(L-R: Qi Yu (Y) Drums, A Re (A) Vocals / Guitar, A Can (C) Bass)
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. Be sure to check out Part 1.1, Part 1.2, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.1, Part 4.2 and Part 5.
Four or five interviews into this project I decided that doing them in the interviewees first language was important enough to warrant the extension in process that it would cause me; an okay mandarin speaker by now, but light years away from being able to conduct the conversations I wanted.
Dream Can, headliners for the Shanghai China Grrrl show, talk on top of one another in constant agreement; extending each others’ points in unison. It’s clear they spend a lot of time together. I struggle to keep up. Mid national tour for their then soon-to-be-released debut album “Into Sparks”, they are road weary but nevertheless charming, even when faced with my last-minute-stand-in translator for the interview, whose personal disinterest in underground music is evident. It isn’t ideal.
Can you tell us about your band?
A: Our band’s Chinese name is谷水车间 [Gǔshuǐ chējiān], English name: Dream Can. They are two different names without any connection actually; we liked both names when we were coming up with them so we used one for each language. Gu Shui is quite hard to translate to English. When we started the band we were students in Songjiang; another name for which is Gu Shui. Making music really felt like 3 female workers working secretly on a factory floor…which was the basement of my house at that time. I actually can’t remember where the name truly came from anymore as I tell people different versions. There is a Guqin (instrument) composition from Japan called Gu Shui’s factory line which is very poetic: ‘Is there a relationship in between? I don’t know myself.’
Your music is described as contemplative, melancholic, dark and psychedelic. What is it mostly about?
A: About pointless things (laughing)…
A: …very trivial things.
How did you get into underground music and what influences you now?
A: The music that influenced Dream Can in the beginning was Post-Punk and Fusion. Some German bands from the 60s like Can, Soft Machine and Guru Guru as well as some Japanese bands like Acid Mothers Temple. How did we get into music? (speaking to A Can, bassist) You can start with your your Guzheng!
C: Do I have to? Ok…my parents forced me to learn those traditionally Chinese instruments such as Guzheng when I was young. But they have no influence on my current music; they were just the initiation. It was in college when I really got into bands; at that time no one controlled me and I got to see a lot of new things.
A: I also learned traditional music when I was young – my instrument was the Pipa. I picked it out in my school hobby group thinking it was a guitar after watching a famous Chinese cartoon called “Music Up.” I was told to continue since I’d already started so I did and I passed the level test. After that I thought I needed to learn the actual instrument that I’d wanted, so in high school I took up acoustic guitar then switched to electric in college and started the band.
Y: I learned piano when I was younger and listened to classical music; Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Bach. Then in college I went along on a music community organized trip to the Asia Metal Festival and was totally shocked. It was the first live show I’d watched in my life and I fell in love with Metal like crazy. I wanted to be a guitarist too at the time, I didn’t notice the drummer in the back so much. I bought an electric guitar and started to learn but mysteriously became a drummer…
A: …because you sold your guitar to me.
Y: (laughing) Yes. I sold my guitar to her. I accidentally joined 5 bands in college over the course of those years.
(Qi Yu’s other surviving band from then is Metal group Must Be Red from China Grrrl part 3 )
Has your process changed now compared to when you first started?
A: The change in our band is simply us getting more mature, since you realize you need to be very down to earth to achieve the ideal result that you want. Rock and Roll isn’t about “I fucking care about nothing.” You need the essential techniques and practical experience to be a good band, level up and become better and better. You need more shows, more rehearsals and not to think too much about others. That’s it.
Can you talk about the music scene in your city, Shanghai?
A: The music scene in Shanghai has always been open enough that all kinds of music arrive here but only for a short time, I feel. People play what’s popular and hot at the moment. Rock and Roll seems to fade out in the scene as everyone is more willing to go to the disco. Young people who might come to live houses now go to places like Dada and Elevator (Underground DJ dance music clubs). Younger people nowadays don’t like to go to live shows as much as they did before.
Do political factors ever affect the scene?
(laughing) No comment! We want to continue to make music, thank you!
Have your parents listened to your music or watched you play live?
A: My parents support me with anything as long as I can make money. They haven’t been to my shows… they said they would come but have never shown up!
C: (laughing) My mom is quite open-minded but hasn’t been to my shows. She came to my boyfriend’s show…
A: …No one dared to charge her for a ticket. She just walked in with a swagger and no one stopped her.
Do you aspire to do the band full time and what audience would like you to reach?
A: We want it but it’s impossible. Who wants to watch us in these small venues? We all have regular jobs. There’s no money in doing this…
C: …right. You wouldn’t be able to afford to eat…
A: Then my mom would kill me (laughing)… but the audience we’d like to have? Those with clear minds and respect for our shows. Who just watch instead of making chaos, even if they don’t understand us. We would be very satisfied with any audience who could respect our performance.
(Since doing this interview Dream Can have completed a successful tour of Australia under infamous Chinese indie label Maybe Mars)
Have you ever felt a lack respect or attention because you are female musicians?
A: It’s not that we aren’t being paid attention to. Actually female players face the same level of attention and are easily scrutinized or looked down on as they are easily noticed. If you’re not particularly excellent, they think you are just an ordinary female player. Many players aren’t good at certain skills, including me; I am not that good either. But you don’t have to be super capable to make music, do you? It’s all about passion. I don’t really care about this stuff anymore. I used to be upset by it, but not anymore.
What are your thoughts on contemporary feminism in China?
A: Men and women are equal. You don’t have to emphasize it so much. If you emphasize it, it’s like you agree with the attitude of inequality already. It’s like…I don’t feel too bad about myself and you wouldn’t influence me to feel differently no matter what you said, so in my life I haven’t really paid attention to this. What have I said, gosh! (laugh)
How do you feel about Chinese underground music in general?
C: I just feel some Chinese bands seem to start with a different purpose for making music now.
A: What are you trying to say? Don’t say anything too mean (laughing).
C: The atmosphere isn’t bad; we’re just looking for different things…
A: My opinion is that it’s still quite weak(in power not quality). I don’t know everyone’s definition of underground music but my understanding is that your ticket sales will be pretty poor if you don’t work towards a mainstream direction. But people who like doing this will continue to do so and there are also people who would change in the halfway to make music to the taste of the mainstream. We will keep making this kind of music and remain weak.
Y: Underground bands are underground because not many people listen to them. It’s not that no one wants to listen; it’s that they don’t have the PR team. When we make music, we just do it for ourselves and are quite causal. But you could be an over-round band easily enough if you wanted to make music for that purpose. It’s easy to write a mainstream song or find an academic to write it for you. But we don’t like to work like this.
A: …this is why we are an underground band not a girl group (laugh)…
Y: Yes, you get the idea… since our purpose is to please ourselves we are an underground band by default. We want to answer beyond the questions, which does not fit into ‘over ground’ music. It’s not that we couldn’t do that if we were so inclined.
A: We don’t like it so we can’t be it.
With that, Dream Can go off to get some dinner before the night starts. They close out the intentionally eclectic line up of experimental, poppy J-rock and punk bands with a captivating set. The crowd is as big as it gets in the divey Shanghai venue that fosters and celebrates the kind of underground music that Dream Can creates and its packed wall to wall with all manner of people who watch, enjoy and dance with open minds.
Filmed and edited by Lui Chen