Dear Razorcake readers,
We (Paul Caporino & JV McDonough) are here in Beijing, China getting together the very dispatch you are currently reading. A couple days ago we landed in Shanghai, our base of operations for the tour. We had our first Chinese gig at Live Bar, and a lot of people turned up for it. The next morning we hopped a bullet train and now we’re in the BigTown for two shows.
June 1, 2013
Caporino: Our show last night at The Temple Bar in Beijing went very well. The very nice crowd was dancing, drinking, and seemed quite happy. Two bands that we will be playing with on a lot of the tour also performed—Round Eye and Gou Shen, both based in Shanghai. We’re lucky to have Gil Brunnhoeffer of Gou Shen playing second guitar with us, and Chris Ginn of Iron Virgins is on drums.
Tonight we will be playing at School Bar in Beijing. I suppose there’ll be students there.
There’s a bit of down time between gigs, so we’re gonna try and give first-hand reports about Chinese culture and daily life in the cities, too. We figured we’d let you know a little about that end of things before we forget. I’m lousy about writing things down.
Note to bands: One of the good things about the China tour is that (like Japan) the clubs have their own amps and drums already backlined, so bands don’t have to schlep all that furniture around (American, European, and Australian clubs take note). You don’t quite know the quality of the stuff you get to use, but usually the stuff we’ve used was quite good.
McDonough: Our first Beijing show was exciting because it was the first time we got to see and hear our tour mates, Gou Shen and Round Eye. Both bands were amazing, and it was comforting to know that we’d almost always be sharing the bill with them. Also, Temple Bar provided us with a really nice introduction to Beijing as far as hospitality. This was helped by the fact that during and after our set, the boss bar lady brought us many shots of something they call “Super Mario,” which—in its Chinese incarnation—is a combination of real absinthe, tequila, and regret. Or grenadine. Or whatever. Something with an “r” and a “g” in it. It was a grand time, or so they told us.
On a cultural note, we’ve gathered that there are three potential challenges for Westerners traveling in China:
As one would expect, these three can occur individually or in a logical progression, usually going from, say, “I’d like a plate of Raw Hamster Ovaries” when you actually mean to say “A bottle of water would be lovely, thank you.” This, in turn, leads to toilet problems.
Here at the ho(s)tel, we have our own room and it’s quite nice. But we encountered our first toilet issue. Don’t worry, it’s a matter of logistics, not something we ate. But there is a sign in our bathroom politely requesting that Dear Guests should not flush toilet paper down the toilet. Um, no. We’re almost all about that “When in Rome” thing but that’s where we draw the line..
We’re very lucky to be in the capable hands of our second guitar player, Gil, known here in the PROC (People’s Republic of China) as Lao Bi. He’s an American who has been living in China since 2002. He speaks Mandarin fluently and has made everything smooth sailing, so for the most part we have avoided the language barriers.
Caporino: Except maybe for one time. Whenever I travel abroad, no matter where I travel abroad, I have a tendency to speak French. I figure it would be less arrogant of me to address and respond to the local peoples in a language that neither of us understands. I just do it, don’t axe why.
Anyway, I found out that the French word “merci” sounds a bit like a vulgar Chinese insult that translates politely as “your mother’s vagina.”
June 3, 2013
Caporino: Yesterday was the Great Wall. A bit of a motherfucker to climb, but then what isn’t? Took some photos and all that. If we’re lucky we can use some of those for the next album that we haven’t recorded yet.
Our gig at School Bar in Beijing Saturday night (June 1) was very well-received (as in we tore the place apart and left ’em smiling). In addition to sharing the bill with Round Eye and Gou Shen that night, we also played with a very good young Beijing band called Bed Stars—solid classic-style punk rock. They closed with “God Save the Queen” (The Sex Pistols song, not the British national anthem of the same name.) All in all, a very good time for all, I think!
Also (if all goes well) we should be recording a few songs soon for upcoming releases—one a 7” split-single with Gou Shen on Gen Jing Records, and if all really goes well, another LP in M.O.T.O.’s International Elsewhere series—a Chinese-recorded long-player to join our previous Finnish and Australian platters. Dig it.
Gonna go see the Forbidden City today with Lao Bi.
McDonough: Yeah, the Great Wall was intense. I’m never gonna complain about having to walk up a flight of stairs again. (Actually, I think I complained about the stairs at the hotel within an hour of returning, but it lacked conviction.) Totally worth it once we got to the top, though. It was one of those perspective-enhancing experiences that make me realize I’m even less significant than my mother made me feel.
The show at School the previous night was a blast. The audience was a mix of local people and ex-pats, all of whom were enthusiastic about our set. If English is the universal language, then “I Hate My Fucking Job” must be the universal anthem! From what I understand, the club is owned by one of the members of a big local band called Joyside. It’s got a legit, gritty rock club vibe to it. It also has a wicked nice roof deck that would never make it in the litigious Western world. I decided that the outdoor spiral staircase to the top had a two-drink limit for me. Otherwise, there may have been a lot of paperwork for Paul to fill out. If you make it to Beijing, you should definitely check out both of the places we played: Temple Bar and School Live House. They’re even within walking distance of each other if you like to walk a lot.
We went back to the hostel on our own at about 3AM. Anywhere in the States, a couple of strangers carrying guitars through a downtown area would be prime targets for bad guys. But the part of Beijing we’re in is very safe, and it feels that way; it doesn’t have that palpable creepiness that you get when you’re stumbling home from a gig in (insert name of neighborhood in your least favorite American city here…whatever I write will offend someone). It was actually lovely at that hour with the streets almost deserted of the usual chaotic four- and two-wheeled traffic. We encountered a bunch of the Round Eye crew at an outdoor restaurant, and try as they might, they couldn’t convince us to sit down and join them for a big ol’ plate of chicken feet. We knew we had the Great Wall to conquer the next day, and pre-dawn cartilage-gnawing didn’t seem like a good way to prep for it.
June 8, 2013
Back in Shanghai
Caporino: We’ve had two really good shows the past couple of nights—one very sweaty/broken AC at the otherwise excellent Independent Music Livehouse in Songjiang and then last night at the club YuYinTang in Shanghai.
There were a lot of Chinese students at the Songjiang gig (it’s in the university area), but there seemed to be mostly Westerners (y’know, white folks) at the YuYinTang gig last night. I didn’t mind, but it was a bit strange to be playing in a Chinese city in front of a crowd that looked like Milwaukee or Cleveland.
We also managed to do a bit of recording at Shanghai’s DB Studios for at least one upcoming vinyl release (should also be available digitally for the digitalien market). We’re heading back to the studio tonight.
McDonough: Our Songjiang show was especially gratifying in spite of the busted AC, which turned the stage into a sort of psychedelic sauna. It was one of those nights when the audience put on a good show for the band. At a couple of points during the set, the kids formed a crazy conga line/circle and went absolutely batshit. Chachy from Roundeye told me later that this is a big deal. They never do that except at festivals. So it was as if we had created our own festival in that crazy little sweatbox! The other point of honor was that the students stayed out past curfew to remain for our whole set, which I guess means that a lot of them ended up locked out of their dorms, just like the frustrated women in that song about Boston. (Caporino just saw this and said, “More Than a Feeling?”)
After the show, the crew brought us to Inferno, the infamous bar where the Chinese tour was conceived over who knows what amount of alcohol and chutzpah. We had a lovely bunch of post-gig cocktails in the company of our new friends, and even managed to find a bit of New Orleans-related graffiti on the wall! Got home just in time to watch the dawn come up.
The YuYinTang show could’ve easily been an afterthought for a lot of other bands. After all, we had an epic show and a crazy-late night the night before and then were in the studio for a few hours right before YYT. Plus, it was a late night “secret special appearance” that found us taking the stage at 12:45AM. But the M.O.T.O. mojo was on, and we had a killer show once again. The club has a really nice setup, the sound was outstanding, and even though the audience looked like a United Nations of drunks rather than the mostly Chinese crowd, they loved us.
A night off (but still in the studio), and then tomorrow we hit the road for a few out-of-town dates. Hard to believe that our tour here is halfway over. Sometimes it feels as if we’ve been here forever (in a good way), and other times Paul and I will look at each other in genuine amazement and say “We’re in CHINA!” as if we just stepped off the plane.
June 14, 2013
Caporino: The past few nights we had great shows—in Nanchang at The Black Iron, in Hefei at On the Way Bar, in Suzhou at The Wave, then back in Shanghai at Harley’s. We again played with terrific Chinese-based bands like Gou Shen, Round Eye, XXYY, and Iron Virgins. Had a splendid time!
Just landed in Hong Kong earlier—Saturday night we will be at Hong Kong Brew Houseagain with Gou Shen & Round Eye and a piano-guitar duo called The Bollands, who I’m listening to right now online and rather enjoying.
We had a bit of trouble with Spring Airlines. We bought pretty cheap tickets from Shanghai to Hong Kong, but then the counter clerk said we had to check our guitars into the cargo area (we had wanted to bring them in the cabin with us), then also insisted that we pay 700 RMB (about $115 U.S.) for the check-in fee. We had no choice, so we did so. Then we then boarded the plane, which seemed to have ample space in the cabin to store our guitars, and flew to Hong Kong.
When we arrived and got our guitars, we found that the case for JV’s bass (which she bought less than two weeks ago) was damaged. Thankfully, Lao Bi took the case to the airline reps, tore ’em a brand new 2013 one, and got some kind of form for hopeful reimbursement.
The room we’re staying in in Hong Kong is very small. More like a bedsit. As in one of us has to sit on the bed if the other has to move around.
McDonough: The shows we did from Monday to Wednesday were not exactly in the boondocks (I have a feeling that “the boondocks” in China would make the American version look downright cushy), but they were definitely off the beaten path. This meant that we saw a much higher number of locals in our audience, which was very cool. Ex-pats are everywhere, though, and at our Nanchang gig we met a nice young Russian woman and her French boyfriend, who told us that we gave them the best live show they’d seen in China. This whole week is a holiday called the Dragon Boat Festival, so even though the shows were on what would normally be pretty blah days, we drew a good crowd at each one.
Thursday night we were back home in Shanghai, where we had a crazy night at a bar called Harley’s. By now, we’ve gotten to know a bunch of the local music scene denizens, and it was really nice to walk into a pub on the other side of the planet and have people greet us warmly as friends. Kinda bittersweet that it was our final show in Shanghai. It was even more of an event because it was also my birthday, which meant that Chachy and Lewis from Round Eye got up on stage at the end of the night and serenaded me. Not a bad way to turn twenty-nine (*ahem*).
So now we’re in Hong Kong. It’s pouring rain, which somehow makes the countless neon signs seem more intense, just as the hundreds of umbrellas jostling for space on the sidewalks makes the crowd seem even denser. If you think NYC is sensory overload, try Hong Kong on a Friday night—even a rainy one. Quiet but persistent hawkers insist that you need a designer watch, a custom suit, a foot massage. Everywhere you turn there are restaurants, beauty supply shops, bespoke tailors, apothecaries, and bakeries all jammed in next to each other and on top of one another.
Practically every building houses a hostel like the one we’re in right now. The front desk is on the twelfth floor, but the rooms are spread throughout the massive building. We’re on the thirteenth floor (yes, they have thirteenth floors here)., Lao Bi is on the fourteenth. Who knows where the rest of the crew is. The hostel rooms are distributed in small suites, so we get to walk by any number of businesses and private residences jammed into the quadrant before getting to our designated corner of the maze. The doors to each room are often open, so we see in one a sewing machine and a bunch of in-progress shirts. Another looks like some kind of clerical office, and a third has the ubiquitous string of laundry hanging out across the corridor and a nasty little dog yapping behind the door. Standing in the corridor that runs outside of the building and seeing the pattern of rooms repeated hundreds of times on twenty floors, and then knowing that it is repeated again in every building in this part of the city is pretty mind-blowing. It’s just one more example of the East’s ability to kick your psyche’s ass even as it offers you a comforting foot massage.
June 16, 2013
Caporino: Our Hong Kong gig last night at Hong Kong Brew House went very well. We had quite the enthusiastic (though heavily Westerner) crowd dancing and jumping around pretty good. Very solid all-around shows from Round Eye and Gou Shen as well. The Bollands played a very good opening set. I met them afterwards and they’re very nice people.
That afternoon we did an interview on RadioDada.hk (myself, JV, Lao Bi of Gou Shen, and Art Bomber who organized the Hong Kong show)—Paul and Calvin (both Asian men despite their Western names) were quite genial hosts, and we all tried to provide entertaining, interesting, thought-provoking radio. The beers helped.
While we were in Hong Kong we had very rainy weather, and the sidewalks seemed to be constantly packed with people holding umbrellas that I kept bumping into as we tried to get from place to place. I would like to have seen the city.
While we did enjoy our set, meal, drinks, and time at Hong Kong Brew House, the place seemed like it could have been some college bar in the U.S. (except for the locals who worked there, of course). The bar is located in a big late night party area and the streets were clogged with the young party-types you’d probably see at spring break in Florida.
Hong Kong is a very international city, and there are so many Westerners prowling around that I’ve decided to call it Honky Kong.
McDonough: The Brew House really was like a college bar back home in many regards, right down to the menu. You haven’t lived ’til you’ve eaten macaroni and cheese with bacon bits in Hong Kong. The club even came with its own resident Large Crazy But Benevolent Wicked Drunk Relentlessly Dancing Guy, just like back home. During the bands’ sets, he would dance BIG. During the in-between sets by the DJ when the floor in front of the stage would empty, he would dance small. He would only stop dancing to go to the bar and randomly shout “WOOOOOOOOO!” really fucking loud. At the end of the night, I swear to god we watched him eat a CD. I feel like I know this guy, and you probably do, too. Maybe you are this guy. And after all, who isn’t?
Our time in Hong Kong was too short and limited by the constant heavy rain to see very much of the city. But I think I get the idea: intense, overpopulated, expensive, and hyper-multicultural. When we boarded the ferry for Zhu Hai back on the mainland, I felt a sort of relief. And the sight of the small, conical islands in the bay, the relatively big spaces between the buildings, and the modest sunshine gave me a feeling of homecoming once we landed—which is pretty strange since the “home” we’re coming to is China, literally half a world away from our place in New Hampshire.
Lenz, the singer of Gou Shen, shared the cab back with Paul, Lao Bi, and me. She had never been outside of China before and said that HK gave her culture shock. She was very happy to be back on the mainland, and all of us felt good to know that our final show would be here. “This is where the story ends,” she pronounced. Hard to believe that tonight really is the end of our Chinese tour. I feel just like I do when I’m on the last chapter of a really good book. I want to see how the story ends, but I’m gonna hate to close that book for the last time, too.
June 18, 2013
McDonough: Our last full day in China is being spent at DB Studios, working on a bunch of tracks that will be on the next M.O.T.O. full-length album. Our final show in China was last night with Gou Shen at the original Live Bar in Zhu Hai, which bookended the tour’s start at the Live House in Shanghai.
The drum riser and stage at Live Bar are essentially two massive pool tables. There is a kayak propped up behind the drums and a Christmas tree at the entrance. Halloween decorations hang from the ceiling. I’m sensing a theme here. I just don’t know what it is.
Caporino: Soundcheck that night was one of the worst in recent memory. The two guys handling it didn’t seem to know what they were doing. Feedback everywhere. Both bands tried and neither of us got even a usable sound. Luckily, the boss lady who runs the joint showed up and straightened out the sound. It ended up being a good closing night. Afterward, I jammed a bit on a local hootenanny-type thing they had following the bands, although I never thought of Leo Sayer’s “More Than I Can Say” as being a jamming-type song.
June 19, 2013
McDonough: After our studio time last night, Rachel (our photographer/documentarian), Aho (our engineer), and Lao Bi planned on bringing us to dinner for one last big feast, this time at a Hunan restaurant. Rather than take a cab with the others, I decided to ride with Lao Bi on the back of his motorbike. This proved to be one of the best ideas ever.
At home, I used to be an avid motorcyclist before settling down and deciding to cut back on the bigger physical risks in my life. I was a big fan of fast riding and the resulting biochemical cocktail of adrenaline and endorphins that a 100MPH blast down a country highway provides.
Allow me to tell you that riding bitch on the back of a 30MPH scoot through Shanghai traffic provided all that and more! Commuting in Chinese cities seems to be a combination of skill, arrogance, ignorance, and luck. Traffic lights and signs are merely suggestions, not laws. The pedestrian is an equal combatant with every vehicle on the road and is not technically safe just because s/he retreats to the sidewalk, as Lao Bi demonstrated when traffic on the road got crappy and we just jumped up to where people were walking and slashed through them like a barracuda through a school of human mackerel. Crossing a major street requires the strategy of a chess move and the balls of a bungee jump.
Newsflash for all of you allegedly badass American bike messenger dudes: You’d last about five minutes in Shanghai or Beijing because the shit on the road in China would make your instadreads fall right outta your skull. I saw what looked like an eighty-year-old guy, smoking a cigarette, absolutely shredding through rush hour traffic with a toddler and a sidesaddle-riding lady crammed onto his moped. Guys with twelve-foot stacks of dry goods strapped on the back of their bikes compete with masked and gloved secretaries tearing it up on their way to the office.
On a taxi-caravan, our friends from Round Eye had a driver who came within a half second of exploding through a toll booth, action-movie style, just ‘cause he wanted to. And the buses are terrifying. They do not even pretend to slow down if you’re in their way. Everyone honks, whether it’s to communicate a friendly warning, impatience, or “I wonder if my horn still works because I use it so fucking much… better test it!” I feel like if anyone honks at me back in the States I won’t even notice anymore.
At the end of our ride, I dismounted the bike and thanked Lao Bi for getting us there without selling out his principles of road justice for my sake. That last ride sort of cemented how at home I could feel in such an alien place. That was the night I started formulating this crazy plan in which Paul and I move to Shanghai for a year or so, record a bunch of stuff and live on the cheap. I know it’s just a fantasy. But I’m still taking Mandarin classes and buying a moped.
Caporino: I suppose I should come up with a big summing-up part here. I guess I can say that China is about as awesome (I mean that in the original, pre-“dude” sense) and as overwhelming as any other outsider could imagine. I’m not really good at writing stuff like this—it’s hard to come up with stuff that hasn’t been said about China before. As much as I’d enjoyed the tour, meeting our new friends, playing all those fun shows, seeing and experiencing China in so many ways, I was glad to finally get back to the States. But I would certainly like to tour China again.
Chinese Takeaway: Random Observations about Stuff in the PROC
* There is no “Five-second rule” in China. If it falls on the floor, or even the table, you probably oughta leave it alone.
* Someone, somewhere, will offer you baijiu. You probably shouldn’t drink it, but you have to or you will insult the person offering it. Baijiu possesses all of the innocence of tequila, the wisdom of Jägermeister, and the deliciousness of isopropyl alcohol. A popular drinking game involving baijiu is “Let’s See Who Dies First.”
* PEOPLE HERE LOVE TO YELL ON THEIR MOBILE PHONES!
* One of the strangest things we saw was a battered, white grand piano stranded in the middle of a field on our way to the Great Wall.
* Attention, Western parents: Chinese babies are always going to be way cuter than your benighted little discharge.
* Things We Think We’ve Overheard People Saying in Chinese: