Note: This article was originally published on August 14, 2013 on SmartBeijing.com.* It has been republished here, in February 2020, with permission. Re-upping this article in particular as research for my & Krish Raghav’s forthcoming book Open All the Buddha Boxes — more on that here!
The word “legend” easily attaches itself to any Beijing musician who manages to stay relevant for over a decade, but it’s not the best word to describe Yang Haisong. The PK14 vocalist’s famous stage energy is transparent and real. He’s not some sunglasses-at-night, aloof stage siren. He doesn’t exist in mythic space. He’s a bedrock, a touchstone. As his own band has grown more and more popular, he’s kept his energy steadfastly focused on tilling the soil, keeping the underground vital. PK14 has undoubtedly been canonized in the pantheon of Chinese Indie greats, but Haisong’s personal influence runs much deeper than his band’s. As a producer, he has worked tirelessly as a hands-on mentor to dozens of fledgling musicians from all over the country. As a musician, he’s continually diversified his range, simultaneously writing, recording, producing, and touring multiple side and solo projects. As a person, he’s grounded, humble, pragmatic, and patient.
PK14 hits their next milestone in September, when they release 1984, their sixth studio album, and spread it far and wide on a 30+ city tour. The official Beijing release show isn’t until October, but you can catch a more intimate glimpse of the new material next Tuesday at XP.
The following interview was conducted in two parts. I sat down with Haisong in November 2011 to nail down all the historical details and get the scoop on his then-new band After Argument and label, Share In Obstacles. He’s kept going full speed since then, so I sat down with him the other day to catch up on his staggering output as a musician and producer over the last year and a half. Here’s Yang Haisong on the Culture Bureau:
SmartBeijing.com: You were born and raised in Nanjing. How did you first get into “alternative” music there?
Yang Haisong: Actually, 20 years ago, we didn’t have any ideas about “alternative” or “not alternative.” We just knew either it’s rock music or not rock music. I first learned the word “alternative” from grunge bands. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, MTV. They called all of that “alternative music.” It was kind of new, but we still had no idea about which kind of style belongs to “alternative.”
In China, at that time, it was punk music. We didn’t have any idea about experimental and noise or something like that. Only heavy metal, punk, and rock. The scene was quite small 20 years ago. But 10 years ago there were a lot of Beijing bands, and also some bands from Nanjing, playing some quite strange styles. You couldn’t say it’s heavy metal, it’s not old school punk or new school punk… you cannot say it’s rock, because it’s so different. It was a lot of noise, like Sonic Youth style. A lot of critics tried to find words to define these new bands. So, obviously, “alternative” was very easy to use. From 1997 I guess, there were a lot of new bands, like SMZB, Muma, Tongue, PK14, [that were called] alternative or post-punk or something.
SmBj: Why was there a shift from straightforward punk and metal to this “alternative,” noisier style? With PK14, did you specifically want to move beyond that? Or were you just making music you were personally interested in?
YHS: I don’t know. I’m from a punk background. I hated heavy metal from the very beginning. I guess I just got tired of playing punk music. [I wanted] to do something different, more deeply, with more beautiful lyrics, something like that. [PK14] is not very simple lyrics, like punk, with three chords and distortion, overdrive, effects. We listened to Joy Division, it was quite different. They came from punk but did it differently, post-punk style. I thought it was very touching. So I got really deeply involved in this kind of music, like The Cure, everything, post-punk stuff.
SmBj: When did you first start hearing stuff like Joy Division and The Cure? Was it from dakou tapes?
YHS: Yeah, it was a cassette… 1996 I guess.
SmBj: How much would a Joy Division tape run you back then?
YHS: That would cost 8 kuai on cassette. No CDs [back then]. They only had two of the Joy Division tapes, so I bought both. One for my friend and one for me. I knew the name but I had never listened to the music. So I bought it and I listened for the first time, and I thought, “Oh, it’s not good.” It didn’t sound like what I thought it would. At the time I thought it’s not so good. So I just left it there for half a year. Then I listened to it again and I thought, “Oh, it’s really good!”
SmBj: What was the aspect of these post-punk bands that you liked? Was it the lyrics, the song structure, or what?
YHS: It was just different, you could hear it. Joy Division was really, really different from The Ramones, The Clash. So I thought, maybe it’s not my style. The root is so different, it’s more personal. More about personal emotion. It’s not very punk, not about societal issues. For me it was really hard to accept the first time. Later… I think it’s this way with a lot of music. You have to listen to it twice, or more times, so you can really get into it. And of course at that time we didn’t have any articles or reviews, we didn’t have any of these kinds of things. So we had to judge the music by ourselves. It’s really hard, but it’s good. We tried not to lose any good things.
SmBj: So you just tried a lot of different tapes, anything that looked interesting?
YHS: Yes. Even just the cover, just the name, anything.
SmBj: Were there a lot of record stores in Nanjing at the time were you could find this music?
YHS: Yes, a lot! A lot of stores. You could buy the dakou cassettes. We had a sort of group, around 10 people. We met each other every weekend, and we would talk, exchange [tapes], try to find new bands we’d never heard. We’d talk a lot, [share] all the information. Those were very good times. 15 years ago was really good. People came and went, but we always had around 10 people. They’re still very good friends of mine.
SmBj: So it was just you and your group of about 10 friends that would decide which music was good…
YHS: Yeah, but there were a lot of other people in Nanjing listening to music. Sometimes we’d meet in the store, it was a little bit like a competition to get the new arrivals.
SmBj: Were there people working at these stores who actually knew the music and put it into categories? Or would they just sell it without knowing what it was?
YHS: They didn’t know, they just sold it. From the very beginning you could see that all the cassettes, all kinds of music, they would sell it for almost the same price. Only Michael Jackson or Madonna would be more expensive, because everybody knew that. But otherwise it was all the same price. But then, five years later, you could see the prices were so different. Metallica was so expensive, John Mellencamp was so cheap. [laughs] At the very beginning, nobody knew where these bands came from, or what kind of band that is, whether they’re famous or not… Nobody knew, so we bought it just to listen to it.
SmBj: At that time the live music scene in Nanjing was pretty small, I’d imagine.
YHS: Yeah, very small. There were only five bands.
SmBj: Did you have any other bands before starting PK14?
YHS: Yeah, before that I had a band called West. It was a punk band. Sun Xia, my wife, was singing, and I played guitar, and we had bass and drums. It was kind of like The Ramones or The Clash, that style. We played like eight or ten shows in Nanjing, then broke up.
SmBj: And then after that you started PK14?
YHS: Yes, in 1997. When [West] broke up I started thinking about starting a new band. I wanted to sing and to play a totally different style. So that was PK14.
SmBj: What was the original lineup?
YHS: Originally Sun Xia played bass. There were two guys from another band in Nanjing, another punk band. They broke up just at that time, so we asked them to join us for a new style. They were not sure, but they were very curious about it. They had no band, and they wanted to play some music. It was really hard to find people to form a band in Nanjing at that time. If you could find people who could play guitar or drums, that was very lucky.
SmBj: How did you choose the name PK14?
YHS: It’s Public Kingdom for Teens. In China, most bands have two names: a Chinese version and an English version. So you have to say, “We are blah blah blah” in Chinese and “blah blah blah” in English. So we tried to find a name that we can just say once. I think PK14 is very easy, you don’t need to write it twice. We can write it with letters and numbers, even in Arabic. We chose that name and we needed to find a meaning for it, so we chose “Public Kingdom for Teens.”
SmBj: Did the lineup stay the same during the first two years of PK14, before you moved to Beijing?
YHS: No, no. We stayed two years in Nanjing, and changed a lot of members in that time. The guitarists would come and go, three times. We changed two drummers. It’s really hard to keep a band’s original lineup together in China. Even within one or two years, people come and go, have some new ideas, want to get out of the scene, something like that. And new people come in, and go, come and go, come and go. So we had to face that situation, the guitarist or drummer coming to you and saying, “I’m getting a new job” or something like that.
SmBj: The band moved to Beijing in 1999. Why did you come here originally?
YHS: It’s quite a strange story, actually. We went to Beijing just for one or two shows, just to play at a club called Busy Bee, and at Scream Bar. We weren’t supposed to stay here for longer, just play those two shows then go back. But Shen Lihui from Modern Sky came to a show to see us play, I think the second show. He came to us and said, “It’s really good, we love it, we want to release a single for you” and blah blah blah. So we said, “Of course we’re interested to do that.” We asked when we could record, and he said, “Oh, in two months.” We thought we were going to record in two months in Beijing, sounds nice! So we stayed just for the [recording]. We had some friends in Beijing, so we could stay in their apartment, play some shows. And two months is so short, we could just wait for the recording.
So we were waiting, waiting, waiting. Two years later we recorded the first single that we released on Modern Sky. [laughs] Anyway, we stayed, and we felt good. In Beijing it was easy to find a place to play, and you could find a different audience. It was very different from Nanjing. In Nanjing, the audience was almost the same every time. First they came to the show, and later they became our friends. It was quite a small scene. We’d play every week to the same people. It kind of made no sense. Of course the audience was very happy to see us play, but we could never know if we played well or not.
So we tried to find another stage to play. Beijing was really good. A lot of audience, a lot of bands. So different. ’99 was a really good year for Chinese alternative or indie music. There were a lot of new bands emerging, and we felt very comfortable in Beijing. We had friends here, we could find a place to stay, we could play shows. It was really good. In Nanjing, we had to look for different bars and clubs to play, and [play there] maybe just one or two times before the owner said we couldn’t play there. We’d have to find another place to play, because it was so noisy. Every time we had to find a new place, and we brought everything ourselves, amps, everything, and played the show for free. Just one or two times, then we’d have to find another one. That was so tiring. Beijing was really good. They had some clubs you could play, people to book the show for you. It was easier. We were more focused on the music.
SmBj: How did the lineup of PK14 change after you moved to Beijing? When did the current lineup come together?
YHS: I met [drummer] Jonney [Leijonhufvud] in Shanghai in 1999. He ran a label called Ling Lao in Hong Kong. He set up the tour for The (International) Noise Conspiracy and PK14 was the opening band for two shows in Shanghai. So we met there and we talked a lot about Chinese indie and underground music. That year, the summer of the year PK14 moved to Beijing from Nanjing, was almost the same time that Jonney moved to Beijing from Hong Kong. So actually we met on the street or at some bar or something, it was quite unexpected. So we talked and then I saw him play with [Brain Failure frontman] Xiao Rong in Cocktail 78. That was the first time I saw him playing drums. And I thought, yeah, that’s good, I like that style. So after the original drummer left, I asked Jonney if he wanted to join the band.
And then I met [guitarist] Xu Bo… Actually, Xu Bo was introduced by Wu Wei from SMZB. We wanted to find a new guitar player in 2001, and Wu Wei introduced Xu Bo to me. So we tried once, and at that time, his playing was not very good, but very noisy. We liked the style. And he’s a very nice guy, so we started to play together. And [bassist] Shi Xudong is a pretty old friend, back to Nanjing. In ’97, when PK14 just formed, he had another band in Nanjing. And then he moved to Wuhan and was in Shit Dog. But yeah, the scene was pretty small in ’97, we were pretty close friends.
SmBj: At that time, what other bands did you play with in Beijing?
YHS: We played a lot with No, [Zuoxiao] Zuzhou, with Muma, with Super VC, with Tongue, Yaksa, Miserable Faith. All these kinds of bands, we played together. The scene was not separated. It’s not like, you’re metal, you’re industrial, you’re punk, you’re whatever. Sometimes ten bands played together in one night, it was crazy. You had to wait until 4am to play your set. But nobody said, “We don’t want to play the last set.” We would pick numbers to set the playing order.
It was good. You could feel the scene was quite tight. We just supported each other. At that time we played shows mostly for fun. Not for fame or money, just for fun. And the audience was really good. They almost always waited until 4am to see all the bands. I guess they had nowhere to go [laughs], no money to take a cab to go back home. So a lot of students, they had to stay in the bar waiting for the first bus back to their university. I knew some bands, after a show they had to stay in the bar for a while to wait for a bus to go back home. Sometimes they walked for two hours to go back home, but it was summer and they had nowhere to go.
SmBj: You released the first PK14 first full-length, Shang Lou Jiu Wang Zuo Guai, in 2001 on Yan Jun‘s Sub Jam label. How did you start working with Yan Jun?
YHS: In 1998, Yan Jun was still in Lanzhou and he wanted to set up a big show there, three days. That [event] was called Sub Jam. For all the Chinese underground music, underground bands at that time. He invited PK14 to Lanzhou to play that, but the show was cancelled. The government was very nervous about that, I think because it was an underground youth party or something. So they only had a flyer and a booklet with promotion for this event, a small book about all the bands. That book was called Sub Jam. [After that] Sub Jam was just a name for underground music and underground things, not only music. Because Yan Jun also wrote, he’s a writer and a critic and a poet.
So in 2001 he told me he wanted to start, not a label… More like an open program for underground culture. So if you wanted to join Sub Jam you’d just tell Yan Jun, “I want to use the name.” If you had no money, Yan Jun would put some money in. But if you had money, ok, you can do it yourself. We’d just recorded our first album, and we wanted to release it by ourselves, quite DIY. But we wanted to support Sub Jam, because Yan Jun had just started it. It was very good, because you could see all the deeper parts supporting each other, the distributor, the publisher, the musicians supporting each other to do one thing. I guess the first PK14 [album] was the third Subjam release.
SmBj: Sub Jam’s role was mostly to help with promotion?
YHS: Yeah, but you know, from the very beginning, promotion was very hard. We had no money to put into the posters, flyers. We could only write articles in magazines and do promotion that way. There were some quite mainstream music magazines that wanted to support this kind of music. Like Pop Music, Tongsu Gequ, and another magazine, called Wo Ai Yaogun, I Love Rock. They wanted to support this. So they all had underground Chinese bands’ information, upcoming releases, something like that.
SmBj: Besides going to shows, were there other places in Beijing where people would gather and share music or share ideas? Record stores? Cafes?
YHS: I don’t know… In Beijing, life was so different from Nanjing. We lived in the very north, a small village called Dongbeiwang, and Shu Cun, Tree Village. These two villages, Shu Cun and Dongbeiwang, were kind of like a community for musicians. Muma, Tongue, PK14, a lot of new bands at that time stayed there. It was very cheap, and pretty small, easy to set up a practice room. That was very important.
SmBj: So it was kind of like Tongzhou for musicians now?
YHS: It was much better. Because it was very small. Everybody knew each other, there were new bands coming. Later it became very famous, Tree Village, in some Chinese magazines.
SmBj: Just because of all the musicians there?
YHS: Yeah, musicians, painters, there were some artists there. It was kind of like a utopia.
SmBj: What happened to that place?
YHS: It was torn down. I guess we moved out in 2001. We stayed there for two years. And we moved to another new community called Huo Ying. It was further north. And still quite cheap, of course. We stayed there for two years, until 2003, then moved to Tongzhou. That area, to me it was very good, there were a lot of very good bands. But most of the bands were not local Beijing people. They moved here to play music. After 2005, there were a lot more Beijing musicians, but before that there were only outsiders.
SmBj: Like who?
YHS: Tongue, from Xinjiang. And Muma, from Hunan. Yaksa, a lot of Sichuan people. Not so many Nanjing people, only me I guess. [laughs] Hunan, Sichuan, Jiangsu, Xinjiang, and Lanzhou. We called them the Xinjiang gangsters, Lanzhou gangsters. [laughs] And most of the bands played very heavy music. It wasn’t heavy metal, but a little bit industrial, rap metal, something like that. PK14 was quite special. We played this post-punk. Nobody knew post-punk in Beijing.
SmBj: I guess there weren’t too many bands with the same style at the time…
YHS: Yeah. And the audience liked heavy music. Heavy industrial, like Tongue. So much energy, so heavy, with a little bit of metal, a little bit of industrial, a little bit of hip hop stuff. We were quite different. But sometimes I still miss that time. Like I said, it was not only for the money. Nobody was making money from the music or from the shows. Everyone was playing music just for fun and just to satisfy themselves. It was a very innocent time. If some bands got more fame, people were going to laugh about it. Like, “Ok, now we’ll try to write songs that are more underground.”
That time was so different from now. There were more Chinese people in the audience then. It’s not like now when we play, there are a lot of foreigners there, almost half. Then it was 10% Western people at most, and 90% Chinese audience, students. It was very good. And then it was also different, because no [bands] wanted to sing in English. Nobody even thought about it. Just Hang on the Box, they sang in English, but people always laughed [about it]. No bands even tried to sing in English. And back then, there were only two… well, I’ll say one and a half labels. There was Modern Sky, and then there was Scream, which was more like a half label to me. At that time, Modern Sky was almost the only label you could talk to and see if they were interested to put money into [your band]. There was only one label, so people didn’t have any illusions about [signing] with a big label, anything like that. People had to think about how to do it by themselves. You had to, because you had no choice.
SmBj: Were there a lot of DIY releases?
YHS: A lot, yeah. I still have a lot of DIY cassettes, underground cassettes from everywhere. Not only Beijing. Shijiazhuang, Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Xi’an, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Wuhan. I still keep these.
SmBj: What kind of music?
YHS: That we can call “alternative,” because the styles were so different. Around 2002 or 2003, to me it was very exciting, because you could hear every different style from different cities. It was very, very exciting. I still remember a band from Hebei that sounded like Primus, funky slap bass. In Wuhan it was lot of punk bands, and also some bands that sounded like Jesus Lizard, and some bands that sounded like The Pixies, stuff like that. I don’t mean they were really good, but they still tried these different styles. At that time, rap metal was quite mainstream in the Beijing underground scene. A lot of bands played industrial and rap metal. And a lot of alternative folk music. It was quite interesting. So different.
SmBj: So these bands were recording their own tapes. How would you get them? Would they come to Beijing to play?
YHS: No… I guess I would get some from bands, and some from friends. Some from Yan Jun, he had all of these. He was the most important guy in the scene. All the bands, after making their demo tape, would first mail it to him. I had some from bands directly, and some from my friend Wu Yiqing in Nanjing, he was a DJ for the radio station there. He had a lot, and he gave me a lot of this kind of cassette, like Pangu. It was an exciting time. I have to say now, it was good, but 10 years ago, I didn’t feel it was good. In Beijing the scene was very metal, very heavy, and we didn’t like this. We were outsiders. It looked like we were living in the community, we knew everybody, but I still felt like we were not in the center of it. We were just another band. So we tried to play something different. It was good, but I still wanted to see more bands playing the music, the style like us.
SmBj: In the mid-2000s you started playing at a new club, D-22, and eventually partnered with the people running that club to co-found a new record label, Maybe Mars. How did this partnership develop?
YHS: There was a guy, Mark [Adis], who worked at the US Embassy. Me and Jonney knew Mark for quite a long time, he went to all the shows. At one show, he and Michael [Pettis] came to us and we introduced each other, and Michael said, “We’re gonna open a new club in Wudaokou.” So me and Jonney said, “Yeah, that’s ok.” Because for a long time Wudaokou didn’t have any clubs to play, after Scream Club shut down. So we said it sounds nice, but it’s just another club. It was really hard to make money as a rock music club. Clubs only opened for one or two, three years at most. So we said, “Ok, sounds good…” We didn’t take it very seriously.
After that, one day I met Mark in Nüren Jie, the secondhand market, and Mark bought a lot of fake microphones. [laughs] Fake Shure microphones, he bought a lot for cheap. And then later, that was D-22. It opened. And it was good. To me, it was a little bit different because it was run by Western people, and they knew how to run it. The most important part is they weren’t afraid about losing money. That was very important. They booked a lot of new bands, that was really good. Like Carsick Cars, Snapline, at that time they were still new bands, young musicians. [D-22] focused on the young musicians. So we played some shows at D-22 and felt very good, felt comfortable. And the audience felt good. This was 2006. It seemed like everyone was happy.
Maybe Mars… actually this idea came from Carsick Cars. In 2006 or 2007 I produced for Carsick Cars. They came to me, and Michael said he wanted to put money into the recording, and asked me if I wanted to produce it. So I produced that, and after everything was done we tried to find a label to release it. Like I said, the only choice was Modern Sky. The band sent it to Modern Sky, but they refused it I guess, or they wanted to pay very little money. The band wasn’t very happy about the money, so they refused that. So I talked to Michael, and said, “Why don’t you set up your own label for all the new musicians?” Because there was only Modern Sky, there wasn’t any competition. I wanted to see more labels, smaller and bigger. So he said he’d think about it. And I think half a year later he came to me and said, “Yeah, I have an idea, I want to start a new label. Are you interested to be a co-founder and partner?” So I agreed.
In 2007, we chose Carsick Cars and Joyside and Snapline for the first three releases. Joyside was for the old audience. Carsick Cars of course was for the new audience. I chose the name, Maybe Mars, Bing Ma Si in Chinese, and I made a slogan for the flyer: “Voice of Young China.” This came from a Motown label’s slogan, “Voice of Young America.” When Maybe Mars first started, a lot of people were very excited. We tried to build this label to be a musicians’ label, to be like family, like community. We support the musicians, we support the scene. A lot of people were very excited about this. New musicians, new songs, new design, a new way to do things. We printed a lot of posters, we sold CDs at the festivals. We stuck the posters in every store in Nanluoguxiang. We did everything ourselves. I tried to build our distribution network in China. [I thought] we’d have to spend one or two years to build this network, but if we built it we wouldn’t need to depend on all the distributors in every province. We could sell it directly to the store. But after I left, they didn’t want to do that. They didn’t want to wait. They wanted to make a big noise very quickly.
SmBj: When did you leave?
YHS: 2008. Actually my idea about the label was different from Michael’s. He wanted to make a very big noise within half a year. He said after half a year it was gonna be the biggest, best label in China. I said, “Maybe not. We should just do it slowly. Maybe five or ten years.” But I totally understand him, because there were a lot of investors. Of course they wanted to see the result very soon. But following this, I had to spend so much time on the label. Then I had to go to Sweden to record City Weather Sailing, PK14’s album, and [produce] a lot of bands. It was really hard to be both a businessman and a musician. So I quit.
SmBj: The self-titled Carsick Cars record was your first as a producer. How did you become interested in recording and production?
YHS: I was quite interested in recording and this kind of stuff. To me it’s like magic. You play the song, and then from the microphone you record that and put it on a CD, and give it to people to listen, it’s magical. I learned a lot of skills from our producer, Henrik Oja. He is quite open. When we’re recording in Sweden, sometimes we have a lot of questions, and he’ll show us how to do everything. I learned a lot from Henrik.
SmBj: When was the first time you recorded with Henrik?
YHS: 2004, in Beijing. In 2004, when we recorded our second album, we tried to find a good producer, but it’s really hard to find in China. And Jonney said his friend is a producer in Sweden. The only thing we needed to do was buy his ticket and bring him here. So Modern Sky supported that. It was quite easy, actually. Since then, we’ve done three albums together. We work very well with each other.
SmBj: And eventually you decided to try your hand as a producer yourself…
YHS: The first time I saw Carsick Cars play was in 2005, at the old Yugong Yishan. I guess it was a No Beijing show, with [pre-Gar band] Ne Zha, Snapline, Carsick Cars, and Queen Sea Big Shark. I was very excited to see them for the first time. They reminded me of when we first started in Nanjing, that scene. They reminded me of a lot of bands from then. They were very young and very focused on their music, and I could see they wanted to do something different. They had a new idea, you could see the gap between them and the old style. They felt good because of this gap. So the first time I saw them, I thought, “Yeah, this is really good.” We talked a little bit. So when they asked me to produce their record, I said, “Of course.” I wanted to help them, because they were very new and had no experience in the recording studio. I knew some, and I wanted to help them. So we tried to find a studio, and produced it. I was very interested to do that. It was my first time producing a full-length album.
SmBj: And you’ve produced many records since then…
YHS: Yeah, it’s funny. Now I’ve produced most of the debut albums for Maybe Mars bands. I think new bands need more help from a producer. They have no experience and no skills, they don’t know how to [record] in the studio. I like to help them, to tell them how to do that.
SmBj: You’ve also produced debut albums for bands like Fuzzy Mood and Doc Talk Shock via Modern Sky’s House Party project. Now you even have your own private studio, Psychic Kong…
YHS: We built Psychic Kong as PK14’s rehearsal room. We just recorded some demos for PK14 or something. The first band to seriously record there was Birdstriking. The label had a low budget for the project, so they asked me. And I said, “Yeah, we can try to build some recording system in Psychic Kong for cheap.” And we did. The result was pretty good, it’s not too bad. Later, I recorded more and more bands in Psychic Kong. Actually only because of budget. I like to offer a cheaper place to do something, you know, for new bands, their debut.
The House Party project is mostly for bands outside of Beijing. In a lot of cities, there’s maybe one or two bands that are really good, but the scene is so small, nobody supports them. Only one club where they can play, but no record labels, no management, nothing. It’s very DIY, I still feel that. It’s almost the same as my situation back in Nanjing. So I thought that there should be someone to support them. I actually talked about this project with Michael first for Maybe Mars, but he seemed not very interested to do bands outside of Beijing. So I had a meeting with Shen Lihui at Modern Sky, and he was very interested. You know, it’s not for the money, it’s not for the business. It’s just that as a recording label, you should do something to support the young bands. Not just famous, commercial bands. You should support non-commercial and very underground [bands]. Because all the Chinese rock bands are from the underground. Even Shen Lihui’s band Sober, and PK14, all the bands grew up from the underground. And you need some platform for the first step. Shen Lihui was very interested to that, I was very interested to do that, so we did.
This project is very easygoing. For me, it’s very relaxed, and I can really choose the bands. See a good band live, talk to them, and record for them, produce for them, and know what they need, know what they think. And I get to know more about Dalian, and Xi’an, and Nanjing, and Zhengzhou, Xinxiang, all the local scenes. It’s really good to know new young musicians.
SmBj: Which of the records that you’ve produced is your favorite?
YHS: [laughs] Someone asked this question before. I prefer the 8 Eye Spy [record]. I have to say that it’s one of my favorites. It’s not perfect, but to me it means something. I really like the band. I hope they can do more…
SmBj: They’re from Nanjing as well.
YHS: Yeah, they’re from Nanjing, but it’s not because of Nanjing. It’s because the band is good. And I really love the recording. I mean, I really get something of the band in the recording. I really catch something. Maybe I didn’t notice that during the recording session, but after recording, after producing, when I listen to the album, every time I think I really get something.
SmBj: Ok, back to PK14. Around the time when D-22 opened and Maybe Mars started, PK14 started becoming more and more popular in China. You also started to tour and play internationally more. When did you first go abroad?
YHS: In 2005, our first visit to Europe. It was when we recorded our third album, White Paper. Later we set up a tour in Europe, in 2007. And we played in Hong Kong in 2007, and 2008 in the United States, Australia, Vietnam, Taiwan. We toured quite a lot.
SmBj: Is there anything you experienced on tour that influenced you later on as a musician or producer?
YHS: Yes, of course. We always like to meet different people and to talk to strangers, to talk to each other. It’s kind of like exchange. Musicians in LA or in San Francisco, how they live and how they think about music, how to do music, how to do the local scene. We’re always very curious about this. So we like to talk with them and meet each other. In Europe and the United States, to play shows, to us it’s more challenging because we sing in Chinese. I know people cannot understand any Chinese, so that makes us put more energy on the stage, the music. It’s still challenging to us. But it’s really, really fun, because you can see that music is an international language. We love to play on a different stage, in different countries, to a different audience. 15 years ago, when we were in Nanjing, we played every week to the same audience. It was quite boring. That’s why we moved to Beijing. And now in Beijing, it’s almost a little bit the same. When we play at Yugong Yishan, you can see the people, every show they’re there. I start to get bored of that a little bit. So we try to move to bigger stages.
SmBj: PK14 has also toured China quite extensively. In the summer of 2008, while the Olympic Games were happening in Beijing, you did a cross-country road trip sponsored by Converse called Love Noise, which resulted in what I believe was the first China-based tour documentary…
YHS: No, it wasn’t the first. I think the first was PK14, our first tour in China in 2004. David Harris filmed that documentary and released it on Modern Sky in 2007. It’s called A Tour of the Public Kingdom. I think it’s better than Love Noise. Love Noise was not the first [documentary], but I think it was almost the first time a brand [like Converse] was involved in the scene. And so deeply involved. It’s not just like a commercial, a photo or something. They were really deeply involved in that. That was a first.
SmBj: You also have a really experimental tour documentary, Are We Really So Far From the Madhouse?, directed by a fairly famous independent filmmaker, Li Hongqi. How did you start working with him?
YHS: He has been a very close friend of mine for quite a long time. He used to be a writer, novels and short stories, so we knew each other for a very long time. He came to my house every two weeks to meet me, to have lunch, have dinner, talk, something like that. So we’re quite close. After the Love Noise tour, we had our own tour in China. We wanted to do a documentary, so we asked him, because he is quite a famous director and he had his own camera and he knew how to do that and everything. And he’s a close friend, so it’s gonna be fun on the road together. He said yes, we can do that. But unfortunately, after only five shows, Jonney broke his ankle. So he only shot five shows. He thought it’s not ok to do a full-length documentary about the tour, the material’s not enough.
So he thought about this. Every time when we talked about this, he alway said, “I’m still thinking, I don’t know how to do this with this film. I still need to think how to do that.” And almost one and a half years later, he came to me and said he had an idea about doing, not a documentary, but a full-length movie. I said, “I don’t know… just do it.” We had no idea bout it. Then after half a year he came to me and said he finished it. Very experimental. Before that he’d just finished a movie called Winter Vacation. It won some prize at Locarno in Switzerland. And after Winter Vacation, I guess, he had a lot of different ideas. So that’s why he did it very experimental… Because he felt it’s quite boring to film a normal, standard tour documentary. Everybody can do that. And he wanted to do something different, like with the sound. You know, like Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard, quite experimental with the sound, with the pictures, stuff like that. So of course he was totally free to do that. And I don’t know, I watched that movie twice or three times… It’s really hard to judge. Some friends think it’s very funny, think it’s good, and some friends think it’s, uh… But anyway, it’s really hard to judge, right? So I think that’s good for the movie, for the documentary. It gives people something to talk about. Maybe it’s good. [laughs]
SmBj: PK14 has also made several music videos, which is something very few Chinese bands do. The first one I saw was “Tamen” in a Beijing KTV. How did you get the idea for that video?
YHS: That video was shot by David Harris, he was very interested. After the 2004 tour, after that documentary, we asked him if he wanted to do a video for us. Of course, he was a new filmmaker, so was very interested to do everything about movies and filmmaking. So we chose the song, “Tamen,” and we all had a meeting about the concept, how to do it, what kind of style of the video. I love old Shanghai movies from the ’30s and ’40s, so you can see that, silent movie with a very old style. It’s just for fun, we didn’t think about putting it into KTV. I guess Modern Sky did that.
SmBj: Next month you release PK14’s newest studio album, 1984, your first since 2008’s City Weather Sailing. Why has it taken five years to do a new album? What happened between City Weather Sailing and 1984?
YHS: After City Weather Sailing we toured a lot, in the United States, Italy, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong, all over the place. South by Southwest, West coast, East coast. Almost two years later we started to think about doing another album, around 2011. And actually we spent two years [doing it]. That’s not too long, right? We spent two years writing the album and preparing all the new songs, and we recorded in 2012. Actually we’ve spent almost a year waiting for the release.
SmBj: What has been different this time, both in terms of the music and the lyrics on the album, and the process of recording it?
YHS: The way we wrote songs was different. For the last three or four albums, we wrote the songs, then we played them a lot. We played all these new songs on the road, then went to the studio to record. For 1984, most of the songs we haven’t played live a lot. We just wrote the songs, rehearsed them, and played them two or three times in Beijing or Shanghai or something. It’s not a very live recording, it’s a studio recording. But the funny thing is, it’s the most “live” sounding PK14 album. It’s very raw, very direct. Very live sound.
Another different thing is the recording. This time we recorded in Chicago with Steve Albini, and he’s very unique in the world. His studio is unique, his microphones are unique, and the way he records is so unique. In this world, it’s so different. Maybe back in the ’70s or ’80s it’s nothing, but now, it’s so unique.
SmBj: Because he uses a lot of analog gear?
YHS: Yeah, it’s all analog. And the room is so big, for the drums. We recorded at Studio B, it’s big. It’s just like a warehouse. We used almost all the equipment [in the studio]. The old ones, from the ’60s or ’70s. We used the Mellotron, we used the Celesta, we used so many things. And we recorded all the songs on 2″ tape. For me, it was the first time I felt like I’m really part of rock music. I mean, back to the ’30s, ’40s, four decades of artists, they recorded just like that. The Beatles, the Stones, they recorded using tape in a big room, playing live, just like that. Now it’s all digital recording, you can record track by track, layer by layer, everything at home. But that’s not rock’s history, you know. After recording , I felt like I was part of that history. It was so different. It was a very nice experience.
SmBj: In parallel to PK14, you’ve also been writing and recording music with Sun Xia as Dear Eloise for several years now. What’s the concept for that project?
YHS: Me and my wife, we talked about this project for quite a long time, to do a duo, Jesus and Mary Chain style. I guess in 2005 or 2006 we had this idea. But we had no recording skill. I didn’t know how to make it happen. After 2008, thanks to Converse, I had some money from the tour, and I bought some home recording stuff. I built a home recording studio, and I realized that we can start to do something. We already had some songs, so after the Love Noise tour, me and my wife started to arrange all the songs and record them. It was in 2008, November I guess. It was very cold. And then we recorded the second [album] when it was very hot, the hottest day of summer. It was the end of July, 2009. So hot. It was crazy, feverish. The first time it was quite cold, I still remember that.
This project is quite conceptual. The basic idea is we only want to write songs very, very simply, with maybe two or three chords, and a very simple bass line, with a lot of layers of guitars. Because you know, the first time I listened to the Jesus and Mary Chain, I tried to cover some songs. And actually the first album, Psycho Candy, the whole album, in five minutes I knew all the chords. It’s very, very simple. So this basic idea of Dear Eloise is almost the same. I want to do it very, very simple. Maybe in ten minutes or five minutes you can know all the chords. But it still sounds very special, that’s the basic idea. So we did it. After that I come to Maybe Mars to see if they had interest in it, and they said of course.
SmBj: You’ve also released some vinyl singles on the Genjing label. What about this format appeals to you?
YHS: My personal opinion is that CDs are going to be dead, actually. And I’ve been a [vinyl] collector for quite a long time. We love vinyl. Nevin [Domer] said one day that he wanted to start this new label called Genjing and only focus on 7″s. We were very happy about that. I love 7″s. [Nevin] really loved Dear Eloise’s song “Castle,” so he wanted to do the first 7″ single. I thought that if 500 copies didn’t cost too much, we could pay for the second one ourselves. So that’s why we did the second one, “Song for Her.” It didn’t cost too much. We set up our own label, me and Zaza [Zhang], the drummer of Eyes Behind, called Share in Obstacles. So “Song for Her” was released by Share in Obstacles, and we still worked with Genjing. It’s a very DIY community.
SmBj: Share In Obstacles has also released another of your side projects, After Argument, with you on guitar and Zaza on drums. How has the label developed over the last few years?
YHS: I’d wanted to start a label with some friends for a very long time. Even in Nanjing I had some ideas about starting my own label. But we had no money and no time, you know. At that time it wasn’t a very good idea. Around 2011, I talked to Zaza in Italy about starting a new label. And also, you know, Dear Eloise was [originally] based on [the concept that] everything is DIY. We record it, we produce it, we release the album, we do the artwork, everything. The basic idea is everything is DIY. But later the artwork is by Jonney, released by Maybe Mars. But anyway, me and Zaza talked about doing a label, just releasing our side projects. It’s not for other musicians or bands or the scene. It’s just for us, to release our side projects. It’s very simple. So we started it. We did the first After Argument 7″, the digital format. And some 7″s for Dear Eloise, and a digital EP for my solo project Blonde Eskimos. We don’t have the money to do more bands. Last year, I asked Liu Yike to join us, because he’s very interested in recording. I asked him to join us and to do some production. So now Share in Obstacles is three people.
SmBj: Do you have any upcoming releases?
YHS: Yeah, we’re gonna release the first After Argument LP, I think at the end of August. We just got the LP from Germany, and we are waiting for the CDs.
SmBj: And after the massive PK14 tour in September you’re also going to do an After Argument tour in late October…
YHS: [laughs] Yeah, to support the album.
SmBj: Earlier you said that you originally left Maybe Mars because you didn’t want to be both a businessman and a musician.
YHS: Yeah, it’s really hard.
SmBj: But now you’re a musician with three active projects, and also a producer, and you book tours, and you have your own DIY label…
YHS: [laughs] Yeah, but it’s not business. Even Share In Obstacles is not business so far. I don’t know the future, but, I mean… Yeah, people always ask me. I have a lot of side projects, I have a lot of recording projects, and also Share the Obstacle, so people alway ask how I organize the time. I can organize my time very well. And I don’t hurry, you know. I can wait. I’m a patient boy. There’s nothing for me that needs to be done very urgently. We can wait for something. Maybe this month, I focus on this. And that month, I focus on that. And the side projects… It looks like a lot, but it’s not. Blonde Eskimos, it’s just my solo project, it’s just for fun. After Argument, it’s still a young band, so we’re gonna play smaller clubs for fewer people. PK14 is much bigger. We’re gonna play more on tour. For bigger bands, the problem is you cannot release new albums year by year. It’s not like that. With After Argument we can do that, because we’re pretty small, and we’re pretty young, and we can do anything. But PK14, we have to focus, you know. We are writing songs, but the songs need to be very, very good before the studio. With After Argument, we can record everything. And Dear Eloise, it’s much easier. It’s just me and Sun Xia, so we can write songs at home, practice at home, and record in a week. It’s not as hard as people think.
SmBj: After the PK14 record is out and the tour is done, and the After Argument LP is out and that tour is done, what’s the next project?
YHS: Dear Eloise. [laughs] Yeah, it should be. Dear Eloise should be [releasing] one album every year. But the artwork from Jonney is delayed, so we’re still waiting for the third album to come out. It should be a double LP and a CD. But we’re still waiting for the artwork, almost two years. It’s crazy. It makes us very upset, very nervous. We’re gonna try to release this third Dear Eloise album in winter or early next year, maybe January or something. And we’re gonna do a new recording for Dear Eloise. We have some ideas already. I already talked to Sun Xia about the fourth one, and maybe some 7″s or something. And maybe next, we’re gonna release another three-song EP from After Argument on Genjing. In the studio we recorded 12 songs. 9 songs are on the LP, and three songs are for a 10″ EP for Genjing. Those songs… some people said those three songs are much better than the album. I don’t know. It’s different. We will see… So yeah, that’s my future.
*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!