Seattle-bound Beijing bands reimagine rock for the Western world

(Photo by Fang Zhou)
From left right, Birdstriking: Wen Yuzhen (guitar), Zhou Nairen (bass), He Fan (vocals, guitar) and Wang Xinjiu (drums). (Photo by Fang Zhou)

For Westerners who want to play punk rock and go on tour, “Our Band Could Be Your Life” is a manual on how it’s done. Michael Azerrad’s 2001 book profiles Black Flag, Fugazi, Seattle’s own Mudhoney and 10 more groups who spent the 1980s building this American underground up.

In China, however, where the memory of the Cultural Revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s still hangs heavy, there is no “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” no history of rock ’n’ roll.

But its first generation of artists to grow up with the Internet are making up for lost time: absorbing the Western music their elders missed out on, reinterpreting it in intriguing new ways and getting it out into the world. In coming weeks, Seattle’s Lo-Fi Performance Gallery hosts two genre-defying Beijing bands on their first North American tours, Chui Wan on Wednesday, May 27 and Birdstriking on Saturday, June 6.

Both have recorded for Maybe Mars Records, founded in the capital in 2007 with a focus on Chinese artists aspiring to work with foreign producers and tour abroad.

Nevin Domer, Maybe Mars’ chief operating officer, is a 34-year-old punk lifer from Baltimore who has lived in China on-and-off since ‘99. On the side, he runs a smaller, vinyl-centric label, Genjing Records, and from 2006 to 2012, booked shows at a Beijing dive bar called D-22.

Domer says he’s watched the musical landscape grow exponentially with the increased availability of Internet access and smartphones. Despite heavy government restrictions — Google, YouTube and Facebook are all blocked — it’s been a boon to originality for resourceful young musicians.

“Kids are getting exposure to all these outside influences, but at a distance,” he says. “They’ll learn about Joy Division, Woody Guthrie and Glenn Branca at the same time, but don’t know that much about them besides the little they can dig up on the Internet, so what they create ends up being very distinct to this point in time in China.”

Chui Wan and Birdstriking are good examples of what Domer is talking about. Both are products of a community of post-punk acts that sprung up during his time at D-22. A year ago, Carsick Cars, a flagship band from that same scene, toured the U.S. and Canada, stopping at Chop Suey in Seattle.

Sonically, Birdstriking leans closer to post-punk convention, writing uptempo tunes with shouted vocals, trebly guitars and liberal use of a flanger pedal. But where the Thatcher-era U.K. bands that pioneered the genre had an audible angst to them, Birdstriking’s music sounds positively joyous.

Chui Wan takes things further out, playing arty, progressive psych-rock with subtle Eastern folk elements.

The two bands’ tours — which dovetail in California for a handful of shows together before Birdstriking heads up the coast — commemorate releases on A Recordings. The eponymous Chui Wan album — their second — is brand new. Birdstriking’s album, also self-titled, has been done for three years, but is just coming out now internationally, and won’t get a domestic release.

The reason why? Lyrics like this, from “Monkey Snake,” the fourth track on “Birdstriking”: “You can control the media, but you can’t control my mind.”

The Chinese government, Domer explains, “just wasn’t going to let that pass. And the name Birdstriking is basically about a small bird crashing into a giant airplane. The censors didn’t like the symbolism there.”

Bureaucracy, he says, is a definite obstacle bands in China face, but not the greatest.

“Most bands here don’t sing about politics, just like most bands in the West don’t — they sing about a wide range of different things. It can be restrictive, but censorship is kind of just a fact of life here.”

The big, ongoing challenge is simply getting peoples’ attention about what they’re doing.

“The fact is, a culture of rock music hasn’t existed in China before, and the majority of the population [1.4 billion] still isn’t familiar with it,” says Domer. “You can’t hear it on the radio. It only happens in small clubs. And people from abroad sometimes don’t get it. They look at these young bands and criticize them, like ‘this band isn’t really Chinese, they sound like Joy Division. Why aren’t they playing traditional Chinese instruments?’ Which is nonsense.”

But Domer believes indie bands from China are reaching a tipping point, with more of these musicians attempting to tour abroad than ever before. The West, and the world’s, exposure to the genre keeps growing.

“China is no longer this completely dark area for the indie music scene,” he says, “and as more people [in the U.S.] get hip to what’s happening [in Beijing], more and more opportunities will open up for these bands.”

A recent example: an Austin Psych Fest organizer approached Maybe Mars Records to book Chui Wan — not the other way around.

“It’ll become much easier for Chinese bands to tour the States, and you’ll see it happening a lot more often,” Domer posits.

Checking out Birdstriking and Chui Wan live is an obvious jumping-off point.

The full-length documentary “The World Underground: China” by John Yingling, a 31-year-old filmmaker based in Missoula, Mont., offers another: a dizzying DIY travelogue featuring performances from dozens of bands from Beijing and beyond.

Many of these acts are still works in progress with potential, but a surprising number are already there. P.K. 14, an incendiary post-punk foursome prominently featured in the film, is one established band leading the charge. They’ve recorded in Chicago with analog guru Steve Albini before and are about to again, with a West Coast tour to follow.

Lately, Yingling has even been in talks with Azerrad about a Mandarin translation of “Our Band Could Be Your Life.”

Watch Chui Wan live at Seattle’s Lo-Fi Performance Gallery on Wednesday, May 27 at 8 p.m.

Catch Birdsriking at the Lo-Fi on Saturday, June 6 at 9 p.m.