Live: PK-14, Xiao He, and Carsick Cars Bring Chinese Experimental Rock to Brooklyn
PK-14, Xiao He, Carsick Cars
Photo of Carsick Cars at Glasslands by Rebecca Smeyne
Friday, November 6
Nearly two years ago, while following Brooklyn's spasmodic noisemakers Ex-Models on a tour through the imperial city of Beijing and Shanghai for a magazine article, I got a taste of what the People's Republic of China had to offer musically (besides horrible lung infections, delicious soup dumplings, and pirated DVDs). While the country has opened up culturally for everyone from jazz pianist Matthew Shipp to E2-E4 guitar composer Manuel Gottsching to still more Brooklyn bands (such as These Are Powers), little of China's music has crept into the US. At least until this past week, as a handful of Chinese experimental rock bands hit stateside as part of the Beijing-based independent music label Maybe Mars' mini-tour showcase.
Tonight, These Are Powers return the favor: cantankerous solo artist Xiao He, revered godfathers PK-14, and scene darlings Carsick Cars open for them (and Soft Circle) at Williamsburg's Glasslands Gallery. A dive bar tucked into the edge of the East River, Glasslands has a cramped funkiness to match Beijing's premier indie venues D-22 and 2Kolegas, so that even eleven thousand kilometers from home, the bands might feel right at home, even if the air isn't dense with cigarette smoke inside and factory exhaust outside.
Aside from Xiao He's odd warping and looping of traditional folk forms (which incidentally evoke Animal Collective circa Sung Tongs), what passes for "experimental rock" in China really translates as "punk rock" here in the boroughs. In Beijing, PK-14 have elder statesmen status. When we visited two years ago, this was often mis-translated by way of a comparison to CBGB's own elder statesmen, Television. Which made no sense then and even less tonight. Instead, the quartet hit the stage in black button-downs, as prim and serious as Joy Division. They ply a jittery, glowering, tersely crafted sound. Only when the guitar amp blows and the hesitant stage patter in halting English emerges do PK-14 come off as out-of-towners.
Carsick Cars are the gateway band by which most Westerners appreciate Chinese rock, precisely because they emulate western rock the best. A trio fronted by guitarist Zhang Shouwang--who has spent time playing with Gottsching, downtown composer Elliott Sharp, and in one of Glenn Branca's guitar armies--the band crafts anthemic yet concise songs. To a fault, Carsick Cars' sound is cut wholly from the cloth of Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation (specifically "Teen Age Riot"), with sawdust from the Ramones' buzzsaw chords dashed in on a song like "He Sheng (Rock n' Roll Hero)." Fitting that when the band went searching for a producer to bring over to China for their latest album, You Can Listen You Can Talk, they picked SY, Dinosaur Jr., and Glenn Branca producer Wharton Tiers.
Carsick Cars wrap their brief set with the catchy "Zhong nan hai," which the Maybe Mars press packet deems "the anthem of Chinese countercultural youth" for its juxtaposing of trenchant social commentary in innocuous pop. "Zhong nan hai" namechecks both a cigarette brand name as well as the location of the Communist Party headquarters in the Forbidden City. And so by way of a Glasslands farewell--much as the crowd does back in Beijing--Carsick Cars is lovingly pelted with unlit cigarettes.