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Carsick Cars front man Zhang Shouwang (Mark MacKinnon/The Globe and Mail)
Carsick Cars front man Zhang Shouwang (Mark MacKinnon/The Globe and Mail)

Music

When it comes to indie rock, is Beijing 2010's Montreal? Add to ...

Some of the bands are still in awe of the reception they got in November when they arrived in New York at the beginning of a beyond-their-dreams tour of the U.S. East Coast. Singing in Chinese to an audience of seen-it-all-before American fans, they braced themselves for empty rooms and bad reviews.

Instead, Xiao He, Carsick Cars and fellow rockers PK-14 played 13 jam-packed shows, including a breakout performance at Washington, D.C.'s famed Velvet Lounge that was followed within days by the invitation to headline China Night in Austin.

"Before we went [to New York] we were nervous about the audiences because we were singing in Chinese, and American audiences don't know bands from China," said Yang Haisong, the impish and bespectacled front man of PK-14, a Talking Heads-influenced four-piece band that is one of the few veteran acts in China's otherwise too-young-to-shave rock-music scene.

"But in New York, the audiences were excited. Maybe they were surprised we were good."

And they are, unquestionably, good. PK-14 and Carsick Cars, in particular, play a brand of music that would be radio friendly in any language, though in China - where there are no stations that regularly play their music - the bands remain consigned to a semi-underground existence, playing the same clubs over and over again as they tour the country. There are four well-known rock music clubs in Beijing; Yugong Yishan, the club hidden behind the red curtain, is the biggest, holding upwards of 800 people at capacity.

The size of the crowds is the only real way to determine how fast Chinese rock music is growing. Pirated CDs and a host of free-download music websites mean the bands can only make money through at-the-door sales of tickets and merchandise.

Nonetheless, the scene has grown rapidly from a few years ago, when Beijing had only one small live-music club (with a capacity of about 100) that regularly featured live performances by rock bands. Many point to the 2006 opening of D-22, a dingy student hangout in the northwest of the Chinese capital that became the second home for many of China's would-be rock stars, as the moment the "Beijing scene" began to coalesce.

"China is a bit like the U.S. in the 1960s. In the sixties, U.S. pop culture was very conformist, very materialist. Intelligent young people were dropping out of the scene because they had no point in common with mainstream culture. When that happened, it drove the whole culture in a completely new direction," said Michael Pettis, an American living in Beijing who founded Maybe Mars records as well as D-22. In China now, as in the United States 50 years ago, "there's a massive social and cultural change taking place," Pettis believes.

Zhang, the Carsick Cars guitar prodigy, has a simpler explanation for why the audiences at the band's shows are suddenly much larger than they were a few years ago. "The Internet," he says simply. "For the past 10 years, people just got really bad stuff. Bad music, bad art, everything. But now people can find anything they want because of the Internet. The Internet is changing the whole youth culture."

Pettis, a finance professor at Beijing University by day, also ran a rock music club in New York in the early 1980s when that scene was erupting. He believes the Chinese capital is developing its own sound, just as New York, Manchester, Seattle and Montreal each did when they were emerging.

"No one [in Beijing]spends too much time thinking about crafting songs - it is almost a natural talent. The real focus is on exploring harmonic sounds. Beijing loves noise, feedback, mixing up instruments and genres, synthesizers and anything that allows them to play with harmony, and they attack it with an enthusiasm that is hard to find elsewhere."

The local scene gets the occasional boost from Western bands that come here - the Carsick Cars have toured Europe with the likes of Sonic Youth and opened for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at shows in Beijing and Shanghai - but still politics occasionally gets in the way.

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