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Friday, Jan. 4, 2008

Beijing: punk paradise in waiting

As Beijing enters its Olympic year, The Japan Times meets the Japanese mogul who's hoping to put the city on the musical map

Until April last year, the president of rock label Bad News Records, Kazutoshi Chiba, ran his Chinese operations as he had his Japanese ones — on instinct.

News photo
Brain Failure bring the punk-rock revolution to Beijing live house Mao Live, which is co-owned by Li Chi (left). Later this year Brain Failure will collaborate with celebrated rap group Public Enemy. EDAN CORKILL PHOTO (below)
News photo

For instance, when he first saw Chinese punk rockers Brain Failure in 2002, he just knew that with their spiked mohawks, snarled English lyrics, accomplished technique and dogged commitment, they would succeed in the highly competitive U.S. punk scene.

But last April, when Chiba opened Mao Live, a live house on the trendy Dongdajie Street in central Beijing, a new set of problems emerged — not least of which was his nationality.

"Anti-Japanese sentiment is high in China. About two years ago, every time Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi went to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine (where convicted Class-A war criminals are among those enshrined), there were riots, even in Beijing," he said. "All the Japanese restaurants were targeted. And Mao Live could conceivably become a target if it happened again."

Chiba's solution was to keep his and his company's involvement in the 300-capacity venue quiet. Summing up his current approach, whereby his Chinese partner is the face of the venue, he said, "Mao is Li Chi's project."

Sitting in his Shibuya office, surrounded by the two dozen staff who manage his stable of 150 Japanese and international bands, the gray-stubbled Chiba was surprised when he heard that — at least among the English-speaking residents of Beijing — his cover had been blown. Mao Live has become so popular — for its excellent sound system, the quality of its live roster, and the genuine "rock feel" of its rough-hewn, warehouse-like interior — that English-language commentators quickly sought out and identified the foreign expertise behind the venture.

"Backed by the Japanese record label Bad News, Mao Live has a lot of expertise behind it," says one online review.

Chiba's move into live-house management in China was a logical extension of his band-management activities there.

As Chiba anticipated, Brain Failure have had some success in the United States. They have played with big-selling punk acts such as Rancid and Dropkick Murphys, and in April they will collaborate on a song with rappers Public Enemy. Yet Chiba's ultimate objective had always been broader than that, and closer to home, too.

"The market for rock music in China will one day become huge," he said. "At some point in the future it will overtake America — it has to! Just think about the population," he reasoned.

Yet the problem with generating popularity for Brain Failure in China was not just that they had to compete with the indisputable champion of the Chinese music market — saccharine-sweet Canto-pop coming out of Hong Kong — but that they were best experienced live, and there weren't many adequate venues where they could play.

"What they had in Beijing about two years ago were bars or restaurants with stages to one side," he said. "There was no culture of paying money to go and hear music. You'd pay money to eat and the music would be a side attraction."

Chiba decided that making his own venue was the only option. Enter Li Chi, a 41-year-old graphic designer who had been a fan of Brain Failure since the late 1990s, and who was happy to become the co-owner, and face, of Mao Live.

Chiba sent over some Japanese staff, including an experienced live-house manager known as Sam2, to help Li scout locations and set up shop. He had other Japanese staff on the ground, including the current manager of Brain Failure, 31-year-old Ryutaro Okuno. It was Okuno who interpreted when The Japan Times went to Mao Live and talked with Li about the operation.

The face of Mao Live was made to order. With scraggly, shoulder-length hair, goatee and khaki combat jacket, Li could have been slouching down the Left Bank of Paris. Not that he didn't look at home on Dongdajie Street either; with the Central Academy of Drama and a plethora of small shops selling musical instruments nearby, Mao's neighborhood is bristling with young, arty types, and has recently attracted youth hostels and young foreigners too.

"It's a good area to be in," Li said. "We get a lot of young people. People who like music, who like art. Designers, painters, artists, also junior high-school students, high-school students."

Li explained that in addition to avoiding stone-wielding crowds (who disappeared when the Yasukuni visits stopped), the most troublesome aspects of setting up Mao Live were the soundproofing and government bureaucracy. In addition to the permits required for operating a venue where people gather, Mao Live was required to agree not to allow songs that were in any way "antigovernment, pro-Taiwan independence, or erotic."

Li continued, "Every month we must hand in all of the lyrics for all of the songs that will be sung at the venue."

Yet he was also quick to dowse suspicions that government intervention was deliberately vindictive. "There are people in the government who just have this preconception that rock is the enemy," he said. "It's not like they are opposing it with reason, it's more like they don't understand it, so they are strict on it."

Another problem was finding someone skilled enough to operate Mao's top-of-the-range sound system. The job eventually went to another Japanese, 39-year-old Takahiro Atarashi. On the night The Japan Times visited, Atarashi was holed up behind a mixer at the rear of the darkened venue.

"I keep trying to train Chinese staff, but they keep quitting," he said. At that moment the guitarist from the young band The Reason, which was preparing to perform, yelled something.

"No, no, you have to adjust it on the amp," Atarashi yelled back. A moment later we were awash in shrieking guitars.

Li said he was grateful for the assistance the Japanese were providing. "They have an established scene in Japan, so they are experienced in doing this sort of thing. There is a lot they can teach us," he said. "Also, Japan is close to China, so it is very easy to maintain contact."

Despite Chiba's efforts to keep a low profile, Mao Live's Japanese owners had also hardly escaped the notice of the bands. After finishing his set, the bassist and leader of The Reason, Da Yang, sat down for a chat.

A 23-year-old with a long, Robert Smith-style fringe and a part-time job on a newspaper editorial desk, he explained that he had "heard that Mao Live is partly financed and operated by Japanese."

Still, he thought it was a positive thing: "Their presence shows they think there is enough quality in the Chinese rock scene to warrant its development," he said.

The Reason avoids making political statements in its music. "We sing about having a positive mental attitude. We don't sing about politics. We sing about everyday life," said Da.

Later, Brain Failure manager Okuno explained that there are no serious bands who sing explicitly about politics in China. When Brain Failure released their debut album there last year (in the past they had only released CDs in Japan or America), songs such as "Holy Bullsh*t" and "Give Me the Cash" went through a government check before they could be licensed. (That they were being translated from English apparently gave them a little leeway.)

Okuno also mentioned that Chiba's goal to build up a domestic fan base for Brain Failure is working. "Brain Failure is now at the point where we can sell out at Mao Live and make a profit on domestic tours," he said.

Such tours — the existence of which often surprises outsiders — encompass up to two dozen admittedly small venues, and generally follow China's main east-west Longhai train line to western cities such as Yuhan, Xian and Chengdu.

"The places we go to are mostly bars — that's all there are," said Okuno. "There are young kids in all those regional cities who have guitars and want to rock."

Still, the home of the fledgling Chinese rock scene is very much Beijing, and that is where stargazing rockers flock from around the country.

Once there, Mao Live isn't the only venue option they have. A competitor for the unofficial title of "Best Sound System in Beijing" is The Star Live, which was also set up, in late 2006, with Japanese expertise in the form of Yasuji Kishimoto, operator of the Shibuya O family of venues in Tokyo.

Then there is D-22, owned by American Michael Pettis, who teaches finance at Peking University during the day. Housed in a former karaoke bar in the western area of Wudaokou, D-22 is about a third of the size of Mao Live and has established a reputation for unearthing worthy acts from myriad no-hopers.

"We're not afraid to play bands that nobody's ever heard of," said Pettis. His attitude stems in part from the fact that his "financial backers" in the United States obviate the need to make money.

It's a significant difference from Chiba and Li Chi, whose greatest achievement to date is perhaps that they've shown how a medium-size rock venue — and a local band's domestic career — can be made into a sustainable business in China.

Indeed, it seems the only thing with the potential to derail them would be more Koizumi-like posturing this side of the Sea of Japan. As history has shown, there's no saying when that might happen again.

Brain Failure's new album is scheduled for release in Japan, China and the United States in July.

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