Note: This article was originally published on February 24, 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! This one is from a weekly event preview series we did on SmBJ called MP3 Monday. Obviously the event context is gone (as are the MP3s) but putting this here anyway in case it’s of some archival value.
So. The biggie for local music this week is Carsick Cars’s album release on Friday. I’m not going to focus on that here, because I already featured some new Cars tracks on this year’s first MP3 Monday and a mix, and pretty much every other magazine is running features on Carsick Cars this month, and we’ll have CSC frontman Zhang Shouwang on the Culture Bureau later this week. Instead, we’ll take a deep dive into Zoomin’ Night, a weekly experimental music showcase that’s been running since 2009. Zoomin’ launched at D-22 and migrated to XP, where the mandate is more or less for this kind of music. In some ways functioning as a feeder for new Maybe Mars talent (bands like Chui Wan, Birdstriking, and Hot & Cold cut their teeth at the Tuesday weekly), Zoomin’ Night was and continues to be the creative substratum for new moves from that particular corner of the Chinese indie/noise universe. Here’s a sample of its sounds:
Zoomin’ Night is the product of Zhu Wenbo, a musician and promoter who’s been an active member of Beijing’s disjointed experimental music scene for over a decade. Wenbo was plugged into the nascent D-22 scene before it even began, having met Zhang Shouwang on a Velvet Underground-themed message board in the early ’00s. He was a regular at Yan Jun‘s erstwhile experimental night, Waterland Kwanyin, which ran on Tuesdays at 2Kolegas until January 2010. Wenbo kicked off Zoomin’ Night in August 2009 with a string of bands that would set the blueprint for the next few years: Hot & Cold, Birdstriking, pre-Chui Wan Yan Yulong side project Sister Oriented, and Fat City, Wenbo’s band with guitarist Ma Meng. Fat City in particular established the baseline Zoomin’ sound: raw, lo-fi, deconstructed, vaguely “rock” tunes with a heavy influence from vintage New York No Wave and ’70s minimalist kraut. Fat City doesn’t play any more, but they recently released a farewell full-length that was recorded in November 2011 — their heyday — and just now mixed/mastered by the go-to guy for these kinds of projects, Yang Haisong.
Wenbo’s other main project is Xiao Hong & Xiao Xiao Hong (小红与小小红), a protean duo with his wife, Zhao Cong, that’s been going since 2010 or so. XHYXXH’s sound has changed considerably over time, but in fairly discrete intervals. Their earlier stuff was slow and melodic, often played sitting on the stage, Wenbo tapping out melodies on a small keyboard and Zhao Cong whispering ghost vocals into a contact mic. That version of XHYXXH hit its apogee in the form of a 2011 self-released CD-r called Black Sheep, which later got a re-release via DIY United States cassette label Night-People. Here are some chillers from that one:
After releasing Black Sheep, XHYXXH took a drastic turn. Zhao Cong picked up the electric bass and Zhu Wenbo duct-taped a contact mic to his neck, ran it through about a hundred Boss pedals, and also did some things to a guitar. The resulting sound was at first much more harsh, pretty much pure feedback, but over the last few years they’ve refined it into a more subdued — though still angular and menacing — live set. Last year they laid down some of those tracks in a self-titled full-length full of studio one-offs with lots of Zoomin’-referential track titles. Here’s one song named after me for some reason:
Another core engine of the Zoomin’ Night scene from near Day 1 is Soviet Pop, the ultra-minimal modular synth/tape machine/sawed-off coke can/etc duo of Li Qing and Li Weisi. These two were the original drummer and bassist of Carsick Cars, leaving the band in 2010. They still play in Snapline, but their creative focus is set squarely on the far less structured sound systems that have variously taken the name Soviet Pop. Soviet Pop has long been one of my favorite Beijing bands, but musically, they’re kind of a hard sell. In fact I’m not sure if what they do should be called music, even if they are capable from time to time of turning out “songs”:
Adding another tributary into the river of aural murk, Li Weisi also starting playing solo under different monikers in 2013. Here are a couple of solo bass guitar jams (as Thunder Gecko) and 4-track tape machine noise (Faassst) that he threw down at some Zoomin’ Nights last summer: [these are long gone from the internet, sorry. -2020 Josh].
Li Weisi will play solo as Thunder Gecko at tomorrow’s Zoomin’ along with Xiao Hong & Xiao Xiao Hong, and you can catch Soviet Pop on Thursday at XP with French “musical travel agent” Philippe Petit and solo e-violin droner Yan Yulong. The latter isn’t technically a Zoomin’ Night, but it was booked by Zhu Wenbo, so it’s all in the family. To see what the seeds sown at Zoomin’ Night grow into, also check out Yan Yulong’s band Chui Wan, who have the opening set for Carsick Cars on Friday at Yugong. And keep track of future Zoomin’ Nights on the Douban.
*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!