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. Click here for Part 1.1 and here for Part 1.2
With 2017 drawing to a close, we booked our last few shows of the year. One, more out of the ordinary, was filming for touring Chicago public-access Music-TV-show “Chic-a-Go-Go.” Over the course of 20+ years, the show has managed to feature an overwhelmingly diverse/impressive list of artists. Hosted by Korean-American drummer Mia Park and her screen partner, Ratso, a punk-rock loving rat puppet who has clearly seen his fair share of after-parties; “Chic-a-Go-Go” fuses the format of old fashioned dance-along TV shows like Soul Train and American Bandstand with contemporary music that does not shy away from the experimental. The show is decidely DIY and surreal in its aesthetic but is made with such heart and inclusivity that its easy to see why the thousands who know about it are forever hooked. On tour from the states with a week in China, Ratso and his crew lined up 3 nights of live music accross Beijing and Shanghai to be broadcast back home.
Post soundcheck we grabbed some fuel in the form of Bibimbap with some of the other musicians, show creator/puppeteer Jake Austen and Miss Mia herself. Growing up in Philedelphia listening to British New Wave then later Rockabilly, Mia has been playing drums since she was 19, and later tells me “I played standing up like Slim Jim Phantom from The Stray Cats. I’ve always loved music and grew up playing classical cello which I didn’t love at the time. Drumming was a visceral way for me to make music by hitting, beating and striking something; with positive results!” Citing Mavis Staples and LCD soundsytem amongst her current favourites, I asked her if she had any stand out memories of female musicians from her time presenting the show? “I’ve met SO many over the years and I’m so inspired by them all! I loved interviewing Georgia from Yo La Tengo because she’s been quietly drumming away for years and is super humble and nice. I also loved interviewing The 5,6,7,8’s from Japan! Rocking, sweet gals who could easily go with the flow.”
An hour later, beneath a canopy of balloons to mark the occasion, we follow her lead in front of the camera. Set to play alongside us that night were an all female Shanghai trio named 老阿姨 Lao Ayi (translating to Old Aunties), whose talented members have played in varous musical incarnations before forming their current group. I’m a huge fan though they’re a tough act to follow. That said, we’re disappointed when a lineup change shifts us to separate venues leaving ourselves, Mia and the girl-rat-translator-puppet as the only women on the stage that night.
I caught up with Lao Ayi a few weeks later at Shanghai’s beloved Yuyintang livehouse, setting up a marginally more professional interview station in the small recording studio directly above the bar. Having made plans to meet after soundcheck at 6, they messaged last minute asking to make it later so they could watch ex Marilyn Manson / Rob Zombie guitarist John 5 play a show across town. Rushing back to make their own slot around 10pm, the first I see of them is on stage. The crowd-jam packed for the headlining band FAZI, are captivated by Lao Ayi’s set; powerful, melodic and overwhelmingly loud. They close with their signature 5-minute-long experimental noise breakdown, which above all else showcases drummer Axiang’s individual style and approach at making rhythm structures.
Up in the studio a drink later, we sit around a zoom mic balanced on a floor tom and speculate on the efficiency of the soundproofing as FAZI take the stage below us. Asking them to introduce themselves, clearly inebriated but unstoppably charming singer/bass player Awu, drink in hand, tries to encourage her bandmates to speak in unison to the camera – Wǒmen shì… (we are..) she leads… LAO AYI!! The others, comparatively sober, laugh and make faces. Guitarist F gestures at drummer Axiang to go ahead.
Tell me a bit about the band. How did you get together and what’s the story behind the name?
Axiang: We are the Old Aunties band. We play punk rock.
Awu: (laughing) Old pussies!
F: We met at a house party but we all knew each other before from years of playing in the scene here. We just played in different bands. I saw Awu when British band The Boys was playing in Shanghai. She said she hadn’t seen me in awhile, where had I been? And I said ‘I’ve been being an old aunty, you know… just staying at home, doing what old aunties should do.’ That’s where the name came from.
What’s your music about?
F: It’s about life I guess….
Awu (Dramatically closing in on the mic to whisper, tongue in cheek): Its about politics…(The others crack up and encouraged, she continues…) its about love! It’s about BOYS!! OK, OK – which song do you wanna hear the story behind? They’re all different. Our song ‘Senator’ came from a dream I had that Donald Trump hired a killer to point a gun at me and ask me to sign a contract. Y’know, keep a secret…
F: What kind of contract?
Awu: I had his dirty secret. That was before the election, I dreamt about it.
F: But he’s got so many secrets. I guess the dirt you had on him was really crucial.
Awu: Oh yeah it could destroy him. He got me to sign eventually, but then I wrote it as a song so actually I didn’t keep the secret. Anyway I’m in China now so he can’t hurt me.
F: (laughing) Who says?!
Awu: Another song, “Bridge,” I wrote about a very long distance relationship I had with my boyfriend for 2 years – he’s from Germany. The lyrics are about how I want him to see what I see, I want him to hear what I hear. But it’s kind of sad because he never can see and hear what I can. So that one is just about a boy… a sad song.
Axiang, how did you start drumming?
Axiang: In my 2nd year of university I had a friend who wanted to learn bass guitar and I thought maybe I could learn an instrument too and drums are very cool. When I started I just practiced alone a lot. Then in 4th year I joined a punk rock band becuase my friend who was a singer called me saying “save us save us! Two of our members have gone.. they’ve just run off” and so I joined them and we moved to Beijing together just for the band. F, you’re a drummer as well!
F: Not really, but I played them in a band before, Little Monster. I also played guitar but I guess I feel like drumming is more direct, like you can show your emotion. Guitar is a more abstract instrument. You’ve got to have a lot in your mind and you need to perform it with precise skills. The drums are easier in a way. It was quite violent and raw the way I played them; smash the things, release your beast.
When did you first start making your own music and what were your earliest influences?
Axiang: Before I started drumming, I didnt usually listen to rock and roll music. In middle school I listened to symphonies becuase I was very good friends with a pianist, and I went with her every day to the practice room where she played Chopin. I was really in love with it, I just watched her play every day. Then at university I started listening to some jazz music, but it was always very soft, slow moving music. The first time I experienced rock was through my friends’ band that I ended up joining. It sounded so passionate; I couldnt fall asleep all night, just listening to their music. When they asked me to join I was so excited.
Awu: Classical music is the base for me also. I started playing piano when I was five years old, then I played saxaphone so I also listened to classical symphony music. At primary school I played a lot of Chopin, Liszt and Debussy; then when I was 13 I fell in love with heavy metal. That band called Pantera, you guys know them? Cowboy from hell! (starts to gleefully sing the riff) I started playing guitar at that time, learning metal guitar. But even now I still listen to a lot of classical music and when I’m trying to write songs, some have symphonic influence from my early interactions with classical music.
F: I only started to play in a band after I graduated college, but I listened to a lot of alternative rock. I feel a little ashamed to say my favorite band was Smashing Pumpkins but I really connected to their music when I was in high school. I also listened to a lot of Brit Pop like Blur and the Verve and also some electronic stuff. That was the time in China when the radio started playing all kinds of western music.
F: Yeah, we were really open to it all – you listened to all the songs from all types of bands. Once you find what you really love you just dig it! So I guess that was my foundation and then I started to play guitar.
What do you listen to now and what are the biggest musical influences on Lao Ayi?
Awu: For me it’s the Birthday Party, Nick cave’s second band. His first and the third bands I don’t really like. Also the artist Jonathan Bree. (Playfully pausing to look straight into the camera) JONATHAN BREE I LOVE YOU!! His music combines rock and roll and symphony, I really love that. I think in the future maybe if I don’t do rock and roll, one day I will write a symphony. I recently listened to Liszt’s ‘Mephisto'(starts singing the rhythmic opening chords to “Mephisto Waltz No.1”); it’s like a demon coming to your house! I want to work out what kind of chords I can make instead of those big piano chords; chords that we can make with our band instruments. I think it’s pretty interesting. Also the Chinese band 五條人Wu Tiao Ren because behind all of their songs are big stories. I love music that tells stories.
F: I find it really hard to tell who influences Lao Ayi. Once we have an idea we just go with it, so I can’t really say which particular band or style. It’s like we each have our own universe and somehow it influences and effects the others around us.
Axiang: I personally feel very excited about creating my own drum structures. I really love it, because each song has a different feeling and rhythm and the emotion come in different waves and shapes. Because I also paint, I see it like different shapes and strokes in my mind.
(Axiang drum breakdown video//Recorded by Ceridwen Brown & Casey Li Brander)
How would you describe the local scene in Shanghai? Has it changed in the time since you’ve been involved?
Axiang: We get a lot of support from other bands and musicians.
F: I got into the scene around 7 years ago which was a really good time. There were a lot of bands but many of them were expats. It’s kind of a complicated feeling towards that. You like them but you feel it’s only temporary becuase they’re going to leave soon anyway. They’ll have a job promotion, get married or their parents will call them back to their home countries so it’s never guaranteed that they’ll be a consistent part of the Shanghai music scene. Around 2010 it was so colourful. We had so many different styles of bands and everyone was trying to help each other. A lot of people were really supporting the scene, but they’re gone now. I will say; that there’s still an abundance of new things coming up. I hope we can have more local artists getting involved and showing their talents. I really feel this and I’m not ashamed to say so; Chinese people are so competititve. When we meet each other we’re constantly thinking “oh maybe you’re better or maybe I’m better.” This invisible competition is growing in us somewhere and I think its very unhealthy for the music scene. At the same time, I guess there are more and more young and open minded people who are really cool. So I’m happy to see that. Me, I’m from the last generation!
Awu: (positively cackling) OLD AYI!!!
Do you feel like the greater political landscape of China ever affects the scene here in Shanghai?
F: Umm… our government is kind of special and has its own way to work. So I guess we all need to survive under this condition. Everyone finds their way to survive. We’ve survived well at least!
I’m interested in how edgy and rebellious playing alternative music is perceived in modern Chinese culture. What do your parents/family think of you being in a band & do you ever play them your music?
Axiang: My dad just asks me about the earnings;”Is this something you can live from?” I almost quit my job today, but every one of us needs a regualr job. That’s his main worry. He supports what I like to do though and respects it.
Awu: My dad has heard Lao Ayi! Every time I do something like my own music, my own art project, my own film or anything, I show it to him. He won’t understand at first and will give some very interesting suggestions but he only tries to give suggestions becuase he is trying to understand. I think this is love. My dad loves Peking Opera and I do too so he probably also loves rock and roll!
Growing up in the west, there is a definite novelty attitude towards girls in bands, especially female drummers. 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. Have you ever felt it a struggle to be taken seriously as a musician because you are female?
Axiang: I think female drummers are more popular than male drummers here. A lot of girls learn drums and play in a band; I see many of them. Some are really good. Better than the men. Perhaps female drummers will find it harder to keep going forever. There are options to give up and have a more traditonal life which could be an easy life.
F: I played in a 3rd tier city called Huzhou with Little Monster a few years ago. The owner asked me what kind of music I played and I said loud music. I had my guitar pedals so I asked if I could get a socket connector for the stage and he said he didn’t have one. I insited that I needed one, then he changed his tone; “YOU?! A GIRL?! Playing this Rock music? This is so confusing to me! Why would you need the pedals?” Thats the first time that I felt any judgement like that. But in Shanghai we’re good. We’ve got so many supporters and other women. I guess it has something to do with politics but in our culture we probably have different things to deal with, sexism isn’t at the forefront.
Do you think more people in China are listening to recorded alternative music?
F: Definitely. I’ve never seen so many people getting interested in the indie labels like Maybe Mars and Modern Sky. Now they’re almost mainstream but 10 years ago I couldn’t have imagined it. I guess it’s like a trend; a young persons thing. You don’t have to go abroad to dig up some western music, you have something cool right on your doorstep.
(Lao Ayi – Bridge video//Recorded by Ceridwen Brown & Casey Li Brander)
You can hear more Lao Ayi here on the CHINA GRRL soundcloud playlist.
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