Thursday, June 10, 2010

D-22: The Mother of Beijing - and China's - Indie Music Scene

By Eric de Fontenay

UNiXX rocks out D-22 on the final leg of their 7 Deadly Sins tour

A prime objective on my recent trip to Beijing was to connect with the leading force behind the city's burgeoning independent music scene: D-22. Anyone who is anyone... and many no-ones... have played Beijing's version of CBGB, and in the process, China's most pioneering and vibrant indie music scene was born.

I was running late to meet Nevin Domer, who manages daily operations at D-22, in no small part due to Beijing cabbies' utter ignorance of the city they are meant to drive you around. In my experience, it doesn't matter whether you have that slip of paper with the address in chinese characters or not as they will get lost anyway.

I finally arrive at a relatively modest doorfront that belies the club's influence. D-22 is a warm mix of dark red walls, wood and brick which fits well with its low-key, easy-going style. No flash or pretense here. And all along the balcony are pictures of the bands that have become household names in China's indie scene thanks to D-22: Hedgehog, Carsick Cars, White, PK-14,...

Up-and-coming rock trio Ourselves Beside Me
Your eyes quickly catch sight of 'Mike', the owner of D-22. You can't miss him with his exuberant NY personality and downright love for the music and young bands that play it. He not only is the father of Beijing indie rock, he acts the part, hugging and encouraging musicians throughout the club as if they were the prodigal children returned. He proceeds to point out a 16 year old kid whose band he predicts will shake Beijing's scene and tells me to keep an eye out for all-girl band Ourselves Beside Me. But my treat would be that night's headliner UNiXX, a Hong Kong-based band on Lona Records I've been following since I launched MusicDish*China (more on both of them in an upcoming article).

Actually, it's more likely that they were at D-22 no more than a few days ago. You see, D-22 is not just a club, it is the heart of Beijing's indie community. Bands performing that night often come during the day to practice - D-22's doors are always open. And half those people attending that night were themselves members of various bands, supporting and learning from each other. So much so that I got the rare pleasure to catch a veteran of the scene who was there from the beginning: Hedgehog guitarist and vocalist ZO(子健).

"At D-22, we are tied to each other and grow together," he explained of the late 2006 series of gigs at the club that propelled the band out of obscurity. "Many creative artists and new bands played there every week and we released our album "Noise Hit World" in 2007. That year, the Beijing scene bubbled to the surface." On a personal note, I think Hedgehog is one of the most exciting acts in China and has become part of my daily musical diet.

At the center of that community is Mike (Michael Pettis), a NY finance banker expat who opened the club on May 1, 2006. As Matthew Niederhauser writes in the preface of his photographic anthology of Beijing's indie scene "Sound Capital":

"The new club's foremost priority was finding and developing new talent, regardless of its musical style and commercial appeal. It demanded originality from musicians and was willing to go to great lengths to indulge them."

And that they did, literally reshaping Beijing's musical landscape. Michael went on to launch the Maybe Mars label with PK-14's Yang Haisong as an natural extension of D-22 to support the scene it had created. Nevin Domer, who had given me a tour of the club and introduced that night's performing acts, is a member himself of Fanzui Xiangfa (who we first featured in MusicDish*China Sounds Pod#2) and works at both the club and label. And all the bands on the label's roster developed and grew in D-22's embrace.

It's ironic that I would have to fly halfway across the world to China to find such a rare pearl as D-22. The analogy to New York's CBGB's is striking. Just as CBGB's did in the 80's, D-22 has given birth to China's hardcore and punk rock scene. Like CBGB's, D-22 is more than a club: it is like a mother, feeding, caring and educating each individual band in this movement. Ironically, many of the t-shirts in the crowd paid homage to NY bands of that CBGB's era like The Cramps and Souxie and The Banshees.

Now don't get me wrong, D-22 ain't perfect. They definitely need to work on the sound. And while this is a serious though correctable flaw, what Michael has done to find and nurture the incredible talent that might otherwise opt to go C-Pop or just not pick up an instrument is immeasurable. None of it would have been possible without his personal and financial commitment to the cause. So, speaking for myself - who would otherwise not have much to write about or play in my podcasts - a big thank you to the entire D-22 crew and bands who went along for the party.

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