These musicians are shaping China’s post-pandemic indie scene
A genre considered dead in the west is currently enrapturing the imaginations of millions across China. From Re-Tros to Chinese Football, these are the figures leading that charge.
Artwork for “Bildungsroman” by Hiperson
As July came around in post-pandemic China, there hadn’t been the sound of live music for almost six months. Venues lay empty; musicians who had once been the lifeblood of the scene were at the starting stages of trying to navigate an industry on its knees. Things, for a while, felt hopeless.
But now, as the coronavirus pandemic has been brought under control, those same spaces that once sat silent are now back in action. Indie fans in particular, the ones who would have rushed to the small bars and venues to see live shows across the country, are now spoiled for choice: sold-out tours and expansive music festivals have been held almost every weekend since. While the pandemic, which is still wreaking havoc across much of the western world, has brought international touring to a complete halt, China’s local indie scene has been free to fill that hunger for live experiences. It’s capturing a nation’s mood of cautious hope and resurgent optimism.
A popular online reality show helped. The Big Band, the second season of which started airing this summer, pits some of China’s biggest indie bands against each other in a high school ‘Battle of the Bands’ style tournament. Its episodes -- which see 33 acts, both legendary and fresh-faced, competing against each other to win the top title -- have been catnip for a society just emerging from lockdown.
The start of this new decade was a cliffhanger for the future of the Chinese music scene, which in 2019 was the most diverse, experimental and polyphonic it’s ever been. But China’s indie musicians are no strangers to dramatic adaptation, and many stepped up during the pandemic to provide donations, advocacy and entertainment. The mood of the underground scene was by turns sombre, jagged and restless: music -- more than any other contemporary Chinese medium -- has captured the anxieties of a society under stress.
And so, here are eight artists who are defining the Chinese underground in late 2020, offering either a sobering dialogue, glimmers of hope, or a blast of righteous anger. They’re the ones riding a new wave, experimenting with both sound and form, built to survive whatever apocalypse is thrown their way.
Wuhan’s own Chinese Football have come to represent a great hope, and many indie fans reached for their songs in early 2020 to look beyond the epidemic that defined both their city, and the country at large. This Wuhan band -- hard-working, DIY, committed to supporting local venues -- found a loyal fanbase thanks to their cheeky name, striking artwork and a resonant sound that mixed twinkling Western-style emo with yearning Japanese-style indie.
Chinese bands often struggle to find meaningful fame outside their homeland, but Chinese Football cracked the indie scenes in both Japan and Southeast Asia. It’s an achievement they celebrated with characteristic earnestness, releasing two full albums that featured all their favourite regional collaborators. The pandemic forced them to cancel their first European shows, but they’re playing across China in October. Almost every show is sold-out.
“Time belongs to us / Don’t lose it / And don’t let it be stolen / Instead, stop time,” FAZI sing on their track “0909 II”. Their songs brim with abundant vitality, stirring anger in your calm. On stage they’re like a perpetual motion machine, relentlessly generating captivating noise. Their lyrics smoulder, delivered like frantic mantras by singer Liu Peng, piercing to your heart simply but forcefully.
FAZI are from Xi’An, but their take on post-punk has seen them tour Europe and the US, and an astonishing 43 cities across China. Despite being kicked out early from The Big Band, their fanbase has multiplied. A Beijing show scheduled for October 2020 sold out in minutes.
In July, this Chengdu band released Bildungsroman -- their third album, and a strong contender for one of the year’s best. A group with a huge live reputation, they’re currently at what feels like their creative peak, recharged and raring to go.
Frontwoman Chen Sijiang’s unique voice punctuates the complex, precise rhythmic interplay between drums, bass and guitar. They often draw comparisons to mainland post-punk legends P.K.14, whose work they’re inspired by, but have built on and taken further. Their songs often feature poetic passages, like spoken word fables, leading the listener through landscapes that oscillate between daily life and illusion.
Founded in 2004, these old-school legends of the scene have built a loyal following on the back of intricately choreographed live shows and a sparing, but strong output of danceable post-punk. Last year, they were chosen to open for Depeche Mode on their European tour, a huge break for a band from the mainland.
Despite international plans being put on hold, Re-Tros are on the verge of breaking through to the mainstream, all thanks to their talked-about run on The Big Band.
South Acid Mimi 南方酸性咪咪
This trio of women, from the province of Yunnan in China’s southwest, craft shape-shifting, alluring dance punk that’s sometimes loud, always unapologetic and unconcerned with genre and lineage. The Chengdu-based musician Kristen Ng calls them the “antithesis of mainstream Chinese society” and the dark mirror they hold up found a big nationwide fanbase during an ambitious summer tour in support of their 2019 debut album MIMISM. “Lay down / hands off / drop your weapons,” they sing on “NUNUDUGU”. “We’re coming / we’re coming / we’re coming.”
Sleeping Dogs 睡狗 and Boiled Hippo
Beijing label Space Fruity Records has been quietly blazing its own trail in the last few years, racking up underground cred via unexpected means. A 2019 visit by Japanese legend Ryuichi Sakamoto (who dropped in to the venue Fruityspace, the label’s home, to pick up some cassettes) seemed to cement their reputation, but the real stars of their show are the excellent local bands Sleeping Dogs and Boiled Hippo, both of whom had sterling releases in 2020. Consisting of members from pioneering Beijing bands like The Molds, Chui Wan and Deadly Cradle Death, these two low-key supergroups are the emergent lodestars of a new wave of Beijing psychedelia.
This four-piece named ‘Five People’ are a charming, ramshackle group from Guangdong whose songs have a characteristic world-weary goofiness and sense of humour. For a long time, Wutiaoren existed at the fringes of mainstream popularity, but that’s changed after their hilariously disruptive appearance on The Big Band. Despite being kicked out of the show early (and kicked out twice, for good measure) – they came back on the strength of audience demand and ended up taking second place. Their humour and cynicism has found a whole new generation of fans, making Wutiaoren’s live shows one of the hottest tickets of the season.
Stolen’s techno-tinged electronic rock and meticulously assembled live shows had them a China-wide sensation by 2019. Their breakout album, produced by Mark Reeder (who directed B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West-Berlin 1979-1989), then placed them within the lineage of West Berlin acts like Einstürzende Neubauten and the danceable post-punk of New Order, earning them global clout. Stolen were actually supposed to open for New Order across their Asia dates in 2020, where their glacial minimal techno sound would have found a receptive new audience. Instead, they’re taking the year to refine and hone their craft and playing a series of celebratory anniversary shows over the winter.