Published on March 31st, 2015 | by The Beige Baron1
Maymi, a passionate devotee of Chinese independent music, aims to take the sound of a reinvigorated and optimistic Chinese youth to the world with his Far Out Distant Sounds online store and website, which offers a window on the largely unexplored world of Eastern indie music.
Working together with Beijing-based Maybe Mars and eclectic Sydney label Tenzenmen, Maymi has helped introduce bands such as Carsick Cars, Chui Wan, and Birdstriking to the world, taking Birdstriking with him on a U.K. tour with BJM and doing his best to get the word out about the exciting sound of New China.
Formed in 2009 by a group of university students that coalesced around Carsick Car’s bassist/guitarist Hefan, Birdstriking’s full-length debut LP bursts with restless punk energy, channeling the styles and sounds that made shoegaze, noise, and art rock in the 80s and 90s so great, yet somehow giving it an entirely new spin. Noisy, hook-laden guitar rock has never sounded so fresh–this self-titled debut is simply electrifying. It’s the kind of album you listen to over and over, and each time it reveals another secret hidden in the layers of feedback.
I think I was somewhere in the middle of being cool and a weirdo.
BNU caught up with Hefan (vocals/guitar), Wenyuzhen (guitar), Zhounairen (bass), and Wangxinjiu (drums) to find out what brought the band together, growing up, skipping school, and how they made what is probably the greatest record of last year.
BNU: What was high school like for you guys?
Hefan (vocal/guitar): My high school life was very interesting. The first year of high school, I was a normal student. But because I got good test scores, some other classmates that didn’t do so well always made me give them the answers in exams so they’d get good grades. This gradually spread, and an exam-cheating network formed, and because of this I slowly became popular.
The next year, some of the poor students I’d helped to cheat started looking for me to play, like, let me join their gang. I spent 200 dollars buying a black suit, black shoes, and I joined up with them and starting getting in trouble. The plot was really like the Japanese movie Crow Zero [Laughs]. The police ended up getting involved and I started to get depressed about everything. One day I got a phone call from someone in a rival gang demanding I give him our home appliances and money and stuff. I said that my family only had an iron, and I ended up being rejected by my gang.
So far my high school career had been pretty “rock and roll”, so it made sense to start a band in the second year of high school. We played in school, and for our New Year party we got to tour around the classrooms.
Wenyuzhen (guitar): I was just a normal kid and loved music.
Zhounairen (bass): Well, my high school was an art school, everybody spent a lot of time drawing and designing stuff. I think that really helped me to expand my creative thought. Me and a couple of guys were really crazy about punk rock music such as The Sex Pistols, Blink 182, and Green Day. We also were influenced a lot by several Chinese punk rock bands at that time.
Wangxinjiu (drums): I think I was somewhere in the middle of being cool and a weirdo. Normally in Chinese high school, all the students have to stay in school for several extra hours of study time, and in the first two-and-a-half years I just didn’t wanna do that silly shit. So I left school straight after the classes were finished. That made me not very familiar with many of my high school mates, and I’m not really sure what they thought of me, but fortunately I did pretty well in the college entrance exams and got the opportunity to go to Beijing for college and get closer to the scene I liked.
When you guys first met and started making music, what attracted everyone to each other?
Hefan: The mutual attraction was that everyone liked rock music. Whether in the form of rock music or rock music culture.
Wenyuzhen: I just joined the band last year. It was amazing! I was a huge fan of Birdstriking in high school, and when the band came back to Beijing from their UK tour, Hefan invited me to join Birdstriking to play guitar. It was so cool.
Zhounairen: I joined the band from 2010 when the band has been going for about one year. I used to play guitar with a band I started, and I knew Hefan before the rest of the band and I had met. I remember back in the summer of 2010, one day Hefan ask me to join the band, and I was so into it. We had the same taste in the music, so we just start practising.
My glasses flew into the crowd and broke. Later I went to see D22 holding up one lens to see the show.
Wangxinjiu: I met Hefan at the end of 2008 after the only show my university ever hosted. Hefan got invited to play at my school and my school friends and I performed with him. After the show we all went to Yugongyishan to see Carsick Cars. Our former bass player was his college mate. And that’s how we got Birdstriking together and started making noise in early 2009.
What age were you when you saw your first live band? Do you remember the experience? What affect did it have on you?
Hefan: [May have misunderstood this as, “What was your first gig?”] It was in 2009, May 1, at a place called [Chinese translation] Old What’s Livehouse. This is a livehouse with China’s political center Zhongnanhai just two walls over. It’s not big place, a crowd of 50 would die in there.
Our first show drew less than 30 people, and I remember there was a No-Wave band called Cardiac Murmur with us. We chose this place because this is where gang bands like No Beijing started, we all liked those bands, and we wanted to pay tribute to our predecessors.
We played like… I don’t even remember, crazy, but probably normal. I was wearing these stupid big black-frame glasses, and they flew off into the crowd and broke. Later I went to see the band D22 holding up one lens to see the show. I will never forget it. [Laughs]
Wenyuzhen: It was 2009, Proximity Butterfly played in my hometown. I was a crazy fan, and that time the guitarist of Proximity Butterfly was Congpai. He was a member of legendary Beijing psychedelic band The Scoff. I think he is the one guitarist that affected me the most. Long hair, using heaps of pedals, black t-shirt…
Zhounairen: I remember it was 2007, when I was 18, a college student. There was a music festival in Beijing, I thought it was a good chance to see some live music. They were a few festivals around that time. I was shocked. I wanted to get on stage.
Wangxinjiu: The first show I saw was the 10-year anniversary of a band called The Catcher in the Rye in 2004. That was my last year of middle school, and probably should have been concentrating on preparing for the high school entrance test, but I just wanted to go to Beijing to see them.
The effect on me was huge. At that moment I made up my mind that I needed to go to Beijing for college and be in a band.
What is the scene like in your city? Is it easy to make friends? Do you have to bring your own gear? What kind of people go see live bands?
Hefan: Beijing’s music scene is good, and music of various types can find a home here. Metal and punk do not fight anymore. Everyone’s gotten into a harmonious relationship. Beijing is a relatively tolerant city, because people all over the world come to visit, and it’s hard not to be inclusive. People are very hospitable, and are particularly good to foreigners.
The bars have guitar amps and drums. Generally it’s students that come to watch.
Wenyuzhen: Beijing is very cool, except in winter. I was born in the south of China, but I grew up in Beijing. So Beijing is kind of my second hometown. Beijing is kind of like the “rock heaven” of China, a bunch of bands and livehouses there. It was easy to make new friends. XP Club is my favorite place to play because the Maybe Mars office is upstairs.
I always thought that young people should be angry. Don’t wait to calm down, we should express it
We still don’t have our own rehearsal space, so we book a rehearsal room every week. The audience for live bands is still made up of young people, and that group is growing up. More and more kids are getting to know indie music and are very interested in it.
Zhounairen: The underground music scene in Beijing is growing, more and more people are coming to the live shows, and mostly they are students. And also there are several livehouses in Beijing, maybe about 10 livehouses around, such as XP bar, which belongs to our label, and there are shows going on every night.
Yeah, it’s a very good chance to make friends, and also the livehouse is a very good place for musicians to communicate. We don’t need to pay to play, and the livehouse has the amps and has the drum kit, that is really nice, we just need to bring our guitars, bass, and pedals.
Wangxinjiu: There is hardly a scene in my city or in any other city other than big cities like Shanghai or Guangzhou. There was this local black metal band in my town, and the singer was a CD dealer, and he probably ripped every kid off as the Internet or downloading was not that popular back then. I’ve only seen one show in my hometown, and the band sounded like Coldplay. [Laughs] It’s just so weird.
What are your lyrics about? Sometimes the feeling is kind of angry or frustrated, but the overall effect is upbeat and hopeful.
Hefan: Most of the lyrics are about the social situation and the conflict in my heart. I always thought that young people should be angry. Don’t wait to calm down, we should express it, we should think about what is hiding behind things like social status, social issues, and ideology. These are world issues that every country experiences. In all countries, people have to face it sooner or later. So when we have an open mind, when we become active, we can begin to imagine, if we try to make a positive change within ourselves, we can affect society.
Take for example in Colored Hearts, we are trying to suggest that we are born in a world full of color, yellow earth, white walls, blue sky, cosmic black, red heart. The color itself does not have any meaning, but we live in an era full of metaphors to make these colors mean something else, sometimes we even forget the value of the color itself. This is the time you need a mother to remind you that your heart is red. You just need to remember.
About tragedy, I always felt that China is a country with a tragic recent history following the modern world powers’ invasion. Our national anthem also mentions: up, do not want to be slaves. Maybe we have been enslaved for too long, so the desire for self-expression is strong, compared to people in other countries.
I grew up in this country, more or less ready to be influenced by this desire for expression. I hope that our music, whether tragic or happy, can accurately convey these feeling to the listener’s heart, so that they do not have to guess.
Zhounairen: Our lyrics are mostly about what we thought about our government and the rethink of Chinese life. Sometimes we are trying to send a message to audiences about our position.
Wangxinjiu: To me our lyrics are trying to tell the people of our age to start thinking, or at least I want the lyrics to. The way our schools molds the students, it doesn’t provide the space or give students courage to think about things in their own way, and kids just easily get comfortable with the situation they are in and don’t ever ask why.
There is a pretty big cultural divide between some Asian countries and the west. For example, the stereotype is that young men in China or Japan try to find an excellent job and make heaps of money and get married and look after the parents, have kids, the wife stays at home. Is this accurate? And if this is accurate, why are you different? Are young people sick of this idea? Is China changing?
Hefan: I do not agree with that point of view, I think the situation in other countries of the world in general is also similar to China. No parents in the world would not want for their children to have a good job, to earn a lot of money, get married and have children as usual, because this is the most secure. In Asia, we pay more attention to the family, focusing on the views of parents, value the opinions of others. And in this regard we may be a little different from some European countries or America.
The Chinese people’s desire for the pursuit of wealth is definitely strong, because the Chinese people love pleasure
But I have to say, the Chinese people’s desire for the pursuit of wealth is definitely strong, because the Chinese people love pleasure. You look at Chinese people who worship [Buddhist] gods, you will understand, most of the statues are full-sized, all with a satisfied look on their face, a serene and carefree joy. This may be the ideal for many Asian lifestyles, but in reality, we all need to achieve this wealth. Whereas you look at the figure of Jesus, a shrivelled, poor person being tortured. Although he embodies a noble character, traditional Chinese people do not understand this image. Because Jesus symbolizes the poor and down-and-out.
But China is changing, more and more Chinese young people are increasingly focused on spiritual enjoyment, and the number of things like music festivals is growing.
Wenyuzhen: I think you are right, still a lot of Chinese young people living like this. If I have a rich father I can start my career at a high point. That is not necessary. More and more young people start their own business by themselves. That is very cool, and young people are helping each other out.
Zhounairen: Yeah, I think most people are like that, like my parents, like their generation, because it was a different time when they were growing up, but there’s been a big change, especially during the last decade. Some of our generation are trying to seek other lifestyle possibilities, we care more about our “dream”.
Wangxinjiu: I think it’s basically right everywhere in the world. In the first four years of Birdstriking, we were all full-time students so this topic don’t worry us at all. But now we are all full-time employees, the word “money” becomes more sensitive. And personally, I’m not different at all. I want lots of money to buy musical equipment or the albums I like and to tell my boss to fuck off and then do whatever I want.
What is the best thing about being Chinese? What is the worst thing? What is something interesting about China that maybe people from outside don’t know about?
An interesting thing is that you can buy a fox on Taobao. And it’s alive.
Hefan: The best thing is to use [online shopping website] Taobao to buy everything. The worst thing is a not-very-good environment, pollution is still relatively serious. An interesting thing is that you can buy a fox on Taobao. And it’s alive.
Wenyuzhen: China has a long history that is a cultural treasure. We should learn it and improve ourselves. Chinese people are very smart, if we using our intelligence to do the right things, I will love my compatriots more [laughs].
Zhounairen: Ha ha, it’s interesting, maybe the best thing would be Chinese food, or the cheap tobacco. And the worst thing would be passports, I gotta say it’s a little bit too complicated if you want to go to most countries in the world.
I think there are many stereotypes that western people have about China.
I think China has been through a really big change during the last decade, the cities, people’s living style, the way of dressing… so many changes are happening.
Wangxinjiu: I think the best thing about being Chinese is that once you get used to all the stuff in your life, every other country you go to feels like heaven. I’m not saying it’s bad, it’s just that there are too many people in China and it makes you have to compete in everything, which maybe the worst.
I think there are many stereotypes that western people have about China. It’s pretty understandable I guess, but I just think apart from political shit, there is not much difference between China and most other countries.
I think what most affected my guitar playing style is the pentatonic scale
I can tell you guys like Sonic Youth and Jesus & Mary Chain, but what did you grow up listening to? Mostly Chinese music or mostly Asian or mostly western? How did it affect what you play? Do you think Chinese indie music has a unique character? What bands were most inspiring for Birdstriking?
Wenyuzhen: I starting listening to rock music from the time I started skateboarding. When I was in junior high school, I started finding some bands from skateboarding video soundtracks. A few years later I got into JAMC and I found that sound could be my background music everywhere I go.
I think what most affected my guitar playing style is the pentatonic scale, and I think the different scale makes Chinese bands sound different from western bands.
Zhounairen: I think I got a half my music influences from the west and a half from China. I started listening to rock music when I was about 12 years old, and I got a lot of passion from early Chinese punk rock bands. When I was about 16 years old in high school, Nirvana became my favorite band.
I started listening to a lot of bands during my teens and I started to dream about playing guitar in my own band. I think the western music that most inspired me was Nirvana, and the most inspiring Chinese band would be P.K 14. Yeah, I think Chinese bands have a unique character.
Wangxinjiu: I started with underage Chinese pop-punk bands, then I just tried to find out what bands they liked. And yeah, Jesus & Mary Chain is one of my favorite bands. What makes most Chinese bands interesting is that comparing to America or the U.K., everything sounds pretty new and young.
What do you guys do during the day? What’s an average day like for you?
Hefan: I am a newspaper reporter. During the day I’m writing.
Wenyuzhen: I work for Maybe Mars. Everyday I just wake up, go to work, and sleep. I practice with the band two or three times a week after work.
Zhounairen: I have job to do from Monday to Friday working at a landscaping company. I am a landscape designer which was my major in university. I think it’s a good job for me ’cause I get a lot of time to listen and work on my music. We practise three times a week after work.
Wangxinjiu: I work for an institute and it’s just a normal 8-5 schedule. Rehearsal is 7 pm, normally.
How did your association with Tenzenmen in Sydney and [Brian Jonestown Massacre guitarist] Ricky Maymi’s label happen?
Hefan: During our tour of Australia with Carsick Cars I met Tenzenmen. He was very hardcore, basically sleeping in sleeping bag at a local band rehearsal room in Australia. I was totally impressed.
Along the way we taught him some Chinese curses like “FUCK OFF RICKY!”
We supported Ricky and Brain Jonestown Massacre for a tour of the U.K [see mini-documentary below]. He is extremely fond of Chinese rock music. There are complete works of Chinese rock bands on his computer, a lot of bands I have never even heard of in China.
He is an interesting and vibrant man, and the entire tour never got too boring. Along the way we taught him some Chinese curses like “FUCK OFF RICKY!” which he mastered quickly, and he kind of learned the best way to keep us happy was to say funny shit.
You could say these two guys are big fans of Chinese rock, they like getting involved in this kind of non-mainstream music from China. They are both like big uncles, they have children, but they stay young because of rock.
What band would you most like to tour the world with?
Hefan: Want to tour with our good friends Chui Wan again. We are both from Beijing. They are a psychedelic band, their songs come floating in. We just toured and it was like complementary yin and yang.
Wenyuzhen: Maybe Chui Wan or The Eat. We are very good friends.
Zhounairen: I’d like to tour with Dinosaur Jr., hahaha! Yeah, I like Dinosaur Jr. Aah … I hope we can tour with BJM again, love them very much!
Wangxinjiu: If possible, I’d like to tour with Brian Jonestown Massacre forever. Maybe tour with Jesus & Mary Chain once in a while to see how it goes. This is just me daydreaming from my boring job.
When you’re writing music, do you feel satisfaction at expressing an idea well, or do you feel frustration that you can’t get what is in your head onto the tape as you imagined it? Do you write as a group or just one person?
Hefan: We are generally complete an idea together. I often think of something and then we work on it together to make it perfect.
Wenyuzhen: We always jam, sometimes we can relax and inspire each other. If we have some trouble in practice we will have a rest or try other songs. Later, when we try the problem song, everything works out all right. Amazing creativity only shows up when you relax.
Second question, Both, if Hefan has got a great idea, he will write vocals and lyrics before practice.
Zhounairen: We write as a group mostly, and Hefan writes some songs as well. I think we all feel some satisfaction at how we express our ideas, we always try our best to make our sound just like what we want to express.
Wangxinjiu: We figure out the music together and anybody can contribute ideas for any instrument, which is better than just focusing on your own stuff.
What’s next for Birdstriking? Are you working on an album or are you still touring the last one?
Hefan: We are currently writing new songs, we have written maybe five or six new songs. But for our U.S. tour in May, the first album will still dominate.
Wenyuzhen: We have a tour of North America at the end of May to July. We hope to start recording a new album at the end of this year.
For more details about the upcoming U.S. tour, follow Birdstriking on Facebook. The band’s debut LP plus a variety of excellent sample discs are available via Far Out Distant Sounds (physical) and on Tenzenmen (physical and download).
UPDATE: As of February 2017, Birdstriking are touring in Australia as part of a Maybe Mars Showcase. Check FODS Facebook for show information.