The China Invasion tour made it all the way from Beijing to Highland Park's American Legion Hall, a community center that doubles as a venue for little rock shows. Carsick Cars, PK-14, and AV Okubo arrived from Beijing via Austin with press clips from Spin, Time and The Economist, and a fair share of political gossip. “It's Communist music, I freaking love it,” said a guy by the bar. “They don't even have their own instruments,” responded another.
Some wondered, were the bands here on a socio-political mission, rebels from their country, or were they a novelty act being put up at dive bars across the United States? We asked the bands these questions while they ate snacks from The Dumpling Truck outside Friday night's Band Across Borders event.
Read LA Weekly's Q + A with Beijing's Carsick Cars, PK-14, and AV Okubo, visitors from another rock and roll time and place:
With three L.A. and three Chinese post-punk strains, Bands Across Borders delivered a variety of bang for your buck. The show was a last addition to The China Invasion tour. It just so happens an L.A. indie scene vet named Scott Schultz noticed the bands were visiting the States. Intrigued to see rock and roll in Chinese, Schultz helped get them a show on the Sunset Strip–oddly, it still beefs up a resume–and Eastside promoter Elaine Layabout assembled a “real show” with the Monolators, Signals, and M31 adding reckless stage antics, goofy faces and loudness, respectively.
Curiosity drew half the crowd. Glorifying press aside, this Chinese indie rock thing could be a washout, puppets parading on corporate dollars, a media-inflated phenomenon without merit or just people in funny outfits.
“They're saying, 'Here comes Chinese music!' but we don't want it to become a novelty act,” says PK-14's Jonathan Leijonhufvud. Swedish-born but raised in Hong Kong, he joined PK-14 in 1999. “This is a way to show there's people in China like anywhere else making rock music. There's been that much change. People are still under the misconception that China is this crazy communist ghetto and they eat children…We have our own instruments!”
“Everything you know, part of it is true, but mostly it's not what is really happening in China,” says Carsick Cars frontman Zhang Shouwang. “Beijing is the most exciting city in the world right now. In NY or LA or London, whatever you do, probably people done it before.”
It's difficult to imagine a place where things can be new, but China's rock music history began barely 25 years ago, much of it taking shape over the last 10. You can't get a secondhand guitar in a country when no generation preceded your movement. Shouwang says, “After China's cultural revolution, the culture was dead. We had to start over again.”
The bands and their promoters work around rules set by China's cultural bureau. All music must be vetted for politically sensitive material that's considered morally unhealthy for the Chinese population.
Lu Yan, singer of cowpunk disco band AV Okubo, suggests choosing your battles and being heard. “Sometimes you use your head. We make social commentary but we can't say so straight. It brings you dangers and politics. It makes rock and roll look very dirty. To them, if the punk band just say anything too straight, and they go to Taiwan, America, and back to China, what would that mean? You can live in China very safely but still change something. There's a lot of ways to fight. We put it in our songs and joke with it, don't be so serious.” AV Okubo gets away with dog collars and studded leather jackets.
While the bands could not tour the US without some corporate assistance, Leijonhufvud vouches that Converse treated them right. He says, “Converse have actually done some pretty amazing things to support the scene in China. In a healthy way, not just throwing money around. They're also trying to bring in sound and recording engineers to teach kids who want to learn these skills. A lot of that is lacking. You have a basic frame-set in China but everything that surrounds the music and bands is still in its infancy.”
The bands could have sucked, making this purely a human interest story. But they don't. Despite their short history, the bands didn't have to wait for a Chinese Velvet Underground to appear in Beijing. Carsick Cars builds energetic noise-scapes that got the band an opening spot for Sonic Youth. AV Okubo could settle right into Echo Park with its experimental disco punk. PK-14 brought together the rawness of the Stooges with the Meat Puppets and lots of high kicks. And the fact the lyrics were in Chinese wasn't distracting.