Photos by Joseph Chen
Three venue showrunners in China’s capital pick their favorite local acts from the past year.
Let’s get right into it. My name is Marshall, and I’m one of the many people involved in the music scene in China’s capital, specifically, rock.
Rock in China largely exists in small, dedicated communities in a few large cities, and Beijing in particular has had a vibrant community of original bands representing every genre for more than 30 years. Also see: Shanghai, Wuhan, Chengdu, Kunming. There’s plenty of information about this history just a quick Google search away, so I’ll leave you to that on your own time. The focus of this article is more about the now — who among the dozens of active local Beijing bands made waves in 2018. That’s right, we’re doing an end-of-the-(lunar)-year list.
I attempted to mess with the list format to showcase bands in the same way our community in Beijing engages them. While bands here certainly do produce recordings all the time, the primary way we experience local music is in the livehouse. Several of China’s largest cities like Shanghai or Guangzhou are also home to independent music scenes with long histories and incredible talents. While bands like Dirty Fingers from Shanghai or Die! Chihuahua Die! from Guangzhou captivated our audiences when they visited us in 2018, the focus of this list is on development within the local Beijing music scene.
To round this out, I’ve enlisted the help of Zhāng Jǐncàn 张锦灿 (who goes by “69”) and Liú Fēi 刘非, the respective owners of Dusk Dawn Club (DDC) and School Livehouse. I should mention that I am the booking manager at Temple Bar.
There are plenty of places to play and grow as a band, but the three venues above form a creative axis around Gulou, a gentrified neighborhood in the heart of Beijing where many arty young Chinese and expats tend to congregate. DDC, School, and Temple each has its own unique flavor, but by and large, if a band has been performing original music for six months, it will very likely have checked each of these places off its gig list. Regular fans of rock music in Beijing will likely hit up each of these venues at least once per month.
Among our three venues, DDC is really the only one that has some class. (This, as regular purveyors of Temple and School will recognize, is not a diss to those other places.) It often manages to pull in world-class touring jazz and world music acts for intimate shows, and open its doors on the occasional weekend afternoon for art events. The venue occupies an old Chinese courtyard-style residence in an alleyway that’s been tricked out with a nice bar, a performance space, and a huge skylight to keep out the elements.
School Livehouse hosts rock and hip-hop of all sorts, but the proprietors make it very clear even from the entrance that it is a punk venue at heart. The alley doorway is adorned with various instruments that have been trashed on the stage. The walls around the stage are probably still painted black, but you can’t really tell anymore from the layers of gig posters. The tight little show space fills up fast, often with a regular crowd that comes specifically to form a mosh pit.
Temple Bar, by contrast, is kind of a free-for-all. This is literally true, as it’s the only free venue on this list, but it also describes the general atmosphere of the space on weekends. Temple is on the second floor of a very nondescript building off Gulou East Street, above an underground dance club. On especially packed nights, you can stand in the middle of the pit and feel the floor shifting with the crowd beneath your feet. It’s unsettling. It’s not uncommon to see fans attempt crowd-surfing, a rain of glowsticks thick enough to block out the sun, or me desperately pleading with people to not dance on our tables. Temple supports a wide variety of bands, but we tend to skew toward bands that bring a lot of stage energy.
I didn’t set criteria for how many bands each of us could choose, or how to choose them. If you don’t think that’s very scientific, you’re absolutely right. The point here was more to think about these bands and their influence in their natural habitats. If you belong to a band in Beijing that isn’t on this list, it doesn’t mean we don’t love you (but it might). Lists like these are always incomplete.
This retrospective comes to you at the end of the year’s gigging season. Our venues push straight through Christmas and New Year’s with blowout shows in anticipation of the Spring Festival, a time when the city clears out as people go home to their families en masse and the music venues close down until the tail end of February. It’s a dead month, and it’s the time bookers and venue owners are reflecting on how things have developed and how to switch things up when the crowds come back in March.
Since we’re talking about live performances, it’s much better that we show rather than tell. Therefore, we’ve collected live videos from each of the 21 bands on this list. Please scrutinize and enjoy!
The one band everyone picked:
Acid Accident spent 2018 writing new music and becoming one of the key voices in our very active post-rock scene. Sometimes ambient and dreamy, other times groovy and dancey, it’s won over fans across each of our venues.
Bands that School and Temple both picked:
School and Temple have been passing Hang Nail back and forth for a couple of years now, but it’s scandalized DDC with its raucous straight-ahead punk rock a few times. It’s gone through several singers during that time, but for whatever reason, it finally clicked this year. Hang Nail set itself apart in 2018 as one of the top bands to stir up a crowd. Its first full-length album dropped in a debut show at School just last year, and the band members asked us to show you their self-made music video in support of it.
The all-women band Xiaowang became a key voice in our scene this past year. While Beijing has seen more female musicians participating in the local scene than ever, there is certainly still an imbalance, and it’s Xiaowang’s goal to render the term “girl band” a thing of the past. Xiaowang self-termed itself “kawaii-core,” but its sound could fit into a number of different subcategories across the punk spectrum.
White Paper is one of the friendliest bands I have the pleasure of booking right now, a post-punk trio with tight bass lines, four-on-the-floor drumbeats, 8-bit inspired electronic interludes, and slick vocals. It’s been around for over two years, but as it became one of our must-see headlining acts in 2018, we’re excited to see it continue to rise in March.
Wasted Laika, named after the first dog in space, is the current post-punk darling of the Beijing scene. It likes to describe itself as a nightmare pop band, and its music tends to draw inspiration from 1970s underground rock. Its members have been organizing packed gigs across our three venues to showcase their favorite up-and-coming experimental and rock acts.
Temple and DDC both picked:
Swarrm is a band we love to host because it fits perfectly into any bill. Swarrm is another post-rock pillar in Beijing, whose clear jazz and metal influences give its songs a punch and complexity with broad appeal. The musicians are currently getting new videos of themselves together and preparing for recording in the spring.
The remaining bands were each unique picks from each venue.
We’ll start with DDC:
Dawei and the Social Poets got started in 2018 and was an immediate hit. Dawei has made a name for himself over the past 10 years as one of Beijing’s respected hip-hop emcees, but this year, he assembled a live band for the first time for an original project that draws from hip-hop, rock, and funk. Dawei has long been a fan of 19th-century British poetry and the Beat Generation, and uses them as guideposts for the lyrical themes in his group.
No Trace plays slow, gloomy post-rock tunes that sound like funerary marches for the end of the world. This subdued but dark style is perfectly suited to a space like DDC, and it’s no surprise that 69 would put it on his list this year. Here the band is performing at DDC:
Default draws a great deal of its sound and style from past and present local post-punk bands that belong to a local indie label called Maybe Mars, and can often be found performing with these veteran bands.
The Diagon Alley isn’t a wizard rock band. The Beijing scene is home to a number of bands that label themselves “Britpop” due to an affinity for the sounds of Blur, Oasis, and The Libertines. School Livehouse has always been a haven for local Britpop bands, and The Diagon Alley’s pop-oriented style made a big impression on its fans this year.
Break the Silence’s musicians first got together as high school students in 2010, then broke up and went off to college. In 2017, the band reformed and since then, its polished brand of pop rock has been a welcome addition to School Livehouse’s big stable of regular punk bands.
Hotline isn’t just a core part of the School Livehouse talent roster — its members are also bar regulars and a central part of the School Livehouse community. 2018 was a banner year for Hotline, and between China tours and several large venue shows in Beijing, this sexy electro-rock outfit has picked up a lot of new fans.
Ghetto Blaster sounds nothing like its name implies, but its 1950s-style rock ’n’ roll dance parties pulled a big crowd at School Livehouse this year. These guys are currently hunkering down in the practice room to prepare for a recording session after the Spring Festival.
Beijing’s shoegaze scene saw the development of a number of new leaders in 2018, and Wonder Sea is among them. Wonder Sea is a dreamy, hypnotic band that knows how to fill a room with layers upon layers of sound. We have a few brief clips of it performing in Temple Bar, and we’re looking forward to seeing it develop in 2019.
Finally, here are my remaining 2018 picks for Temple Bar:
Bad Clutch is a female-led thrash metal band that got started in 2018. Even when it was finding its musical footing and playing to small crowds on weekdays, the singer had a penchant for whipping her bandmates and her audience into a frenzy. As a weekend headliner, Bad Clutch instigates some of the wildest mosh pits I have seen all year.
Struggle Session always seems to have a good year. This all-expat ultra-core has been a staple of the Beijing hardcore scene for nearly three years now, and the spectacle the dudes make on and off the stage is as much a part of their show as the music itself. (Note: Nudity in video below.) Struggle Session had a successful tour of South America in 2018, and its 2019 plans include new recordings, new continents to conquer, and more.
Hind Brain is Temple’s resident grunge band, but just recently, it’s begun exploring post-rock composition as well. It’s not hard to see from the video that these guys have a thing for Kurt Cobain and flannel rock, but their tunes are powerful originals that invoke this source material while still feeling fresh.
Temple Bar tends to attract several metal bands each month, and Scare the Children is one of the flagship acts. Taking costume cues from classic horror tropes and stagecraft from Alice Cooper, Scare the Children shows are always over the top. Its album debut show at Temple Bar this year was arranged into a creepy carnival complete with elaborate games and decorations, which you can check out in the clip.
Macondo is leading the post-rock pack in Beijing, and is the biggest band on DDC’s music label DDL. Despite being an expat band, Macondo has made a big effort to support and be involved with native Chinese bands here in Beijing. The band leveled up this year with an album debut in early 2018 that you can find on Spotify, and it’s enjoyed a number of festival and show invites across China.
Stinky Humans Abused to Subsist is a threateningly slow and doomy stoner metal band that popped up less than a year ago. These guys tend to walk a fine line between musically captivating and alienating their audience at any given show. I think this is a major part of their appeal. SHAS released a vinyl EP this month at a packed show in a large venue called Yue Space. Here’s a clip from that show.
Through an elaborate system of drum triggers and computer black magic that I don’t understand, Octopouple controls recorded guitar, bass, vocal tracks, and accompanying visuals all from his drum kit. This unique and elaborate take on a one-man band has made such an impact here that we frequently pay for his plane tickets to Beijing for shows when he isn’t relentlessly touring all over the world. Octopouple is actually a French musician currently living in Seoul, but for his many 2018 performances, Temple Bar is offering him honorary Beijing scene citizenship.