DJ Ozone on deck (photo via Street Kids)
"Culture Bureau" is an ongoing SmartBeijing interview series in which we take long, meandering strolls down memory lane with pillars of the Beijing cultural community.
Damn. 10 years in Shanghai/Beijing is like 35 years in places that aren't those cities. Michael Ohlsson looks good for all the partying he's been through, though. Possibly on account of that Beijinger cover yoga.
The mastermind behind Dada Bar is gearing up for a wild weekend in Shanghai. This Friday is the sixth anniversary of Dada SH, and on Saturday Michael will celebrate a much more impressive milestone: the 10th anniversary of his pan-Asian event label, Antidote. Initially taking root in Shanghai afterhours dive C's, Antidote got its start promoting DJs and producers such as B6, MHP, Dead J, Sulumi, and Cavia — then all relatively unknown, now all internationally established representatives of China's electronic sound. Since its humble beginning, Antidote has expanded internationally, and at home has become one of China's most respected arbiters of quality at the outer edges of club music.
Next Saturday (August 15), Michael's back in Beijing, toasting Dada Beijing's third birthday with another epic all-nighter at 206 Gulou Dong. Don't know how he does it. Probably a great detox regimen.
I gave Mr. Ohlsson the full-press Culture Bureau treatment to dig up where he's been, how he got into a fight with Oasis, the virtues and vices of Shanghai vs. Beijing, and where he's taking Antidote as it exceeds the decade mark:
Michael and Antidote veteran Cavia (photo via Cavia)
SmSH: OK stock intro: Who are you? Where are you from? What's your deal?
Michael Ohlsson: I'm Michael, I come from San Francisco. Moved to China in 2003 after a few visits, and about a year later started promoting independent music events around Shanghai — local rock bands, visiting hip hop artists, and DJs. Started the Antidote parties in 2005 with my good friends MHP and B6 in Shanghai, focusing on exclusively Chinese music producers for the first few years. Our earliest guests were guys like Sulumi, Dead J, Liman, and iLoop down from Beijing.
I also managed a few venues in Shanghai. Originally it was more about live rock bands, but gradually became more and more about live electronic acts and DJ events. With Antidote, we started touring acts — domestic and international — a lot around China, and even Asia, in 2007. With other partners, I opened Dada Shanghai in 2009, and it really took off around the World Expo in 2010. We looked at opening Dada in several other cities, but Beijing was our first choice, and after looking two years for a location, we finally opened in the summer of 2012. Antidote continues, not so much as the "crew of recording artists" that we originally were, but as a promotional "brand" curating guest artists we appreciate and fit our vision. This week is our 10 year anniversary.
SmSH: I know when you were younger you were active as an organizer and music journalist in the Bay Area and Sacramento. We've shared many drunken conversations about some of the crazy experiences you've had interviewing or chaperoning famous artists in your Cali days... Can you share one off the top of your head?
Michael: I was in college radio since I was 15, then for like seven years, and commercial radio for part of that too. I used a fake ID to get my FCC license (you had to be 18), and later to DJ in nightclubs (gotta be 21 to walk into a bar in California) and to get into shows so I could interview artists. I was so sincere about this stuff that I wouldn't even order drinks. I was too nervous about getting caught, and I didn't want to miss the music.
The college radio stations I worked at were in a unique position. We had strong connections with new music from the UK at the time. This was the early '90s, and we had these future big UK acts coming out for their first ever date in the US, so we were quite cutting edge for the States. I got to interview these bands and sometimes be their fixer, taking them to dinner, press conferences, etc. Acts like Oasis, The Verve, Stereolab, Blur, My Bloody Valentine, The Happy Mondays, The Shamen, The Wedding Present, Ride, etc. Also some more established acts like The Fall, etc. There were also some local bands that we championed, like Pavement and Grandaddy. Some of them did shows at the college station. I probably did 100 interviews over that time. I also had a house/techno music show, so I interviewed guys like Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, Juan Atkins, etc. That was before many people knew them, at least in California. I was a real nerd about this new music and just wanted to know more and share it people. That urge still drives me today.
Stories ... eh, where to begin? I guess the Oasis one because they became the biggest band of the decade soon after. I was helping with their press conference and dinner in Sacramento, I think it was kind of for Sony who was trying to buy Creation Records at the time. A lot of British acts would play Sacramento first, to work out the jetlag kinks before hitting the bigger markets. And of course the band were total jerks, just really cocky and rude. My friend's band was the first support act and one of the Oasis brothers tried to steal their mic and it turned a little physical on the stage. I jumped up to stop the fight and got decked in the eye pretty bad. Really hated Oasis then, but I saw them in London about three years later and I had to admit they were good, gave me goosebumps.
Anyway, my real favorite story involved a radio show on heavy psychedelics but I'll keep that off record.
SmSH: Eventually you landed in Shanghai. What brought you to China initially?
Michael: After college radio, I'd started working for labels in California (BMG, Virgin) and worked my way up until I realized the music industry was a horrible, dead-end place to work. So one morning I played "spin the globe" and landed on Egypt. Serious. I quit rock n roll and lived in the Middle East for a year. Just hanging out. Worked on some farms, some restaurants. Moved back to SF just as the dot-com gold rush was starting and did that for a few years. During my experience with that, and then the crash in 2001 — long story — I visited China a few times between 1999-2002, and moved here in 2003. I had a few connections here, and just felt drawn to it. Did two semesters of Mandarin back home before coming here. I had no plan at all to get involved with music or nightlife, I was doing freelance web consulting at the time.
photo by Andrew Rochfort
SmSH: What was your lifestyle like when you first arrived in SH? How'd you make ends meet? You don't strike me as the English teacher type...
Michael: I was doing web consulting, SEO and usability stuff more than design. Yeah I'm not a good teacher. I did do a summer camp for rich kids here, in 2002, and it was horrible. But yeah, those early years in China, I did a lot of the typical token odd jobs for foreigners like acting in commercials, doing voice overs. Had some wacky adventures, good times, but not again.
SmSH: So this weekend is Antidote's 10th anniversary. Who all was involved with Antidote at the beginning? How'd you come up with the name?
Michael: The Antidote was actually the name of my college radio show for a while. When me and B6 and MHP threw our first party together, I asked them if it was a good name and worked in translation, and so yeah we went with it. I ended up randomly at a little dive bar called Harley's in Shanghai in 2004 and B6, MHP, Sulumi, iLoop, Torturing Nurse, Dead J, AMNJK were playing. I was blown away that night because I had no idea there were these kids here doing this crazy awesome music. I had to share it. Wrote some blog articles about them and just became friends with them and we started hanging out and sharing music, also with some of the local rock bands and with hip hop DJs like Gary Wang (now of Shelter fame), who was the only guy in Shanghai at the time bringing proper international talents consistently, like Kid Koala and Roc Raida. Anyway, I realized that with my experience and passion, I could help out as a promoter here. So yeah, it's been 10 years of Antidote.
SmSH: Lou Nanli (B6) was one of your earliest and, subsequently, most consistent collaborators. He's also since established himself as one of China's most accomplished and influential electronic musicians. How has your relationship with him evolved over the last decade?
Michael: B6 is a good friend. We've done a lot of cool projects over the years. He designed the first 150 (more?) Antidote posters and played at all of them, every month, until we all got too busy and Antidote started expanding to more cities and more than once a month. I was acting as B6's manager for a while too, and we toured around Asia and Europe together, it's been brilliant.
SmSH: Antidote's decade rager goes down this Saturday at C's Bar, which also hosted the first ever Antidote gig. How did you get in touch with them at first? What were some of the craziest or most memorable happenings at early Antidote shows at C's?
Michael: I'd been going to C's Bar for years before and had gotten to know the owners. They'd let me and friends play on the DJ booth during off nights or at the end of the night, so I just asked if we could make it a more proper event. I also liked the idea that it was this grimy basement bar alternative to Shanghai's typical posh pretensions. We did Thursday night on purpose cause we knew our music would be too strange for their weekend warrior crowd, but also with the hopes of bringing in extra business on a week night. It all just worked out better than we ever expected and it became a solid monthly event for many years following, and really inspired others to start their own events.
SmSH: This weekend also marks the sixth anniversary of your club, Dada Shanghai. And next weekend is the third anniversary of its northern neighbor, Dada Beijing, which is where you've been spending most of your time and energy of late. On a personal level, what is the relationship between Antidote and Dada?
Michael: Dada and Antidote are really very different projects for me. When we opened Dada in Shanghai, I refused to do Antidote events there. I kept them at C's bar or Shelter, or other venues around town. Wanted to keep them separate. But eventually everything got so busy and we were sometimes doing five cities in one weekend, and just I just had to loosen up. In fact, I've only done maybe three Antidotes at Dada Shanghai, but they were after I'd moved to Beijing. I think we've done maybe 30 at Dada Beijing now, but you know, we did about 20 Antidote events in Beijing long before Dada was here, at venues around town — 2 Kolegas, School, Yugong Yishan, Mao, the old old White Rabbit, and Alba.
SmSH: Obviously, as a club manager, you have to separate your own taste from what crowds will respond to. That said, who are some of the best or most interesting promoters you've worked with at Dada Shanghai and Beijing?
Michael: Actually I'm pretty lucky. I genuinely like most of the stuff we book. I have eclectic tastes, I think a club with a diverse crowd is more interesting for everyone, we even if it's harder work to pull it off, that's the only way we will do it. But yeah it has to "work" — I like jazz and country western music and crazy experimental noise, but they won't work on a Friday night at Dada.
Oh man I can't start naming promoters, there's way too many. But I do have to give big props to Gaz and Sub-Culture / Shelter in Shanghai, they've helped bring many of the best acts we've had up in Dada Beijing.
SmSH: Now here's a question that's way easier to ask than answer: Shanghai or Beijing? As someone with deep experience in both cities, what are the defining attributes of the youth culture and nightlife of each? How do Dada Shanghai and Beijing differ?
Michael: Both have their pros and cons of course, but personally I'm happy now in Beijing. After nearly 10 years in Shanghai, it was refreshing to move. Shanghai has a far more lively nightlife / party scene, but Beijing has more true diversity — like live music and street culture. You don't have three punk shows, two metal shows, three experimental noise, two Mongolian throat singing acts, and a bunch of kids eating BBQ outside with their guitars, playing on one street in Shanghai, like you do in Beijing. Shanghai's got more good restaurants though, I miss that.
SmSH: Early on you were interested in expanding the scope of Antidote beyond China, and creating a broad, pan-Asian focus. Who are some artists you've worked with from Asia — outside China — with whom you've worked and seen develop over the years?
Michael: We're still interested in building more of a pan-Asia community and tour circuit, and really it's working. Last night I spontaneously followed Dada Beijing's Friday headliner to Seoul and went to the gig there and met tons of people there who know whats going on in Beijing and Shanghai, etc. It's cool man.
Outside of China and Japan of course, I think the Philippines has amazing music talent, probably the best in Asia — diverse, talented, hard working, knowledgeable. Korea is getting interesting now too.
SmSH: Now you're doubling down on that concept, rebranding the label as Antidote Asia. What are your future plans on that front?
Michael: We've been using "Antidote Asia" for a few years now, when we are touring acts beyond just China. But we've been doing that less the last few years as I've been more busy with Dada and other projects. We are planning to do more talent exchanges, touring, and recording collaborations with artists in Asia. Nothing concrete to say now about it, in the works.
Michael supporting UK legend Doc Scott (photo via The Syndicate)
Party with Michael Ohlsson this Friday, August 7 at Dada Shanghai for their sixth anniversary, and/or Saturday, August 8 at the gloriously divey C's Bar for Antidote's big day. Sure to be a doozy.