Maybe Mars are going to New York for a big old party. Central to this party will be a photographic exhibition by Matthew Niederhauser, a photographer who has documented Maybe Mars and D-22 through images of the bands that have created this label/ venue community up in Beijing’s Northern reaches. He is launching his second book, Sound Kapital, at the same time.
You can find out more about Matthew at his website HERE.
You can find out more about the Maybe Mars US tour HERE.
Archie Hamilton, Split Works [AH]: Ok, it’s Tuesday the 8th of September, and I’m sitting in Shanghai with Matthew Niederhauser. Can you tell me a little about who you are, what you do, and where you come from?
Matthew Niederhauser [MN]: I was born and raised in West Virginia, left when I was 13 and ended up in New York City around the time I was 19, post a gap year in China. I studied Anthropology and East Asian language and culture at Columbia University – and started going in and out of China on a regular basis.
I’ve been photographing since I was in high school, I started out in the dark room and moved my way up. After graduation I began working for the National Committee on US-China Relations and the International Center of Photography. I hated all my desk jobs and ended up moving back to Beijing two years ago to start doing freelance work full time as a photographer. I went to D22 during my first week in Beijing..I think I saw Ourself Beside Me, Queen Sea Big Shark, and Joyside. I was completely blown away – I had no expectations and it was awesome. I’ve been involved with the Beijing music scene since then, taking photographs, doing portraits and whatnot.
[AH]: So it sounds like it was an organic process – you didn’t come back to China thinking “I want to document the burgeoning rock scene in Beijing”.
[MN]: To be honest, I didn’t even know it existed. I originally came to Beijing to start a photography project on urban development and new architecture which I’m still working on. I wanted to document how Beijing is being turned into this archetype for how they want to develop the cities across the interior of China after the Olympics. I’m going to show it along with the music portraits at the exhibitions I have lined up.
I used to shoot bands, mainly concert shots in New York, so I took my camera up to D22 the first night, and ended up hitting it off with the management. The first portrait I did was actually of Hedgehog, the one against the red wall with the boxing gloves. That’s probably one of my favorite photos. I took that photo and was like “Wow, I gotta do this.” I’m a bit OCD, so literally for the past two years I’ve shot hundreds of bands up against that wall. My book features over a hundred different performers and bands, but it’s literally just a sliver of the overall work.
[AH]: With all the buzz about the Beijing scene, the powerful imagery of your portraits, what Michael, Nevin and Charles have going on at D22…it’s instinctive for people to know that there are more than one hundred bands in and around this part of the world. Once you started, did you know it was going to be so iconic?
[MN]: Michael (Pettis) is a patron through and through in that D22 is not a money-making scheme. It was all about providing a consistent space for these bands to play. He comes from a New York background that is infused with remnants of CBGBs. He has a very specific idea going on there. I’m part of the myth-making process, you know, I’m aware of that, but at the same time I feel that it’s extremely important to document because I really like the music and find it extremely compelling outside of its time and place in China. There has been rock, punk and folk music in China since the late 80s, but it’s always been diamonds in the rough…
[AH]: Exceptions rather than…
[MN]: A cohesive scene that has reached this critical mass where’s it’s perpetuating itself.
[AH]: What you said just now brings me to my next questions. Do you think you’ve been partially responsible for this massive growth in international exposure of the scene in Beijing?
[MN]: I’ve been a part of it, I can’t say I’ve been the promoter. My work covering the scene has been in The New Yorker, The Guardian, Time Magazine, papers I can’t pronounce in Germany. So it’s been around, and I guess it’s a part of it. I am a promoter through my work, but people are attracted to it, it’s compelling in the first place. We don’t have to twist anybody’s arm.
[AH]: Do you think that the exposure is overblown? It certainly seems that the Beijing scene is bigger outside China that it is inside.
[MN]: You could say that, though it’s hard to quantitatively measure. I don’t think the bands here in China are going to be the next Radiohead or something that is going to blow the world away. Also, I have to say that music is a very subjective process; it’s not going to appeal to everybody. Musicians like Xiao He definitely aren’t going to appeal to a mass audience in China, especially in the realm he’s working in
[AH]: He’s an extreme example, though. There are many more mainstream-sounding bands in the Chinese underground that could still be considered pretty straight up. Like Carsick Cars.
[MN]: I don’t think Carsick Cars have come out really well on their recorded material. I’ve seen them play some live sets that completely blew me away. I also seen them play with I’ve thought were pretty mediocre sets. I’ve seen them in moments of brilliance, and in that respect I will always stand behind them. A lot of these people who are critics, when I look at their iTunes library I’m like “Dear Lord, get that Coldplay out of my face!” You listen to it, and either you get it, or you don’t. This is a really important wave of musicians, domestically.
[AH]: I absolutely agree. My issue with the Western media is this idea that they take something, and if it’s hot and exciting, they’ll blow it out of all proportion. People are now expecting Beijing to be this melting pot of dynamicity and creativity. That concerns me, because these bands are still working their asses off to live up to this hype.
[MN]: That was also one of the things I’ve witnessed firsthand over the past two years. Seeing big sponsors get behind these bands, the international media attention. One of the things that drew me to this music in the first place is a sort of humbleness. They weren’t in a Brooklyn scene in New York that sucks. In some way it’s weird cause it’s a little bit early, especially looking at these younger bands playing college nights at D22 and other places. They still have to cut their chops for the next three or four years – I feel like they’re expecting some hype because they’re in Beijing and they’re in a band. Quite frankly, to sustain the Beijing music scene over the next few years there is going to have to be some new bands that step it up. I don’t think it’s gotten to the point where everything is being recycled, but it’s been reaching a zenith for a while.
[AH]: For years and years in this tiny scene there was no money, no hype. There was none of this current posturing, “we’re worth this”. For me, it doesn’t seem that the Chinese public has developed a love for the bands as quickly as the bands have developed a love for themselves.
[MN]: That’s the big thing that we’re going to see in the long run – the potential power in the Chinese scene is unlocking that domestic audience and acceptance.
[AH]: Which still seems quite a long way away, from my perspective. There’s all this hype, and yet these bands in these huge cities of millions attract about 400 people. Those are not great numbers.
[MN]: It’s still extremely nascent and daunting if you look at the bigger picture, but I don’t think it’s going to fizzle right now. Some of them still need a foot in the ass, to sit down and realize that whatever you’re trying to master takes a lot of work.
[AH]: I see this as a big opportunity for music in other cities. Shanghai’s scene is growing at an extraordinarily rapid rate compared to Beijing, which has seemed pretty flat, or not much bigger than what it was in the 80s. What the Shanghainese are good at is taking something and making money out of it. What’s I’m seeing is that with hungrier people down here, the bands find themselves playing catch up, and the scene ends up growing exponentially. I think the international hype and recognition around Beijing is a big opportunity for bands in other cities.
[MN]: The inroads they’re making with interior China have established a pretty consistent touring network. Yiwu, Ningbo, Chongqing – bands can go on tour now. Audiences are starting to appear.
To be continued. Stay tuned.