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Category: Music

Notes from the Underpass

Note: This article was originally published on September 22, 2015 on* It has been republished here with permission. Re-upping this article in particular to share in my & Krish Raghav’s biweekly newsletter Open All the Buddha Boxes — sign up for that here!

Last Tuesday was one of those classic Beijing September nights, where the city seems to be slowly preparing for hibernation, but still moving briskly enough to enjoy the sliver of fine autumn weather we get before the freeze. Around 9:30pm, a small crew of guerilla noise fans begins to gather at a seemingly random underground tunnel connecting the access road running along the Airport Expressway and a small median park buffering the highway and the adjacent Xiangheyuan thoroughfare. Zhu Wenbo, organizer of erstwhile weekly experimental music series Zoomin’ Night, waits with his typical forbearance for a group of retirees to finish their impromptu, public hong ge choir rehearsal. He’d booked the later slot.

Zhu Wenbo performing as CT-808

Up until this summer, Wenbo had organized a showcase of Beijing’s least classifiable, furthest-left-field experimental music every Tuesday night for nearly six years. Zoomin’ Night was born at storied Wudaokou rock venue D-22, and migrated along with the rest of that club’s regulars to XP, which closed this past July. “Honestly, it was really tiring,” he says. “I wanted to give myself a break, enjoy life a bit. I’d thought about it a lot, what it would be like if Zoomin’ Night stopped, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The closing of XP was a natural stopping point.”

Since 2011, Zhu Wenbo had been encouraged to start his own label by Michael Pettis, the founder of D-22, XP, and veteran indie label Maybe Mars. After nixing his weekly, Wenbo decided to do just that. Transforming Zoomin’ Night from a live showcase to a cassette label, Wenbo has been monthly issuing concrete documents from the ephemeral cast of misfit noisers he’s attracted over the years. When he’d put the finishing touches on “Essay”, a solo release for Zoomin’ Night regular John Wilton, he sought out a proper space for a post-XP release event.

“Last year, when I was moving into an apartment behind Sanyuanqiao, I accidentally found this place. Beijing has many underpasses like it, but this one’s a bit different. There’s a park next to it, and the steps leading up to it resemble the step-seating of an amphitheater. It’s not that far from the city center, but it’s just far enough removed from residential buildings to avoid noise complaints.”

Most importantly: the acoustics are right. After testing the natural amplification with a few solo busks on clarinet and saxophone, Wenbo began inviting friends to his newly discovered haven, eventually reifying this public space into a guerilla performance theater.

The scene last Tuesday was the best-attended of the three underpass shows Zhu Wenbo has put together so far. It opened with a short set from visiting New Delhi songwriter Lifafa, who’d just finished a string of more stage-oriented performances at Dada and DDC, and relished the opportunity for a less structured public serenade.

What followed was a thoroughly Zoomin’, hour-long set by a loose assembly of 20-something Beijing transplants who’ve found each other through Wenbo’s steadfast curatorship. The organizer himself played on a circuit-bent toy keyboard; his wife, Zhao Cong, roamed the length of the tunnel, alternately blowing into a sax reed attached to a piece of vacuum tubing and shuttling an abused cowbell along the floor in a solo game of kick the can; Chui Wan frontman Yan Yulong played a violin duet along with A Ke, making her first public concert; and Zoomin’ Night newcomers Li Song and Li Bingyu added errant strains of clarinet and sax, respectively, to the amorphous mix.

Zhao Cong
Abing (left) and A Ke

Aside from the scattered cognoscenti who’d come explicitly for this experience, the “audience” was made up of random citizens on foot from points A to B, whose reactions ranged from bemused attention to complete disinterest. Some enthusiastically took part in the spectacle, voguing for the cameras on their way through the tunnel. (There were many cameras.) “Luckily, the police still haven’t discovered us,” Wenbo tells me a week later. “Actually, there aren’t many people coming and going in this underpass. The people who do come don’t react much differently from people who would randomly wander in to XP on a Tuesday night.”

It’s 45 minutes into the underpass drone, a deep, hypnotic zone, and I need to micturate. I head up the amphitheater steps, into the park, and immediately I’m back in a more familiar Beijing. There’s the car noise; there’s someone, maybe a prostitute, maybe a ghost, lobbing a jumbled English proposition in my direction. Reliably I find a pile of garbage, relieve, and get lost on my way back, the only landmark being the city’s incessant rush of flying headlights. Of course, I remember, all that’s solid here melts into air. I rely on my ears instead, and am soon guided back by phantom notes from the underpass.

*My writing career began at SmartBeijing, where in addition to events/listings-based coverage I wrote about 60 features on various topics, mostly related to music and art. SmartBeijing went down earlier this year for a scheduled server upgrade and never came back; the site’s parent company has told me they have no plans to extract the database, so the first three years of my writing career are basically consigned to vapor. There’s another post to be written about the precarity of writing for the internet etc etc, but for now I’m more interested in pulling what I can from the Internet Archive so that at least some of what I wrote for SmartBeijing isn’t permanently memoryholed. My impetus for doing this is largely to reevaluate old interviews as source material for a book on Beijing underground music 1999-2019 that I am co-authoring with Krish Raghav; learn more about that (and sign up for our biweekly newsletter!) here. I maintain a spreadsheet including all of my published articles (and links) which is publicly viewable here; if you’re a freelance writer, I highly encourage you to maintain a similar list. Without these dead SmartBeijing URL’s I’d have no way to access all of these old article!

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通俗歌曲 article about me from May 2014

This is a feature spread about me in Chinese-language rock mag 通俗歌曲 (roughly translates to Everyday Songs). Posting it here since it doesn’t seem to exist online, they’re an old-school print magazine without a web footprint.

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“Embodied instrument”: Holly Herndon interview

This is one of a few recent interviews I’ve conducted for Douban Music with artists from one of the Beggars labels, arranged by Beggars China (贝阁中国). Since most of the artists I’ve been interviewing for Douban don’t have any immediate plans to come to China, it doesn’t make sense to put these on pangbianr. But some are quite interesting, and I want the English versions to exist somewhere. (I posted an interview with Parquet Courts vocalist Andrew Savage here; another with Merrill Garbus will turn up eventually.)

This interview with Holly Herndon was done over email in April 2016 and first published by Douban in Chinese. Today I was reading a Reza Negarestani essay on “sapience” and it reminded me of this interview, because Herndon collaborated with Negarestani in the past and I asked her about it. She didn’t elaborate much on that particular project but does have some interesting things to say about art, music, technology, critical theory, and, I guess, sapience. She’s well known for blurring the lines between these, but seems now closer than ever to achieving some kind of personal apotheosis as she finishes her PhD work at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), and her intellectual and creative pursuits “fus[e] into one coherent output”:

I want to first ask about your early release “Car”, a cassette created specifically for car stereos. Did the final format influence that actual compositional process, or just the subsequent recording and production? How important has the final music format been in your subsequent recordings?

I was asked to make a tape for the now defunct label ThirdSex in Chicago. I was thinking about format, and format fetishization, so I asked the label to find out where their customers listen to tapes. Most people responded that they listen in their car; which was honestly a surprise. So, I figured if most people are listening to tapes in their cars, then I should make something specifically for this venue. It’s also an interesting time stamp, in that these cars will likely not be allowed on the road much longer — so it’s fleeting.

This was a really early experiment in format and distribution for me, but this is an ongoing theme and concern. If you look at the “Interference” video by Metahaven and Mat Dryhurst, you will see that there are advertising banners built into the frame. I see this as a continuation of that theme: how do we consume art work? Who determines the format? What control does the artist have and what must they concede? And more interestingly perhaps: how do we want to listen to/watch art?

You spent some formative early years in Berlin. What aspects — musical/sonic, physical, cultural, etc — of the Berlin club setting have been most influential to you over time?

Berlin is a wonderful place to listen to electronic music bc there is huge variety, and most places are casual. I always found club music/experiences in the US to be stressful, often with a lot of posturing, age limits, and a 2am closing time. So, being able to experience a lot of different sounds and environmentsrob made me fall in love with electronic music and become very involved in the culture around it. I also found wonderful communities in Oakland as well, at a smaller scale.

You’re one of few artists (Robert Henke comes to mind as well) that can balance a practice encompassing club-ready dance music, academic composition and technical invention or fine-tuning of virtual instruments. How do you split your time among, say, preparing an album, a Boiler Room set, and working on your PhD?

I set aside chunks of time for different projects. I struggle when I try to do everything at once. For example, I developed a new course for CCRMA last year with another student, and during that time I was writing very little music. I was researching and preparing and enjoying the course, but I struggled to have any significant output during those 3 months. Right now I’m writing again, so sometimes it takes a while to switch gears and remember how to do certain things. I also try to read and write critically in between. It’s important to try to flex those muscles, so they don’t get out of shape.

What does your doctoral work focus on? Is it a composition, an instrument, a performance, a thesis, a combination of several of those?

It’s a collection of pieces with a written accompaniment. We can talk about it once it’s finished 🙂

How have Oakland/San Francisco shaped your working process? Are you actively performing and collaborating in the local scene there, or are you more holed away working by yourself when you’re at home?

I’m back in Berlin now actually. But I was traveling quite a bit before that. The last few years SF has been more of a landing pad, and a work space, but before I started studying, I was quite active, going out to shows and playing shows regularly. I ran out of energy.

Among your collaborators, I’m personally very interested in the philosophy of Reza Negarasteni and the critical design work of Metahaven. Both of these, in different ways, work with the co-evolution or devolution of humans and technology, a theme that’s also front and center in your work. How has your attitude toward technology, or more specifically the laptop, your primary instrument, changed over time?

I’ve already spoken at length about this, but will try to recap swiftly. I was trying to come to terms with the computer as an embodied instrument, both philosophically and practically. This led to “Movement”. Then as that relationship blossomed, and I started working closely with Metahaven and Mathew Dryhurst, I began thinking of embodiment politically (the personal is political, or the personal is geopolitical as Metahaven often say). I’ve been thinking and making work about digital rights, the complicated relationship that we have to/through our machines, and how this impacts society.

I read that “Lonely at the Top” off your latest album is designed to trigger ASMR, a nervous-system-based euphoric sensation. Do you think there are different euphorias that can be triggered by music? I.e., a euphoria of dancing to monotonous techno for hours at a time vs a euphoria brought on by sustained deep listening? How do you try to touch this part of the brain with your music?

Certainly different music stimulates the brain in different ways, as well as different listening environments and activities. I’m interested in ecstatic performance as a way for the audience to emote together in public, while also dealing with what it means to live in the present. Often ecstasy can be escapist, but I’m more interested in alternatives, or an exit strategy, than a moment of escape. Last year Mat Dryhurst and I did at installation at Kunstverein Hamburg where we infused political slogans from an imaginary subculture with ASMR triggers. We were curious if statements were paired with the physical sensations that ASMR triggers, if they would be perceived in a different way.

You’re a composer, performer, artist, soon to be Doctor. What are the most interesting projects you’re working on now or plan to pick up in the near future? Where do you see your work or your career headed over the next 10 years?

Finally it is all fusing into one coherent output. I think I tried to separate these interests for a long time and the work suffered. I’m not sure what the future holds. I plan on continuing to try different things and see where they take me.

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“Inescapable marketplace”: Parquet Courts interview

This is one of a few recent interviews I’ve conducted for Douban Music. The first batch are mostly artists from one of the Beggars labels, arranged by Beggars China (贝阁中国). Since most of the artists I’ve interviewed so far for Douban don’t have any immediate plans to come to China, it doesn’t make sense to put these on pangbianr. But as some of them are quite interesting, I want the English versions to exist somewhere. Interviews with Holly Herndon and Merrill Garbus will also turn up here eventually.

This interview with Parquet Courts vocalist Andrew Savage was done about a month ago, first published by Douban in Chinese. It points to interesting differences in the mentality of underground rock bands in NYC vs Beijing at a time when bands here are just now beginning to go on long road tours of the type that have been common in the US for decades, and which gave Parquet Courts their hard-earned chops and fanbase. It also touches on some of my pet topics, like science fiction futures and monastic living.

Your first release for Rough Trade was Monastic Living, a 12″ EP of freeform experimental rock. Did you get any pushback from the label or did they expect something along those lines going in?

No, Rough Trade has always been amazing at listening to the band and trusting us. Also, they have a pretty storied history in supporting experimental bands, so it would be contrary to their nature to discourage us in being ourselves. That’s one of the reasons we chose to work with them; there is obviously a commitment on their part to the visions of their artists.

What came out of the process of writing/recording Monastic Living? Did it lead to certain ideas, things you specifically did or didn’t want to do on Human Performance?

Well both of those records were recorded at the same time, which seems odd because they are so different, but it was an interesting time in the band when a massive amount of material was being produced. At a certain point we had accumulated enough improvised material that we were confident in to commit to an LP, so Monastic Living was born. Looking back I think it’s interesting that we were producing material that was improvised and somewhat demanding, and at the same time also material that was very crafted and pop. It wasn’t something we intentionally planned, so I’m left scratching my head on that one!

I read somewhere that you recorded over 30 songs in the sessions leading to Human Performance. How did you whittle those down to the final 14? Will some of the outtakes or b-sides see the light of day in later releases?

Yeah that’s true, we did. More if you include Monastic Living. Definitely the material that didn’t end up on the record will go on to see a proper release, but right now I’m not exactly sure what’s right. It was less of a matter of those songs not being good enough, than a matter of choosing 14 songs that lived together in harmony and served the album as a whole.

Over the last few years you’ve built up your following largely by hardcore, “get in the van”-style touring. How has that affected the band musically? How about physically or psychologically? Is “monastic living” a necessary counterbalance to so much time on the road?

That’s an interesting point, because, yes I do think that monastic solitude, after so much time never having a moment alone and being in loud places is appealing. Touring is not for the faint of heart, it’s a real test of body and spirit, but personally speaking I love it, perhaps because it’s been such a constant cycle in my life for the past decade, that it just seems such a part of who I am. One way it effects your psyche is, in order for a tour even a band to be successful, you have to surrender a considerable amount of your individual need, and adopt a collectivist mindset, and ask yourself about the greater good of your group, and less about your immediate needs. That parallels the spiritual surrender of monastic life, I believe.

As far as how it’s changed the way we play, I think that there is a tendency, especially when you are playing for rowdy crowds in dive bars, to play your songs a bit faster than usual. I’ve had a lot of people comment that some of our songs that are slow on record are faster live, which makes sense because you want to keep the energy up. When people go to a bar to watch a band play, they aren’t going to a concert, they aren’t necessarily going to see a band they know, so you want to keep their attention and keep things moving. Now that we are playing more theatres and larger rooms, some of those songs resemble the way they were performed on the album a bit more.

The end of the road, tour-wise, is always New York City. Does it feel like home? Is it more a place for you to go to ground and recharge, or do you plug in to the local music/art scene when you’re in NY?

Definitely feels like home. Funny you should ask that, because just last night I played a 4 am set at a DIY venue here in Brooklyn called Silent Barn, just the night after we had our last show of tour at Webster Hall. It’s important to me to do things like that to remind myself that I am part of a community, which is a fact that gets obscured living inside the sort of bubble that Parquet Courts can sometimes be. I like the idea of playing Webster Hall one night, and Silent Barn the next. I’d never want to not be able to play to ten people at 4 am. It’s for the same reasons that I do the label Dull Tools; I cannot imagine doing what I do, calling myself an artist, and not being engaged.

As someone who lives in Beijing, I was struck by a quote from Sean Yeaton in a recent interview about the “dichotomy of the Orwellian future versus the Aldous Huxley future”. Where exactly between 1984 and Brave New World does America sit in 2016?

I’d say we are in our Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? moment. Haha, kidding. Well look at it this way, right now we have probably the most vocally right-wing presidential candidate we’ve ever had, as well as one of the most left-wing candidates, a socialist at that, which for America is a very big step. It is the best and worst of times. Gay marriage is legal, Americans have access to state healthcare, yet still we have Guantanamo Bay and a for-profit prison system that systematically incarcerates black men. As somebody in a country that also has a notoriously brutal prison system, I think you’ll find we have a lot of common ground.

Parquet Courts has never been as on-the-nose political as some punk bands, but I feel a certain call to action in your music. Maybe more of a rejection of the irony, ennui, or antipathy that characterizes a lot of rock music being made today in the West. Given the current insane state of US presidential politics, do you anticipate getting more radical or specific in the messages underlying your music?

Growing up listening to explicitly “political” punk and hardcore music, I became somewhat disenchanted with how many bands’ political lyrics were an affectation. So many political bands just use the vernacular of global politics to vent very generalized anger. I don’t think punk, or rock music for that matter, need to default on any sort of political stance. I think that anger and unrest are certainly important, but like any art, being emotionally honest is the most important part. I have political convictions, but they don’t always make it into my lyrics. As a New Yorker I get angry and sad at seeing people suffering on a daily basis, and that has certainly made its way into Parquet Courts lyrics, as do topics such as the daily occurrence of violence at the hands of police that happens in this country, but then again we also have love songs.

If, to quote one of your early mantras, “Music matters more than ever” — why? What social function does rock music serve that distinguishes it from the escapism of the current electronic dance music zeitgeist?

Because life is increasingly becoming an inescapable marketplace, and there are so many opportunities to plug in and be entertained and not use your heart and mind. Your soul, that’s what works the more you use it. I’m not sure I’d even separate rock music and dance music in that statement. Both can be forms of escapism as well as ways to confront reality. No longer are rock and dance music at opposing sides of the spectrum either; it’s not uncommon to go to a show today and see an electronic musician or group playing with a band. It’s certainly not uncommon to see a band that is influenced by both. Those sort of sectarian boundaries are pretty antiquated, especially in a place like New York, which has electronic and rock scenes that intersect more often than they ever have. Both are commodities, yet they can subvert their own material value, which is a contradiction I find interesting.

Along the same lines: how can rock music today be more than nostalgic throwback or pastiche? What makes your music contemporarily relevant?

It’s a tradition, and when you are working within a tradition there is a delicate balance of what to keep and what to discard. I always find it so silly and hyperbolic when people resort to saying things like “rock is dead” or crowning us or any other band as saviors of rock. It’s been going for a long time now, and it keeps getting more interesting. People that think it’s become purely nostalgic just aren’t looking hard enough, or no longer care enough to explore music deeper. One thing that is happening to rock music is that it’s being somewhat pushed back into the margins at the moment, which I don’t see as a bad thing at all.

Do you have any plan to come to China? I think you’d find the contrast between Beijing and New York interesting, sort of an equally relevant inversion of the East-West mashup baked into the cover art for American Specialties

Yeah I’m sure I would. I’m certainly not entirely against going to China. What I am against is a sort of imperialist mindset that a lot of artists seem to have about traveling and touring; where exotic locations are like conquered territories. There is something a bit icky about a rock band (one could argue something that is inherently Western) playing in a country that has been for so long ideologically opposed to Western capitalism. It seems almost like being a religious missionary. But then I also recognize that this is a global society where taste in art is no longer as regional as it once was, and that there very well could be Parquet Courts fans in China. I have no idea. I’ve heard that digital media is heavily censured there, but when there’s a will there’s a way. To answer your questions, no, there are no plans to tour China yet.

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