Carsick Cars + P.K.14

Beijing's experimental rock scene arrives in New York City.

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  • P.K.14; Photographs: Matthew Niederhauser

  • P.K.14: Shi Xudong and Yang Hai Song

  • Carsick Cars

  • Carsick Cars: Levis and Zhong Qiu

  • Carsick Cars: Shou Wang

P.K.14; Photographs: Matthew Niederhauser

Unlike the American rock music landscape, where cities such as Nashville, Austin, Detroit, Los Angeles, Seattle and, of course, New York all boast internationally relevant scenes, in China one city defines the sound of the nation: Beijing. The capital city is home to hundreds of bands and a handful of labels. One such outfit, Maybe Mars Records, and its impressive roster of artists are currently at the forefront of a national movement, pushing contemporary Chinese rock toward international acclaim. On Thursday 5, the label’s premier acts, Carsick Cars and P.K.14, will make their U.S. debuts at the powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn. Convinced that they’re ready to take on the more discerning American audience, the bands are prepared to show New York what Beijing rock is all about. “We’ve been influenced by a lot of American music,” P.K.14 drummer Johnny Leijonhufvud says. “We feel we’re coming full circle with this visit.”

While this is not the first time Chinese bands have played New York, heightened awareness of Beijing’s scene means this is the first time bands from the Middle Kingdom are arriving with expectations, which makes this trip a potentially landmark event for a scene courting international respect. “Chinese musicians are certainly much more confident about the quality of their own scene than they have ever been,” says Maybe Mars founder Michael Pettis, a former New Yorker who also teaches economics at Beijing University. “For most of our musicians, New York is the center of the world.”

Already, the three-year-old label and its flagship live venue, D-22, have attracted ink in numerous international publications. While much of the initial attention stemmed from Western interest in China’s counterculture, the caliber of musicianship and the experimental nature of these Beijing bands prompted some writers to admiringly liken the scene to that of downtown New York during the late ’70s and early ’80s. “China has no rock legacy that dictated the past and shaped the present,” Leijonhufvud says. “The kids are making their own sounds, and some really have an innovational knack for writing and performing without stigmas.”

Along with welcoming the Maybe Mars contingent to U.S. soil, the powerHouse Arena engagement will serve as the official launch for Matthew Niederhauser’s Sound Kapital, a 175-page photo retrospective and compilation CD documenting the nascent scene. “I think there are a lot of bands that will have a strong appeal to people abroad,” says Niederhauser, a Columbia University alumnus. “I want people to be able to listen to the music while perusing the book. It will give them a good overall feel for the scene.”

In addition to Carsick Cars and P.K.14, labelmate Xiao He will be participating in a two-week tour that starts Friday 6 at Glasslands Gallery. Spanning a stylistic range that includes postpunk, noise rock and alternative folk, the three acts offer insight into the Beijing scene’s eclecticism.

“What makes experimental music in China unique is that generally everyone is learning and developing together,” says Anna Barie, singer of New York band These Are Powers, which recently toured China and will support the Beijing collective at its Glasslands gig. “You have musicians learning to play together, people learning to promote shows and tours, people learning to run sound. It’s very much in its infancy.”

It is still unclear how American audiences will react to these groups, most of whom sing in their native Mandarin. Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. have already vouched for the noisy atmospherics of Carsick Cars; P.K.14, for all its lyrical depth, creates an overwhelming barrage of beautiful postpunk chaos. Yet regardless of its outcome, this maiden voyage is undoubtedly a milestone for U.S.-China artistic collaboration.

Carsick Cars and P.K.14 play the powerHouse Arena Thu 5, Glasslands Gallery Fri 6 and Santos Party House Sat 7.

P.K. 14

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