by Ceridwen Brown
In this diary series, British drummer Ceridwen Brown shares her life in the girl-heavy haven of the Chinese underground music scene.
China. How do you imagine it? Aside from the delicious food and the insurmountable number of people? What is it actually like there… you know… to live? Asking myself this question in earnest, a little more than four years ago, I was aware of my own ignorance diving into a new culture.
Of all the things I expected to find, an excitingly original and progressive underground music scene was not top of the list, but that’s the case. The scene is small here in Shanghai (insofar as anything is small in China), and can be fragile when politics interferes, but has a sincerity that makes watching bands I’ve never heard of before in some dive bar on a part of the planet I never expected to be; some of the most exciting live music I’ve ever witnessed. Oh, and more to the point – a whole bunch of them are women.
I’ve been drumming for my own 75% female punk band, Ugly Girls, out here since 2015. We play often and it is a rarity that I am the only female drummer on a bill. Playing music ranging stylistically from psychedelic dreamy pop to fully committed hard-core metal, the Chinese girl bands and musicians are always impressive, skillful and totally enticing to watch.
As an outsider I marvel at the inclusivity and gender representation amongst the Chinese musicians that seems starkly at odds with my own experience growing up playing in bands in the west. Even amongst the foreigner bands here, of which there are many, Ugly Girls is somewhat of an anomaly for being mostly female.
The longer I spend here the more I am compelled to talk to these women about their true experiences, hear their stories and opinions on a music scene that feels so much less macho and segregated than the one I left behind in an undisputedly freer society.
This month we took the high-speed train up to Beijing, the capitol, to play our debut show up there. Drinking some kind of 1000% proof Japanese rice wine on the street near our hostel the night before, our Brazillian drummer friend, sole foreign member of newly signed Chinese punk outfit Dirty Fingers (脏手指) briefs Casey (our singer) and I on the difference in attitude of the Beijingers to the Shanghainese. “People are really judging you up here, you know. They are serious, this is where the industry is.”
I text Xiao Xiao (小小), Beijing underground scenester queen, whose recommendation got us invited up here in the first place. She has been trying to round up some of the prominent Beijing girl drummers on my behalf so that I can do some interviews while we’re here. She gives me a time and a place for tomorrow.
We crawl from weird little bar to weird little bar, livehouse to livehouse, startlingly-open-plan-public-toilet to 24 hour off license, stopping at length on the corner of a busy road to watch a man spending his Friday night throwing scraps of meat to his little dog which he has placed on top of a trash can about 6 metres in front of him. We applaud and photograph and tell him his dog is ready for Hollywood. Some time towards the end of the 3rd bottle of rice wine the night ends.
Waking up at mid-day, we head to the venue to drop our stuff off and search out a Jianbing vendor for some hangover street food. By the time we’ve navigated our way through the narrow streets of low grey buildings to our meeting place, the infamous venue School Bar, Xiao Xiao is already there. It’s long before opening hours and still light outside, but inside is so devoid of natural light that even with the ceiling lamps on we struggle to see what’s what. “Let’s do it upstairs” says Xiao Xiao, gesturing to an invisible doorway thats leads into a comparatively brighter space and stairs up to a mezzanine.
The walls are painted the kind of garish red reserved only for rock clubs and covered with band stickers, graffiti and framed pictures of live performances from the stage downstairs. We perch on a long sofa next to a table that is infinitely too high to have a comfortable conversation over. Setting up our makeshift iphone-attached-to-a-power-pack recording equipment, Xiao Xiao comes up the stairs and introduces two girls. “Yiyi, can go first, she can answer in English.” Gesturing at two very young looking men in the corner, she adds “This is one of her bands”.
We apologise for our crummy Mandarin and Yiyi (张宜仪) comes to take a seat beside me near the mic. She is wearing a baggy green jumper with a massive, wide eyed cat motif on it. She is 25 years old, originally from the south of China and plays drums in three bands in Beijing. The one with her today is called The Outsiders. She says they debated what their style was on the way to the interview.
“Li Tanghua (李堂华 – bass) defines us as new school…” she says, “but Wang Zhengdian (王政典) the singer, thinks we’re more like popular punk”.
Yiyi’s other bands are called Rhonda and OK绷～ (pronounced OK Beng and apparently impossible to translate meaningfully to English). They play post-rock and pop-punk respectively. After only a few minutes talking, I get a picture of Yiyi as a very technical drummer. When she says that she listens mostly to drum solos and is also a drum teacher, I’m not at all surprised.
Tell me a bit about your bands. How did you get together?
In 2015 I came to Beijing for the first time to study Chinese literature and linguistics. I met the boys from this band on campus. I was a postgraduate at the time and they were both undergraduate students. My newest band, OKBeng, have only formed recently. We’re all female musicians and met here [School Bar]actually when we played a show together. The vocalist was playing with her other band, New Generation. The guitarist is the audio engineer here and the bassist is her girlfriend. You should meet them next time – they’re all impressive musicians. Our songs are pop punk style… they’re about love and dreams.
When did you first start making your own music and what were your earliest influences?
Before I came to Beijing I actually seldom listened to rock music, I usually listened to popular music. The first time I played drums was in 2013 so not a very long time ago really. Now I listen to a lot of drum solos. Just like anybody else, I think playing drums for a girl looks very handsome. At first this is what made me choose the instrument, then as time went by, I devoted myself to it. After I began to play live, I got a lot of positive feedback from the audience to keep drumming.
Who are the biggest musical influences on your current bands? Are they predominantly other Chinese bands or do you listen to a lot of music from other places too?
I listen to both Chinese bands and bands from other countries. My third band Rhonda is more like post rock, so I listen to that kind of music a lot and as I said, drum solos of every kind. Many drum solos! I’ll leave the other part of the question to my bandmates I think.
The boys are currently hiding on the other side of the room from the recorder, but reluctantly come and sit near the mic with some prompting from Yiyi.
Li Tanghua：The band that influences The Outsiders most is probably Green Day, right? (to the singer beside him) …He’s too shy to say this!
Wang Zhengdian: Most musicians in the bands here think Green Day is so pop and they’re not at all rock, you know? But I think they’re really good. Before starting this band I listened a lot to early 90s Green Day and NoFX. I really liked their style and this was the first reason I started this band. But now, I write some songs, he writes some songs and we listen to Yiyi’s advice too, so its not a single style any more.
How would you describe the local scene in Beijing? Has it changed in the time since you’ve been involved?
Yiyi: The underground rock scene is good here. There are at least twelve livehouses with shows on every weekend. I know in other cities in China it has also developed quite fast, like in Guangzhou and Shanghai. But Beijing is the capital of our country, you know…
Does the greater political landscape ever affect it?
Yes, of course it will affect it. How? (pauses and speaks Chinese to the boys for a moment to find the words) Well, some big music festivals can’t be held here. I remember last year we wanted to have just a small show to play some rock music on campus and that wasn’t allowed. We put up posters and when the teachers saw, they thought it wasn’t right to have these kinds of posters in a university so we had to cancel it and find somewhere else to play.
Was there something crazy on the poster?
Wang Zhengdian: A singer, like this…(hunches forwards into a screaming pose)
Li Tanguha: Yes, but naked…
Wang Zhengdian: (laughing) He did wear jeans! But just no t-shirt. I thought it was ok.
I’m interested to know how “edgey” and rebellious playing alternative music is perceived as. What do your parents/family think of you being in a band & do you ever play them your music?
Yiyi: (laughs) Well rebellion is the core of rock music, right? So, what do they think? Well, my parents live in the south of China so we contact on the phone. Every time they call me they ask, “what were you doing?” and I say “oh I had a show!” – “Where did you have the show?”… “Just some place very safe, don’t worry about it.”
They worry about me because I’m a girl. I never point out that I’m a “rocker” or that I’m playing rock music because they have no concept of it. Their generation – I don’t think they understand what it is. So I just say I perform or I have a show. They’ve never listened to this kind of music and I won’t show them. I’d never play them our music (laughing) I’m too scared to!
What do you enjoy about playing in a band and do you aspire to do it full time?
I really enjoy it – if my body could stand it, I would play drums every day and every night. I used to think about making it full time, but I don’t think it’s realistic now; so I have to find other jobs. Tonight, like most weekends, we all have a show somewhere in the city but we won’t hold any money from it. Not enough people want to come and pay to see the shows.
Growing up in the west, there is a definite novelty attitude towards girls in bands, especially female drummers. I often felt challenged to prove my worth in such a male dominated scene, which was frustrating. I was amazed by the apparent lack of gender judgment in the scene in Shanghai and by the large number of female bands and musicians playing. Have you ever felt it a struggle to be taken seriously as a musician because you are female?
Actually yes, (pauses to think) In an earlier band, (Yiyi gives the name but later asks me not to include it) when I played with them, I was… well behaved. Once the singer knew I was a feminist, he told me he hated feminists. He tried to make it out like he was kidding afterwards but I suddenly felt a great distance between us. It definitely did effect our co-operation.
I feel that many male musicians will have the thought in their mind that female musicians can’t really do dominant or important work. Of course its not a problem only appearing in this circle; it’s a social atmosphere. But my two friends here and all my male band members now are very good.
The live music scene here is full of great bands; but recorded alternative music doesn’t seem to be represented as much as other genres in China. How do you hear bands from other parts of the country who are not signed to labels?
Li Tanguha: It depends on the city you’re in – in the north there’s more punk and more metal. In the South, there is more post-rock, post-punk and electric bands. We always go to see the live show and then maybe find some songs they upload to the internet. Some punk bands don’t sound very good recorded but their live shows are great. You need to come to the livehouse and see the performance; not just listen to the recordings. The live thing is cool and it’s enough for us. I think to have fun is the most important thing.
Who are your favorite local bands to watch live at the moment and why?
Yiyi: I know another band called 利事, I guess the translation would be Laisee, but it’s more like Cantonese. They also have a female drummer – she’s my idol! Her name is 坎瞳 Kan Tong, I met them last month when they were rehursing near my drum studio.
Wang Zhengdian: Flyx is my favourite band in Beijing. They sound like Anti-Flag and their intro song is ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’ (from the movie The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) – same as Metallica and I’m a BIG Metallica fan. The first time I saw them I was in another livehouse and in a very bad mood; just sitting in the corner drinking beer alone. I hear the song and immediately go to the stage to watch their show. It was so cool; they are powerful and super technical.
Yiyi: Their drummer is really excellent; male drummer (laughing), but good. Very good.
Yiyi writes down a list of more female drummers and bands for me to contact. You can hear her girl band, OK绷～ here at the CHINA GRRL bandcamp page. The compilation is a work in progress and will be available to purchase in full in the future.