Since moving from America to China’s capital in 2009, Josh Feola has played a large part in cultivating the growing independent art and music scenes in Beijing and throughout China.
Within the 8 years he has been in Beijing, Josh has built up an impressive CV - drummer (currently for SUBS, formerly of Chui Wan), co-founder of Pangbianr (a popular online publication on Beijing's culture), festival organizer, record label founder and now the editor for up and coming publication Radii. Also not to mention that he was a booking agent for the, now defunct, legendary venue D22 (think CBGB's of the orient) during the height of the No-Beijing music explosion.
But perhaps the most impressive tool in Josh's box of skills, is his talent with the written word. Josh’s incisive commentary, which regularly gets published on China File, Sixth Tone, Douban, The Observer and The Wire, spans not just the art and music world, but also delves in to recent social changes that are unfolding before our eyes here in China.
So when the opportunity presented itself, Under the Wall jumped at the chance to pick Josh’s brain about his experiences in China and his take on the changing landscape of its independent music and art scenes.
But before we get into that, here's a live DJ set that Josh did for London-based radio station NTS late last year for you to listen to as you read.
UTW: You have been involved in almost every facet of the Chinese music industry, from playing music (the drummer for SUBS), founding a record label (Sinotronics), journalism, co-founding an online magazine (Pangbianr), a booking manager and even a festival curator. What do you see yourself as first and foremost? What has been the most rewarding and eye-opening role so far?
JOSH: These days I refer to myself as a writer and musician. That's what I spend the vast majority of my time doing, and how I make a living. If I had to boil it down to one role I'd consider myself a writer first and foremost, but as my writing focuses mainly on music and is informed by my experiences playing in bands, running live music venues, booking festivals, etc, it's not so easy to separate. One thing I don't see myself as is a "journalist", but "music writer" isn't really a career, so to be honest I'm at an existential crossroads at the moment. For now, "writer and musician" works.
Lately I've been able to write a few longer pieces for publications that I personally love to read (like The Wire, Sixth Tone and ChinaFile), so that has been rewarding, as has my editorial position at Douban Music, where I write a bilingual column about whatever I happen to be listening to at the moment. The feeling that my ideas and writing are connecting with a Chinese audience and not just the Anglosphere is very satisfying. Most recently (as in, the last few weeks), I’ve taken on a position as editor of Radii, a new web publication telling cultural stories from today’s China to an overseas audience. I’m very excited to help expand this new platform as its mission — to create cultural bridges of understanding between China and the West — is right in line with everything I’ve been doing here for the last 8 years.
"The music scene in China is much more open to hybrids and strange mixtures of influence".
UTW: For a man heavily involved in the Chinese independent music and art scene on this many levels, you must have a very unique perspective on how the scene compares to the rest of the world. What would you say are the fundamental differences of the Chinese independent scene compared to that of the American and European independent scenes?
JOSH: I don't know much at all about Europe, but I do have a fair bit of experience with underground music in America, though even that is dated since I moved to Beijing in 2009. By far the biggest difference is the depth of history during which "underground" music or alternative culture has been developing. I'm most familiar with hardcore punk and noise/experimental scenes in the US, all of which have been developing for decades and arguably draw on a cultural history that goes back to the '50s, with the Beats. In China there's a much shorter history when it comes to the development of a "counterculture" in music. Cui Jian's 1989 Gongti performance is perhaps overly mythologized (including by me), but it does serve as a semi-accurate starting point.
What this really means, I think, is that the music scene in China is much more open to hybrids and strange mixtures of influence. In the '90s and early '00s a lot of the rock bands and experimental musicians were self-taught and fed on a random diet of dakou tapes (semi-legal imports of surplus stock from Western labels that entered mostly through Hong Kong ports). Bands formed in the last 10 years of course had the internet, and could self-educate on a completely random curriculum of avant-garde or underground music made in the West over the last 100 years, most of which had received no previous coverage in China. So the most interesting thing to me about the Chinese music scene has been this process of discovery, the mutation of forms of music that I grew up with into different shapes and sounds, a sense of experimentation that I did not feel as viscerally in the US as I do in Beijing.
"Other industries, like mobile payment and dockless bike sharing, are leapfrogging ahead of anything that really exists in the West, and bucking the old stereotype that China can only "reinvent"/copy."
UTW: In the 8 years you've been in China, how has the scene changed? Is it a case of the wheel being reinvented, or is the infrastructure and the way of thinking evolving?
JOSH: That's a good question and I'm not sure what to do with that metaphor. The infrastructure has exploded. SUBS just completed a 15-city China tour, and every city had not only a livehouse dedicated to underground music, but also Mobikes, craft beer, and of course skyscrapers going up in every direction. We hit all four corners of China, with stops in Guangdong, Sichuan, Lanzhou, Xi'an and Shenyang, and I really saw this everywhere. I don't know if the wheel is being reinvented so much as on a large scale, industries like craft beer or music festivals are trying to figure out how to make a really, really big wheel. Other industries, like mobile payment and dockless bike sharing, are leapfrogging ahead of anything that really exists in the West, and bucking the old stereotype that China can only "reinvent"/copy. It's an interesting time to be here.
UTW: In 2015 you wrote an article for the Observer that discusses how Chinese culture still finds itself in a self-discovery/reinvention stage and that the keys are in the hands of the independent artists and musicians. Is there an emerging style that you would characterize as the distinctive contemporary Chinese artistic voice? Are there any artists, musicians which you would highlight as vanguards of this 'voice'?
JOSH: I'd be careful not to slap any rigid categories or criteria of "Chinese-ness" on this stuff, but I think some of the factors I mention in the previous two answers do shape art and music being made here today. This is something I think and write about often, so I'll link to a few articles that might answer this more thoroughly. One thing I've noticed in a lot of the most interesting electronic music coming out of China today is an interest in cyberpunk and futurist imagery -- I wrote this up in an article for Douban called Sinofuturism vs Cyberpunk. Along the same lines, some of the contemporary artists I find most interesting in China now are mainly coming out of the new media program at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou and working explicitly with "the internet" as a cultural reference or medium. One of them, Miao Ying, works with the concept of the "Chinternet" as this half-real, half-imagined space defined by a "counterfeit ideology", and this concept resonates a lot with me. You can read more about some Chinese post-internet artists I'm following here. One last thing to mention is the familiar caveat that China is a big place -- anyone who tries to describe what makes something "Chinese" is doomed to fail. To give a more concrete example, I think the character of different cities, like Beijing vs Shanghai, produces very different art and music, an idea I explored in an article for Sixth Tone last year.
UTW: Talking of music infrastructure, how strong and available is the infrastructure for independent bands? What barriers to growth does the independent scene in China have?
JOSH: The infrastructure now in Beijing is stronger than ever. There are more labels, more venues, more publications, more different kinds of media available to promote yourselves, play in front of an audience, get your music in people's ears, etc. That doesn't necessarily equate to an increase in quality, and sometimes the best music comes from improvising one's way through a near-total lack of infrastructural resources, but that's another topic. I think the chief barrier to growth for the indie scene is establishing and sustaining its cultural relevance to a critical mass of consumers. If the indie scene broadly speaking can siphon off 1/10 or 1/100 of the following of your average K-Pop sensation then the scene will be in good shape, financially at least.
"Sometimes the best music comes from improvising one's way through a near-total lack of infrastructural resources"
UTW: One of the things that is refreshing to see in the independent Chinese music scene it is largely stripped bare of some of the structural and managerial institutions that is a staple of other music industries, for example roadies, tour managers, designers, lighting engineers and in many cases record labels who are replaced in China's music scene with friends of the bands or volunteers. As a result this has seemed to bake-in a set of DIY values into the scene, which seems to not only give the whole scene a much more grassroots and independent feel but also makes the whole scene much more approachable and accessible. Is this down to a shared ethos and vision of the way the scene should be, or is more down to lack of financial and managerial structures in place to support bands? Are there any signs that this is likely to change in the future?
JOSH: I think this was much truer in the past, but is less the case now. Pre-internet, most Chinese bands were DIY by necessity, since they had virtually no infrastructure on which to draw. This did not limit their creativity or quality (see above), but perhaps did limit their reach or ability to make a living off their art alone. Today, besides those just starting out, most bands actually do have some of these industry trappings you mention -- almost always a label, usually a manager, sometimes different people negotiating the band's payment or managing the band's official WeChat, etc. I've seen DIY attitudes among musicians sharply decline in Beijing in the time I've been here, which is pretty sad.
UTW: Your interests in China run far past just music. You are big into art, literature and basically all aspects of China's socio-political/socio-economic climate. You write regularly about these subjects on your regular Douban column, and the many other publications which you have had written for. How did your interest in journalism develop? How has it evolved since you began?
JOSH: Haha! As I mentioned up top, I don't consider myself a journalist, probably because I mainly write about things I am pretty closely involved with. I studied Archaeology in university and I suppose in my writing about the music scene I try to adopt a more anthropological or sociological approach. I've always enjoyed writing, but it didn't occur to me to try to make money doing it until relatively recently (2013). I think it's only in the last year that I've started to pick up some of the skills most journalists learn early on -- like, for example, how to tell a story instead of just listing facts -- so maybe one day I will become a journalist after all.
UTW: You are also the co-founder of Pangbianr, an online publication which documents China's independent culture. Can you give a brief description of Pangbianr's mission?
JOSH: From the beginning our mission has been to build cultural bridges between China and the outside based on a shared interest in underground music and, to a lesser extent, art and film. More than a publication, I think pangbianr's main value has been as an event booking platform. I've probably done over 100 events under the pangbianr name, and have fielded many cold calls from experimental musicians and bands from all over the world who found the site and wanted to come here and perform. I think it has provided a good starting point for people interested in checking out the scene here, even though I haven't been so active with it lately.
UTW: When you launched Pangbianr in 2010 there was little to no online publications dedicated to documenting independent Chinese culture, which has always struggled from lack of exposure, both domestically and internationally. Has the leap into the connected age in the last 5 years done much to bridge this gap or does this gulf still exist? And why do you think that is?
JOSH: I think that gulf is being filled. Since pangbianr started more and more Westerners have come in from outside to write articles, record podcasts, shoot documentaries, produce branded content, etc, related to the Chinese underground music scene. The language barrier is of course there, but as media companies are becoming savvier and more people are becoming interested enough in China to pick up the language, the barrier is become less and less difficult to surmount. As more people (including me) write more and talk more about the Chinese scene, there will be a larger and larger base of pre-existing knowledge and understanding, so hopefully that will mean more exchange will flow as we get ever more connected.
UTW: Let's talk about your record label, Sinotronics, can you give a brief intro? What acts do you currently have on the label? What's been the most exciting part of running the label so far?
JOSH: Sinotronics isn't so active these days, but I'm still quite close with the two other co-founders, Markus M Schneider and Wang Menghan. Menghan is also one of the label artists, a brilliant producer of minimal and experimental techno. Check out her work here. I'm proud of the two Sino-Indian Music Alliance compilations we've done, pairing emerging Indian with Chinese producers. I hope that we can get Volume 3 of that out this year. Sinotronics' main output today is our Beijing Electronic Music Encounter (BEME) mini-festival, which we've done annually for five years. We don't have any details about this year's edition yet, but we always try to do something different from other events in Beijing, so we'll see what that looks like later this year.
UTW: Right Josh, last question. What can we expect to see from you in the future? What are you most excited about for your future ventures?
JOSH: As I mentioned up top, I just joined Radii as an editor, so I’ll give that a little plug. Radii’s mission is to present cultural stories from contemporary China to a young, English-speaking audience that maybe only otherwise sees the top-level, mainstream version of the China narrative. We’ll do that through a mosaic of articles, photos, videos and podcasts exploring three core subject areas: Culture (mainly music, art, film and literature), Innovation (trying to get a handle on the crazy China tech scene, mainly), and Life (exploring ideas related to health and well-being, and demystifying some aspects of Traditional Chinese Medicine). I’ve wanted to do a podcast for years but never had a concrete reason to – now I do, so look forward to my All Songs Considered-style “China B-sides” (pangbianr pun) podcast to start trickling online in September!
UTW: Aaaaand finally, to finish with, can you give us some recommendations.
JOSH: I think some of the most interesting art being made today, anywhere, is coming from the Chinese post-internet artists I mentioned above. Dig into that here.
Rotten Augurs -- I put this together for a new web radio station launched recently by a Russian friend. It's a two-hour mix including some of my recent favorite Chinese experimental and underground electronic music
NTS Live in Beijing -- This is a DJ set I did for London-based radio station NTS late last year. Half of it is new (mostly still unreleased) tracks from the Chinese indie rock scene, and the other half is some of my favorite Chinese rock tunes from the last 15 years.
Primate Anxiety (Side A/Side B) -- I have a tradition of making a mix every year around the Spring Festival, asking a bunch of people I know who are working on new material for the upcoming year to give me a sample. Last year this morphed into a two-parter, with Side A focusing more on indie rock, punk, that sort of stuff, and Side B diving deeper into Beijing's experimental music scene. Most of this stuff has been released now, but I still enjoy listening to this mix.
And one more, since four is unlucky: I highly recommend "Four Seas 四海", the debut single from Beijing producer Howie Lee's recently released Homeless EP. I can't even properly describe how insane this video is; just watch it!
A HUGE thanks to Josh for taking the time. Much appreciated.