Special Report: Travel Tips for Underground Rock Bands Touring China
In late 2015 the Bradford-based noise-rock duo I’ve been doing with my friend-since-school James Islip, That Fucking Tank, were invited to do a tour of independent music venues in China. The tour came about when Ryan Blankley, a Brit relocated in Wuhan, talked to the city’s pioneering venue and music organisation Vox Livehouse about bringing over bands from the UK’s underground music scene to China.
Ryan had seen Tank play when he spent time in Leeds as a student in the mid 2000s. Back then we were playing small pubs and venues like The Packhorse, The Fenton and a developing Brudenell Social Club as part of Leeds’ Do-It-Yourself music scene pretty much every week. He reasoned that Tank would be a good band to test the Chinese waters. We started the band with the intention of being able to tour easily – by making clever use of equipment to sound like more than a two-piece – and have toured across Europe regularly since we started in 2003. We are loud, reliable and, perhaps most importantly for this pilot, ‘cost effective’.
The tour was nine gigs in eight different cities over just more than a fortnight. As well as a great opportunity for us to visit a country we otherwise would never get to, and play to some new audiences, we were also excited about finding out more about the Chinese independent music scene. Through our roles at University of Bradford and Lumen, and our involvement in arts festivals Threadfest and Recon Festival, we try to foster and shine light on the international independent arts scene and bring it to new audiences. Here’s a few things we learned from our mission to China.
Prepare for Long Journeys
Getting to China from the UK takes a long time. The flight may be long but luckily you can watch films with very quiet soundtracks and play touch screen games like Super Sleep Depriver IV that will infuriate the passenger sat in front of you. Once in China things aren’t very close together either. A ‘short’ train journey is three or four hours and a ‘small’ city has ten million people. Some of the public transport can be a little overcrowded so its a good idea to bring your own portable seat in the form of a really heavy guitar/flight case you can share with your band and crew .. which brings us to the next tip.
Practice a Quick Packdown
Travelling by public transport with your gear means that you will develop a close and intimate relationship with your equipment and luggage over the course of a tour. Bands that have toured by van will have experienced the satisfying yet slightly mystifying phenomena whereby you can fit twice as much gear into half the space at the end of the tour as you could at the beginning. Why not speed up this learning process by rehearsing your pack-up and pack-down in a military fashion ahead of the tour? Drills could include running up and down multi-storey carpark staircases with four suitcases (one of which is broken and falling open all the time); fitting all of your gear plus three passengers into a tiny taxi in less than 30 seconds; and throwing gear through security check points in the best order for it not to clog the X-ray machine which are at the entrance of every train and subway station.
Forget Three (different) Meals A Day
After all that travelling and gruelling exercise you’ll be happy to know there is plenty of opportunity to refuel on substantial, wholesome and almost exclusively amazing-tasting dishes mostly consisting of noodles, soup, greens and bits of meat. This tends to be the same for breakfast, lunch or dinner which, combined with severe jet lag, can lead to some quite psychedelic disorientation. Dumplings are an excellent way to get a day’s-worth of food into your body in as quick a time as possible. If you want a more leisurely approach then the Chinese Hot Pot is the most relaxed and sociable way to eat – whereby you cook vegetables, tofu, offal and fish balls on skewers in a simmering wok of spicy oil and broth. Don’t eat the chilies unless you like feeling like you’ve just come away from the dentist. Pig’s brain is very similar to eating silken tofu so you may as well just eat tofu.
Prepare for the Big Time
Like the country and the flavours, China’s independent venues are BIG. If you’re used to playing in the function rooms or cellars of pubs and bars to 30 or 40 people then prepare to play to that same amount of people … but in a 200 – 500 capacity venue. Most of the venues are based on the Livehouse model imported from Japan where the venue provides the PA and backline (amplifiers, drum kit etc – often new and posh) and independent promoters or bands use the space with an agree 70/30 split of the door. The stages are big and the sound is big. If this arrangement doesn’t necessarily suit the style of the band you are in, or the atmosphere or relationship you are trying to create with the audience, then perform on the floor or on the ‘karaoke stage’. The stage crew will be more than happy to accommodate and the families that have come to see you will appreciate the novelty, for a few minutes at least.
Seek Out Local Music
Playing with another band is not guaranteed so when the opportunity arises make sure to catch the set of any local bands that may also be on the bill. We saw a variety that ranged from ex-pats (or ‘foreigners’ as they’re delightfully known) playing progressive post and noise-rock, to Chinese bands that do Joy Division covers and spot-on Mark E Smith impressions, to software-programmers making electronic noise. We also caught some Chinese acoustic folk music and incredible street musicians. If you want to get an idea of what to expect have a listen to this audio diary of our trip. If you want more then China has a load of independent labels putting out local music like Genjing Records and captured on compilations from Vox and Little Bar.
Put That Ego Aside
Chinese audiences aren’t the biggest fans of dancing, whooping, applauding or giving away how they feel about your music during your performance in any form, which can be a little off-putting. If there are a good number of non-Chinese and Westerners at the gig it’s possible that their enthusiastic response might spread through the crowd but in general it’s best to accept that the audience are there to see you perform a live demonstration of how you play music rather than to have a wild night out or make you feel good about what you’re doing until after the fact.
Embrace The Future
If you have won the approval of local audiences then don’t expect to be signing autographs or records .. that’s so early 21st century! In China the coolest way to prove you have met someone, or to become friends, is by scanning their QR code from wechat – the Chinese social media platform. If you’re having trouble communicating that’s no problem, just use an app that will instantly translate what you say into your mobile phone just like Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. The future is now, so get on board and remember even if you don’t go to China, China is coming for you!
The Mountains are High and The Emperor is Far Away
You may go to China with preconceptions of some kind of 1984-style communist crack-down on any form of expression but in a country so huge and populous citizens and visitors alike are involved in a whole host of independent activity which is either too small-scale or too new be of concern to the authorities. China is changing fast and scenes are springing up, developing, changing and moving on at a dizzying rate and it’s easy to see why people are so keen to get caught up in the excitement. No doubt if we return again it’ll be like a touring a different country so please let us know your experiences and tips too!
Andy Abbott is an artist, writer, musician and Producer Visual Arts and Music at University of Bradford.