Interview with Dave O’Dell

Dave and Gao Wei at Nianhua, 1997

Dave O’Dell is one of the most adamant supporters of China’s punk scene you’ll ever find. Living in Beijing from 1995 to 2003 he not only witnessed the founding of Chinese punk rock but played an integral role in its birth and early development, organizing many of the early gigs, creating the first local punk zine and even playing bass with several of the early bands. In his book Inseparable – the Memoirs of an American and the Story of Chinese Punk Rock he tells the story of his time in China intertwined with the advent of Beijing’s punk rock scene. We caught up with Dave over email to ask him about his book and what it was like in those early days.

Why did you decide to write Inseparable? Why did you feel it was important to document the history of the scene from that time?

The first time I thought about actually documenting the scene was the first time I saw Underbaby at that first punk show at Solutions. If we just planned a party and some lame bands showed up, I really wouldn’t give a shit; I probably would have taken more pictures of girls than of the bands… But Underbaby killed the crowd that night and everyone was taking pictures, trying to save this moment. That is when it started for me, with just a few pictures. But then I realized after hanging out with Gao Wei and his entourage of young punks, there was a much greater scene brewing and I was in the midst of it. For a long time I actually didn’t consider a book at all; I was going to do a documentary, so I was mostly filming using Hi-8 or mini DV for about four years. I have some of the earliest shows on video but doing a doc would cost a fortune and would involve far more people than I was prepared to deal with. So the doc never happened, I was never a filmmaker anyway, I’ve always been a closet author, so I decided the best way to get their story and my experience out would be to write a book with as many photos and song translations as possible. The book idea started to formulate around 2005, and it’s now 2012, so officially 7 years ago I started going to my local neighborhood bar and drinking heavily, trying to bring back as many memories as possible, writing them down as mini chapters, and then arranging them in chronological order. That’s why the book is a compilation of stories, it was a release and arrangment of memories.

You mention how early shows were swamped with foreign journalists from the very beginning. Many of those journalist were trying to portray a story of innocence and “Chineseness.” Do you feel there was a particular “Chineseness” to the early scene?

That’s a really hard question to answer because although the rhythms and sounds are what our ears perceive as punk, a historically western genre, the message spread within the Chinese lyrics portray a uniquely urban and Chinese life, filled with slang, sarcasm and stories of political pressure in one of the world’s most populated and overcrowded cities. For the earliest punk bands, Underbaby, Catcher in the Rye and the Wuliao Jundui bands, there was certainly more Chineseness stemming from their message.

Your personal story is deeply entwined with the early scene and you mention several other foreigners who played important roles. How important do you think the role of foreigners was to the development of the scene?

I think the foreigners who were involved early on were catalysts and not the cause of the punk scene. Had they not provided motivation, resources and other elements that they brought with them, the scene would have taken longer to start — but with or without foreigners China would give birth to its own punk scene. That was inevitable. The foreigners helped it form faster and with more fervor because foreigners, like me, had access to TV and print media as well as contacts outside of China that gave us new music and new inspiration.

You mention an early tour with Pridebowl and Envy. Were there other early touring bands that came through Beijing?

The only other band that came over during the early formative period was International Noise Conspiracy. Jonney the Swede [the drummer for P.K.14] brought them over. After this would be a few Japanese bands, memorably a band called SOBUT (Sons of Bitches United and True). Brain Failure II played with them at CD Cafe and have a live recording from that show.

In the book you focused on several of the most important early bands. Were there other bands active at that time? Were there early bands in different genres playing similar sorts of shows and clubs?

Since there were so few punk bands, they played with lots of different types of music. At my mom’s welcome party we had punk from Underbaby and Catcher in the Rye, along with acoustic folk from Ye Haizi (Wild Children), funk from Shou Ren and alternative rock from Yang Haisong and Xiao Sun in their early band West. This was normal in the early days to play with several different types of bands just to form a show. Playing shows at Angel’s Bar meant you were playing alongside rock and folk legends like Luoqi and Zhang Chu. Later on when Wuliao Jundui formed, the shows and clubs became more specialized and rock and roll splintered into genres. If you wanted to see punk, you went to a punk club like Scream or Kaixin Leyuan and you got punks. If you wanted folk you went to South Sanlitun and got a folk show.

AO performing at Get Lucky Bar

Xie Tian Xiao and Lao Wu from Tang Dynasty were figures connected with the early scene and musicians that kids looked up to. Did the early punks have much connection with other older bands such as COBRA, Fly or No?

The early punks loved Tang Dynasty, Heibao [Black Panther], Cui Jian, Zhang Chu and Cobra – bands of the earliest rock and roll generation. There wasn’t much of a connection but there was a deep respect for what those bands had brought to Chinese rock and roll. I think once the younger punks got some experience in doing shows and albums, they had an even deeper respect when they realized how hard it was to really live a musician’s life in Beijing.

In the 1990s, it was hard to put out records – producing and distributing albums was illegal and recording was difficult – but were there any that managed to do it? Were there demos or releases available outside labels like Magic Stone?

There were two other early labels run by young Chinese entreprenuers, Red Star Records and Jingwen Records. Those two labels alongside Magic Stone made all the early rock and roll. Later on Modern Sky and New Bees came onto the scene. As far as releases went, there were no demos I can remember, other than handmade ones I received from the bands themselves on cassette.

In the book you include a copy of the first Beijing punk zine The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, which you made. Were there other zines? What about local show photographers, promoters, people running distros?

I know that Anna Sophie wrote a zine, but I don’t have a copy of it; she might. I remember seeing a copy of it, but I can’t remember what was in it. Other than that one and my own, there was nothing else, because there was no such thing as a zine in China — it was quite illegal to be distributing printed materials that had not passed government censorship. The photographers were vital to the scene I feel, especially Katherina Hesse and Wang Di. They weren’t part timers in the punk scene, they came to most every show. Promoters were the bands themselves. The only other person I can think of that helped the rock scene and wasn’t in a band was Jia Wei [the manager of Magic Stones Records in Beijing]; he was vital to the overall rock scene. He booked big stuff though, shows with large sponsors (Budweiser) and large rock bands (Tang Dynasty, Chao Zai). The punks got booked on occassion if he needed some filler.

Many of the early punks have moved out of the scene. In the book you talk about Gao Wei gravitating to electronic music and kids like Sulumi did the same. Do you think their leaving the scene had a negative effect on it or was the momentum already taken up by a younger generation?

I think it was probably good for both Gao Wei and the scene to split up. This allowed Gao Wei to focus on himself and develop some new music. It allowed the scene to have a clean break between the old and the new. The momentum from the new punks was mostly contained among themselves; they did shows with each other, they shared members, only certain clubs would grant them shows. Underbaby could’ve played in shows with them, but there would’ve been a distinct difference in pace and lyrics from one band to the next, something the new young hardcore punk bands might have objected to if it had happened. I think the break was a natural phenomena. It happened on its own and was a positive thing.

Yang Haisong of PK14 and his bassist on their first trip to Beijing in 1997 at Dave’s apartment near Qiancun / Anzhenqiao

What you and those kids did was in many ways a first for China and the type of experience that can never be repeated. Now bands in Beijing have it much easier now than they did before. Do you think there is still power in being a punk in China or has the edge moved on? Should kids be looking for something else?

I think the music relies on what pressures and joys the society faces. Yes, it’s certainly easier to do shows and do them with better quality then before. But the edge is still there. It depends on what the topic is. There are lots of topics that punk rock hasn’t touched on in China. Child abuse, spousal abuse, racism, workers’ rights, elections. Global topics like North Korea, war mongering, oil, the planet. I think one of the best punk bands ever were an old activist band called Fifteen. Their songs span a broad spectrum of punk topics. Just because you live in a certain part of town or you dress a certain way doesn’t make you a punk. In my heart I feel that what makes you a punk is what you believe to be right or wrong and how much energy you are willing to spend to address those issues. You can sing, you can build, you can wreck and you can give birth. All these things you can do for right or wrong. I think that is where kids should be looking for inspiration in any style of music — personal activism.

Were there any stories that you left out of the book that you wanted to include?

Yes… and in the words of Forrest Gump, “That’s all I got to say about that.”

People are asking, is there a Chinese edition in the works?

God I hope so… It would take me a year to translate this 200 page book on my own. I just don’t have the Chinese language depth for that. It also would need to be edited in Chinese as well… So it’s like writing a new book, not just translating it. I need a publisher who can handle the translation and deal with international rights all over Asia and Europe. It’s not easy to DIY a book in multiple languages in multiple countries and try to get a charity some money at the same time. The charity I’m trying to help out is called Half the Sky. It’s a Chinese orphan charity, and 25 percent of all proceeds go to them.

Find out more and order your copy here.