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.

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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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