American music writer, photographer and videographer Will Griffith has been at the forefront of documenting the weird and wonderful underground music scenes in Beijing and the rest of China, for the larger part of the past decade, via his website Live Beijing Music (LBM). The website and the brand have grown to take in more than just reviews, features and news, as Griffith has been integral in bringing some of the most interesting underground musicians to play in Beijing over the years. This month he leaves Beijing with a bang, heading to parts unknown (he’ll still be in China). His bon voyage to the city will consist of three stacked live shows over the course of two days. We talked to Griffith about the history of LBM.
When and why did you start Live Beijing Music?
The idea for Live Beijing Music came in 2011, a good year after I had settled into Beijing – when nights of Wudaoku mischief and hopping around Southeast Asia ran its course. I became infatuated with the music scene and soon after I found myself scouring festival lineups and seeking out anything music-related, bringing my camera out each and every time. Filming for the sake of filming. A good friend of mine at the time (shout out to Rich) egged me on at the time to put up the videos online. So we sat down one evening and developed the idea of starting a music blog – a way to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ what exactly the music scene here had to offer. We bought a domain name, figured out how WordPress and hosting worked, and by the time we were ready my buddy was shipped off down south for work, leaving me with a site with zero content. So with nothing to lose, I started posting.
I read an interview you did with Ugly Girls a while ago where you talk to Andy Best about his and Jake Newby’s music blog, Kungfuology. How has English-language music coverage changed over the years? From my understanding there’s much less of it these days, as music blogs have slowly faded away.
There was quite a bit back in the so-called glory days to latch onto – from the personable BeijingDaze, which painted the scene in such a badass light, or the ever-hip (almost intimidatingly so) stylings of pangbianr, to the almost archival black hole that was Rock in China, there were a lot of people looking to spread the good word on shadily made blogs. A lot of niches were getting covered, but as the internet became more open/closed, and more people began veering toward more economically sound endeavors like promotion and journalism, they went the way of the dodo. I stuck around pretty much out of habit in the end.
What drew you towards the music scene in Beijing? Had you followed local music in the US before you came to China?
Prior to me coming to China, my music credentials were pretty weak, mainly procured via a select few people who had more acute musical tastes than I did (i.e. my brother’s girlfriend in high school and my best friend in university). I went to shows here and there but none of it quite prepared me for what I was getting myself into here. And to be honest I kind of stumbled into it by accident – in an attempt to woo a girl, I brought her to LAN Club (for those who know you know) to see Holy Ghost! of DFA Records and was completely blindsided by the opening act which was Pet Conspiracy (during the Helen Feng days). Didn’t even bother sticking around for the main act. I was sold.
LBM has expanded to promoting shows, releasing cassettes and essentially being more than just a music website. Was that the plan or did it happen organically?
I think somewhere in the back of my mind I always wanted to expand the idea of what LBM was capable of – but for the most part, it came naturally and with the support of friends who’d push me in certain directions – whether it be shooting a music video, joining a cassette label (Nasty Wizard Recordings), or inevitably putting together shows. Though, I think anyone who goes to enough shows eventually is going to want to put on their own show – logistically it just makes sense. Eventually, I began shaping the website and WeChat account into what it is now – keeping it simple, concise, with just enough varied content so I don’t go stir crazy. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten it down to a routine just about.
“My 80-plus-year-old father was talking bong physics with guitar players, and at some point, one of the bands were dedicating one grindcore song after another to every member of my family. One for the ages”
Talking about shows, can you talk about a few of the more memorable ones you’ve put on through the years?
While putting on a show is more often than not an exhausting task in itself (the three hours leading up to any gig is agonizing) I’ve had such fun putting them together and seeing so many performances were you can’t help but smile. But it really comes down to moments that have been embedded in my brain. Attempting to join Cat AIDS for an encore and rolling around on the floor of School Bar with a bass; recruiting a horde of tourist faux monks who had returned from Shaolin (or someplace likewise) to dance away to Deadly Cradle Death; watching SNSOS from outside of Old What Bar across the street from Zhongnanhai, having Li Jianhong throw me into a trance every time I see him; and most recently, throwing a bunch of funeral money as a mosh pit swirled around JaJaTao. There was a year where once a month Josh Feola (of pangbianr) and I would organize simultaneous gigs at Temple Bar and Dada – turning the town venues into a playground of sorts – a double decker of rambunctiousness where I was able to see some of my favorite bands cut their teeth like Lonely Leary, The Twenties, The Eat (now Future Orients), The Death Narcissist and Fake Weed. And of course, my wedding night where I managed to drag over the whole reception to DDC, including my family, to witness some truly incredible and downright insane sets from bands filled out with friends. Wigs were involved, my 80-plus-year-old father was talking bong physics with guitar players, and at some point, one of the bands were dedicating one grindcore song after another to every member of my family. One for the ages.
Is the Beijing music scene as exciting as it once was? Does it feel like a big deal to be leaving the city now, as opposed to how it would have felt five or ten years ago?
It’s bustling, it's dynamic, it's crippled, it's complicated, it's diverse and yes – very much still exciting. Perhaps not as much to me, but that comes with age and the scene in general as a whole becoming more regulated. Nevertheless, pretty much any given day of the week there’s a worthwhile gig in town and when the weekend hits, it’s overkill with the amount of music you can throw a rock at. There’s a whole new generation of artists and musicians out there making some noise and a lot of the old guard are finally hitting the mainstream. In many ways Beijing still very much operates in a grey area – we have plenty of venues without the proper paperwork and the mall-outlet aesthetic hasn’t quite taken over as it has in many emerging second and third-tier cities. Will it last – definitely not. The music scene has constantly been moving toward something, something more regulated, something more expensive, something safer, but at the moment I can’t knock what the Beijing music scene has given to me or what it’s still giving to thousands of others.
Writing about China, specifically about Chinese music scenes, can be challenging considering language barriers and also a lack of archived information. This has improved, but I’m guessing things were much more difficult back when you began LBM. How have you learnt to deal with that, and also how important is LBM to you personally as an archive/source of information?
In the beginning, there was a lot of trial and error. Particularly with finding your way around Weibo and Douban – which were pretty much the only places you could find local music to listen to. But, there was a sort of pleasure in being able to maneuver around these sites, copying and pasting Chinese into Baidu to see what would pop up – a eureka! moment when you would hit upon a band. It was really just about going with the flow – back then, I would bookmark local record stores’ Taobao pages to see what was new. Now you have Xiami, QQ, Netease and Bandcamp. As a source of information, it took a few years for me to realize that I was archiving thousands of videos – and so from then on, I’ve tried my best to tag everything, and keep the website as clean and easy to navigate as possible. It’s difficult considering the divide between China and the rest of the world, so whenever you upload something you need to upload it on the other side of the firewall so it reaches as wide an audience as possible. I hope people use it as much as an archival as I have (I just used my search tab to refresh my memory) but time will tell.
“The music scene has constantly been moving toward something, something more regulated, something more expensive, something safer, but at the moment I can’t knock what the Beijing music scene has given to me or what it’s still giving to thousands of others”
Where does Live Beijing Music go from here? Will it stay in Beijing or are you planning a name change or a new platform altogether?
There’s still a bit of uncertainty about the future of LBM. I’ve gone back and forth on it, but at the very least I feel that if I’m leaving Beijing then perhaps it’s time for a name change. To be honest, not much of the content is Beijing-centric anymore so it really wouldn’t change too much. I’ve always hoped to make the platform something bigger – which frankly means having it in Chinese or at least having other contributors. The plan is to have the platform go dark after my last hoorah in Beijing in January. A sabbatical if you will and a way to step back and view the landscape. During that time I'll also try to reach out to like-minded people to get an idea if it’s worth trying to push further. It’s a difficult decision to make especially considering the number of people out there who depend on it, but it’s time for a change one way or another. If anyone has any ideas out there let me know.
Live Beijing Music Farewell Part 1: Jan 17, 8.30pm; RMB80 presale, RMB100 door. DDC. See event listing. Tickets.
Live Beijing Music Farewell Part 2: Jan 18, 2-5pm; RMB50 presale, RMB60 door. DDC. See event listing. Tickets.
Live Beijing Music Farewell Part 3: Jan 18, 8.30pm; RMB80 presale, RMB100 door. DDC. See event listing. Tickets.
[Cover image courtesy of Laurent Hou]