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Staying Underground: 10 Years of Uptown Records

Shanghai’s DIY defenders talk ten years of art and radon poisoning.
By - Photos: Brandon McGhee Apr 2, 2021 Music
I first met Uptown Records co-owner Sacco Vanzetti 13 years ago when he was DJing (“DJing”) anarcho-punk band Crass at this glorious little shithole pub called The Beaver. The Beaver was a tiny, neighborhood bar with two small rooms, a foosball table, and a single stall bathroom that catered to regressive, lone wolf middle-aged alcoholics, dirty rotten creeps, and horrendous people coming from, or going to, the horrendous after-hours club 30 feet down the road.

As you can imagine, It was good times and a great little scene — albeit one that might have been out of step with the explicit sociopolitical message of the anarcho-punk band Crass: animal rights, anti-fascism, feminism, environmentalism, anarchism.

Sacco used to serve it to the crowd at The Beaver, both barrels at 3am, shouting over the drunken threats and heckles, slamming play on Dead Kennedy’s “Kill the Poor”, on his portable Numark 2-in-1 CDDJ sound system from 1996.

I first met Uptown records co-owner, the indefatigable Super Sophia when she worked at the door at the old Yuyintang, ripping people’s entry tickets, which was the technology at the time. She was wearing white corpse paint, a bright green mohawk, and a safety pin through her nose. She was wearing a Slipknot shirt with the neck cut out.

She’ll deny it but my memory is 100% on this and fuckin’ CMON SOPHIA you know this is TRUE.

I was thinking about trying to make this a FUNNIE article, as was my schtick back in the day. I was thinking of putting on a Sacco-style swoopy emo wig and writing a review of his favorite restaurant Saizeriya. (Actually, that would have been pretty good.) Or maybe writing a Sacco and Compact Dicks “Ultimate Guide to DJing”. (That would have been like a sentence long, but WHAT a sentence). Or even just listing all my favorite Sacco stories from the years.

Like the time he was DJing a cheesy ‘80s party at Dada bar and people started throwing beer bottles at his head because he wasn’t mixing the tracks together. He thought they were just jazzed up and having a really good time listening to Madonna. So he turns it up and starts dancing more. When the second beer bottle smashed even closer to his head, only then did he release that the exact opposite was the case.



But, the real story is better. Sacco and Sophia’s real story with all the work they’ve put into Uptown Records is more valuable. This month they’re raising money to save their basement space with events all over town. Here are the details. Show up to all of them and give them money and other nice things.

So. For this article, I went down to R ’n’ B to talk to Sophia about 10 years of Uptown Records. And then I emailed the same questions to Sacco who is trapped in their record store in Japan. Then I mashed up their answers like a Bananas Party! Who gets that reference?

Now, 12 years later, I have a bar that plays Crass sometimes. And it’s just as lucrative as it ever was.

Here’s an important truism that I learned from my friend Sacco over the years from his fine and glorious example: The key to life is to never, ever learn anything. Never improve. Never evolve. You’re good how you are. You were perfect at 17. Shit’s even better at 43.

Here’s another more important truism I learned from my friend Sophia over the same period: If you’re doing something fuckin’ awesome, you should never, ever give up.

***



What’s the best selling record over the years? What’s the one that sells as soon as you get it in?



Sophia: The Beatles. Always The Beatles.

Sacco: Abbey Road is number one… But over the past 10 years we have sold hundreds of The BOSS records.

Have you noticed people’s music tastes have changed over the years?



Sophia: Not really. Rock and Pop are still the most popular, I think. But more and more people are buying records now.

Sacco: The biggest difference would be from local kids’ taste going deeper and deeper. Hip Hop kids start to discover and buy ’70s funk and rare groove; rock kids move from Beatles or Led Zepplin and want more obscure Psych or Krautrock. Since the record collector scene is relatively new in Shanghai, it's great to see collectors' taste evolve.



Sophia: More high school kids are buying records too.

High school kids? Why do you suppose that is?



Sophia: Because they can research the stuff they like online. I think people are getting to know their music at a younger age with the internet. I think with the kids here, they have way more music knowledge than before. More knowledge than my generation. It's pretty awesome. Everything is online. You can check BandCamp or wherever else to find new music.

I’m quite jealous…

Jealous?



Sophia: [Laughs.] I had my first computer when I went to college. So I was quite late…

What music did you grow up listening to? What was the first record you bought?



Sacco: My first album was Violent Femmes when I was 11. I must have listened to it a thousand times.



Sophia: The first record I bought, let me think…Either The Raincoats or a Chinese band — Duck Fight Goose’s 7-inch on Genging Records. A pretty late release, actually. I’ve been buying physical copies of music all the time though. I grew up buying CDs and before that tapes.

When I was 10, I used to go to those bookstores which sell tapes. Like every week, just checking to see what was new. Buying one tape a week. Pop music. Mando pop. I listened to the radio and that’s all there was… Love Radio.

A bit of Western pop too. The Carpenters. The Beatles. Stuff like that.

When did you buy your first Slipknot t-shirt?



Sophia: [Laughs.] I. Don’t. Have. A Slipknot shirt! I don’t have a Marilyn Manson shirt either.

I have very vivid recollections of you wearing a Slipknot shirt when you were working at Yuyintang.



Sophia: Actually, I bought a Linkin Park tape once. When it was imported here. That actually opened the door for me, like ‘wow, I can’t believe something like this exists'. Heavy music.

And that was the time I really got into metal stuff. In college. Very dark stuff. Heavy metal stuff. All those bands.



Where did the idea to start a record store come from?



Sophia: Well, actually, it was Sacco’s idea…

Sacco: The basement store was originally going to be a record store and bar, like C's bar on Dingxi Lu but more rock-based. The neighbors, however, quickly put an end to any bar dreams so we kept the space as a record store and hosted random one-off music/art events over the years.

Sacco probably had the idea but then he needed you to do everything for him…



Sophia: [Laughs.] Yeah. True, true. He needs me to talk with the construction guy every day. It was actually fun. But the basement space, yeah it was originally going to be a gay club for Shanghai Studio. They had Shanghai Studio already and they wanted another one. But the police said we cannot have a bar here, so we just took it over for a record store.

How was business when you first started out? Was there a market for people buying vinyl?



Sophia: Nothing. It was super dead. Maybe five customers a week or something. White guys buying Beatles records.

[Interview gets interrupted by a high school kid buying a Van Halen record.]

Oh wow, I had that one when I was in high school…



High School Kid: Yeah, it’s a good one.



I remember when you guys started, in Shanghai, around town, there would be these electronics markets and they’d sell, like, light bulbs, used cellphones, and a crate of Kenny G records at the side. This was like 15 years ago. Not sure if that’s still a thing or not?



Sophia: Yeah, those are records that came into Guangzhou as trash. That’s how we started too. We don’t do it like that anymore. But, yeah, Sacco would go down to Guangzhou with our friend Abe and sleep in the warehouse where these workers would have all these records as trash.

The records were coming in to be recycled, shipped in from America or Japan, or Europe. I guess they found out they can actually sell the records and make more than by destroying them.

Is that still happening? Are these records still coming in to be recycled?



Sophia: No, China stopped that. Years ago, now. [Laughs.] They were very nice guys, though. When Sacco stayed there with them, they drove 30 minutes to get him some KFC.



So back to the basement space, you had all these rooms to fill…



Sophia: Yeah, we had three rooms for records, and two rooms for my vintage clothing store which we also started at the same time. Started that back in 2011 as well. And then we used the rest of the space for events.

How did the vintage store come about?



Sophia: Well, I was going to a lot of markets at the time — you know the Ugly Sweater Market — and finding all this interesting clothing, some from designer labels and whatever. I used to go to that market and a few other ones, looking for interesting things, going through all these piles of clothing. Digging through them, it’s quite amazing.

Really amazing, actually, I really liked finding the clothing. That’s what you had to do because we couldn’t really go out of China.

But yeah, they stopped doing all these recycled clothing. The market is gone. They have one out in Pudong still… but that's pretty much it.

So, for events, you guys started out hosting live music in the basement space?



Sophia: Yeah, we were hosting small-scale, experimental music events. And also free afternoon shows for touring bands. So, a band would come to play at a venue on a Friday or Saturday night, and then be able to get another show for people for the next afternoon before they left town.



What kinds of bands played?



Sophia: Alpine Decline… Pairs… Next Year’s Love… lots of local bands. After Argument — Yan Haisong’s other band (PK14). A lot of the Beijing guys. Noise Arcade. thruoutin. GuiGuiSuiSui. And later on GongGongGong…

Anyways lots of small DIY gigs. Small crowds. Oh, Torturing Nurse of course…

Now’s the time for the obligatory crazy Torturing Nurse story…



Sophia: Yeah, Junky played our opening party. He borrowed a record player from us and we didn’t know what he was going to do, and he just turned the volume all the way up, and smashed a needle on a record for about 20 minutes… totally destroying our needles. [Laughs.]

Sacco: Classic Torturing nurse.

Sophia: We had no idea what he was going to do like, 'Sure! Go ahead and borrow our record player!'

I was at that one. I’m not sure what the artistic statement was there, but I’m sure it’s profound and brilliant. Think he kept going until the police showed up.



Sophia: [Laughs.] Yeah. We used to get complaints all the time, so we had to stop the shows. Too many complaints.



So is that when Basement 6 came in for the next phase of the basement saga?



Sophia: Yeah, around there. Well after I had gotten out of jail….

We can skip that part.



Sophia: Oh, I’m fine with that!

Anyways!

After I got out, we were running the basement by ourselves. Before, we were running 390 (former gay club, currently Lucca) and our partner was paying the rent at the basement as part of our salary. Like we would run 390 and then get the basement space for free. But after we split, we were paying rent ourselves, and that's when we tried to get other people to get involved to help us with rent. Like, share the rent. So we got Idle Beats and Basement 6 to help us.



Idle Beat was Nini and Gregor — a screen printing studio. DIY screen printing designs and workshops. They used to do posters for all the underground events in town.

Sacco: They contributed so much to the Shanghai independent art scene.

Sophia: Basement 6 at that time, they lost their original space and so they came in too.

Sacco: Basement 6 had been operating in a basement up the street and were evicted for being too awesome.

Sophia: Basement 6 is like an art collective crew. Maybe 5 or 6 people. Doing art stuff. They did different installation art projects down in the basement, and they would also host international artist residents to work as well.

Sacco: They hosted countless art installations, workshops, talks, music and live performances, artist residencies.

Sophia: They were doing lots of wide-ranging projects. Bryan and Mike Ren did Retro Game day… exhibitions. Shows. Parties.



Any particular one stand out as a favorite?



Sophia: They did an Elvis-themed event that I quite liked. It was a really nice event. They decorated two rooms — they turned the one room into like a teenage girl’s bedroom. They put a bed down there and decorated the place with all these Elvis pictures. It was really nice and interesting.

Also, I always enjoyed my birthday…



Oh, is that like the Satanic ritual thing? Describe this for the people.



Sophia: [Laughs.] Yeah, it was like a cult thing. Everyone had to wear these black robes. Well, it’s Sacco’s idea. You have to choose a symbol for yourself. I bought a pig heart — a real pig heart — and we put it in a glass container with candles all around.

And then our own project, our noise/drone project played. And we painted it all glow-in-the-dark.

Unfortunately, I missed a lot of the Basement 6 events because I would work at our other store and Sacco would babysit them over there.

We also did the first two Ladyfests in the basement, which was quite awesome.

Sacco: Ladyfest, which Basement 6 helped host, was one of the most engaging and positive community events held over the years. Really inspiring day of female artists and volunteers coming together.

Sophia: My band Next Year’s Love was the first one that played.



Tell me about the shitty wax museum idea that never was...



Sophia: That’s not my idea, that’s Sacco’s idea…

Sacco: Ha, well a couple of years ago we had to clear out a bunch of rooms in the basement due to uncontrollable circumstances. I wanted to make a rock ’n’ roll wax museum to replace lost occupants, but a poorly done one.

From Taobao, you can get a wax figure created for around 10,000rmb starting price. A really bad wax figure. I wanted to have scenes like Courtney Love handing a shotgun to Kurt Cobain, you know, family-friendly stuff.

However, Sophia shot my idea down and started a vintage swap shop Abandon, instead with a few local ladies from the community.

Sophia: He wanted to use the rooms to like recreate famous album covers that people could take their picture in. So, like using mannequins to make famous album covers. The first one we did was Nirvana “Nevermind”.

And we bought a baby mannequin and hung it from the ceiling, and a dollar bill as well. With blue wallpaper in the background.

I think for most Chinese people it was too freaky. [Laughs.] Weird shit. It didn’t get popular. I turned the room into a Kimono room, selling Kimonos.



Who else has taken up rooms?



We’ve also had tattoo studios and music production studios. Mau Mau (DJ, co-owner at Elevator) was probably the first one, and also Reggie and Benjamin after that (two other erstwhile Shanghai DJs/producers).

Actually, Shanghai Community Radio started out there as well.

Sacco: Currently, the all-women-operated 2046 Tattoo Studio is still active in the basement. In the past there has been a Japanese rope tying studio operated by HuaHua (who is still active in Shanghai), we hosted a book exchange group called Second Hand Shelf, multiple artist residencies over the years, one standing out was Ming Mu who contributed much to the basement, the electronic artist "Loads of Nothing" had a music studio for a time and hosted experimental events, Shanghai Community Radio got their start in the basement before finding a new studio space, the list goes on.

Sophia: We’re open to basically all DIY stuff — independent artists and stores.



So what’s going on with the fundraising. They’re raising your rent?



Sophia: Yeah, the landlord is going through a consulting company now. So they need to raise the rent, to somewhere closer to a mall price — like if we were renting in a mall. And they’re also saying that we have to pay a year upfront.

Oh, so you have to raise a certain amount to pay off this next year to keep it. Do you have plans with what you want to do if you can hang on to the space?



Sophia: I think now, since we haven’t done events since 2018 — we’ve been under the radar — we can start again with some smaller art and music events. Maybe get some more independent stores there. Actually, there are quite a lot of possibilities…

Anything is possible in the basement…

We have our ten-year retrospective exhibition right now. I get emotional looking at the photos…

***



Save Uptown is all over Shanghai in April. Click here for details. And stop by the space itself to check out that photo exhibition.

TELL EVERYONE

1 comments.

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  • 1 month ago Mr. Stokes Unverified User

    Bananas? Mashup? What kinda weird, dated reference is that?? Wasn't that the high school prom party with live frogs hung from the ceiling and a Tibetan Bay Area rapper in a lemon yellow terry bathrobe?

    All the best to Sacco and Sophia with this next year for the basement. Wish I could drop by and dig for a few cosmic 45s...

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