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Rock Optics 07/08

By Jun 26, 2008 Arts


In Shanghai, you can count on about ten people to turn up for every single live music show, no matter where it is or what band is playing. A few of them know everyone else, a few don't know anyone else, but everyone recognizes everyone: 'There's that guy. I've seen that guy before.'

Two of these guys are Tim Franco and Gianpaolo Lupori, the two guys behind "Shanghai Soundbites 0708," a self-published 70-page photo book documenting the past year (or so) of live music in Shanghai. With an emphasis on capturing and depicting the singular atmospheres of the shows themselves, Shanghai Soundbites features photographs of local and touring bands, local and touring DJs, local rock promoters, people, and venues. Along with the photography, is an essay by Gianpaolo (English with Chinese trans.) addressing the social, urban, and cultural atmosphere of Shanghai, examining the music as it is created and received in the city, and contextualizing the photography in a specific and ephemeral moment in the ongoing evolution of Shanghai.

Published in limited addition, 150 copies of Shanghai Soundbites 07/08 are available at the launch party this Saturday at YY's or through their website here.

SmartShangai caught up with Tim and Gianpaolo to talk about the book and live music in Shanghai:

SmSh: First, who are you guys? Where are you from? What do you do? How long have you been in Shanghai?

Gianpaolo: I thought I just got my new visa. I didn't do anything wrong... I'm supposed to be a filmmaker, but these days you have to be able to do a bit of everything in the world of media. I'm Italian. I've been living in Shanghai for almost four years. I'm married with two kids, and while living here, I've been trying to understand the developments in contemporary Chinese culture...

Tim: Well for me I'm mostly French from Paris, but also with a good half from Poland. I've been in the city since January, 2005... I have been doing quite a few things in Shanghai, studying, working for different industries... I am now in between a "salary" job for a French company and my freelance photo work, which is more related to documentary projects rather than commercial ones... I'm also very interested in the development of China, the local subcultures -- particularly in the time between the Olympics and the Expo.

SmSh: How did the idea for a photo book of live music in Shanghai come about?

Gianpaolo: Well, it was the result of a number of things, but I believe in particular it was the recent difficulties that have placed themselves in the way of the music scene here. This [past year] seemed to be a peak in the creativity of the scene, and it seems to be heading for a rough time... and before it started fading we thought it would be nice to try to capture the feeling of it.

Tim: I think our goal was to capture a moment... "07/08" -- just to get a print of what happened in the music scene at a certain moment in Shanghai. We are not pretending to make a global portrait of the Shanghai music scene, far from that, but are more trying to show the feeling of what we've observed during this time frame. We also wanted to put our own limit to this project, otherwise the documentation could have gone endlessly and we've decided that this month of June, both incredibly active in the music scene and located one month before the Olympics was a perfect timing.

Gianpaolo: It wasn't actually as organic a process as it may appear it was more of a retrospective project than a planned one.

SmSh: So the tone of the text of the book, and from what you guys are saying right now, it seems you are skeptical of the future of live music in Shanghai. A line from the book is, "the flow will slow to a trickle and die out..."

Gianpaolo: Well the initial and natural comparison is with Beijing. There is a stable and permanent scene there, but in Shanghai things don't seem to be able to last that long. Most of the local bands that have come together over the past few years have broken up after only a short while, and the only reason there is a scene here is thanks to the few people who work hard to keep it alive. I don't think there is as much "pessimism" as a conception of the city as it is today, as a place where things don't last. I think this is one of the charms of the city but at the same time also one of its handicaps. More than a forecast for the future, it's an attempt to make everyone count their blessings while they have them. It actually all started at the Bjork concert and the aftermath of that. Which we both saw together. We then realized how fragile the scene was and how easily it could be disbanded. Then when the visa restrictions were implemented, we realized that this could have further implications. However, the original thought was that though things may seem to die, things will always change. And something or someone will always be there to start over.

SmSh: Yeah... Shanghai resets itself every year.

Gianpaolo: Nice way of putting it.

SmSh: Maybe I can ask Tim a little more about the photos and then get back to this later... So, Tim, did you go to the majority of the shows for the year?

Tim: [Laughs] Yeah, it was very hard not to miss anything. Actually, I already have a list of shows that I've missed. Mostly because I was away from town...

SmSh: Punks for Monks!

Tim: ...Hedgehog, PK14, and lot of others. So I would not say I want to most of the shows, because some of them are the same evenings, or some of them I am not aware of...

Gianpaolo: I'll have to confess that I didn't see nearly as many as Tim. Often, though, I don't know how, Tim was able to take photos of two gigs on the same night.

Tim: I would have loved to have put even more diversity in the bands and venues... but like I said before we also had to put some limitation, otherwise there is no end. So that is why we don't want to have the pretension of having a global portrayal. It is not easy to know what is happening in Shanghai. With all the venues changing, it is hard to have a comprehensive picture. So this book is more for sharing our work with the people who enjoyed and participating in this music scene... our goal is to receive a first feedback on a small scale range.

Gianpaolo: We didn't seek to create a comprehensive anthology of the music scene in the city by any means.

SmSh: Tim, which concerts stuck out for you as good ones? And which bands did you like photographing?

Tim: I really enjoyed shooting when the atmosphere was really good, when people are enjoying themselves, when the band is really into it. As far as my personal taste goes, RE-tros and Subs are probably some of my favorite bands in China.

SmSh: Maybe one more question about the photography and then we can talk about the text a little more. Tim, how do you approach the photography... do you try to capture the moment... or if you were to describe your own style. Aesthetics question, I guess. Poorly worded.

Tim: Well, my goal is to capture a feeling. I don't know if I have a style but I'm not trying to get one. I just want to transmit a feeling. Each concert has a different feeling, a different dynamic, and also each venue is different -- the light is different, the room is different, the way the artists behave on stage is different. So I am trying to get a "print" of that moment... my ultimate goal would be that people that were at those concerts, or even people that weren't there, could feel this atmosphere through the photos. So I hope the style would be as diverse as the music and the venues are, but could also reflect the scene as a whole.

SmSh: I like the Snapline ones. That was one of my favorite shows.

Tim: About that show, I was a bit panicked because one of my first rules is to never use a flash. The flash deletes all the atmosphere of the photos... but the light at that show was too low. Nothing I could do without flash, but still there was a craziness there that had to be captured. So I had to find a solution and I played with the different little sources of light and mixed them with long exposure using a small flash. And I think that the photos give a pretty good idea of that kind of craziness that Snapline offered us that night.

SmSh: So maybe a few about the text, Gianpaolo, I really liked the text... one of the best things I've read written about Shanghai's live music. So much bad shit gets written about it (I've written my fair share). But it was very interesting.

Gianpaolo: It's very difficult to portray what is happening here. And I must confess I feel uneasy knowing that it's being read by the locals in their own language, while it's obviously written by a foreigner.

SmSh: Why does that make you nervous?

Gianpaolo: On one side as a foreigner, I don't know if as much as I've tried to learn about local culture, I understand what is going on. Then I believe the Chinese can be very sensitive about foreign portrayal of what is going on here. I think this concern has also limited my film work. At least made me more careful. On one side, I didn't want to diss shanghai, it is an exceptional place to be in and the effect of what happens here shouldn't be underestimated. But I believe ironically that it will have more of an effect on the rest of the country than on itself. Since everything is so transient here... we also wanted to avoid using the bold clear cut language commonly used in rock documents.

SmSh: "A complex bipolar paranoia of both change and stability seems to encourage amnesia..." [From text]

Gianpaolo: Well... I've heard some say it's too complicated. I hope we didn't take it a step too far.

SmSh: No, I quite liked it.

Gianpaolo: We wanted to go beyond the hyperbole we usually find in the descriptions of the city.

SmSh: From living here, I get the impression that fads, genres, or whatever, come from the west or wherever else, but have such a short life-span... just burned out so quickly... but it's kind of depressing because its like people are using all the good ones up too fast. Come and gone before anyone really got the chance to enjoy it.

Gianpaolo: Very true. But I think people here are trained to change at a moments' notice. And feel like they have a lot to catch up with. So they race through information as fast as they can. Compared to the west, I mean here we can get lost in semiotics, but I believe the Cultural Revolution created a symbolic vacuum and the recent consumerism is a desperate attempt to fill it. So there is not much distinction between a deep value and a superficial one yet... Of course this is a gross generalization...

SmSh: But the book seeks to capture a deep value...

Gianpaolo: Yeah. it was an attempt. I've always loved the romantic hero. Fighting alone against a world that doesn't understand him and doesn't want him.

SmSh: [Laughs].

Gianpaolo: That is how I pictured the scene. Or more so everyone involved. Willing to go down with the ship rather than abandon one's values. I think I may have lost track of the original question, or has it been answered?

SmSh: Answered. What do you guys think next year will be like?

Gianpaolo: Ouch.

Tim: "To be continued in..... Shanghai Soundbites 08/09 " [Laughs]. To be honest for the past few month this is a question that is very often debated. Between myself and JP, but I also wanted to discuss that with a lot of other people. I've asked this question to different people, people who are organizer of the music scene, artists themselves... and it's a bit of a mixed feeling, but I would say that local people who are involved in this are pretty optimistic.

But on the other hand, you have foreigners, freelancers that have been very involved in all of this that are seeing their situation as critical in terms of visas. Lots of them are thinking of leaving or have left already, and are being pretty pessimistic about the situation.

But also, the social framework of being an artist hasn't developed here yet as it has in Beijing. Music and subculture has been present in Beijing for a long time and people are familiar with this -- artists are considered artists, musicians as musicians. But in Shanghai, it is very difficult to have a stable social position as an artist. And this is a crucial thing for its development I think. Musicians in Beijing can live life as musicians -- small income, concerts, fans. But this is not the case in Shanghai. People need an income to survive and in most cases, music won't be enough. And people won't consider "artist" as a normal social status.

SmSh: So 150 copies of Shanghai Soundbites will be available. Did you get them printed yourselves?

Gianpaolo: Yeah, I think it's quite exciting, just as it is now possible to publish your own album your own movie, it is also possible to publish your book.

Tim: Also because we did everything ourselves, which was not easy, we wanted to see ourselves what will be the result of it.

Gianpaolo: True to the DIY spirit.

Tim: But we worked together with a Chinese designer, Jay Zhou, for all the technical details.

Gianpaolo: We should probably add that we still haven't got the material copy in our hands, we haven't seen it yet, so we're still keeping our fingers crossed.


The "Shanghai Sounndbites 07/08" launch party is this Saturday from 4pm until 8pm at YY's. For more information visit the website here. The book costs 100rmb.


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