Matthew Niederhauser on Beijing's rock scene

By David Malitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 13, 2009

The band members stand in front of a bright red wall sporting what has become today's standard indie-rock outfit -- Chuck Taylors, ripped jeans, tattoos, perfectly disheveled hair. But the scene isn't Brooklyn. It's Beijing, where a nascent underground rock scene is starting to make an impact on the Chinese capital and a photographer with deep ties to the Washington area has been there to serve as the chief documentarian.

Matthew Niederhauser, 27, a freelance photojournalist, went to China in 2007 to work on a project about urban development and new architecture. He ended up spending many of his evenings over the next two years in Beijing nightclubs, where he was floored by the eclecticism and talent of the local bands. So he struck a deal with Beijing's premier rock club, D-22, sometimes dubbed "the Chinese CBGB" in reference to the New York club that helped birth American punk rock.

Niederhauser used the club's backstage room as his base for a series of portraits collected in the book "Sound Kapital: Beijing's Music Underground." An exhibition featuring those photographs is currently showing at Govinda Gallery and a handful of featured bands are touring the United States for the first time, including a stop at the Velvet Lounge on Friday night.

Niederhauser, whose parents and grandparents are from Washington, was no stranger to China before his 2007 trip, having visited throughout the decade. But even in 2005 he found the live-music scene lacking, which made the current burst of creativity even more of a revelation.

"The first night I was there, I went to D-22 and was just blown away," Niederhauser, now a Beijing resident, said at Govinda Gallery earlier this week. "The people were so into the music. It didn't have the sense of jadedness that I had found in New York. Most importantly it finally had its own sound. It wasn't pure pastiche."

A companion CD that comes with "Sound Kapital," curated by Niederhauser, represents this broadness. There's the woozy drone rock of Carsick Cars, the sharp post-punk of P.K. 14, the minimalist electro-pop of Snapline and the anti-authority punk of Demerit, with a song called "Beijing Is Not My Home."

"It's easy to impute that these people have the same personality based upon their clothing. But it's pure aesthetic," Niederhauser says. A shared home town and fondness for classic American rock fashion link them more than a sound. Photographing the bands in a bare room in front of the same red wall was meant to show the scene's unity. "They're all coming through the same place," Niederhauser says. "All these musicians know each other and hang out with each other."

The idea of underground rock in a communist capital might seem like a culture clash waiting to happen, but it hasn't played out that way. Even as new bands emerge and become more popular, it's still just a blip on the government's radar.

"The big dogs in Beijing, they've always had bigger fish to fry than 80 kids romping around in a club in the university district," Niederhauser says. "It's not like the Tiananmen Square generation where they're calling for revolution and overhaul. It's more of a call for discourse, the presenting of an alternative lifestyle, one that is counter to what is becoming a very mainstream consumer society in Beijing."

Yang Haisong, singer for P.K. 14, one of the longest-tenured bands in the Beijing scene, with four albums since 2001, echoes that statement. "We shouldn't take that social role," he says when reached by phone before a concert in Chapel Hill, N.C. "We just write songs. We are musicians. We are not politicians. We sing what we want and we are honest. That is our job. We don't care about any politics."

Which isn't to say the government is a non-factor. There's no chance of hearing these bands on radio or TV in China (although all the bands do have MySpace pages). Demerit, the most anti-authority of the groups, did not include a printout of its incendiary lyrics with its latest CD. The decision was made by the manufacturer as a form of self-censorship.

The government also controls which foreign bands get to play in China. October's large-scale Modern Sky Festival in Beijing was to feature international bands such as the Buzzcocks, British Sea Power and Radio 4 until the government banned all foreign acts mere days before the festival, leaving the promoters in the red. "You have no idea how decisions are made, so it's really hard to know what kind of incident would provoke them or would bring a sheet across somebody's desk," Niederhauser says.

For the young Chinese bands, the U.S. tour is far from a glamorous victory lap. There will be no profits. Just a bunch of long van rides and performances in tiny clubs, like the 120-capacity Velvet Lounge. Every dollar that can be saved will be saved (P.K. 14 will be staying at Niederhauser's mother's house in the District). But the fact that P.K. 14 and Carsick Cars are able to play shows in the United States at all serves as an inspiration to the dozens of other bands back home, whose members are mostly in their early 20s.

"The Beijing rock scene is still young. There are a lot of new bands coming out, but it is still growing up," Yang Haisong says. "You can't compare Beijing with New York or London. It's totally different. But for us, it's good. More of the kids from university and even high school want to play this kind of music. It's a good thing that more and more people get involved."

P.K. 14 and Xiao He perform Friday at the Velvet Lounge, 915 U St. NW, 202-462-3213.

Sound Kapital: Beijing's Music Underground photography exhibit runs through Nov. 28 at Govinda Gallery, 1227 34th St. NW, 202-333-1180.

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