Beijing calling

A crop of new rock bands is changing the face of Chinese youth culture

It is an unusually crisp afternoon in Beijing, and positioned squarely between an impossibly large pile of cabbages and an oversized stone lion is a small door. As a convoy of brick-laden trucks thunders past on the road outside, the sudden racket of a synthesised drumbeat and bass guitar comes crashing out from within. The sign outside reads: "Yu Gong yi Shan", which roughly translates as "The man who moved the mountain instead of going around it". It is an apposite motto for the Beijing rock scene.

Inside, a stream of staccato bleeps and whizzing noises accompanies Gothic-sounding chords played on a mini-keyboard. A bunch of men huddles around a soundboard at one end of the dark room, facing a stage full of ladders, a half-constructed lighting rig, a drum kit and a large pile of electrical leads. In the middle of it all is a gangly man, dressed in an overcoat and thick, Clark Kent-style glasses, crouched on the floor and jabbing at the dials of an amp. This is 24-year-old Chen Xi, lead singer of Snapline, Beijing's latest music phenomenon. By day he is a graduate in mechanical engineering and nuclear energy who works for Microsoft; by night he becomes the jumpy, overexcitable frontman of a three-piece rock band, shouting about the universe, porn stars and his girlfriend Jenny.

"My band mates laugh at me for working for Microsoft," Chen Xi says in his practically perfect English. "They hate brand names." Snapline, like the rock scene from which they have evolved, espouse a self-effacing philosophy that would be unfamiliar to fans of much contemporary western rock, with its megabucks and competing egos. While the rest of China falls over itself to modernise and rebrand the nation for the outside world, a contingent of scruffy twentysomethings is cramming into dingy bars and underground music venues to drink beer, shout obscenities and headbang.

This is supposed to be the "me" generation of only children, born under China's one-child policy. Yet these young people are anything but materialistic, label-wearing consumerists. Like Chen Xi, they are mostly either college kids, studying subjects such as information technology, maths and economics, or graduates with good jobs. Their heroes are the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, Radiohead and the Cure. Their music of choice ranges from infectious electropop to angry punk with industrial guitar riffs.

"We started messing around making music at college in 2001," shouts Chen Xi, gesturing to the bassist Li Weisi, 23, and guitarist/keyboard player Li Qing, 25, both of whom also play in another popular band, Carsick Cars. "Last December we heard an American label was over here looking for local talent. They liked our stuff and asked us to sign a deal." He shrugs. "We didn't have any other offers, so we said OK."

In September the band released their first album with the Chicago-based record label Invisible. Party Is Over, Pornostar is a snappy 40 minutes of pop, punk and rock tunes sung almost entirely in English. "I sing in English because my Chinese sucks," laughs Chen Xi, who claims he is no match for Chinese-language poets and feels more comfortable using English, which he learned at school. "People say our music is post-punk. I'm not sure I would describe it as that. It's hard to pin it down to one type, because we're always changing our minds. I sing what's in my head and the others play along."

The result is songs such as "S2", a track that involves Chen Xi talking and sometimes singing over a frantic and extremely loud backing: "It's not about physics/It's just a piece of truth that you have to know/It's a mistake that everything comes from the great explosion/Everything comes from the same line." What can it all mean? "It's about negative space," he explains with great excitement. "If you simplify third, second and first dimensions into a dot, it will stretch into a long line in infinity. Eventually the two ends of that line have to meet up and that's when it becomes a circle."

This may not be punk rock's usual subject matter, but the tune, despite its cerebral lyrics, is instantly catchy. Performed on stage that night, "S2" sounds like a cross between LCD Soundsystem and Blur. Affable Chen Xi is transformed from a computer geek into a gyrating, Jarvis Cocker-like figure in a cardigan. Eyes closed, rattling off songs with a kooky smile, he slaloms the mike stand with his knees and waves his limbs about like a marionette. On one side of him Li Weisi grins and plucks the bass while on the other side, po-faced Li Qing, her hair in a pudding-basin cut, bashes out chords on the keyboard.

"Holy comments feed me," Chen Xi yells at the delighted audience, which knows all the words and sings them back as fans crash about in the mosh pit. Taking up the front row are members of Hedgehog, Gui Li and Carsick Cars - the other bands playing tonight. Snapline are the only ones with an international record deal, but the others are signed to the Beijing-based label Maybe Mars and have all played a part in the emerging scene.

"I genuinely believe the music these bands are producing is part of something big," says Nevin Domer, distribution director for Maybe Mars and booking manager for Beijing's best-known live venue, D-22, which has been compared to the legendary New York bar CBGB, circa 1975. "These kids didn't grow up listening to the music we did in the west. They are discovering it all at once, without filing it under categories. The music they are making is influenced by everything from B B King to Bob Dylan."

Though international acts still tend to bypass Beijing for the more glamorous Shanghai and Hong Kong, that situation is slowly beginning to change with rising interest in the capital city's emerging scene. At September's Beijing Pop Festival, several local hardcore bands supported the hugely successful American punk and hip-hop outfits Nine Inch Nails and Public Enemy.

Brian Hardgroove, bassist and musical director of Public Enemy, was so impressed with what he saw that he has just flown back to produce the album of an unsigned punk band, Demerit. "This country is at a historical turning point and the stuff coming out of Beijing now is on a par with what was coming out of London and New York in the Seventies and Eighties," he says. "The difference here is that whatever hardships punk bands were rebelling against then were nothing compared to what this country has seen."

Despite interest from industry insiders, however, financial backing for these bands is slow in coming and is yet to approach anything like the level of investment pouring into visual arts in China. "I'm not worried these kids are going to burn out underneath commercial pressure - if anything, I'm more worried lack of money will kill the scene before it gets a chance to develop," says Domer, who facilitated the collaboration between Demerit and Public Enemy.

Though bands like Snapline and Demerit may be grateful for the nod of support from the global industry, they haven't yet let it change their outlook. "It's nice that foreigners like our music, but I hope more Chinese people come to our gigs, too," says Chen Xi, standing on the street outside Yu Gong yi Shan, hands under armpits to protect them from the cold. "We're going on tour to Shanghai and Nanjing next week and my mum wants to come with us," he grins, and says brightly: "She bought a hundred copies of our album to show her support when it came out."

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This article first appeared in the 26 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, China