A Sichuan Rock Star Takes On America

Baishui's appearance at South By Southwest marks a milestone for modern Chinese music—but don't ask him to speak for anything but his songs.
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Baishui in Austin, Texas. (Jonathan Campbell)

It’s high noon in March and the cluttered patio of Maria’s Taco Xpress, the Austin, Texas institution, is gloriously sunny. First-time visitor Gan Baishui is moments away from his band’s American debut, but the composer and musician from a fourth-tier city in southwest China you’ve never heard of looks far from psyched to be playing a gig on the sidelines of the massive annual music festival and industry conference South by Southwest (SXSW). The source of his current state might be mistaken for nerves, but he’s probably just confused.

To look at him, Baishui (he and his band both go by his given name) conjures a bespectacled Mister Magoo, the nearsighted little old man of 1950s American television cartoons. He speaks in a thickly-accented Sichuan rasp, employing his entire head and contorting his face into a hard squint behind thick horn-rimmed glasses, a squint that gets harder as he switches from Mandarin to his better-than-he’ll-admit-to English. It’s like watching someone try, with all his might, both to process his surroundings and simultaneously describe his thoughts.

His pre-show discombobulation is understandable as he scans the mostly-empty picnic tables. In week two of what will stretch into a month-and-a-half in America, Baishui faces questions with no easy answers. Just what kind of debut gig is this? How will the band be received? Luo Keju, whose laptop is the source of the band’s digital soundscapes and samples, stands beside him, but where the hell is their guitarist, Gu Dao?

Baishui—“Teacher Bai” to most who know him—hails from the city of Yibin, deep in the earthquake-prone mountains of the southeast corner of Sichuan province, a small place by Chinese standards with roughly three quarters of a million people. From that unlikely subtropical spot in Southwest China, Baishui has made a name for himself, packing music clubs from Guangzhou to Beijing and selling albums as fast as he can press limited editions of his work. Those sales, plus paid downloads via iTunes, Bandcamp, and other sites, he says, are plenty to live on.

When SXSW began accepting applications for its 2013 festival just over a year ago, Baishui paid his 30 bucks like just more than ten thousand other artists from around the world hoping to get the opportunity to play in front of the producers and distributors at the biggest single market in the global music industry. “I figured I’d try it out,” he says. “I didn’t really think too much about it.” Within a couple of days, he got an email from an excited festival booker extending an invitation.

I wrote a book about Chinese rock and roll and I found it hard to believe that the only Chinese name among the SXSW first-round picks for 2013 was one I’d never heard. After finding Baishui’s music, listening to it, and liking it, I emailed to see if I could help him sort out his first overseas tour, as I’d done for multiple Chinese acts over the years.

In Austin, Baishui is at the taco joint to play at an event called the Traveling Barn Dance, and it’s clear this wasn’t what he had in mind when he dreamed of bringing his music to the West.

Part of his confusion is my fault: this gig isn’t part of Baishui’s deal with SXSW, it’s one I added to his schedule myself. Surely he’s wondering if leaving things in my hands was a good idea.

Local musician Leeann Atherton has hosted barn dances for the past 18 years, and those held during SXSW are some of the hundreds of unofficial sideshows key to keeping visiting musicians busy during the daylight hours in between their one or two official festival showcases. Last year, she invited the Shanghai-based alt-rock band Duck Fight Goose to join her Full Moon Barn Dance and, based on their rave reviews, I suggested she give Baishui a listen. After inviting Baishui to join the Full Moon event, she asked about adding him to the lineup at the Traveling Barn Dance, too. A twofer, I thought. Sold.

Atherton’s Barn Dances are two of the week’s quirkier related attractions, quirkier still considering the potential for the crowd to revolt when Baishui’s carefully-constructed 40-minute set reveals nary a country fiddle nor hoedown melody. The band plans to lead the audience into dark territory, far from the realm of the murder ballad or twangy tale of heartbreak; here, the road is lined with references to out-there and riff-heavy classics à la Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and filled with nods to hard-driving, distorted barrages of noise akin to the industrial music of Nine Inch Nails. The one seeming concession to the Barn Dance theme will be the folky notes on which the set ends, a piece featuring a recorder solo evoking a monk roaming the Chinese countryside.

But for now, dressed in a long-sleeved polo shirt, jeans, and skateboard sneakers, Baishui sits in a plastic chair, while would-be listeners in various stages of lunch go about their business, oblivious to the landmark concert they are about to witness—the first outside his home country and the first in many years where Baishui is not the headliner. By this point in his career, he has filled clubs across China thanks to a rabid, if niche, following. Today, he is the opening act in the lineup and playing for a crowd that doesn’t seem to realize he sits before them, by some miracle, from half a world away.

***

Chinese bands are not exactly strangers to SXSW, but they’re not yet the fixtures that bands from Japan and South Korea have become over the years. A “K-Pop Night Out” closed the festival this year and “Japan Nite” has been a SXSW favorite since 1996. There has been what Mirko Whitfield, SXSW International Representative, calls a “slow trickle” of Chinese participation. The Chinese bands that have landed at SXSW since 2001 have tended to be well supported by record labels, organizations that are able to get applications and travel money together with relative ease. Most bands performing at SXSW apply, and bookers look them over and decide if they are worthy of a billing.

But Chinese bands didn’t become a regular SXSW feature until 2010. When two of them played Austin in 2007, six Westerners—myself included—participated in a panel discussion called “China's Emerging Music Market.” The American audience, not much concerned with Chinese music, asked for tips on getting their own bands gigs and record sales in the Middle Kingdom. Panel organizer Vickie Nauman, a long-time specialist in digital music technology and international business development, said it was hard to convince Chinese industry folks that the trip was worth their while. In the U.S. music industry, “no one had really heard of China,” she said.

Since then, with China’s continued economic rise, curiosity about all things Chinese has spawned SXSW panels with titles such as “Why the Global Music Industry Needs China” and “Hype or Bust … Do You, the Artist, Need to Be in China?” But other aspects of the would-be music industry exchange remain frozen. Though Chinese artists now arrive in Austin each March in increasing numbers, Chinese music industry executives still rarely make the trip.

“There is a very active Chinese music business, but not on an international level,” said Whitfield, who helped bring the massive Midem music industry conference and festival begun in Cannes to Hong Kong for the first time in 1997.

Since its modern beginnings in the mid-1980s, the mainland’s music industry has been wracked by piracy. Chinese music sales are a mere sliver of the global pie. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry says that 99 percent of all music sold in China is pirated, and that China ranked 20th in global sales in 2012, with $92 million. The United States ranked first, with $4.4 billion in sales. But, as with many other industries trying to reach China’s expanding consumer class, the music business is viewed as being off the charts in terms of potential, particularly because of the country’s voracious, and growing, appetite for digital gadgets and global culture. In addition to a regular stream of emerging Western acts playing a night or two at small urban clubs, China’s biggest concert venues have hosted packed performances by the likes of Metallica (2013), the Rolling Stones (2006), Bob Dylan (2011) and big-name pop acts such as Elton John (2012), Beyoncé (2007), and Jennifer Lopez (2012). Additionally, a range of tiny upstart labels and bigger music business names have visited China from around the world to attend industry conferences. By contrast, thus far in Austin—and across the U.S.—Chinese indie acts and small labels have led the way into the American heartland, less to do actual business than to gain experience and spread the word that rock and roll is made in China, too. After talks with the Chinese Consulate in Houston and China’s biggest record company, the government-owned China Record Corporation (CRC), Whitfield is convinced that it’s only a matter of a few years before SXSW sees a “real Chinese presence,” executives and all. Once CRC—with its enormous catalogue, vast multimedia empire, and serious governmental clout—comes to SXSW, “everyone else will come as well,” he says.

Since 2010, Beijing-based indie rock label Maybe Mars (has sent club acts to SXSW each year. In 2013, Carsick Cars, one of the better-known bands on the Chinese circuit, led the label’s Austin-bound posse for the fourth time. Often compared to big-name American alternative rock band Sonic Youth—for whom they opened a few shows in Europe in 2007—Carsick Cars led Maybe Mars’ ascent from underground upstart to legitimate player in the music business, earning the lion’s share of the label’s investment. As a result of their many trips to the U.S., they may well have become the best-known Chinese rock band in the world, but that doesn't imply that their fan base is large. During Stateside talks for my book, when I ask which Chinese bands people have heard (or heard of), Carsick Cars is always on a very short list.” But their renown still translates into only a small turnout at their sole SXSW 2013 gig, this time alongside label-mates The Gar and White+. I am reminded of a 2012 SXSW panel about Chinese music when Charles Saliba, Maybe Mars’ Managing Partner and co-founder of the Beijing club D-22, admitted that getting his bands to Austin amounted to “a big investment with very, very low returns.”

Gan Baishui

SXSW recently announced the first round of artists invited to play their music at the festival in March 2014—a list on which Baishui appeared this time last year. There are no Chinese acts on next year’s list.

***

“Please tell people,” Baishui wrote to me in advance of heading to the U.S., “I don’t play China Music. Tell them I play Baishui music.” It was a refrain he’d repeat over the course of our time together on the road in America. At SXSW, Baishui’s playing alongside other international acts meant Austin audiences could separate the band’s music from its country of origin faster than they might when hearing the Maybe Mars bands, whose Chineseness was thrust front-and-center in a lineup dubbed the “Beijing Underground.” Whereas the Maybe Mars posse channels the current Chinese rock scene, delivering the gritty flavors of its epicenter in Beijing, Baishui epitomizes the up-and-coming edges of contemporary music, with sounds emanating from Yibin and other far-flung cities and individual voices that together represent something like the sound of China’s future.

Many Chinese bands aspire to be recognized for their art, not as Made in China novelties. One of the few bands to escape this China Syndrome and be heard on its own terms is FM3, an ambient/electro duo that shares Baishui’s penchant for experimental sounds, and that came to SXSW in 2008. The members of FM3—Beijing rock veteran Zhang Jian and Christiaan Virant, a long-time Beijing resident by way of his native Omaha, Nebraska—are known best for the “anti-iPod” they created by repurposing a deck-of-cards-sized plastic transistor (the type East Asian monks use to tote around recordings of their mantras) and filling the brightly colored devices with analog loops of new age chants. Among the wide range of fans of the FM3 “Buddha Machine” is legendary British musician and producer Brian Eno.

Even after several tours overseas, bands like Carsick Cars still draw news-of-the-weird mentions in the foreign press rather than straight-up coverage from serious music critics. Even when Cui Jian—China’s only legitimate rock star—plays overseas, most of his audience is Chinese. Cui, now 52, is the rocker who unwittingly produced the soundtrack for the failed democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989, his songs “Nothing to My Name” and “A Piece of Red Cloth” adopted as the student protestors’ anthems. (Though he’s been called both the Springsteen and the Dylan of China, some might prefer to think of him as a Chinese original touched by not only Bruce and Bob, but also the spirit of the late Joe Strummer of British punk innovators The Clash.) “Outside of China, there aren’t as many foreigners at the shows as there are at our concerts in smaller Chinese cities,” said Cui.

Some argue Cui Jian can’t crossover because he doesn’t sing in English. But language alone can’t account for this isolating China Syndrome, particularly in the case of someone like Baishui, who often sings in a Sichuan dialect as foreign to a standard-Mandarin-speaking Beijinger as it is to a music snob in Brooklyn or Berkeley. Lyrics in Spanish, Portuguese, or Korean didn’t stop Richie Valens, Gilberto Gil, and Psy from scoring global chart-topping hits that scored big in the U.S., too.

When I toured Europe with the Beijing-based punk band Subs between 2005 and 2007, the band took to traveling with a poster that read, in English, “Why Must We Say We Are Made In China?” The band knew the answer: The only way to attract the interest of foreign rock fans—a crowd that tends to expect Chinese music to be defined in opposition to an establishment—was to shout that they were rocking out about life under a repressive regime. Yet they were pigeonholed across Europe as “that Chinese punk band.” Accepting the band’s fate, for a brief period, Subs’ wiry front woman Kang Mao told me, gesturing big to frame an imaginary concert hall marquee in the air with her hands: “This year, we’re ‘CHINA subs,’ Next time, we’ll be ‘China Subs,’ and after that, we’ll be ‘Subs China,’ and then, just ‘Subs.’” Though they left thousands of fans clamoring for more of their tight, loud brand of driving Beijing punk, the band remains, eight years later, “CHINA subs” in the eyes of much of the rest of the world—more limited by the world’s abstract understanding of the nation from which they come than celebrated for the sounds they produce.

***

Back on Maria’s patio, as the sounds of the opening loops from Luo Keju’s laptop computer reach Austin ears, Baishui’s guitarist, Gu Dao, still is nowhere in sight. After catching English rockers Muse at the Toyota Center in Houston the night before, then crashing in a storage unit he’d rented for $11, Gu miscalculated the time it would take the Greyhound bus to deliver him back to the show.

His absence goes unnoticed by the crowd, until, 15 minutes into Baishui’s American debut, a frazzled Chinese dude jogs toward the stage. Baishui and Luo are deep into the set and Baishui’s glasses have slipped nearly off of his nose. His eyes are closed and Gu’s arrival doesn’t break his concentration. Gu takes the stage with minimal disruption, marveling at the scene he’s joining.

Now the audience is processing several things at once. A good many in its number were unaware their lunch hour would involve music at all; most who knew expected the hoedown sounds of the Traveling Barn Dance; fewer still knew that Baishui was in the line-up, and that small subset is now trying to figure out just what a band from China should look and sound like. This mutual measurement, by band and fans alike, is repeated each time the trio takes to an American stage.

***

Like many of his Chinese contemporaries, Baishui came to rock and roll via heavy metal. In the pre-Internet age, the soundtrack to his, and his nation’s, headbanging came via dakou or “saw-gash” tapes and CDs: surplus albums from the West, unsold in their native lands, with gashes that marked them as garbage without completely destroying their function. Forward-thinking businessmen unschooled in rock and roll but keen to take advantage of the earliest signs of China’s opening market economy rerouted the stream of saw-gash recordings from landfills to shops around the country where they went for pennies on the dollar. By the time he was ready to compose his own music, Baishui’s tastes had mellowed, coming around, eventually, to neo-folk, a genre whose guitar-strumming is overladen with experimental and gothic elements, earning the nickname “apocalyptic folk”—the times ain’t so much a-changin’ as they are a-endin’. Baishui’s 2005 debut, with the band Bloody Woods, attracted fans across the country primarily through word of mouth and a collection of critical praise. Two years later, the band performed to full houses in live venues across China, establishing Baishui a fan base whose admiration is revived on this U.S. tour. Chinese now studying Stateside approach him with nervousness and respect.

Though nowadays some describe Baishui as a player of the “new folk” music of the first decade of the 21st century—a sound whose scene is centered in Beijing—Baishui quickly rejects the link critics and fans make between his sounds and the acoustic Dylan-esque urban music of a certain stripe of singer-songwriter. Baishui insists that his music is a very different beast.

A desire to separate himself is Baishui’s defining characteristic. There is the geographic isolation of life in Yibin, where there is no music scene to speak of. “There’s nobody to even talk to about music, let alone play music with,” says Baishui. There is also the musical isolation that comes from drawing on such a wide range of influences and creating such a diverse body of work. Baishui’s material spans the musical spectrum. There is Sichuanese folk music, which, like American folk, seems ancient yet timeless, offering up songs you feel like you’ve always known. Some of his music employs a mixture of the musical traditions of the Silk Road, where Chinese zithers meet subtle Arabian rhythms and intense Indian drones. There is his minimal, Zen-inspired music: prayer bells, carefully plucked guitar, and meditative flute, the occasional sounds of water flowing—the soundtrack to an imagined mountain retreat. And there is Baishui’s heavier, post-rock stuff: sweeping and cinematic instrumentals loaded with the sounds of machines. His lyrics are delivered in a voice scarred by years of smoking and, one suspects, the effects of the wellspring of Wuliangye. The best-known brand of Chinese grain alcohol, Wuliangye has been produced since the early 1950s in Yibin—which the distiller calls “Liquor City.” But rather than a down-and-dirty hard-drinking and hard-living voice, Baishui’s rasp is hypnotic, filling a room with meaning, particularly when voicing the Sichuan dialect. Meeting the man surrounded by fans who call him “Teacher” only intensifies this effect.

***

The band’s set at Maria’s Taco Xpress is well-received; the lunchtime crowd is a polite, if not overly excited audience. But the musicians in the crowd—a combination of other SXSW acts and curious local rockers—make up for the indifference by paying close attention. They greet Baishui with excitement after the set. Baishui’s delight with them is tempered by the embarrassment over his bandmate’s late arrival, the inevitable disappointment over issues not cleared up in sound check, and the clear preference of the general audience for the country twang and sing-along-ability of the second band on the bill. Over the next few days, three straight-up rock club gigs will give him a better taste of what it means to play as a band in America.

But all along, Baishui is dogged by China Syndrome. Invitations to perform at unofficial events came not solely because of the band’s nationality, but often their being Chinese was a factor in bookers’ decisions to put them on stage. Each time I heard a host exclaim that Baishui was “all the way from China!” or “a real Chinese band!” a part of me cringed, fearing that Baishui would see his mission to spread Baishui Music fail before it ever had the chance to begin.

He and I talk a lot about China Syndrome over the course of the tour. “A friend said to me that I could get a lot of great gigs in the West with my folk music,” says Baishui, acknowledging an overt Chineseness in his unplugged material. “I know I could. But that’s not where I am now.” He moved away from the neo-folk music that attracted his first large following, and headed into heavier territory. “If I’m not comfortable, the audience will know it ... I wanted to move on.”

He moved on to progressive rock, the complex and off-kilter music made (in-) famous in the 1970s via a reputation for musical excess, and experimental music, in which the goal was to find new ways of employing sound. His work on small independent films expanded his musical vocabulary. The film Einstein and Einstein, which features his score, just had its world premier at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea. A quick listen through his catalogue reveals that Baishui Music is a moving target. To Baishui, though, it’s a work in progress—one that can be heard at his SoundCloud page and will, he insists, be influenced by the music he and his bandmates will hear over the course of their month-and-a-half Stateside, seeing everything from touring stadium shows to local bar bands.

***

The band’s Austin run ends as it began, at a barn dance, where Baishui has the headlining slot at the Full Moon Barn Dance, a massive, long-running neighborhood party on Atherton’s own property. The threesome arrives to find several hundred people chomping barbecue and swilling from kegs of beer spread out across a huge yard flanked by two stages.

As Baishui prepares to take the stage to close out the night, only the heartier, drunker element of the audience remains. The grass in the yard is well trodden and there is more room on the wooden-plank dance floor. The acts preceding Baishui include a Swedish country trio, a Norwegian pop singer, and a band fronted by Atherton, the Barn Dance hostess, singing classic country tunes.

Introduced as a band playing “Country music … music from another country,” Baishui takes the stage to cheers as speakers hanging from tree branches shudder under the weight of the band’s bass-heavy sounds.

I turn my gaze from the stage to the audience and watch a slow transformation I’ve seen time and again across Europe and North America. First, I spot thin, spreading smiles in recognition of the distance the band has traveled to get there. Smiles widen at the idea of the band’s mere existence—“These guys are from China!” faces say. Smiles then deepen as curiosity evolves into appreciation—a sort of “Hey, this music is pretty good!” vibe. Finally, there’s the craziness factor, as it dawns on the crowd how amazing it is that this band from far away Sichuan exists at all and is playing in Austin, Texas.

A gaggle of hippies in green sheer capes dance and sway, interspersed with greybeards in overalls shooting photos and video from all angles. Hipsters hoot and holler, decked out in their best denim and gingham hoedown garb, hair pigtailed for the occasion. Arms are waving and eyes are popping. The sound man tells me that what he wants more than anything is to crank the dials all the way up, but refrains, knowing that’s the quickest way to get the party shut down.

It’s in the last moments of his live set that Baishui voices the only four lines Texas will hear him actually sing (which you can listen to in the video above). His dialect twangs, his voice moans. It’s poetry that it doesn’t take fluency in Chinese to feel. He sings of a wilderness where there are no roads, where forests and mountains tower, and where understanding is possible.

At the end of the set, fans rush up for autographs and CDs. Unable to speak Chinese but lubricated enough to want to approach while they have the chance, some locals bow, sure that this is the culturally-appropriate gesture of respect for Chinese guests. Baishui and his bandmates spur on the confusion by bowing back, overly-polite, not sure how else to react, and the process repeats itself. “We went to China once,” one woman tells the threesome, “and we never saw anything like this and we just wanted to let you know and you guys were great!”

No distribution deals have been inked, nor future tours lined up, but in this backyard in rock and roll’s heartland, Baishui Music’s future looks bright. 


This post first appeared at ChinaFile, an Atlantic partner site.

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Jonathan Campbell is a musician, author, and expert on Beijing's rock scene. He is now based in Toronto.

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