Do-Over with Jon Campbell: Red Rock, Worthy Perspectives or How Yaogun Can Save Rock n Roll

Like I warned yesterday, you’re not done reading the name “Jon Campbell” on this blog, at least not for this week. I believe I’ve already interviewed Jon before before, albeit more for gigs he was playing in. This time around, it’s different!
He’s in Beijing as part of Jue Festival and the Bookworm Literary Festival promoting his book, Red Rock::The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll.
I read the book a while back and I’ve also been following Jon for quite sometime.. this was an opportunity to catch up and get some extra details out of him.

1- How is post Beijing life treating you and what’s been keeping you busy now that Red Rock is out?
Post-bj life is great. Mellow. Very not rock and roll, really. But nice. My wife and I own a house and a dog and a backyard and it’s great. I work as a publicist for Harbourfront Centre, a cultural organization and venue on Toronto’s waterfront that hosts all kinds of festivals, events, exhibitions, dance/thatre performances, concerts, etc, most of which is free.

2- I’m curious.. What made you decide to write the book? Was there a sort of Eureka moment or was it a long process?
The short answer is that Earnshaw Books put out a call for writers. I answered it. The longer answer is related to that feeling I think many expats have, which is, I have a perspective that is worthy of getting out into the world. I knew that the story of yaogun was one that ought to be told, and I didn’t want someone else to be the one to tell it. Once I started writing, the eureka moments happened over and over every time a Yaogunner told me about how rock and roll changed their lives.

3- I had to read Red Rock twice to just begin digesting all the information in there. What kind of feedback have you gotten from outsiders about it and does that differ from any feedback you might have gotten from the Chinese?
The problem I have is that Chinese people can’t read it yet. Only Hao Fang has read it and when he told me he thought it was good, I was so relieved and honoured — I really didn’t know how he was going to feel about it. But the Chinese reaction is very important to me, because it is a China story, so I look forward to hearing from more people here. I was really surprised at how well some critics and people back home reacted to it — the blurb quotes I got from people really blew me away, and that says to me that yaogun has a chance outside of this country.
Any plans to to get the book translated/published in China then?
Absolutely, yes, I want to see it in Chinese, and so do a lot of people here.
But going from that on to having a Chinese translation is something very different.

4- The Jon Campbell I met years ago was a Musician/promoter. Today’s Jon Campbell is a writer. Is that a fair assessment and if so, how are the two different?
It took me a long time to call myself ‘promoter’ even when what I was doing was promoting. Partly that’s because I didn’t come from a music biz background and I didn’t know what that meant. Partly that’s because I did so much more than what a promoter does — I learned, after having done it for a while, that back home, there are several different people that do the things I was doing: The booking agent, the tour manager, the road manager, the promoter. So ‘promoter’ sounded limited. I was always a musician, and one thing I’ve learned is that I’ll always be a musician. But from very early in my China time, I always considered myself a writer first and foremost. There’s only one Jon Campbell, though.

5- Your name came up in a conversation a while back and the consensus was: ” Never thought he’d be the one to leave China”. Hind sight 20/20, now that the book is finished, are you still OK with that decision?

I understand why people say that about me, and there was probably a point in time when I figured I would be in China forever. But leaving when I did was definitely the right decision. I love Beijing, and I loved living here, but I am so happy living in Toronto. To the point where it’s nice to see Beijing again, but I’m also really psyched to get back home to Toronto.

they're coming back to the scene of the crime on tonight

6- Back to Red Rock for a second… seeing that you were such an integral part of the scene, how did you manage to stay so objective? Did you skip over the 2000s because the bulk of your involvement was in that era?

I wouldn’t say I skipped over the 2000s; I write about what was going on all the way up to pretty much last year. I didn’t focus the whole book on the 2000s, though — despite the fact that my intial plan was a book about the scene in the 2000s, because I was there. My assumption was what I was seeing was the most amazing/exciting/important time in yaogun’s life — of course it was: I was there! But the realization that the path TO the 2000s was a fundamental part of what makes yaogun yaogun meant that serious energy had to be put toward showing what got us TO the 2000s. I was objective — as much as was possible — because I wasn’t telling MY yaogun story, I was telling THE yaogun story.

7- This one is a bit redundant because clearly the book covers it. you seem to be going the extra mile in trying to put that crowbar separation between Yaogun and Rock. I’ve read your reasons on the book but could you explain the major difference for the readers briefly, especially from a non-geographical perspective?

Yaogun is not simply a chinese word for rock music, and yaogun at its best is not simply rock music that comes from China. Yaogun is the music that was created as a result of the special circumstances created by China’s journey through the last thirty-odd years. Rock music came into China from the outside world, but within a few years, had been taken in and processed and what came back out again was something very different and it’s something I can hear, but it’s not something easily put into words. But I know it when I hear/see it. Yaogun embodies that to which rock and roll used to aspire because the people that originally took to it were influenced and attracted both musically and philosophically by rock music, and took that idea and created yaogun. Choosing yaogun is choosing a way of life, and it’s a way of life that most people in China, to this day, cannot conceive of. It still means something to make that choice because society tells you that you don’t have a choice.

8-Word Association: for each of the following, write the first thing that comes to your mind

– Cui Jian: Underappreciated.
– 2 Kolegas: niu
– Wu Hao & Kang Mao: Happily Down.
– Dai Qin: Proof that rock can change lives.
– Yaogun: Rock and roll’s future.
– D-22, MIDI, Modern Sky: Too soon to tell.
– Black Cat Bone: RandomK(e)

9- Cui Jian was the flag bearer of Socialy-aware Yaogun for years, Xie Tian Xiao won’t touch that flag with a 10 foot pole. I read an interview with Kang Mao where she said that the time for Yaogun to carry a heavy message is over, at least from her perspective. It’s all about entertaining nowadays. Where does Yaogun stand in modern day China?

As I said in question 7, the choice to yaogun says a lot more than any lyrics can. So there is still a message. There is a great moment in the documentary Down where kang mao is addressing a festival crowd in the outskirts of Changsha, and says, in a nutshell, imagine if a ton of people loved yaogun like you do — you, in this case, being a crowd of people there for cui jian who have never seen a live rock show before —- what a great country China could be. Entertaining is not, in and of itself, necessarily bad. It’s just about the motivation for what you’re doing. Subs has a line “Please don’t waste this music”, and that makes a lot of sense. If you’re not ‘socially-aware’, you’re not playing yaogun. Nobody’s coming right out and telling people what to do, because, for one, that’d be dumb, and for two, that’s just lazy. Yaogun is asking questions, it’s never being satisfied with the status quo, just because it’s the status quo.

10- Is Red Rock the legacy of your relationship with China or is it just a beginning?
This is only the beginning. There’s more where this came from, for sure.

Big big thanks to Jon for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions… I had a few other but he had already addressed a lot of my questions in an earlier interview the guys over at Shanghai’s Layabozi:

Catch Jon during his tour of Beijing at the Following:

Friday Night March 16 8:00pm Pop Up Beijing @ the Bookworm

Friday/Saturday night, 1:00 AM Black Cat Bone Final Show @ 2 Kolegas

Saturday March 17th 4:00 pm Chinese Rock Panel @ the Bookworm w/ Hao Fang and Nathaniel Davis

More about Jon and Red Rock over at

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