Note: This article was originally published on February 26, 2014 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!
Zhang Shouwang, the soft-spoken leader of Beijing indie scene linchpins Carsick Cars and White+, doesn’t need much of an introduction for anyone who’s been half-seriously following the Chinese music scene at any point over the last seven years. His sunglassed visage — an homage to one of his heroes, Andy Warhol — has been in the pages of The Wall Street Journal and New York Times, not to mention virtually every Chinese publication covering the rise of this country’s emerging generation of cosmopolitan, middle-class youth and its new (sub)cultural elite. If you do want an introduction, though, this is probably your best bet. In fine Culture Bureau fashion, we start from the beginning. The following is cobbled together from two separate interviews, one done at a Gulou cafe in late 2011, the other last Sunday in Carsick Cars’s practice room, where they were gearing up for Friday’s album release show. Zhang Shouwang, A to Z:
SmartBeijing.com: How did you first get into “alternative” music? I mean how did you first get access to music that wasn’t just punk or metal or rock, something weirder…
Shouwang: The very first rock show I saw was maybe Hang On The Box, P.K.14, and Joyside. At the time I liked Hang On The Box the best because they were sort of the first band doing weird guitar sounds with pedals. During that time, heavy metal or hard rock was very popular, so nobody was really doing those kinds of weird guitar sounds. And then I had a chance to listen to some of the No stuff, Zuoxiao Zuzhou‘s band. That’s probably my favorite Chinese underground band from the older generation. Their sound is so original, and it came from nowhere. I just can’t tell where it came from. So that was very interesting for me.
SmBJ: When you saw Hang On The Box, PK, Joyside, where was that?
SW: Nameless Highland was the club, in 2004. I think by that time our generation’s kids were already going to see shows… we all went to see those sort of more fresh-sounding bands.
SmBJ: You were in university at the time, right? Where did you go to school?
SW: Yeah, BIT [Beijing Institute of Technology].
SmBJ: When you started going to shows, what were the main venues you would go to?
SW: At that time, it was only Nameless Highland that had those sort of indie rock shows. Also there was a small club near Qinghua, a club called Lushang [run by Gouzi], the owner of Yugong Yishan. It was really small, probably the same size as What Bar. They had punk shows. My first live show… I saw Joyside there, and I think Glorious Pharmacy played there also, Xiao He‘s band. I think because it was near Bei Da [Beijing University] and Qinghua, and the old art scene was around Bei Da, so a lot of artists and musicians hung out there.
SmBJ: How did you meet the people you’d end up being in bands with and forming a new scene with? Specifically, how did you meet Li Qing and Li Weisi?
SW: We were all from BIT. In the first year I just really wanted to make a band, so I went on an online forum and said, “Who likes Suicide? Sonic Youth?” And Li Weisi replied, saying, “Oh, I like it, but I can’t find the music. Can you burn me a CD?” So I met him and found out he played bass. I think by that time Li Qing was also looking for a bass player for Snapline, and we were looking for a drummer, so it was sort of like the two bands matched and we got together.
SmBJ: Li Qing and Chen Xi had already started Snapline at the time?
SW: Yeah, they were writing some songs already. Chen Xi was at Qinghua. Li Qing and Chen Xi were classmates when they were in high school. Both Li Weisi and me are from Beijing and Li Qing and Chen Xi are from Tianjin.
SmBJ: Besides seeing bands like Hang On The Box live, how did you first learn about Sonic Youth, or Velvet Underground, Suicide, these international bands that influenced you?
SW: It all began with dakou CDs, “cut” CDs, because that was before the internet, before everybody could download for free. The only way to find music was just to go to the dakou store. And it was quite interesting because there was a very special community there. Like, you would go to the store every Sunday when they’d have new stuff coming, and people would go crazy, grab CDs. And we’d communicate, make friends there, we’d introduce music to each other. It was a very special community. If you liked Nirvana, somebody would introduce Sonic Youth, Velvet Underground, and you just kept going.
SmBJ: Yang Haisong described a similar thing happening in Nanjing in the ’90s. Would you say there was a social group at the dakou stores that you’d meet regularly?
SW: Yeah, I’d make friends in the record store, just like the old days. Also, there was a BBS [online forum] called “All Tomorrow’s Parties” for Velvet Underground fans. I met Zhu Wenbo there like ten years ago, eleven years ago. In that BBS we talked about music a lot, a lot of different bands, and they’d translate some articles and put them on the BBS so people could read.
SmBJ: How many people would you say had similar tastes? How many people were on this BBS?
SW: It was really small, I think. For the Velvet Underground BBS, everyone definitely had the same taste. There weren’t many people listening to the Velvet Underground. I think during that time, because it was hard to get music, whenever you got it you’d feel more excited about it. So people liked a lot of different kinds of music, because it was hard to find. Not like now. People can hear everything, so their taste is more specific.
SmBJ: Was there one record store in particular that you’d go to more than others?
SW: There were several in Beijing. There was one in Wudaokou that was quite famous. And there’s one in Xinjiekou that’s still there, probably the only one. Blue Line. Xinjiekou was much cooler than now. There were so many record stores. I remember when I was in high school, a lot of time I’d skip my Saturday class and just wander Xinjiekou, the whole street. There would be six stores, something like that, and also a lot of instrument [stores]. I think at that time, every instrument store also sold CDs. So it was really fun just to walk the whole street and try and find stuff.
SmBJ: How did you first become interested in making music and starting a band?
SW: I think it was during the SARS [outbreak of 2003]. I would just stay home and get a chance to borrow a guitar from a friend and make some noise. There was really nothing to do at home. [laughs] I remember I made like 20 songs a day, I still have those recordings.
SmBJ: And how did that lead to starting Carsick Cars? At first it was just you and Li Weisi?
SW: My high school classmate used to play with us, but he was a very weird guy. After we played for a while he disappeared. And then Li Qing showed up.
SmBJ: When did you start practicing together?
SW: I think maybe early 2005.
SmBJ: When did you start playing shows?
SW: Not so long [after that]. Maybe after three or four months. We wrote a lot of songs and found a gig at What Bar.
SmBJ: So your first show was at What Bar?
SW: Yeah. We did a show in our rehearsal space and a lot of friends came, but it was like 10 people. What Bar was an official show.
SmBJ: Who else did you play with at What Bar?
SW: The first show… Maybe Snapline or Nezha [Gar].
SmBJ: At that time, Snapline and Carsick Cars already shared members and had a connection. What other bands or people were you friends with that you would consider part of the same “scene”?
SW: Queen Sea Big Shark, Guai Li, Nezha, who else… White.
SmBJ: And how did you meet them? At shows?
SW: We were all friends of friends. During shows we’d talk about music and bands. It was weird because all of those people suddenly found out there were other bands also doing interesting stuff that really didn’t sound like any Chinese band from the last generation. So I think it was kind of exciting to find those people and get together.
SmBJ: How did you get from there, your early shows at What Bar, to building a scene around D-22? D-22 opened around 2006…
SW: I think before D-22, What Bar was the only place we could set up shows easily, just call [former What Bar manager] Qin Jie and set up our showcase and make posters. I mean, we played several shows at Nameless Highland and Yugong, because Yan Jun organized this No Beijing show at Yugong. That was Queen Sea, Snapline, Nezha, and us. We also did a little tour, but it was very unsuccessful.
SmBJ: Where did you go?
SW: Hangzhou and Shanghai. I remember in Hangzhou there was only one audience member. But D-22 opened much later. And it really changed a lot of things.
SmBJ: Who came up with the title of “No Beijing”? Obviously it was partially based on the famous No Wave compilation, No New York… What other meanings did “No Beijing” have for you?
SW: I came up with it. All those bands always played together, and No New York was my favorite album. I loved that name, and I thought all those bands sounded really different from any other Chinese band before. It’s not No Wave, it’s just a way to announce that there’s some young bands, different from other bands. I think you need a title for a scene to get attention.
SmBJ: How did you get Yan Jun’s attention?
SW: It was a long time ago, I can’t really remember the details… we always played together, so people talked about it, there was a buzz. I think Yan Jun contacted me saying he wanted to organize a big show. At that time none of us imagined we could play at Yugong. It was too big for us. And I think Yan Jun, [his label] Subjam was more like a promoter by then. He put on a lot of shows. The shows he did before were for The (International) Noise Conspiracy with P.K.14, Muma, Re-TROS, and some other bands. So it was packed. That was I think the very first indie show to get 600 people.
SmBJ: What about the No Beijing show?
SW: It was really crowded, I think. It was really successful. But the show in Hangzhou wasn’t very good. And Shanghai was OK. We got a lot of criticism, they all thought we were No Wave. So they go there and they say, “Oh, this is rock. This is shit!” I remember I had an argument with someone online, saying, “I didn’t tell you guys we were No Wave. Because we’re not No Wave that means we’re no good? That’s not fair.”
SmBJ: There’s a “No Beijing” live bootleg CD from that era. Who released it?
SW: I don’t think anybody released it, just a friend of ours recorded the whole thing. Sister Ray, he’s a monk. He was the banzhu, the administrator of the All Tomorrow’s Parties BBS. So he did that recording. I think that was maybe the first showcase we called No Beijing, at What Bar with White 2j.
SmBJ: How did White start? The band has gone through a number of name and lineup changes from the very beginning…
SW: The very first, White #1, was six guitars. And White 2j was just me and Joewi, he’s in the band Arrows Made of Desire. I played keyboard and drum machine, he played guitar. That show also had Snapline, Nezha, Carsick Cars. But the recording was so bad, I think Li Qing was drunk and every time we hear that recording we just can’t hear anything. [Laughs]
SmBJ: Did you start getting a lot more recognition after these No Beijing shows?
SW: I think after the No Beijing show, people definitely knew these young bands existed. Before that, the scene was so small. Mostly friends would go to see us. Actually, it was interesting, because a lot of Cult Youth guys would go to our shows all the time, like [Chairman] Ca, Bini. So a lot of artists went to the show too. Then I think the Sonic Youth show really changed a lot of people. A lot more people knew Carsick Cars after that show, even though we didn’t play.
SmBJ: That was in…
SW: 2007 I think.
SmBJ: You were supposed to open for Sonic Youth in Beijing…
SW: Yeah, but we didn’t play.
SW: Some weird political problems…
SmBJ: How did you get hooked up with that show?
SW: Long story… I’m not so sure about it. White played with Elliott Sharp before that, and I think Sonic Youth is a band that really cares about their support bands, so they asked Elliott Sharp what’s good in Beijing, and I think Elliott introduced us [to them]. Also Blixa [Bargeld] said he introduced Carsick Cars, because he was living in Beijing, and he knows Sonic Youth. So I think either Blixa or Elliott mentioned us, and so [Sonic Youth] contacted the promoter and asked for Carsick Cars to open. I think the promoter wanted some other band to play with them, but Sonic Youth thought they were too commercial.
SmBJ: Pretty soon after that, you toured with Sonic Youth in Europe. How did that come together?
SW: I went to Berlin to record the [first] White album. After I finished, I think Sonic Youth was playing in Barcelona, and I contacted [Sonic Youth guitarist] Lee [Ranaldo] and went to see them. I waited outside the backstage for hours to give him the White CD we just recorded. And then I saw them in New York another time, and he said, “Oh, we’re playing in Europe, do you guys wanna tour with us?”
I remember the night before we went to Europe for the Sonic Youth tour, there was this group of people… I think [Maybe Mars founder] Michael [Pettis] had just decided to open the label, to release Snapline, Joyside, and Carsick Cars. So the night before we left, so many friends — including Yang Haisong, [P.K.14 drummer] Jonney [Leijonhufvud], all of the label guys — came together to hand-make 200 copies. Like a spray-painted CD. Because we didn’t have enough time to make the real CD, but we wanted to have something to sell.
SmBJ: How did you meet Yang Haisong, Jonney, Michael, Mark Adis, the original D-22/Maybe Mars crew?
SW: I knew Michael a long time ago, even before I started a band. He really taught me a lot about music. Actually I never thought I would be a musician, and he supported me to play music. Yang Haisong, I forgot the story… Of course we really liked P.K.14, and we asked Yang Haisong if he was interested to produce us.
SmBJ: Carsick Cars was your first band. How did you initially develop the idea for White/White 2j?
SW: The conductor of Glenn Branca‘s guitar symphony came to Beijing to visit, and I decided to make this big band as a tribute to Glenn Branca. And I think “Branca” in Italian sounds like “white.” So the band was just called White. The first one was called White #1, the first show. There were five other guitarists, the guitarists from Queen Sea Big Shark and Nezha, Li Qing, Li Weisi on bass, a drummer from Nezha. It was a very big group. I think we played one show at What Bar, and another show at [Yan Jun’s weekly experimental showcase] Waterland Kwanyin, and another show at Mini Midi. And I think at the Waterland Kwanyin show, Blixa Bargeld was there and he saw the band, and he really liked it. He was in Beijing and he really wanted to work with local musicians, and he wanted to produce us. But that band died very quickly. After that, I met [former Hang On The Box drummer] Shenggy and we both found out that we liked the same kind of music, more weird… We liked Sun Ra, Steve Reich, Silver Apples, Suicide, Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten. I was really shocked that she liked all this kind of music. For me, I thought it was impossible to play this kind of music at that time. So it was very natural to play with her and to make some noise.
SmBJ: How did you meet Shenggy?
SW: We went to some punk show and we just talked and, yeah, she told me all the bands she liked. I was always a huge fan of Hang On The Box, and actually in their late stuff they were doing some very experimental stuff. Shenggy was a lot of people’s heroine. So I was really excited to find someone with the same kind of weird music [taste] and be able to make something.
SmBJ: So it was because Blixa saw you and took an interest that you and Shenggy then went to Berlin to record?
SmBJ: Did Blixa produce the first White CD, or did you just record in his studio?
SW: No, he produced it. He also once produced Hang On The Box, but [vocalist] Wang Yue had a huge fight with him over lyrics, so it didn’t work out. [laughs] Because Blixa thought it was bad English or something, and Wang Yue didn’t want to change. He ran this really nice studio, actually not far from here [Gulou], and he recorded Carsick Cars, White, and Hang On The Box, maybe two songs each. I think [Carsick Cars] recorded “No Future Square,” but we were so bad, and he was a little bit pissed off because none of us could keep rhythm. Like, if you listen to the No Beijing recording, the three of us are playing completely different rhythms. [laughs] So yeah, he thought we were not ready to record.
SmBJ: Besides Carsick Cars and White, you also played some more experimental, out-there noisy solo guitar stuff at Waterland Kwanyin around the same time, right?
SW: I think my solo stuff is really in between Cars and White. It’s the ideas I can’t use for any of the other bands. Because for White, I don’t want to play too much guitar. But for Carsick Cars, that kind of guitar might be too weird. So I have to find a space to just use those ideas.
SmBJ: Eventually, in Summer 2009, Zoomin’ Night started. When did you switch from Waterland Kwanyin to the D-22 experimental scene?
SW: I think between Waterland Kwanyin and Zoomin’ Night there was a long, empty time. Nothing really happening for the experimental scene. At least, maybe I wasn’t really paying a lot of attention. But I feel like not a lot happened. Because Waterland Kwanyin was going for about two years, so I think Yan Jun was a little bit tired of that. And when did Zoomin’ Night start…
SmBJ: They overlapped for about six months.
SW: For me, for quite a while I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the experimental scene. I used to play Waterland Kwanyin a lot, and I don’t know… maybe it was too far away.
SmBJ: Right, Waterland Kwanyin was at 2 Kolegas and D-22 had just opened in Wudaokou, where you lived. And it seems D-22 was open to experimental music and noise, even from the beginning. The first show I ever went to at D-22, almost by accident, turned out to be Mafeisan and Hot & Cold on a random weeknight in 2007…
SW: There was always an experimental night, so I would always play solo there. And Yan Jun organized some Thursday showcases [at D-22] called 1+. I knew [Zoomin’ Night organizer] Zhu Wenbo for almost nine years, so it was pretty natural that he organize this showcase and I play. Even before D-22, I remember Carsick Cars and Mafeisan played together at 13 Club, and there was a big fight. [laughs] I remember I was playing and someone hit someone else in the head with a bottle. I don’t know what the fight was about but it was a crazy night.
SmBJ: Eventually, Shenggy moved to the UK. How did White become White+? What was the new concept?
SW: I played with [Gar drummer] Wang Xu and [Hot & Cold’s] Simon [Frank], we had a band called Speak Chinese or Die. Then Simon left, and we decided to keep playing together, and just chose the name White+.
SmBJ: Stylistically, White+ is quite different from White. It’s gone in a much more electronic direction, to my ear. How do you think the sound changed when Wang Xu joined the project?
SW: Yeah, I’m definitely more into electronic music. And I think even Shenggy, if we kept playing now, it would be much more electronic than White+. She’s into dubstep and techno. Late White stuff with Shenggy and I was already very techno. Both Wang Xu and I are really into electronic music. And also, I mean, I’m always into pop music, so I think there’s a pop element in this project.
SmBJ: You recorded the White+ record in the same place as you did the White record, Einstürzende Neubauten’s Berlin studio. What was different the second time around?
SW: The White+ album we produced by ourselves. I mean we worked with an engineer, but really produced it by ourselves. We had more freedom. And also, there’s a lot of improvisation on that album. It doesn’t sound like it, but we didn’t fully prepare everything. EN’s studio is such a great studio, they have a lot of really cool instruments, so we had the ability to just go there and, you know, improvise and record something. When we worked with Blixa, I would say [it was] half and half, half of the ideas were really Blixa’s ideas. It was more like a collaboration album between White and Blixa. But this album is more like White+, our own album.
SmBJ: What kind of instruments in EN’s studio did you use on the White and White+ records?
SW: We used a lot of EN’s instruments on the first album. They had a lot of weird percussions, like a really huge metal drum, and a lot of tube percussion. And they have a piano there, and an MS-20, and a very old organ, and they actually have this old-fashioned spinning speaker, like you record it and you feel a ’70s trippy sound. So we did use that. This time we used some of the organ and piano.
SmBJ: Was Berlin itself an influence? I don’t know if you went out to clubs or anything like that, but did Berlin music culture influence you at all in thinking about White?
SW: Yeah, we did go to a lot of techno clubs. Also every time we go to Berlin we visit Manuel Göttsching, he’s really a legend doing electronic music with guitar. So that’s very interesting for me. I think not so much influence from Berlin, but definitely the experience of staying there has influenced our music.
SmBJ: Back to Carsick Cars… Why did Li Qing and Li Weisi leave the band in 2010?
SW: I think the three of us felt like we were stuck, we couldn’t make anything new. It was pretty natural. Li Qing and I have a good relationship, the three of us never fought about anything. When we decided to split, we didn’t fight. It was really about music. It was a very hard decision for all of us. Because we put a lot into this band, and it had been a long time. But I think the main issue was maybe they’re not into touring and playing a lot of shows.
SmBJ: How did you go about rebuilding Carsick Cars after Li Qing and Li Weisi left?
SW: I wanted to try to make something different. It’s hard to always make something different, but I wanted to try. And I think [current Carsick Cars bassist] He Fan is a great musician, I like him a lot. He’s put a lot of new ideas into the band.
SmBJ: Before joining Carsick Cars, He Fan had started Birdstriking, which was quite obviously influenced by Cars. Around the time they came out, you also started to actively reach out to younger bands and help mentor them. How did you come into that new role? How did you first discover bands like Birdstriking?
SW: It was funny… I think Michael sent me an email saying, “Hey, there’s a younger Shouwang doing guitar solos.” [laughs] And it was He Fan playing a guitar solo in a very similar style. And it really reminded me of the SARS time, I even had the same kind of guitar, same kind of sound I was making. So it was really funny to see this whole new generation doing much more interesting stuff. Talking about helping young bands… Sonic Youth is always helping younger bands. I was really surprised the way they treated their support bands. Normally bigger bands won’t even see the opening bands. So that was really nice, and I think I should definitely do the same thing.
SmBJ: It’s taken quite a while to put together the new Carsick Cars record. What was the process? How did you rebuild the band and choose producers to work with on “3”?
SW: I mean… this album almost took us five years to put everything together, because we switched members twice. And especially when Ben Ben left the band, we really struggled to find a good drummer to keep playing. So we really spent a long time to find the right person, to find Monkey to play drums, and practice all the music we’d been playing [with him]. This new album is really… a lot of songs are even from the first members, Li Qing and Li Weisi, that time. And also when Ben Ben played we wrote some songs. So really in these five years, we wrote different songs from different periods of time, and we put everything together. Because it’s been long enough that we have to make a new album.
It was actually a coincidence that we found [producer] Pete [Kember] and recorded so quickly. I was talking to one of my friends in New York, and I said, “The Clean is my favorite band. I wish I could find the band members to produce us.” Because their sound is the guitar sound I want. So my friend was really serious about this, and he actually found the drummer of The Clean [Hamish Kilgour]. He lives in Brooklyn. And he listened to our music and was really interested to produce us, but he’s not really a producer. So he introduced his friend Pete to work together to produce this album. And of course, [Kember’s band] Spacemen 3 is one of my favorite bands, so we were really excited to work with him.
Pete had a really tight schedule… he actually decided we had to record two weeks [after he agreed to take on the project], while we were still touring America. We hadn’t even finished all the songs and lyrics yet. So we came back to Beijing and rehearsed like crazy, then went back to New York and spent a week recording.
SmBJ: What was different this time, recording with Kember? Did you learn anything?
SW: Of course. I think every time I work with different people — not just producers, engineers too — I always learn so much from them. Techniques or ideas. And Pete, especially, is a very professional producer. You know, he’s such a great musician. He formed Spacemen 3 and he has so many really great ideas. I think this time and the time I worked with Blixa were the two most important recording experiences for me.
SmBJ: Why is that?
SW: I don’t know… I think when Pete’s working, he’s very serious and he really pushes the band to go forward. And he gave us a lot of great ideas. Also, he’s very, kind of… fascist when it comes to working, but I think the result is really great.
SmBJ: What about working with Blixa? What was your main lesson from that experience?
SW: Blixa is kind of… really kind of fascist too. [laughs] But I think it’s the same. If I work with someone not pushing enough, the album will sound exactly like my limit, what I can just do by myself. But if I work with someone like Pete or Blixa, they push me to go to a higher level. I feel like when I work with them, I have a lot of pressure to reach a higher level.
SmBJ: You recorded separate versions of most of the songs on “3”, with Chinese and English lyrics. Why?
SW: Well, actually, when we recorded in New York, most of the songs were still English lyrics. And I actually wrote three songs in New York, two songs on the taxi on the way to the studio. When we came back to Beijing, I thought some of the songs would be much better in Chinese. So I wrote again and recorded in Beijing.
SmBJ: The music on “3” seems a lot more structured than previous Carsick Cars material. In other interviews you’ve mentioned that you wanted a more melodic, pop sound. How and why has Carsick Cars progressed in that direction?
SW: I don’t know why that happened, but after the second album I planned to do some solo stuff, and I was talking to a lot of my friends. I said, “I want to make a real pop album.” Because a lot of pop music is really great, and I think it’s not easy to make good pop music. I wanted to see for myself if I had the ability to make pop music. It’s something new for us, because the first album is very simple, the second album is kind of noisy. For the third album we wanted to try something new. Carsick Cars was never really a noise band, it’s always been kind of melodic I think.
SmBJ: When you were preparing to put out the White+ record, you did a lot of music videos and animations, and when you started playing live shows with material from the new record, you had a lot of visuals, you had a rapper involved… What has the bigger idea been for White+ in the last few years?
SW:The main idea is both Wang Xu and I want to separate [White+ from] our other projects and do something interesting. This band has no cage, no limit. We can do whatever we want. There’s no pressure that we have to do any kind of music. And also I think for this project we are more likely to work with visual artists and other kinds of artists. Lei Lei, who did the rap, he’s actually a really great artist by himself. I think it’s more like sort of our seed project to give us a chance to work with other people.
For example, for the album we made six or seven videos with all these visual artists. They made videos for free for us. Some of them are really personal. It’s not really a music video, it’s more like an art piece. And some of them, you can’t even show them on TV, it’s a little bit pornographic… Or they found a videotape from Panjiayuan from ’89. It’s really cool visuals. So they made something out of it.
SmBJ: You’re also working on some videos for the new Cars songs. Will these be more straightforward music videos?
SW: Um… well yeah, we definitely made some proper music videos, but also I think there are some artists who want to do something more interesting, more like an art piece. I’m actually doing this film score for a friend of mine, Huang Ran, and in exchange he will make a music video for us.
SmBJ: How did you get started with visual art? Is it something you were always interested in along with music, or is it something you’ve picked up more recently?
SW: I was always really into art, way before I got into music. There’s sort of a little story there, I actually got the chance to listen to Velvet Underground through Andy Warhol. I was really into photography and painting and visual stuff. Recently I started to play poker with some friends, some artists. That’s more like a social thing for me, I’m able to talk to them and exchange some ideas. The project I mentioned, the film score, and also the guy who designed [the new Carsick Cars] album cover, Guo Hongwei, they’re all in that game. I will do a piece of music for Guo Hongwei. He has an exhibition and some visual installation pieces, I will do the music for that.
SmBJ: I think the cover of “3” is very interesting. What’s the concept?
SW: I was always really into his painting. I find it really interesting because he always takes something we never pay attention to, like leaves or spoons or a toothbrush, or like those beetles.
SmBJ: These are real beetles that he painted?
SW: Yeah, we actually thought about putting stones on the cover, but it was a coincidence… He was drawing those beetles when I was in his studio. He bought a lot of real beetles from Taobao. And we just sort of played around and put three beetles on a CD, and I said, “That looks pretty nice.” And he said, “Why don’t I just draw it and you take a look?”
I think you never pay attention because it’s too normal, but he paints them beautifully, and when you look at them, you find, “Wow, those things are actually beautiful.” Even the toothbrush, you never really look at them, but they’re actually very individually beautiful things. I think for our album, it’s sort of connected with the art piece because the idea is people live in the city, and every individual person has their own personality, their own dream. But when you put the person in the city or in a big group, they lose their personality, become the same face. You can’t really see them any more. So I think that’s the connection with the design.
SmBJ: What about the name of the record? Obviously it’s your third record, but is there any other meaning behind the name “3”?
SW: Well it’s the third lineup of Carsick Cars, the third album, and we worked with the guy from Spacemen 3. [laughs] And I also think “3,” I don’t know about in the West, but in China it means stability, because the triangle is the most stable shape. And I think this album probably is the album where we finally found the Carsick Cars sound. The first two albums we were still looking for it, trying to look for it. And I think this one we got the sound we want.
SmBJ: You said that the songs from this record were written during all three lineups of the band. Do you view “3” as more of a compilation of three different periods, or do you think it fits together as a “harmonized” whole?
SW: It’s definitely more like a compilation record. But I was really shocked… I spent a lot of time choosing songs. We recorded too many, we recorded like 15 or 16 songs, we had to throw a lot away. Also choosing the song order was really tough for me. But when I finished and went through all the songs, I was shocked at how harmoniously all the songs worked together. I thought that was pretty interesting.
SmBJ: For the release you’re doing a tour of North America, your longest yet. What is your goal or your expectation? Are you pushing yourself to hit another level?
SW: We didn’t set it up in the first place… A friend of ours, [Brian Jonestown Massacre‘s] Ricky [Maymi], he helped us to set up everything. I was a little bit shocked that the tour dates are so tight, it’s kind of crazy because White+ will also play on that tour. But I think, you know, we spent five years to record a new album, and this is the time we should do something big. The Chinese tour is also the biggest we’ve ever done, when we come back from the US. I think we can’t wait another five years, it’s the time to be not too lazy.
SmBJ: That’s another point… for the last year or so Ricky has been very active in promoting Chinese indie music in the US and elsewhere. Do you feel that there’s more interest and recognition of Chinese music abroad now than there was when you were touring before?
SW: Definitely. I think there’s no doubt that the more you’re touring, the more people will know you, and the more people know you, they more they’ll introduce your music to even more people. I think that’s a good circle. Touring is always good for the band. That’s the problem with the first lineup, Li Qing and Li Weisi, they don’t really like doing crazy tours like this. But I think my favorite bands, like Sonic Youth, they constantly tour.
SmBJ: Going back to visual art for a minute… How long have you been seriously doing photography of your own? What is your aesthetic or format?
SW: I was always into photography. I used to develop my own black and white photos at home, spend the whole night doing it. I broke my foot last year, and I spent like three months at home and started doing these Polaroid photos. Because I couldn’t get out of the house, I’m doing all this stuff inside the house. Some of the photos, you can’t really tell what it is, but everything was from my home. I want to make an exhibition called “Home Art,” which is everything there. I think that was the point I started doing a lot of Polaroid stuff, I got really into it. This year I’m gonna do a Polaroid exhibit.
SmBJ: After you wrap up these long tours on the new album, what’s your next big project? Carsick Cars? White+? Your visual art?
SW: Obviously, Carsick Cars won’t spend another five years recording another album, so we’ll probably work on new songs right after we finish [these tours]. But I think this year our plan is to record another White+ album.
SmBJ: What are the new ideas for White+?
SW: We already have a lot of new material, I think we won’t have to spend so long to have a full album of material. So when we finish the tour I think we’ll probably spend another month to prepare and then record.
SmBJ: If Carsick Cars is adopting more of a pop aesthetic, what direction is White+ moving in?
SW: I wouldn’t say it’s going in any direction, because we don’t really have a goal to reach anything. It’s just a project for fun I think. Recently we’re really into dance music, and Wang Xu is kind of into jazz. The influence always changes our music. Maybe the new album will be a little bit more dance.
*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!