks to play in NZ just tell them to email me: carboncarbband@gmail.com

You’ve just gotten back from a mean beach holiday up north, but what’s the plan for Carb on Carb this year?

N: We’re hoping to put an album out in the next year or so and just wanna keep touring where ever we can.

J: We’re doing a tour around New Zealand with Bare Grillz from Australia in a few weeks, just around the time of Camp.

[Excited Camp discussion]

"Prolly won't make no money of dis - oh well." - Beyonce/Carb on Carb
Let’s tour China! “Prolly won’t make no money off dis – oh well.” – Beyonce/Carb on Carb

What do you think of Beyonce’s new album?

N: Ugh amazing. Love it.

Fave track?

N: Jealous. Love Jealous. Oh and ***Flawless.

I fucking LOVE, ***Flawless.

N: It’s so good, I cried when I listened to it.

END

Now check out the interview with Martin from God Bows to Math.

New Love for Litang

An entry from a travel blog about a two-month long backpacking trip around Shaanxi, Sichuan, Yunnan and Hainan during the Chinese summer.

8am: Feeling a little bit stuck in a rut, I know that once I leave this place the Tibetan vibe will gradually fall away as I move south, but it is imminent and essential for me to do so (dwindling funds, altitude etc). However, Litang is not really inspiring me. It’s a rough round the edges town, dirty and trying hard to be a bit more modern… What will the day hold?

The day my perspective on Litang completely changed.

The Litang Horse Festival rumour mill was churning out different tales each day, this was the day it was allegedly meant to ‘restart,’ but of course, it did not. I’d been in daily contact with Dan (the US photographer I met in Kangding) via Weixin [WeChat]. He had gone up north to check out Ganzi for a few days and wait for the festival. There was an uncertainty in the air, a tension. The amount of military vehicles rolling round the dirt roads of the town seemed to drown out the small number of chilled residents, most of whom would pass the mornings and afternoons laxing streetside, rolling prayer beads methodically around their fingers. I relayed to Dan that Meduk the purple-contact lensed Tibetan hostel owner said it wouldn’t be on this year, but also mentioned it may start the 10th or 11th… shén me yī sì?? [什么意思, what does it mean??] I didn’t have that much time to wait around for it. Dan, on the other hand, said it was great for him, as the road back from Ganzi to Litang had crumbled apart and he was having to head all the way back to Kangding, then back over that huge rocky road to Litang.

In addition to the Tibetan mother tongue of the masses, I discovered differences in the Mandarin used in Garze. What I knew to be a plate of boiled dumplings, [水饺, shǔijiǎo], was always served as a spicy dumpling soup. The 8th. Needed to be in Lijiiang, Yunnan by the 14th. Early morning characters floated past the little restaurant and as I pondered whether to stay or go, an old man with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth meticulously arranged several long strings of mushrooms on a wooden chair outside the front door of the restaurant, angling them in the optimum position for drying. Stay.

Met the Aussie guys in the lobby in the middle of Joel’s financial crisis. There are no international ATMs in Garze, apart from one in Kangding. They were the second victims of this technological deficiency that I’d met in the lobby during my time at Potala Inn, and like the French couple before them, they had to scrape together their remaining cash to buy bus tickets to Kangding before being stranded cashless up in the mountains.

Warmly welcomed the return of my camera battery from a French dude that had come from Tagong and set out to explore the town on foot. The dirt backroad to the monastery was full of ‘tashi delek!’ [བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས།] greetings from old Tibetans with their flap hats and eternally spinning hand held prayer wheels, big pigs in rubbished rivers, squashed square structures adorned with mantra flags and sunshine bursting through the rapidly retreating clouds. Lovely, warm and fascinating people. I climbed through a rectangular gap in a blood red wall topped with golden ornaments and clambered up a dirt hill, navigating around a small maze of narrow paths that stemmed off to the communities of stone brick houses, eventually reaching a quiet street that led to the monastery. It must have been a particular time for refreshing and repainting as teams armed with paintbrushes and durries created fresh murals and several gold statues were being resprayed in the cool air outside. At the front entrance to the monastery area, I encountered Roland the Austrian guy from my dorm and a German couple. I mentioned that I would be walking out of the town down past the Gold Arch (not McDonalds) in search of a dance and biǎoyǎn [表演, performance] in some tents that Meduk had vaguely mentioned to me in Mandarin and English. Down the back streets to the main town, I bought a banana from a wonky eyed lady in a snack shack and threw the peel to a ravenous hog by the grassy waterway. Saw a crew of scruffy young kids hatching a plot to frighten a a pack of stray dogs lying on a grassy plain; sneaking out from behind a large white prayer statue, firing an array of stick and rock ammunition then fleeing away with laughter as the barking dogs chased after them in revenge. A game tailored to their environment, kids can find fun in any situation. The kids out here are fearless!

Good Morning

The main drag of Litang is easily identifiable, lined with a community shops of all genres; curtains, windows, clothing, CDs, kitchen items, Buddhist goods, linen, raw meat and more, hoards of motorcycles and their owners, knick-knacks, prayer beads, doorways revealing handcrafted metals being clunked away at with years of experience (feat. large hammers on tiny metal targets between fingers, heavy machinery sending off sparks near the seated, sandal wearing machine operators), chatterbox ladies on stools out the front doing cross stitch, face masked women frying sausages in oil, stray dogs stretched out on the footpath having a nap, children playing with old car tyres, mamas with vegetable baskets on their backs and babies on their fronts, leather jacketed men in cowboy hats atop long hair braids all sitting on the steps, rolling their beads over their hands and baring their golden teeth. Seeing dudes who look like they are from another world or another era of time, mashing away at the keypads on their cellphones in China Mobile or queuing up at China Post. Military vehicles rolled through. A soldier or two trot down the footpath.

Stopped at the local gompa which elegantly peeked out from behind its stone walls to glorious effect amidst the gravel, rubbish and dogs along the street, inhabited by truly delightful people both inside the gate and out. I greeted the monk who sat by the dilapidated stone arch and his smile radiated such a warmth that I felt as if I’d just been struck by a rainbow beam. Once inside, the vibe was woah. I got my camera out and was immediately approached by two great gals who then leant on my shoulders to look at the photos on the screen, which made it feel like we were friends within the space of about four seconds flat. They were both dressed in very unique clothing, one had a tall yellow headdress and they both wore brightly coloured, ornately embroidered, long wrap-around dresses. We chat for a little while, by which stage several other smiley local gompa goers had gathered around to check out my curious foreignness too, allowing me to take some great close ups and receive a dozen more ‘tashi delek’! A hunchbacked lady gestured for me to follow her around the gompa, a daily ritual where they circulate through the square archways several times and spin the small wooden prayer wheels whilst chanting as they see fit. The hardcore oldies were simultaneously spinning the gompa prayer wheels with the right hand and spinning their hand held ones in the left. The gompa was also home to the ‘world’s biggest prayer wheel,’ which had several people of different ages and sizes rotating it around together, an impressive sight. This was upstaged by the actual world’s biggest prayer wheel in Shangri La, but who’s gonna go kill their buzz? Old, leather skinned men in camo green robes pulled over white shirts accessorized with the mandatory beads and walking sticks. One lovely old bloke out the front of the gompa and I spoke about family history for a while, then he agreed to have his photo taken, laughing and quickly plopping his hat back on his balding head, despite my reassurances that regardless he looked “hěn shuài!” [很帅, handsome].

Litang, Garze, Sichuan

Litang, Garze, Sichuan

The shops began to gradually disappear as I trekked further on down the road, locals would wave from their cars and bystanders would look at me with intrigue. It was a real sign of Litang’s foreignness from China, that even a Chinese-looking girl like me is a somewhat unusual sight. I continued walking down the road until the city fell away, paths became dirt and the only shops were small fànguǎn [饭馆, restaurants] based around a single wok on a gas element, a few steel manufacturing sheds and motorcycle garages and the vast grasslands stretching out towards the mountains ahead. Bought some aqua and a pack of guazi from a small xiǎomàibù [小卖部, kiosk, dairy, usually a sleeping lady behind a counter full of snacks and drinks] and had my walking directions affirmed. An array of vehicles hooned down the road; motorcycles with brightly patterned mudguard tails and long haired Tibetan men, military tanks, three wheeled carts that looked like they might putt to a halt at any moment and pick up trucks with full families perched on the back. Altitude and dehydration were starting to rear their heads as the robed monk that had been walking ahead of me for about half an hour hitched a ride on the back of a scooter with two other monks, widely smiling at me over his shoulder as they sped off with a plume of dust. An amicable tractor full of dark skinned, hat clad, bead rolling men implored me to jump on the back, but I was too slow to catch on and they chugged away into the distance. Soon after, a monk in a 4WD pulled up and gave me a ride the rest of the way down the road. He was softly spoken and had a calming nature about him through the ruminative look across his face and smooth driving style. I asked where he was going, he replied “suíbiàn guàng yī guàng” [随便逛一逛, casually roaming around]. Epic. Answer. Yo. I was speechless with his effortlessly awesome nature and mad sense of peace. I excessively thanked him as he dropped me off by a track which winded down through the grasslands towards a cluster of white tents. Young dudes piled on noisy motorbikes hooned around the fields, while a masked, hatted woman started walking and chatting with me and accompanied me right into the centre of the tents.

Wow.

The sheer mass of people there around a large frameless umbrella pagoda tent thing watching the spectacle style performance, starring a group of performers with long haired wigs and fur costumes. Cross legged monks lined the ground seats on one side, the other sides packed with local nomads, Tibetans, children, oldies with prayer wheels; on rugs, plastic stools, benches or standing on the back of motorbikes, trailors and carts. The performance was all in Tibetan and had a lot of slapstick gags, each time one of the fur clad actors fell over, kicked another or teased an audience member, the crowd roared with laughter from the edges. The children were there by the dozens, so super cute, some with traditional clothes, some with qípáo [旗袍, cheongsam] covered in Apple logos, some scruffier than other, all endearing, curious and warm-hearted. An old lady handed me a yóutiáo [油条, fried breadstick] and I chilled with her, two kiddies and their mama having lunch sitting in the back of a cart, the conversation mainly smiles and nods from both sides, as they didn’t really speak Mandarin.

Rambled around the perimeter of the performance, enjoyed some local snacks from people in carts and got invited into the monk area which had Dalai Lama portraits and offerings of Coke, Sprite and Fanta. Sat quietly with some friendly old monks on the grass outside their prayer tent and drank one of the Fantas that had been thrust into my hand by a chatty monk. Sat with a family by their motorbikes and the gals leaned over to look at my photos. The baba was a champ – long black hair pushed to the side with a bandana, gold teeth and smooth shades. Ate some round, sweet bread balls on a stick with them, which I had just purchased from a jolly fat lady in a three-wheeler.

Grannies on the grass chatting over some noodles, kids doing cartwheels, monks lying beneath umbrellas, lads and beers, families chilling, big smiles and lots of ‘tashi delek!’ Granny on a brick cellphone with a baby in a basket. Newborn baby with mama and papa, all walks of life were here to enjoy the festivities. Though a completely different visual and aural experience than I’ve ever experienced, the prevailing concept of VIBE was the same. Garze’s version of (what once was) Wellington’s One Love. Outdoor get together of the community to share in the enjoyment of local performance, food and company.

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I spotted Roland and we had some more bread ball sticks on the grass with Mark and Shavaughn a pair of funny peeps from the UK and Ireland who had randomly come across this event. Loads of kids came and hung out with us, getting particularly excited when we let them use our cameras to take photos. They identified all the people as they scrolled through my photos, “zhe shǐ wǒ de péngyǒu, zhe shǐ wǒ péngyǒu de dìdì, zhe shǐ wǒ jiejie… [这是我的朋友,这是我朋友的弟弟,这是我姐姐的朋友, that’s my friend, that’s my friend’s little brother, that’s my sister’s friend] etc. One little dude asked if he could take my camera right into the performance to take photos. At first I said no, then I said “OK, wǔ fēnzhōng” [只有五分钟, just five minutes]. He ran away and disappeared excitedly into the thick of the crowd. About three or four minutes later, I was like “….hold up. WHAT did I just do?!” The crew was like “yo, did you just give your large, expensive camera to a small nomadic child?” I leapt to my feet and went around looking for him, ducking in and out of the layers of people around the performance gazebo (for lack of a more accurate word), but to no avail. Mentality was not good: Camera, gone. Photos, gone. Flashback to when my camera was stolen from a hostel in Ibiza and I lost all the photos of Becky and I with Shapeshifter and Tiki in backstreet Digbeth, Birmingham 2009. Noooo. Upon returning back to the original spot, the kid came running up to me looking as distressed as I was, “nǐ qù nǎr?! wǒ zhào bú dào nǐ!” [你去哪儿?! 我找不到你! Where did you go?! I couldn’t find you!]

Skux
Skux

The harsh sun and thin air tiring us out, we decided to trek back to the hostel over the lumpy grasslands. Spotted a contemplative red-robed figure sitting on the bank of a stream, it was the chill monk who had given me a ride! I asked him what he was up to, he said just thinking and observing. So. Cool. While he was friendly and helpful, he never smiled. We all trekked back across to the main road, traversing over streams, barbed wires and yak turds. It was a long walk all the way back to the Potala Inn, so I was glad to have Roland as company. Only 18-years-old, he just finished high school and was traveling before having to complete the mandatory year of community service in Austria. He chose to be a kindergarten teacher instead of joining the armed forces.

Collapsing back on my dorm bed, I could hear the sound of Daniel’s dombra from the bar/marae bedroom next door so went to go debrief of the days events. He spoke enthusiastically about how he had stumbled across a Tibetan wedding down a random street —- spontaneous and free-spirited, he offered to take us there! 

Down a few small side streets, in a two-story building marked by prayer flags, the party rolled on! The ground floor’s dancing festivities of the daytime had wrapped up, but still contained dozens of local people smiling, chilling and imploring us to go upstairs where the music and chanting was coming from. WOOAH. The entire community must’ve been there, some in traditional dresses, others in casual vests, all joyful. The place was packed with people, long banquet tables abundant with food, snacks, drinks, alcohol and even cigarettes. Whether everyone actually knew the bride or groom is another question, one that is seemingly irrelevant. Some old ladies gestured for us to sit with them at one of the long benches stretching along the tables, another repeating “sit down! sit down!” in English while pushing us towards the food. Three bowls of yak dumplings were instantaneously presented to us by an unknown woman and the older lady opposite implored us to indulge in the array of unidentifiable meats and dishes in the centre of the table. This was all an incredible sensory overload of new experience and buzzy shit going on. The atmosphere was HUGE. Singing and chanting of Tibetan mantras came from each table, usually led by the group of men circling around and forcing seated men to skull full beers or bottles of water. An all day and night affair, the wedding continued to vibe with high energy, unlike Kiwi weddings which generally result in everyone hammered and dancing to Abba with their uncles by 10pm. Sculling a bottle of water was not considered any less of a feat than sculling a beer, everyone cheering and yelling during and after the ritual of each beverage. Daniel was handed a beer and surrounded by the men, who began to chant and clap him on with huge energy. The New Zealander in me emerged at the sight of a beer sculling challenge and I too was cheering him on with vim and vigour. I love Tibetans. The phrase ‘tashi delek!’ seems to extend beyond just a greeting, and from what I gathered is used freely for ‘cheers!’ ‘nice one!’ and generally just ‘woohoo!’ Traditional songs echoing throughout, content old ladies lining the benches and swaying to the sound, children running around and dancing, cups being filled, noodles passed to and fro. A lady planted her 9-year-old qípáo clad daughter over to speak English with us, a conversation which became far more natural and comfortable once her mother had floated off to socialise. Her older sister and then her twin sister also came to chat with us, their English at an impressive level considering their low exposure. The elder sister insisted on accompanying me to the toilet, a smelly little room of ladies collectively squatting over a central tiled trough, some facing each other and chatting. She continued to speak English to me as I hovered over the trough. Later on, three friendly French brothers and sisters were spouted into the room like water from a whale’s blowhole, proceeding to heartily thrash the paper cup of cigarettes on the table.

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One of the most bizarre experiences of my life came when we were invited to the bride and groom’s side room which was full of loud, enthused, not necessarily drunk Tibetans, who pulled us in through the crowds towards the happy couple at the back. They had heard word of some foreigners in the main room and requested that we sing them a song in English. Considering our group consisted of NZ, Austria, Israel and France, our repertoire was fairly limited. The room quietened as we were presented to the bride and groom. We then sung the first two verses of Jingle Bells, the only song we could all sing together with some degree of fluency, which was greeted with huge applause from the wildly excited wedding guests and the couple as well. We tashi delek-ed the happy couple, were pushed aside by another group who wanted to sing to them and each had a fresh beer thrust into our hands. The festivities continued throughout the typically Litang power cut that came mid-evening, the throngs of people still filling the entire space, squashing onto chairs and squeezing into the bride and groom’s side room. I started an ‘olaay olay olay olaaaaay’ chant, which was picked up by a cute old woman who I was sitting back to back with on the bench, she was VERY into it hahaha!! After several beers, a shot of báijiǔ, [白酒, white liquor, 50%alc, often compared with hot lava] various meats, spicy noodles, dried sweet crackers, an apple, a bowl of yak dumplings and a mountain of guazi, we returned back to the hostel, high on Litang. ♦