Words by Ceridwen Brown
All photographs and footage: Lui Chen
In the last week of April, I once again take the 5 hour bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing. This time for the culmination of months of planning that brings together 8 bands from 3 Chinese cities to play 2 shows. The common thread among these bands: they all have female drummers.
Unlike before, I have proper recording equipment and cameras – a videographer waiting for me in Beijing. Having coerced a band known for rarely playing outside their hometown to make the trek to the capitol, I wanted to make the most of the opportunity and have 4 afternoons of interviews scheduled before the rest of my own band would turn up to play. Beijing based Xiao Wang will headline the first show at Gulou’s late & live bar Temple. I’ve heard great things from friends with great taste and am super excited to see these guys. Like my band; 3 girls and one guy (though admittedly 400% more adorable), Xiao Wang have been categorized as many genres, but recently rejected the idea of labelling themselves at all; opting instead for a visual representation of their music… yes, a bit like Prince… and yes they’re cool enough to pull it off. We wait for them pre-soundcheck; Lui my camera guy setting up the shot with the wide Temple stage and translucent red kit in the frame. As music starts to blast from the speakers, the bartender tells us they’re open for business and we are banished to a far less camera ready room just in time for the band to arrive.
How would you describe Xiao Wang’s music?
YueTu: It’s hard to describe because I really don’t think we’re a single style. We like so many kinds of music but we don’t actually try to mix them together. We want to express ourselves freely so we don’t think about it like that. Some people regard us as a punk band or even a hardcore band but I think it doesn’t really matter.
ZaoZao: We think everyone should have an open-mind to all kinds of music, instead of trying to fit into one genre and neglect all the others. We usually call ourselves “Kawaii Core” which we made up. Maybe there are some similar concepts in other countries but we don’t think our style is the same as any of the current ones so we invented one that suits us the best.
How did you get together and what’s the story behind the band name?
YueTu: It’s actually not the same members as when it started. Me and my good friend Anlin started Xiao Wang in January 2016. At first I was the bass player and she did the vocals but then she left China to study in Canada so we found a new bass player and now I’m the vocalist. Lots of people are curious about the name – Wang is actually a very common Chinese family name and Xiao means ‘little’, like the youngest member of the family; so Xiao Wang is a common full name here. When we started this band we wanted to make it sound anonymous, a name that sounded both like nothing and like everyone. That was our starting point.
What is Xiao Wang’s music about?
YueTu: For me the music stands for love, friendship, our true feelings about life and everything in it. We don’t try to focus on one subject; we just create the music to express ourselves.
ZaoZao: The most important element of our artwork is love amongst people. We also wish this young lifestyle we have could last forever.
Was being a mostly female band an intentional choice?
YueTu: At first yes with just me and Anlin, but then we realized it didn’t matter.
ZaoZao: We never think about our gender. We’re just friends who like each other and have the same feelings about music that we enjoy. That’s what brought us together, not the fact that we are girls.
Do you ever feel like it’s harder to be taken seriously when perceived as a female band in China?
YueTu: I think it’s a very hard question. I’ve thought about it before and I think to myself that I’ve never had any problem being in a band as a girl, or in being part of a “girl band.” But then I realize that if I live inside a bottle, I can never realize it’s limits. I feel free in the bottle, but I don’t know if it’s harder because I can’t know anything else. I’m still searching for my own answer. We’ve never had anyone come and criticize our ability because we are girls. That has never happened.
ZaoZao: It’s hard to become a highly skillful drummer – male or female doesn’t matter so long as you find an effective learning method that works for you. I do think that women are more easily affected by certain social factors. Female drummers might not fit the “fair lady” stereotype that some girls, even now, feel pressure to meet.
Do you play your music to your family and what do they think?
ZaoZao: My mum has watched videos of us live. She thought it was too noisy and even though she can’t recognize my accomplishment she has the attitude of “that’s my daughter’s music so I’ll support her…”
YueTu: Of course, because of love! My family, especially my mum, supports my music but I don’t think she understands what I’m trying to express. Sometimes when she plays Mahjong with her friends she will put on our songs that I’ve sent her. Her friends are kind of shocked by it. They ask ‘What is that??? Is that hip hop?’ (laughing)…They can’t identify musical style. My mum just sees everything as rock and roll. It’s so funny, but she supports me.
XiaoLong: My parents like it!
Who are Xiao Wang’s biggest musical influences?
TongTong: So many!
YueTu: Yeah…the reason Anlin and I wanted to start this band was because we loved Le Tigre. We love the way Kathleen Hanna sings and performs. We said, we should be like that! She’s so free to be herself when she dances onstage. When the two of us became friends and found that we liked the same things that’s what we really wanted emulate. So maybe Le Tigre was the first influence, but since then it has become quite different.
How did you first hear alternative music and begin to play music yourself?
XiaoLong: I work here at the venue, so I hear a lot.
ZaoZao: I know! He liked a girl…
XiaoLong: …Who didn’t like me!
ZaoZao: (laughing) She just liked the bands; she really loved rock music so he listened to rock music and learned the guitar for that reason.
YueTu: Yes! That’s what he told us before!! At first I think I listened to a lot of pop music. I was influenced by my brother, he likes Michael Jackson. Then when I was in high school my friend introduced me to new music. I didn’t know that it was rock and roll at the time, we didn’t know this style, but more and more I felt this kind of music gave me a lot of power. I started researching by myself and the more I got to know the more I loved it.
ZaoZao: When I grew up, I mostly listened to Chinese pop too, but I got bored with the repetitive pattern and felt like aspects of the performances were too designed. I don’t like that manufactured feeling; there’s no true self-expression. I felt very happy when I finally saw rock bands playing…it seemed real and sincere to me.
ZaoZao: The first instrument I picked up was the guitar, after high school. I was practicing daily in a musical instrument store for a year. There were some other bands that came over to rehearse there and I realized that music was more than just one singer & one guitar; there could be multiple people playing different instruments together. I felt drawn to the drums to be my band instrument, although it’s hard to practice if you don’t have any room for a kit. Whenever I saw one I would go play with it and got enchanted by the rhythm. I got so obsessed with playing the drums that I gave up on the guitar.
What do you like about the Beijing music scene in particular?
YueTu: So many people play alternative music compared to other Chinese cities I’ve lived in. I was studying in Chengdu for 5 years and maybe once every 2 weeks we would have one good show come up that you’d have to wait for. In Beijing, every day people are playing interesting live music. It’s not just about music but the people who make it.
ZaoZao: I went to school in Zhengzhou and dreamed of going to Beijing to join a band. I didn’t think it was possible while I was living in my hometown. Once I visited here, I met so many like-minded people and realized that it wasn’t that hard to form a band.
YueTu: Now we would love to go abroad to have shows and play with different people, but we can’t afford to because the band can’t earn money at the moment. We’re lucky that many great bands from other Chinese cities come to play in Beijing too. Watching the live performance is always better than just listening to the music. That’s why I like Dirty Fingers a lot, their performances are so free. We watch so many shows, but lots of people still seem to feel nervous or try to act like something they’re not on stage. I don’t know if they’re trying to hide something or perform as something different, but other bands are very true to themselves. Truthfully ugly, truthfully everything. Anything else is a waste of your band; in Xiao Wang we want to be free.
Do you have anything to say about women in music and feminism in modern China generally?
YueTu: I feel kind of uncomfortable with people trying to distinguish women from the bigger picture. I know we need to support girls to do a lot of things but sometimes I feel a bit offended by the idea of girls nights because they motion that that’s a way to attract people to come… I really don’t like that… it depends on how it is presented, sometimes it’s necessary to maybe encourage other girls to do what they want if they feel they can’t. I find the two sides of it problematic. But there aren’t so many girls playing in bands as guys. In the bigger environment it’s not half and half. Xiaolong , how do you feel about being in a band with all girls?
Xiaolong: …Fine. (everyone laughs) haha I don’t really think about it.
When show time comes, Xiao Wang steal it. It’s a Thursday but in true Beijing style the venue is totally packed to capacity. Their energy is unselfconscious, sincere and relentless and well before they finish their set with a killer cover of The Hunter by Slaves, they’re my new favorite band.
You can hear more Xiao Wang 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.
Psstttt, have you visited our web store? Check it out here for all your Tom Tom merch needs!