This article originally appeared on SmSh's sister site, SmartBeijing.com. The SmartBeijing version is more in-depth. This one's the Shanghai expurgated edition. Click here to read the original.
Zhang Shouwang, the soft-spoken leader of Beijing indie scene linchpins Carsick Cars and White+, doesn't need much of an introduction for anyone who's been half-seriously following the Chinese music scene at any point over the last seven years. His sunglassed visage -- an homage to one of his heroes, Andy Warhol -- has been in the pages of The Wall Street Journal and New York Times, not to mention virtually every Chinese publication covering the rise of this country's emerging generation of cosmopolitan, middle-class youth and its new (sub)cultural elite.
Carsick Cars plays Shanghai Friday night at Yuyintang to release their third album. Pro-tip: Get there early. Their recent Beijing and Hangzhou shows on this tour completely sold out.
Shouwang: The very first rock show I saw was maybe Hang On The Box, P.K.14, and Joyside. At the time I liked Hang On The Box the best because they were sort of the first band doing weird guitar sounds with pedals. During that time, heavy metal or hard rock was very popular, so nobody was really doing those kinds of weird guitar sounds. And then I had a chance to listen to some of the No stuff, Zuoxiao Zuzhou's band. That's probably my favorite Chinese underground band from the older generation. Their sound is so original, and it came from nowhere. I just can't tell where it came from. So that was very interesting for me.
SW: It all began with dakou CDs, "cut" CDs, because that was before the internet, before everybody could download for free. The only way to find music was just to go to the dakou store. And it was quite interesting because there was a very special community there. Like, you would go to the store every Sunday when they'd have new stuff coming, and people would go crazy, grab CDs. And we'd communicate, make friends there, we'd introduce music to each other. It was a very special community. If you liked Nirvana, somebody would introduce Sonic Youth, Velvet Underground, and you just kept going.
SW: I think it was during the SARS [outbreak of 2003]. I would just stay home and get a chance to borrow a guitar from a friend and make some noise. There was really nothing to do at home. [laughs] I remember I made like 20 songs a day, I still have those recordings.
SW: My high school classmate used to play with us, but he was a very weird guy. After we played for a while he disappeared. And then Li Qing showed up.
SW: I think maybe early 2005.
SW: Not so long [after that]. Maybe after three or four months. We wrote a lot of songs and found a gig at What Bar.
SW: I think after the No Beijing show, people definitely knew these young bands existed. Before that, the scene was so small. Mostly friends would go to see us. Actually, it was interesting, because a lot of Cult Youth guys would go to our shows all the time, like [Chairman] Ca, Bini. So a lot of artists went to the show too. Then I think the Sonic Youth show really changed a lot of people. A lot more people knew Carsick Cars after that show, even though we didn't play.
SW: 2007 I think.
SW: Yeah, but we didn't play.
SW: Some weird political problems…
SW: Long story… I'm not so sure about it. White played with Elliott Sharp before that, and I think Sonic Youth is a band that really cares about their support bands, so they asked Elliott Sharp what's good in Beijing, and I think Elliott introduced us [to them]. Also Blixa [Bargeld] said he introduced Carsick Cars, because he was living in Beijing, and he knows Sonic Youth. So I think either Blixa or Elliott mentioned us, and so [Sonic Youth] contacted the promoter and asked for Carsick Cars to open. I think the promoter wanted some other band to play with them, but Sonic Youth thought they were too commercial.
SW: I went to Berlin to record the [first] White album. After I finished, I think Sonic Youth was playing in Barcelona, and I contacted [Sonic Youth guitarist] Lee [Ranaldo] and went to see them. I waited outside the backstage for hours to give him the White CD we just recorded. And then I saw them in New York another time, and he said, "Oh, we're playing in Europe, do you guys wanna tour with us?"
I remember the night before we went to Europe for the Sonic Youth tour, there was this group of people... I think [Maybe Mars founder] Michael [Pettis] had just decided to open the label, to release Snapline, Joyside, and Carsick Cars. So the night before we left, so many friends — including Yang Haisong, [P.K.14 drummer] Jonney [Leijonhufvud], all of the label guys — came together to hand-make 200 copies. Like a spray-painted CD. Because we didn't have enough time to make the real CD, but we wanted to have something to sell.
SW: I knew Michael a long time ago, even before I started a band. He really taught me a lot about music. Actually I never thought I would be a musician, and he supported me to play music. Yang Haisong, I forgot the story… Of course we really liked P.K.14, and we asked Yang Haisong if he was interested to produce us.
SW: I mean... this album almost took us five years to put everything together, because we switched members twice. And especially when Ben Ben left the band, we really struggled to find a good drummer to keep playing. So we really spent a long time to find the right person, to find Monkey to play drums, and practice all the music we'd been playing [with him]. This new album is really… a lot of songs are even from the first members, Li Qing and Li Weisi, that time. And also when Ben Ben played we wrote some songs. So really in these five years, we wrote different songs from different periods of time, and we put everything together. Because it's been long enough that we have to make a new album.
Carsick Cars — current lineup (photo by Nevin Domer)
It was actually a coincidence that we found [producer] Pete [Kember] and recorded so quickly. I was talking to one of my friends in New York, and I said, "The Clean is my favorite band. I wish I could find the band members to produce us." Because their sound is the guitar sound I want. So my friend was really serious about this, and he actually found the drummer of The Clean [Hamish Kilgour]. He lives in Brooklyn. And he listened to our music and was really interested to produce us, but he's not really a producer. So he introduced his friend Pete to work together to produce this album. And of course, [Kember's band] Spacemen 3 is one of my favorite bands, so we were really excited to work with him.
Pete had a really tight schedule… he actually decided we had to record two weeks [after he agreed to take on the project], while we were still touring America. We hadn't even finished all the songs and lyrics yet. So we came back to Beijing and rehearsed like crazy, then went back to New York and spent a week recording.
SW: I was always really into his painting. I find it really interesting because he always takes something we never pay attention to, like leaves or spoons or a toothbrush, or like those beetles.
SW: Yeah, we actually thought about putting stones on the cover, but it was a coincidence… He was drawing those beetles when I was in his studio. He bought a lot of real beetles from Taobao. And we just sort of played around and put three beetles on a CD, and I said, "That looks pretty nice." And he said, "Why don't I just draw it and you take a look?"
I think you never pay attention because it's too normal, but he paints them beautifully, and when you look at them, you find, "Wow, those things are actually beautiful." Even the toothbrush, you never really look at them, but they're actually very individually beautiful things. I think for our album, it's sort of connected with the art piece because the idea is people live in the city, and every individual person has their own personality, their own dream. But when you put the person in the city or in a big group, they lose their personality, become the same face. You can't really see them any more. So I think that's the connection with the design.
SW: Well it's the third lineup of Carsick Cars, the third album, and we worked with the guy from Spacemen 3. [laughs] And I also think "3," I don't know about in the West, but in China it means stability, because the triangle is the most stable shape. And I think this album probably is the album where we finally found the Carsick Cars sound. The first two albums we were still looking for it, trying to look for it. And I think this one we got the sound we want.
There you have it. Catch Carsick Cars as they release their third studio album, "3", on Friday at Yuyintang.
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Top and cover image by Nevin Domer.