This is a guest post by our newest contributor, Kyle Mullin, who catches up with Snapline ahead of the Rockland Extravaganza at Yugong Yishan tomorrow night.
Snapline’s music may sound futuristic, but it’s far from optimistic. Their songs contain none of the humming, gleaming prosperity that frontman Chen Xi remembers from the Star Trek reruns he watched as a youngster. Instead of harmonizing or singing, he screeches and rants (albeit rhythmically) against guitarist/keyboardist Li Qing’s apocalyptic riffs and Li Weisi’s bombed out baselines. It’s a soundtrack more suitable for Blade Runner than the starship Enterprise.
“‘Steady as she goes! Beam me on board!’” Chen says, grinning ruefully through his best William Shatner impression as he leads me to Snapline’s studio. The Beijing based threesome’s gritty rehearsal space is located in the basement of a supermarket in the trendy neighborhood of Gulou. We proceed through the parking garage, past the dusty concrete walls and into barren walled soundproof room. It feels as if we’re descending into a bunker or bomb shelter that has already endured the worst of tomorrow’s wars—the perfect aesthetic, and setting, for Snapline’s dystopian rock.
Chen Xi—whose lanky frame and mop of mushroom hair give him an otherworldy quality— is quoting and imitating Captian Kirk because I’ve just asked him about “Stardate 51201.04,” one of most offbeat songs on the band’s new album, Phenomenon (released in April 2012). He explains that he’d recently been watching the original 1960’s incarnation of the iconic sci-fi series, and began pondering the futuristic calendar continually referenced in each episode. Chen continually mulled over those fictional logistics during the downtime of his day job— a software engineering gig at Microsoft that he absolutely loathes. Before long he was shaking up his usually dull routine of coding, instead using Window’s finest programs to help him calculate what the Stardate would be for the most special day of his life.
When asked what that occasion was, Li Qing pipes up and says, “It’s his daughter’s birthday.”
Chen Xi, the only parent in the band, says his daughter can be a huge artistic inspiration. But he admits it can be hugely challenging to balance time between family and touring.
“For me, the problem is his brain,” Li Qing says with a voice that’s not quite soft enough to mask her blunt sense of humor, or her stony delivery, as she describes her band mate’s aggravating habits. “Sometimes his mind just shuts down, and he always forgets something.”
Chen Xi says that’s true, admitting he created a scheduling conflict before Snapline’s last Shanghai gig.
“There was a memorial for my grandfather on the one year anniversary of his death, in our hometown of Tianjin in the afternoon. And we had to be in Shanghai for the gig that evening. I made it all just impossible,” he says with a smile, before giggling at my friendly reminder that he can’t instantly teleport wherever he pleases, like favorite Star Trek characters.
Li Wesi, the most reserved member of the group, says he has no trouble planning ahead and scheduling time for both his parents and his band. But Li Qing says she doesn’t even have to worry about striking such a balance.
“Family is very, very important for me. But it hurts my heart, I feel very sorry to my parents, because in fact I almost spend my whole time in the band,” she says, with an even stonier expression on her face this time. Li Qing’s English may not be as strong as her bandmates,’ but in a way her occasional grammar slipups and slightly limited vocabulary compliment her straightforward, no frills nature. She adds that her parents have voiced equally direct comments about her career trajectory. “In the very beginning, my parents said being in a band, it’s not a real way for your life. But right now I think they have no way to refuse what I’m doing. And they have no way to solve this problem, they can’t persuade me to change my mind. So they try to accept me. That makes me feel like I always abuse myself in my heart. And I think the situation is the same for all young people who left their hometown and go to another city.”
Like most of their generation, Li Qing and Chen Xi flocked from their hometowns to one of China’s metropolises- in their case, from the then modest Tianjin to Beijing’s combustive bustle and endless sprawls. The pair had noodled on guitars for years before that, back when they were still classmates. But, despite boasting an attention nabbing sound, their Beijing breakthrough proved to be initially elusive. Their lack of experience was glaring, with Li Qing adamant that they should find their audience by entering open mic and battle of the band competitions at universities in Beijing’s Haidian university district.
“Now I think this is a stupid way,” says Li Qing, finally giving an impish grin that lights up her whole face. “It wouldn’t have been suitable for our style, we needed live houses. But we didn’t know how to do it right at that time. We didn’t know how to be a band.”
That all changed after she and Chen met local indie rocker Li Weisi, who was then playing in Beijing’s budding alt rock act Carsick Cars. Li Qing joined that band, and before long critics were fawning over Carsick Cars’ unique take on indie punk. In the midst of that success, the two Lis began dabbling In post punk in their spare time, stretching their musical limits further than they ever could in more conventional bands. The excitement of those strange new songs prompted them to leave Carsick Cars and form Snapline with Li Qing’s first ever musical partner Chen Xi. His dynamic vocals helped ground the two Li’s heady instrumentals. The pair would eventually start yet another project without Chen Xi called Soviet Pop, in which they delve into even deeper experimentalism and noise rock.
But Snapline proved to strike a better balance between the two Li’s eccentricity and a more accessible raw energy courtesy of Chen Xi’s contribution. With every show, the threesome’s buzz seemed to exponentially build. Before long Snapline was signed to Maybe Mars, Beijing’s premium indie label. The trio’s gigs began drawing throngs of fans and rave reviews. When it came time to record their debut, they nabbed one of the most talented members in audience—Martin Atkins, former drummer of the pioneering British post punk troupe PiL. He had been visiting Beijing, attended many a gig, but Snapline’s relentless tunes were the only thing that hooked him. He produced their first album, Party is Over, Pornstar. Critics and fans raved, and before long Snapline was invited to major gigs like Austin’s SXSW. Snapline seemed poised for the world stage.
But it didn’t take long for the trio to recoil from that whiplash quick success. They reteamed with Atkins for their sophomore disc, Future Eyes, and released it in 2010. Then they quickly disowned it.
“It’s a good album,” Chen says gently of Future Eyes, before adding: “But when we listen to it, it sounds like some other band. And that’s a problem. Martin’s a good producer…”
As Chen Xi trails off, Li Qing quickly cuts in with her own opinions about Atkins: “He’s very special. His way of producing is very special. With him, we feel like some kind of machine to make some sound. He can’t understand why I want to record a piece for a second time or a third time.”
Chen nods and ads: “It felt like we were making material, not music.”
Instead of toiling on such a studio assembly line, the trio decided to quickly reconvene and re-record the songs in their own fashion. In 2012 they released Phenomena. In a review of the new album, The Global Times said:
“The band… railed against Atkins for not taking their vision seriously when he glossed over their raw lo-fi sound with brighter tones, heavy overdubbing and huge drums. Re-working these songs demonstrated gumption rarely seen among Chinese bands, especially when foreign producers of Atkins’ pedigree are involved.”
Those new leaner renditions were an adamant statement, especially because Snapline released Phenomena in a package alongside Future Eyes, so fans could hear the difference for themselves. But not everyone was impressed, or ready to re-crown the trio as Beijing’s preeminent act. In reviewing the new disc, Time Out Beijing magazine said:
“Both Lis manipulate oscillators in a fashion far too similar to Soviet Pop, leaving us to wonder which band is really the side project.”
Chen Xi was quick to defend both Lis for splitting their time between working with him on Snapline and pursuing other sounds with Soviet Pop. He adds: “I think it’s inevitable that a musician’s work on project-a will influence his project-b. But Soviet Pop is not a side-project. Li Qing and Li Weisi take it very seriously. It’s fine and necessary that there’s criticism, though. I’d love to hear it—people criticize because they care
Li Wesi was equally unperturbed by those mixed reviews—in fact, he expected such jabs to come much sooner in Snapline’s career.
“Let’s say today, we’re known as the best band in Beijing. But maybe next week we’ll be the second best,” he says, adding that such competitiveness can only be found in the capital, before adding: “In Shanghai, maybe you have to wait for several months, or half a year, before there is a new number one band.”
That outlook is not only shared by Li Wesi’s fellow Beijingers, but also by rockers toiling in other cities with less dynamic music scenes. Han Han, the guitarist and keyboard player for famed Shanghai rock troupe Duck Fight Goose, says his own Pearl City may be a booming metropolis, but its music scene hasn’t developed at nearly the same rate as the capital’s. But he wonders how artists, and their works, cope with all that clamor.
“I feel that Beijing devours every culture it encounters, while Shanghai is more neutral,” Han Han says. “Also I think Beijing is rebuilding each and every generation to fake itself into being modern.“
Li Qing says Beijing’s seismic musical turmoil echoes the capital’s rampant urbanization, economic evolution and population swells. She says all that change can be overwhelmingly noisy, leaving those caught in the middle to cry out all the louder.
“I just imagine that people come to Beijing, and they give up many things. So they have to express themselves in a more strong way,” Li Qing says, adding that her life in the capital, and the musical opportunities it provides, put a constant strain on her family ties. “I think Beijing is a city just like New York. Everything was old, but now everything is new. People rebuilt this city. In Shanghai and Guangzhou they still have their local language. But so many people come to Beijing just for fighting. Beijing is a city for doing things.”
“Yeah, it’s not a place for living at all,” Chen Xi quickly concurs, before detailing the steps his sister in law took to uproot her husband and children from a cozy life in their home province of Hainan, in favor of potential prosperity in the capital. “Back in their hometown, my wife’s sister worked at a factory from 9am-4pm everyday, and her husband was a truck driver. Very easy work, but after 10 years they felt like they were going nowhere. So they come to Beijing, then started a small restaurant that’s very busy and makes them tired. They always ask themselves why they stay, but then they look at their kids and think of the opportunities they might have here, even though it’s difficult.”
Li Wesi says he can’t help but ponder those mounting pressures when penning notes for Snapline. As a lao Beijing who was born in the capital and raised in its Gulou hutongs, he at times can’t help but be stunned by the city’s endless transformations.
“In my mind Beijing has two different parts,” he says. “One is just a city, but the other is a capital— not only the music scene, but all different kinds of work. It’s the center of this country. So, if you have success here, it means maybe you are the best in China. The number of bands and artists here are so much higher than in other cities. So you have to do something different to win.”
Han Han deems it to be a cutthroat environment, which can bolster egos as much as talent. He adds: “Sometimes it’s ridiculous to know that some bands from Beijing are fighting over things, like who will play the last set in the show that night. Come on, you are not playing in Coachella.” .
Chen Xi says that ruthless competitiveness may have benefitted Beijing’s music scene, and pushed its artists to new limits. But that clamor has also left the scene fragmented in jagged shards that are more than tricky to navigate. There’s no mod, new wave, or grunge scene capturing a generation here—just splintered artists trying to lodge themselves in listeners ears.
“You don’t need to represent for anyone because everyone has their own way now. ” he says.
Li Qing nods and adds: “This is the age of no hero. Look at the new way music is born. On Bandcamp, the audience and the band have to find each other and connect directly. So the label or company is dead. They have no need to build any more idols. We can write songs, be a band like this and have an audience thanks to this situation.”
Chen Xi such musical changes were inevitable, because they’ve seeped into every other aspect of Chinese culture.
“A lot of things are fragmented now. For example, how do I get news – Google Reader, Weibo, Weixin, different e-magazines?” Chen Xi says. “Niche businesses are getting a chance to rise. And the individual is being valued more and more.”
I ask the trio if that fractured cultural landscape excites them, or intimidates them. Is that fragmented musical market bleakly dystopian, leaving everyman for himself? Or do the members of Snapline feel like Captain Kirk, boldly going to a final frontier?
“I would rather be Scotty, hiding in the engine room, making sure everything on the vessel works great,” Chen Xi says of the famed, low key sci-fi repairman. “We’re far away from having a ‘front man’ like Captain Kirk. We like to be more geeky, more silent, exploring more approaches to help others go full speed ahead.”
Catch Snapline Friday June 21st at Yugong Yishan as Part of the Rockland 10 years Extravaganza.