Candid 10 Questions with Alan Paul: Setting the Record Straight, Big in China, Controversy, Jianbing and more
When Ruby sat down to write a review and comments on Alan Paul’s appearance at the bookworm on Tuesday, I don’t think she realized what can of worms she would be opening. I didn’t either! Truth be said, I never met the gentleman but I had good dealing with him last year via email and enjoyed reading some of his back columns.
Still, when news of the book and potential movie deal came about, he started being a bit of a controversial topic amongst some of Beijing’s expats…. Well, here is Alan Paul, answering the critics, in his own words….
1- What’s going on in your world? This is your chance to plug your stuff
My book Big in China came out March 1 and I’ve been out there plugging it and mostly having fun doing so. Ivan Reitman and Montecito Pictures optioned the book’s movie rights and that seems to be moving forward.
I’m really happy to be back in Beijing with my pengyou. After two brief acoustic performances backing book readings at the Bookworm and the Orchard, I am playing at Jianghu tonight with Lu Wei and Zhang Yong from Woodie Alan and very much looking forward to it.
2- Congrats on the book! I read a few extract but not the whole thing yet. Still, I was surprised at how much you sound surprised at the events that happened to you. how was that?
Well, I truly was surprised by a lot of it, particularly the band. I loved to jam and when I met Woodie and he was interested in playing music together, I was really excited. He was a phenomenal musician and he specialized in two instruments I love – harmonica and lap steel guitar. So we started playing and one thing led to another. Each step was fun and amazing and I honestly never set my eyes beyond the step in front of me.
At one point, I was back in the US for a few weeks in the summer and Woodie emailed me that he wanted to talk about the band when I got back. I dreaded it, because I thought he was going to end it, but he said, “I’ve been watching videos of us and I think we can be pretty good – but only if you’re willing to practice more and work on writing songs.” I almost fell off my chair but of course I said yes. Then I sort of realized that we had the opportunity to do something special and really be good – but only if I could step it up. I was the frontman and the weak link, which was a strange place to be. So I sort of shut my eyes and jumped.
3- Talking about the title, Big in China, who picked it? Can you explain that a bit?
I picked it but it was a joke working title for myself as I was writing the proposal. I was mocking myself, really, and always planned on changing the name. When it came time to have an interview with an editor at Harper Collins I didn’t have anything I liked better yet. So I went in and said, “I want to make clear that Big in China is just a working title,’ and she went, ‘I love Big in China! That’s what drew me in.’ So I stayed out of my way and said, “Uh, me too.”
The title remains firmly tongue in cheek, a reference to Tom Waits’ “Big In Japan.” It also refers, of course, to my success with the band, but it’s more than that. I discovered a new level of confidence as a writer and a person here as well. I reached down inside myself and found new levels. I had a reinvention, really, and I think a lot of people living outside their home culture go through similar things.
4- Since the book came out, along with news that it’s been picked up for a movie, you have become a bit of controversial topic in Beijing. Are you aware of some of the negative things being said about your band and your success?
Sure. No one likes to hear people say nasty things about them, but it comes with the territory and I don’t take it too personally. I have no regrets or second thoughts about anything except perhaps the phrase “becoming a star in Beijing” which is in the subhead. I did not write that – the publisher did – but the book is bigger than my band. It’s about my entire life and reinvention here, and I can live with the phrasing.
I started writing The Expat Life column for WSJ.com just four months after I got to Beijing and within a few months it had a pretty good following and a lot of the old China hands and longtime journalists here went crazy and hated all over me. I was a basketball and music journalist with little China experience and it drove them crazy, but I never presented myself as an expert. I was capturing my life and how it reflected a broader expat existence.
The book speaks for itself and everything in it is true. Some people will say we weren’t that big, but it all depends on your definition. We sold out the JZ Club in Hangzhou; played in front of 2,000 people in a theater there; headlined the Xiamen Beach Festival in front of 5-6,000 people, a performance which was broadcast on TV throughout Fujian; appeared on Changsha radio and in magazines there; played the Star Live a bunch, were hired for the black tie British Olympic Committee Olympics dinner. This was all bigger than I dreamed possible and we pulled it all off.
I don’t want go point by point defending myself, but it’s flat out untrue to say we only were popular with a small group of my friends. That is certainly how it started, but Woodie, Zhang Yong and Lu Wei are fantastic musicians who were deeply enmeshed in the Beijing music scene and I’ll put them up against anyone in town – or anywhere, which is why I always had that sense of disbelief that I was up there with them. We were one of the first bands to play Jianghu – Tianxiao the owner was an old bandmate of Woodie’s in Sand. When we played there it would be packed with musicians, and many of them got up and jammed with us. At the time, it was an all-Chinese crowd and I loved playing there. He asked us to be the house band, with a weekly gig, and Woodie and I wanted to do it, but Lu and Zhang are working musicians and needed better paying gigs. Woodie and I never chased the biggest gigs or the most money.
We liked laying places where we were friends with the owners and it was like being a at a friend’s house – Jianghu, the Stone Boat and the Orchard and all fit the bill and we didn’t give a shit about what people thought about us playing there. We enjoyed the gigs and the camaraderie. We tried to balance that with getting some high paying gigs for the sake of the guys really making a living from music. I got offered some big money to play corporate events, but was told no Chinese or black musicians and I told them to fuck off. I wouldn’t do that apartheid shit. My bandmates were my brothers.
Every time I played with those guys was an honor and a pleasure. They are great musicians and people and I don’t put myself on their level at all but I taught them things, too – about dynamics, collaboration and how to jam by simply listening to one another and responding. To me, it was a true collaboration and I’ll be proud of it ‘til the day I die for reasons that go far beyond what you can hear on a recording. I’m sad that we never fully captured ourselves at peak performance, but lots of musicians could say the same about their favorite band.
5- Let’s forget the naysayers for a while and focus on the music for a bit. Do you still feel like you could have a bit of music career, riding the wave of the book and maybe the movie?
Not really. I love playing and my time with Woodie Alan really elevated me. I have played with some great people on book release tours, including Mark Karan, who toured with Bob Weir and the Dead for 12 years and my friend Andy Aledort, a guitar legend who invented tablature, has given lessons to Joe Perry, played with the Band of Gypsys at the Mt, Fuji Rock Festival and has toured with Dickey Betts for 8 or 9 years. Now I can stand up there and bring something to the table with these guys and I owe it all to Beijing and my Chinese bandmates. But it will remain a sidelight. To be clear, I’m a writer who plays music.
6- Woodie is not around as far as I understand to play along this week. What happened to him?
Woodie has left Beijing and is currently not playing music. It really saddens me, but he’s doing fine and I wish him nothing but happiness and success in life. He’s like my little brother and I’ll always be there for him.
7- You’ve just recently come back after a few weeks away… what’s the first restaurant you look forward to visiting in Beijing?
The jiangbing guy near my friend Scott’s house, where I always stay. I love all the food here. Some of my favorites have gone downhill, like Sange Guizhou Ren. I always enjoy Dali and most any hotpot, but truly some of my favorite meals are in little stalls and off of carts.
8- Recently, I’ve personally taken a great interest in the music scene outside of Beijing. Back when you actively toured, what places were you eager to revisit. Which cities would you go out of your way to avoid?
Nowhere to avoid. We picked our spots pretty carefully and didn’t have any disastrous gigs out of town. I would love to revisit Qingdao, Hangzhou and Changsha. We had great gigs at really cool clubs in all those places.
9- Word Association: Please write the first word that comes to your mind:
– Beijing duck: Damn. I didn’t get any this trip.
– Dumplings: Yum
– Big in China: My last two years
– Slide: Woodie
– Shanghai: Eh
– Alan Paul: Thankful
– Polka Dots: Buddy Guy
10- What can we expect tomorrow/friday’s show at Jianghu? Who’s playing? any special guests?
Zhang Yong will be playing both bass and guitar, Lu Wei will be swinging the beat and I will be on acoustic. We have played briefly at readings the last two nights and the chemistry is there, even if some things are a little rough. It has sounded great and been a lot of fun and it will be better.
Peter Schloss will join us on banjo for some tunes. Tianxiao will be on tenor sax for a while – we played quite a few gig with him, because he was our sub sax player when Dave Loevinger couldn’t make it. A few other folks may pop up. We love to jam and always welcome guests to our bandstand.
There you have it folks, straight from the horse’s mouth! I’ve read the comments on the other thread and I’m really flabbergasted at what is being said… It does seem to me like some folks have nothing better to do than criticize and that’s just plain idiotic. I have yet to read the full book and make up my own mind but from everything i’ve read so far, in terms of articles and interviews, Alan is one good guy that happened to be in the right place at the right time and had the nerves and balls to run with it. He seems genuinely grateful and surprised at his own success…. I can’t fault that nor do i have the right to judge it!
See what the fuss is all about tonight, Friday June 17th at Jianghu Jiu Ba when most of Woodie Alan Band reunites for a gig with friends
Pictures taken from AlanPaul.net and Maplewood online
Meh. Handsome Black was Woodie’s best band; half of them went on to form RandomK(e).
Is anyone “Big in China”, i doubt it, i think it’s more an illusion than the truth. I haven’t read the book, so i can’t say anything about it, but what i feel from the interview, is that there’s something wrong in all that.
One cannot compare the situation of being “Big in Japan”, and the supposed situation of being “Big in China”, those two countries are very different, and the social situations of both those countries don’t allow the same things at all.
Alan Paul is a nice guy but this is rediculous… and a movie?? hehehe… come on! His critics were paying attention (were you?) when WA band was around and are on the mark… too bad about Woodie… cool dude. Now stop paying attention to fiction… the Beijing (and China) scene are developing, trying to project internationally, and don’t need embarrassments like this…
Jaime, you put said what i wanted to say, thanks !
Jaime, you said what i wanted to say, thanks !
Regarding to “best band in Beijing”, I remembered clearly that I got an email or message from Alan Paul asked me to get on website to vote for his band. Ironically I didn’t even know Alan Paul that well. From that day, I never take ‘best band in Beijing’ awards seriously because anything band can be ‘best band in Beijing’ as long as you get enough votes, not even mention you sit on your computer just to vote vote vote like a robot. I am just saying the truth.
Yeah, I am sick of hearing about this shit… We are actively trying to fix the little problems with “Best Band in Beijing” and such. There are so many good band here… how do you guess this guy got this “c” level band THAT title? Then they went everywhere to tout it…. god… we did an interview at that same Changsha station a little while after they did… they were talking about influences and favorite bands and we were asked about Woodie Alan…. the room erupted and I almost walked out… influences???? Oh well, it’ll go away I guess… just annoying like a back injury that keeps coming back.
Good one Lulu… I just had a few mails back and forth a few hours ago, coincidentally, with magazine people (from that round table a few weeks ago) and this problem should be fixed soon… Hopefully there will be a 3 tiered system of voting where you get a poll from the readers, then pros in the music business to comb through that to stamp any BS and kick it out the door, and , then the clubs have their say as well (attendance, how they really are, etc). That ought to fix it a bit.
I appreciate you posting under your real name unlike some others. I said my piece and am not going to respond any more. Happy to discuss it with you any time directly. Drop me a line if you feel like it. I’ve never been anything but an open book and continue to be so.
Well if it’s any consolation, you have struck a chord! That’s good for what you do eh? 😉 I’ll have to go and read the book, I am sure it’s good reading, but you fucked up the title…LOL… sorry, I’m not the only one. Rock on
Having played with Woodie in both Sand and Handsome Black, it was disappointing to see him put so much effort into the Woodie Alan band. All of the unnecessary accolades he received in that band served to do little but enable certain tendencies that lead him to the point where music and his former friends/bandmates no longer have a place in his life.
By the way, what kind of people vote for the best band in Beijing?
Jaime, Happy to have a pint and discuss it some day. Read the book. You’ll see that I don’t make any claims that aren’t true and the band is only a only one part of the story, but whatever. It seems to be beside the point to some extent.
Jez, I don’t think I know you but after saying I wouldn’t address anything more, I have to say that what you’re saying about Woodie is way off base. In respect of his privacy and requests, I can’t say anything more. BTW, I love Sand and have nothing but respect for everyone I’ve ever met from that band.
Stole my Buddy Guy Polka Dot line!
LOL I just realized, no wonder that line is so familiar.LOL
If you made it with the book, good for you, but just be honest with the level of fame you got here, you’ve lived here, you know what things are like. You know as well as me that nothing has happened so far, that everything needs to be done, that this is not America, Europe, or Japan.
People in the West need to be educated on what China and the Chinese music scene is really about, with its good sides and bad sides.
You know it’s completely selfish of you to use your experience here as a tool to make yourself famous and get a movie deal, this is not making things get better, it’s giving another wrong perspective on China and on things in the Chinese music scene….makes me want to write a book too…
I was writing about my experiences here. I know that when something annoys you, you don’t feel like going and reading a whole book. Fine. I get it. I’ve felt the same way about other things. But without reading it, you really don;t know what ‘s in it.
It is not a history of Beijing music. Half or more is about my family and kids and our getting settled here… and then with the band, it’s all about meeting woodie, my relationship to him and what it led to. I never expected to be playing packed clubs in changsha and doing all this other stuff and the book captures my experience and my sort of shock and awe at it all.
I get that many of you are questioning how big or influential Woodie Alan really was in China, its talent level, etc. If you’ve read the book and some of Alan’s dispatches back to the Wall Street Journal (I have), you’ll know that he was capturing the excitement of being an expat in an entirely different culture, making his way and living life to the fullest. His affection and appreciation for his time with the band is clear. He wrote a book that people are enjoying, and speaks highly of his time as an expat, and especially China. It seems that many of the comments are trying to project on him things he hasn’t said, weren’t in the book, all because of a book title and band award. It’s the overall experience in China (and his writing) that people are celebrating, not where the band fell in terms of charts, rankings or personal opinions.
It doesn(t change the fact that this is lots of bullshit…
To think that Ivan Reitman making Ghostbusters 3 would make more people happy than this project…
Ivan Reiman combining the Ghostbusters franchise and Big in China would make me happpy.
Wow. Seems like some people really have some jealousy issues.
I wish it was jealousy….
I wish it was jealousy….it’s more like a form of sadness
If they can get Bill Murray to play Alan and Short Round from Temple of Doom to be Woodie then I’d buy the daoban DVD.
I think there’s more honesty in the marketing of GHOSTBUSTERS than Mr. Paul’s book.
This bon mont was a howler, “I don’t want go point by point defending myself, but it’s flat out untrue to say we only were popular with a small group of my friends. ”
Nobody has fucking heard of Woodie Alan Band. Really. Comparatively speaking, if you go to Chinese music sites for LOCALS (who gives a damn about what expats claim for the Chinese? ONLY expats and the govt.!) There are far more obscure bands that “sold out the JZ Club in Hangzhou; played in front of 2,000 people in a theater there; headlined the Xiamen Beach Festival in front of 5-6,000 people, a performance which was broadcast on TV throughout Fujian; appeared on Changsha radio and in magazines there; played the Star Live a bunch, were hired for the black tie British Olympic Committee Olympics dinner,” that only remain obscure because expat journalists who like to use their pulpit to exaggerate their own accomplishments would rather brag about their bar band that only mattered to expat bankers, lawyers and journos (who rarely support Chinese music) than to the Chinese music fans who still support the local bands.
In a nation of a billion people, playing a free, outdoor festival to 5-6,000 people is nothing. KTV models outside of department stores in big cities play to more people than that on one weekend. they can make the same claim, and Alan, your caveat about playing at the British Emabssy shows what you’re doing. It really proves that the emperor has no clothes. You only give a damn about vindication in expat eyes.
I shudder to think what bullshit this Ivan Reitman production will spew. It will be epic lying on the level of Howard Stern’s PRIVATE PARTS (another Reitman production), no doubt. Reitman’s long-forgotten CANNIBAL GIRLS will probably come off as intellectually honest, compared to what they’ll do with Mr. Paul’s fabrications.
After this interview I am doubly certain that Mr. Paul’s book is full of spin and steaming hubris. I won’t pay to read it. If I am loaned the book then I’ll read it to see if I am 100% correct, but this interview definitely displays what Mr. Paul’s book is about: twisting his China experiences to put himself over. If it reads like this interview (not BD’s work but Mr. Paul’s words) then “Big in China” may very well be like an ego-tripping, awesomely bad, China rock-marginalizing flip side to something like Mark Salzman’s “Iron and Silk” for lawyer-ball playing expat yuppies who like to piss on all of the hard working Chinese bands.
Alan Paul: the Pat Boone to China’s Little Richards?
Directly to Alan Paul:
I’m now losing respect for you (and that doesn’t matter, really) and think you’re insulting China’s struggling rock’n’roll universe, but I do respect that you come out and take it. I will give you that bit of respect. That’s all you’ll get, though.
You know who is the real Alan Paul: Joyside’s Yang Yang. HE deserves the praise and respect. He didn’t “talk” (write) the “talk.” He really did everything Paul claims and was an important part of JOYSIDE’s rise. If anything, Yang Yang has undersold his place in Chinese rock history (as have Cui Jian’s old bandmates; but that’s a whole other sub-topic!).
Yang Yang also played in front of more people with JOYSIDE than Alan ever did (will) with Woodie Alan Band.
Yang Yang, my tomodachi, I salute you!
It’s really not jealousy at all, it’s the response towards a person’s bullshits from many true musicians and music lovers living in Beijing.Oh,for the people who never has been to Jianghu bar, it is as big as my living room. Nice cozy tiny bar. That’s how packed it was. I guess I need to hire a houseband and make them big in china in my living room. That’s so pathetic.
Hold on Lulu, be fair. Your living room is bigger than Jianghu.
Jez, my bad. I just took a glance at my living room. It is indeed bigger than Janghu. LOL
Wow – is this BD’s busiest-ever thread??
I feel kind of sorry for Alan that he’s provoking so much negativity (although I can see why). I don’t think we need to be so precious about his book misrepresenting the Beijing/China music scene. Realistically, I think it’s going to have just about zero impact on anyone’s perceptions of the scene here. The book isn’t going to sell that well, and the film is never going to get made (I don’t know precisely what proportion of optioned titles actually make it to the screen, but it’s a fairly tiny percentage, particularly with non-fiction…. although I suppose some may dispute whether Alan’s book should be categorised as non-fiction!!). If the book does become a huge bestseller and a movie version does materialize… well, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. It will generate wider interest in the music scene here, create opportunities for all these dissenting voices we find here to put across their different views, and – most importantly – enable more Chinese bands to play abroad and find foreign fans. If that were to happen (very unlikely, I think), it would be A GOOD THING. And the brief phenomenon of the Woodie Alan Band would have become retroactively ‘significant’ as the catalyst for achieving this. Debating whether they were a significant part of the China music scene during the short two or three years they were active is kind of irrelevant, I feel.
Well, there’s nothing to debate: they weren’t. They were a fairly unremarkable band who merited almost no attention from anyone outside of Beijing’s expat community.
So, I can see where Beijing musicians’ irritation comes from, with this storm of media attention Alan Paul is currently getting and the merits of his band suddenly becoming our No 1 chattering topic. (Ahem, it’s really our own fault for diving into the chatter! And it won’t last: he’s just in town for a week to plug the book.)
And I don’t think Alan has been doing himself any favours with the defensive/self-justificatory tone of a lot of his remarks.
I see where he’s coming from. He feels very pleased and surprised with how much he was able to do with the band, and how many different places they played. And he needs to talk that up as much as possible to promote the book. But it does grate that the book’s blurb talks of him becoming a “star” in China (inverted commas might have saved it! and perhaps a more obviously mocking follow-up like How did THAT happen??).
However, although I appreciate how this happens, it does start to seem rather ludicrous, desperate, pathetic, the way he enumerates all of his supposed achievements: “a bunch of shows at Star Live” (really? I don’t remember that. On their own, or just padding out a folkie bill??), on the radio once in Changsha (seems like they interview every visiting band that passes through down there), played to thousands at a festival once (wasn’t that a free festival?), played for the British Ambassador once (expat novelty act!), won a ‘band of the year’ accolade (hahahahahaha!!!), almost a house band at Jianghu (except NOT, in fact, and Jianghu is Beijing’s second smallest music club).
Alan has explained the provoking ‘Big In China’ title as a joking reference to Tom Waits’ jokey song ‘Big In Japan’. Big In Japan has long been the kind of empty boast that mediocre bands would console themselves with, particularly fading Metalheads of the Spinal Tap ilk. There are a number of reasons why such a claim does not usually command much respect, and is not taken very seriously: irrelevance (Japan may be a valuable market in some genres, but it remains very isolated from the mainstream of the worldwide music business), self-delusion (some bands may never even have played there, but convince themselves that they have a significant following because of a handful of fan e-mails), or outright dishonesty (musicians may feel they can make the claim unchallenged, because almost nobody knows anything about what’s really going on with music sales in Japan). That being said, it it still A BOAST of sorts. However trivial the claim, or however self-deprecating the intention behind it, it does sound as if you are sort of in earnest about enjoying some kind of importance or celebrity there.
In the context of the way Alan’s publishers are promoting the book, that goes tens times over for ‘Big In China’. It does sound as if he’s making out that the Woodie Alan Band were a major force on the scene here. And I can see why that gets under people’s skin.
I was inclined to defend Alan against his more scathing detractors like El Santo at first; but after reading what he’s said here, and the thread that’s developed from it, my sympathy wanes.
Yes, he is coming across as self-important and delusional. But let’s mellow out. It doesn’t matter a damn. It will all be forgotten in a few weeks.
Well written Froog!
I really didn’t want to come down on the side of the Alan-bashers too much. I think there’s been some overreaction here, and a lot of the criticism has been unnecessarily sharp (perhaps including my own).
I have no beef with Alan. I’ve spoken to him a few times after gigs, and he seems a really nice guy. I have no beef with the book. I expect it’s an honest and entertaining account of his experience here – with little or no aggrandizing about how successful his band were or what a transformative impact he had on the Chinese music scene. My beef is with the way the book is being presented.
Unfortunately, Alan is complicit in that, now that he’s on the promotional tour. When he ticks off all the remarkable accomplishments of the band, he may innocently believe that he’s just recalling what were for him the highlights of his experience with them. But in the context of his publisher touting him as being “a music star in China”, it does tend to read as if he’s, if not exactly bragging, at least seeking to partly justify that claim. (I fear the poor chap is just getting worn down by the carping and becoming overly defensive. When I mentioned in the thread on Ruby’s review of his Bookworm talk that I had particularly fond memories of Dave Loevinger’s farewell gig with them at The Stone Boat, he immediately came back with Well, we didn’t only play at The Stone Boat, you know.)
Alan may feel that’s it’s disloyal to his publisher (or potentially detrimental to his sales) to try to distance himself too much from that “star in China” puff. But from a PR point of view, I think it would be better for him to meet criticism like that he’s received here with something along the lines of: I kind of regret the choice of title now. It was meant to be a joke, but I see how a lot of people have taken to be in some way serious. And my publisher hasn’t helped by adding that blurb about me becoming a ‘star’. I never claimed that for myself. We were just a small band, and we weren’t together very long; but I was just really surprised and delighted with how much we developed together musically in that time and with some of the gigs we got to play.
Froog, You make some valid points and I’d be happy to discuss with you further if you’re so inclined, but not up here. Drop me a line via my website http://www.alanpaul.net if you feel like chatting.
For the record, I have no regrets about the title Big in China, though I do wish they had not used the tag line, “becoming a star in beijing” because it’s really not a claim I make at all. “Big in China” is 1. a joke and 2. a reference that extends far beyond music.
I loved playing the Stone Boat and would frankly have been very happy to have never moved beyond it and Jianghu – I enjoyed the gigs there generally far more than those at Yugong, star Live, etc.
It’s kind of a no-win situation from my perspective. If I say nothing, it seems I am accepting the criticisms. If I defend myself, I sound…defensive. Anyhow, drop me a line.
I want to apologize.
I think this thing has now gone too far and is starting to be ridiculous.
I wish good luck to Mr Alan Paul and his book (and possible movie) and i hope this will bring attention to the China underground music scene in a good, positive way, because it needs it
I hope to see Woodie again soon on the Beijing stages rocking his guitar.
I think everyone has a place in this world and i wish everyone peace, and love.
Hi I want to apologize as well… for the f’cking fire we are going to start on stage at DazeFeast! Nothing about this thread however..totally unrelated… you just reminded me about apologies! LOLOL…