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