This is a guest post for the Radar by John Yingling, of the World Underground. Photos + Text by John Yingling.
Ask any Chinese-born P.K.14 fan about what the band means to them and watch as their pupils dilate. After nearly twenty years, the band is still going as strong as ever. On their new record, singer Yang Haisong proves he’s still got a lot to say with his lyrics that tackle issues of identity in an ever-changing world. To say P.K.14’s outlook on this topic is a necessity to understanding the current state of Chinese society would be a vast understatement. There are deep layers here and the band always finds a way to say exactly what they want, without alarming the censors of the P.R.C. Haisong says his inspirations are but a sparkle. Alongside his bandmates, Haisong can’t pinpoint where their inspiration comes from, or when it’ll disappear.
Four years ago, my life changed when these men took me on tour with them. Memories of Chengdu and Wuhan have since been imprinted in my mind. It was my first visit to China. After years of writing Yang Haisong to see if they’d ever go on the road again, I’m told a tour has been planned and the route goes from up north in Ningbo all the way down to Macau. Nine shows, nine cities, nine days, and it all begins when they let me in their van a second time in Ningbo.
This whole tour, aside from Guangzhou and Shenzhen, is all new territory for me. Ningbo was gray with rain. My goal this time is to go in blind. No plan. No interviews. Try to film the mood and energy, how it makes me feel.
Eventually, someone surely will write a book on P.K.14’s influence in modern Chinese musical culture. They confirmed their place in this canon long ago. Very few bands, not just in Asia, but the whole world, can match P.K.14’s legacy. Long ago, Yang Haisong gained the legendary status not only as a frontman, a poet, and a producer but also for helping raise this generation of China’s youth. Time and time again, I hear it from younger kids in China: “No, look. You don’t understand, P.K.14 are the best band in the world.” I like to think that after all this time, after touring with the band, I understand. They’ve certainly changed my life as well, and even thinking in a Western vacuum, I can only begin to understand the impact they have on young, impressionable Chinese kids, kids who have been force-fed what to think and when to think it their entire lives. These songs, these lyrics, and these performances are staggering breaths of fresh air that are sorely needed for me, even though I don’t understand what’s being sung.
I never forgot how incredible P.K.14 are as a live act, but it’s still a bucket of water to the face. Kids lock arms and mosh in circles around the room. In the middle of it all, I’ve got a shit-eating grin on my face. Their new sounds are as clean and inventive as anything they’ve ever done. Each instrument gives space to one other, but altogether they crash in perfect harmony at just the right moments. Photographers buzz around and try to capture the frantic energy of it all.
To my amazement, the second show of the tour, Yiwu, was held in an actual temple. The red building in the mountaintops was renovated into a unique performance room, with its ceiling and banister still intact from its partial demolition during the Cultural Revolution. In spite of its years of renovation, P.K.14 tore the place apart. I tried my best to keep my camera steady amidst my joyous laughter.
When I get to Quanzhou, it’s pouring with more rain. In the fast train, more striking mountainous landscapes from Fujian province along with dozens of temples and churches fly by. Our venue is called the Animal World Music Commune, strangely fitting as the area is filled with odd sculptures like Batman riding a bike with Ronald McDonald. Inside is a small bar with an enthusiastic owner and the more I walk around, the more wildly confusing my surroundings become. Reijian Bei Shashou, the opening band, plays refreshing, noise-drenched shoe-gaze. They hail from our next destination, Xiamen
It’s an hour drive to Xiamen. I’m twitching with excitement by a mere glimpse of the place when we roll in. Years ago, on the first day I met P.K.14, I was told of this venue, Real Live. Their friend had just opened it and the band played the second ever show to be held there. Now, they were back, and I was in tow. The venue housed the most intense crowd of the tour so far. As they freaked out at the new songs, I sat in the middle, but this was a different endeavor from the previous shows. Now I had to dodge the circle-pits, side stepping and picking up the camera when kids flung themselves toward me.
It’s smooth sailing to Shenzhen. I’ve been to the venue, B10, twice before. Once with P.K.14, and again on the way back down with Haisong’s other band, After Argument. With the intensity of all of P.K.14’s live shows, my camera mic has been beaten to shit, causing the mic to slump onto the side of its holster. Though with the help of the venue’s staff and some rubber bands, we ghetto-rig the thing from falling apart. Among the show’s audience was Sijiang and Li Yinan from Chengdu’s Hiperson.
Dongguan. They’ve never played So What Livehouse, so we didn’t really know what to expect. It’s a nice, small bar, with a short stage. The place reminded me of The Empty Bottle in Chicago. There’s a 5-year-old in attendance. Upstairs, a fancy wine and tearoom with a large, out of tune Chinese string instrument, which Johnny immediately starts dicking around with. Haisong tries to relax, lying on the floor again with an aching back.
In the intimacy of the tearoom, I break it to Johnny and Haisong, telling them how much the last four years has meant to me, how much they mean to so many people, what the kids have told me over the years in their wide-eyed discussions.
When it came to their performance, they tore apart a mixed up setlist to a small but eager crowd. I stay behind in Dongguan to rest, and the band makes the trek back to Zhuhai for an easier exit to Macau.
Macau was intense. It’s not a difficult city by any means, just a bit rich for my blood. I’m sure if I had more time I could find some hits on the cheap, but I only had one day. The venue’s up a rickety elevator, and the owner feeds me pork from a giant bowl. Goddamn, I’ve missed the south, but I feel money seeping out of me within hours, with everything being so expensive.
So that’s how it ends. If you’ve ever had music leave a mark on you, P.K.14 has carved deeply into me, with transformative experiences that gave me a new outlook on life, showing me a side of China I surely never would’ve seen otherwise. It’s a lot to unpack. Doing this again was a dream come true. More places, food, people, and stories that never would have been on my radar, without them. I am forever grateful. It’s going to be a bit before I wrap my brain around what this film will be, but it’s going to be different, dark, and beautiful. Until then, thanks again, for everything.