The CHINA GRRRL Diaries: 1.2

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. Read the 1st installment here.

Our friend Stella, photographer and another female drummer who has made the trip up from Shanghai for the weekend arrives and attempts taking pictures in the lowest light possible. Yiyi and the boys head off with her; with thanks and wishes that we could catch each others shows tonight, if only we weren’t all playing at the same time.

Xiao Xiao and our next drummer, Li Za Jie (李晓洁), who goes by the English name Jocelyn, are standing at the stairs with a paper bottle

Photograph by: Stella Zhang 张欣丽

holder full of beers. They suggest moving to another part of the venue as the sound checks for tonight’s show will be happening beneath us pretty soon. I check my watch thinking of our own soundcheck, but we don’t need to be there for another 2 hours. We follow the girls back down and through the bar area and into another stairwell leading to a room above. This space is pitch black except for some feeble LED lamps with the School Bar logo emblazoned on them. We take a booth seat and I try to hoist up the blackout blinds to expose the window. For Stella’s sake, my husband Frank spends the duration of the interview holding a cellphone flash light up high above our heads. It’s a professional set up, no doubt.


While Casey sets up the recorder again, I sit down opposite Jocelyn, who is every bit the punk girl in style with piercings in each of her cheeks, edges of tattoos showing beneath her denim jacket. She is 27 and grew up in Beijing. She writes her name down for me in my notebook and tells me in English that her English is bad. I tell her my Chinese is bad in Chinese, but she can speak Chinese and I’ll try to understand some. Xiao Xiao is on hand to translate for us.

Without the need for common language we all take a moment to appreciate the weird guilty-faced life-size dog cushion which is on the seat beside me courtesy of Taobao (China’s far superior and endlessly bizarre version of eBay). With the recorder going, I worry about my overly wordy questions and try to speak clearly – “Tell me the name of your band.”Jocelyn looks hard at me then begins to laugh, “Wo ting bu dong” (I don’t understand). Xiao Xiao jumps in to help us. The band is called Free Sex Shop. We press on in this style.

Photograph by: Stella Zhang 张欣丽

Tell me about your band. What style of music do you play and how did you get together. Also, what’s the story with the name?

We formed the band around 2010. Me and the bass player are very old friends and the guitar player is also a really good friend; we were together all the time. I was working at the venue here and one time we helped the owner sell some clothes at the door, which is where we met our singer. She would come to buy stuff and we would just hang out sometimes.

The name came before the band. We were making posters for the bar and they told us to write FREE BEER on them to get people to come. We joked that FREE SEX would be a good band name. At first it was just an idea, not serious, but after a while we thought maybe we should have a band. We began to practice sometimes, but at first we were very bad. Everybody just played by themselves and nobody cared about each other. But after a while we began getting better and better so we just carried on.

Liufei 刘非 and Liuhao 刘耗 who own this place thought the band name needed another word to make it more interesting so we extended it to ‘Free Sex Shop.’ The first time we played live we could only play 2 songs and they were both covers. We didn’t think we could do it but Liuhao called and said “You’re playing tonight! No reason not to!” Then hung up the phone. We did it and a lot of people came to that show. After that everybody knew the band Free Sex Shop.

What is your music about?

It’s about many things. I think the most important thing is that we are always making new songs. Sometimes it’s about men…we don’t think that men control everything, you know? When we started the band we copied (at this point Jocelyn interrupts Xiao Xiao’s translation to dispute the word “copy”)… ok ok, covered, not copied! A song by the band L7. We really like them and we know that it’s important to stand up for females. Our newest song has a line in English which goes “You are Hello Kitty, tell your mummy I am Tiger Lady.”

(Xiao Xiao adds that the band are a powerful female presence on the scene and that they put on an amazing performance)

Photograph by: Xiao Bei 小贝

When did you first start drumming?

Properly, when we started the band. (laughing) There is a little bit of an old and stupid Chinese cartoon about some high school students who have a band together. When I was young I saw this show and I thought the drummer was so cool so of course I chose the drums.

When did you first start making your own music and what were your earliest influences?

Before the band I’d learned a bit from a really famous drummer in China, from the band Joyside. He actually taught me a little, but when we started Free Sex Shop I really could only play one song: Blitzkreig Bop by the Ramones. That beat is pretty easy to learn.

When I was younger I didn’t listen to rock music at all. In high school I just listened to the popular songs in China. I went to a different kind of college than my friends, which meant I finished earlier than they did. So when I was 17, I got a job at Mao Livehouse and started hearing other kinds of music there.

What do you listen to now and who are the biggest musical influences on your current band? Are they predominantly other Chinese bands or do you listen to a lot of music from other places too?

Now I always listen to Anti-flag and… I think the translation would be Explosion, something like that. I’ve always listened to music that’s a little bit harder than the other members of Free Sex Shop, who like more popular punk and post punk. They like Joy Division and bands like that.

Just as Jocelyn starts to answer my question about bands’ nationalities, the speakers mounted all along the wall of the room start blaring sounds from the band sound-checking downstairs. “This band sound-checking don’t have a girl drummer but the next ones up do. Shame she will be too late for you guys.”

Casey heads down to ask them to switch the speakers off in our upstairs space so we can carry on. “It’s a little early to party huh?” says Xiao Xiao. I tell them I’m not officially drinking until 9pm although I’m most of the way through a School Bar beer that Jocelyn bought up earlier. In one of the few moments that we all around the table understand each other, we laugh and cheers. The speakers switch off.

L-R: Xiao Xiao 小小, Jocelyn 李晓洁 , Ceridwen. Photograph by: Stella Zhang 张欣丽

Jocelyn: I listen to music from all over the world. My English isn’t very good so even though I listen to lots of bands I often forget their names… but I really like everything punk and heavy. My personal knowledge is not so good of foreign punk and rock but now that the owner of School Bar is Joyside’s ex bass player (Joyside are a pretty famous band in China), he always passes on great music for me to listen to. That way I learn a lot about new bands. Before I started working here, I was just listening – I didn’t recognize which kind of music or what country it came from, but since working here I get so much new music and new information and it has just made me want to learn more and more.

How would you describe the local scene in Beijing? Has it changed in the time since you’ve been involved?

When I started getting to know the Beijing underground rock scene it was around 2008. At that time, when we went to the punk or rock and roll show everyone was so excited; they would mosh and pogo really hard. That time was the best time for Beijing’s underground music. Now people seem lazy maybe, or just less into the music. Not like before when they were so excited for everything. Also because of the media in China, Hip Hop is getting much more popular now than rock.

Xiao xiao: There’s a TV show for China’s next best hip-hop star, you know that? Just fake rappers, fake hip-hop but it’s getting so famous. People don’t know real hip-hop but they want to follow others and do hip-hop now.

Jocelyn: In 2008 they had some of the biggest punk shows in MAO livehouse. They would sell over 400 tickets for one show. This year if you have a punk show here it’s more like almost 100 people. 200 is the most we sell for a punk show now, but if we have hip hop it’ll sell out immediately- typically in less than a day. All 250 which is our maximum capacity.

I’ve heard many stories about the Beijing Olympics causing a massive crack down on everything when punk popularity was at its peak. Similarly in Shanghai during the World Expo in 2010, people say the scene never quite recovered. Does the greater political landscape affect you here?

(nodding) You know right now we have the biggest political meeting coming up from the 13th to the 18th (the CCP’s National Congress). During this time the live-houses cannot sell our tickets online. This is the biggest way that they can control us sometimes.

What do your parents think of you being in a band & do you ever play them your music?

My dad is getting quite old, he’s 70 now. In the past, he didn’t support me playing the music, but after a while he knew that I played very well and that I love to do it. In 2012 we played at MAO and my dad came to see it. He played guitar himself too when he was younger, and now that my parents are separated, we’re a single parent family so my dad now really supports me.

Do you aspire to do the band full time?

It definitely can’t be full time for this band because I worry it couldn’t support my life. We just play because we enjoy it and because we love the music. I actually need a job to make money to support the band, not the other way around. The band is my fun. Punk bands cannot earn money, especially not us with the name Free Sex Shop. (smiles) But yes, of course if I could then I would choose that.

Have you ever felt it a struggle to be taken seriously as a musician because you are female?

I’ve never cared about female or male or anything gendered. I just thought I want to do this thing. I don’t want to prove that if you can do it then I can do it too, I just really like playing so I’m gonna play.

Do you ever feel judged by other people because of it, though?

(Hesitates and thinks for a while) Yeah sometimes… sometimes guys come to the shows and say “You’re a girl, so if you can do this Free Sex Shop band then that’s enough for you girls” you know? “You don’t have to be really hardcore or be really famous or anything. For you this is ok.” But I don’t care about people who say that, we just want to do this for ourselves, I don’t care if you think we can’t do it.

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?

I don’t think that recording your stuff is too important. We don’t have enough money so we’d just use our phones to record our stuff, but after we uploaded it onto the website we figured it really isn’t good enough. We found a good friend who recorded one song for us for free, and then produced it for us later. We really appreciate that our friend could do this for us, so maybe in the future we could earn some money from the recording if people hear it or something.

I use a VPN to listen to other countries music. (Virtual Private Network, essentially an App which cloaks your location. People use them out here to get around China’s internet censorship and access blocked foreign websites) My ex-boyfriend – we were together for 7 years – he really likes punk music. He would use the VPN to play YouTube and get music for me to listen to. Now the guys here do the same. For Chinese bands I use QQ, xiami, Wangyi (China’s equivalent versions of social video and music streaming sites). You know the Beijing local label called Genjing? Nevin, my ex, has organized that label for a long time, I listen to whatever they release.

(I mention that I met Nevin last month in Shanghai and he’d told me I should talk to his ex who is an amazing female drummer, which makes them both smile.)

Who are your favorite local bands to watch live at the moment (male or female) and what do you like about them?
Jocelyn: Demerit.
Xiao xiao: My favourite band too.
Jocelyn: When I was working at MAO, the first bands I watched there were Brain Failure and Demerit. I thought Demerit was clearly the real straight punk band, not fake in any way. (laughing)Also their singer Spike was really handsome.

(Xiao Xiao asks if she can tell her story, clearly excited to talk about this particular band.)

“When I was studying at college I bought a magazine called 通俗歌曲(popular songs magazine) and it had a free CD. The CD had Demerit, Brain Failure, Carsick Cars, Snapline and some other bands. I remember listening to it for the first time and the first song was “Tóngzhì (comrade) Generation” by Demerit. I played this song on repeat all day; it just blew my mind – a new world for me! I had never heard this kind of music; music that’s so tense and heavy and real. After that I searched all the punk bands I could find in China to listen to them, but still Demerit is my favourite. Years later I met Spike in Beijing and now we are really good friends.

(I ask if he’s still in Beijing, but they say he’s moved back to Qingdao to start a rock club there.)

Jocelyn: Spike is the real deal. He’s been going for 13/14 years and still has this DIY true punk attitude. There’s an awesome all female punk band in Qingdao too called Dummy Toys. You should go see them.

I add them to my list which has grown a page since my own first draft of women that I’d seen playing in Shanghai. Stella takes some more pictures then we head off to catch up with the other Ugly Girls and sound-check for the big show. I float the idea of putting on a show with all the girls together some time soon, which is met with approval all round.

L-R: Casey, Stella, Xiao Xiao, Jocelyn, Ceridwen / Photograph by: Frank Gale

Playing before us is a male/female art noise duo called GUIGUISUISUI who describe themselves as an experience, not a band. Their front-woman, Su, performs in a variety of incredible stage costumes, her hair cut into a bright red angular bob, an extra pair of realistic-looking eyes painted creepily below her actual ones. David Lynch would love it. I put her on my interview list.

Photograph by: Frank Gale

When it’s our turn, our show goes great. We have a good turnout and force the judging Beijingers to have a good time. By the time we finish our post-punk ode to RuPaul, some of them are even dancing. The Headlining band Lonely Leary are insanely good and the night ends in a haze of riot and joy.

We met a bunch of new people who were in touch saying they enjoyed the show. One of them, a woman named Cab (赵人秀) turned out to be another drummer. Cab is 30 and grew up in Wuhan, her Dad accompanying her to “noisy dirty punk shows” as a teenager to make sure she didn’t break her legs. “That’s the only thing he cared about.”

She had recently quit her main band and was at the start of a few new creative projects. She listens to Brian Eno, Silver Apple and Neu to name a few, and had some insightful things to say about both Beijing and the position of women in modern Chinese culture.

Photograph by: Stella Zhang

“Beijing is the capital. The cultural atmosphere here is stronger and more inclusive than any other city so the underground music scene will naturally be more active. But because it’s located at the heart of the government, music here is less related to ideology. Very few musicians will take the risk of talking about politics, because it’s too dangerous. Live music will still be influenced by political factors though. Sometimes after a controversial show, the venue that held it will be forced to shut down for a period of time. It can even affect the entirety of the Beijing livehouse’s operations.

I do think the lack of recorded underground music being released here is changing. Chinese independent labels are more professional and international running than ever before. I heard that Capitol is getting involved with this area. When more money comes, more opportunities will come for musicians and artists too.”

I asked her if she too had ever felt a struggle to be viewed as an equal in her musical endeavors, and to give me her take on the greater picture of Chinese feminism. Her answer seems like the right place to end this first post:

Photograph by: William Griffith

“I never feel I struggle with it. I play because I wanna play. I wanna create or express. The only obstacle of doing things is lack of determination, not my gender. The Chinese government always encouraged women to work as men. We have a propaganda saying “women hold up half of the sky.” It’s brutal, it’s not real feminism, but it works in some way. Chinese women have always been tough and strong in their own career fields; they know exactly what they want and men need to respect that. It’s the same in the music scene, female musicians deserve the respect.

But talking about the inner consciousness, gender inequality is still deeply rooted in most of the Chinese people’s mind. It will affect their relationships, marriages, self-evaluation-it’s going to take time to change it, but using gender bias as an excuse for not doing things or to stop moving forward? That sucks. That’s real gender discrimination.”

You can hear Free Sex Shop on the CHINA GRRL soundcloud playlist.

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