Music

Michael Pettis interviews Carsick Cars' Zhang Shouwang

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Zhang Shouwang, photographed by Esquire

Michael Pettis is finance professor at Peking University, China Financial Markets blogger, and owner of live music venue D22 in Wudaokou, Beijing.

As someone who has been watching and promoting the burgeoning live rock music scene in the capital, Pettis is in close contact with many of the performers.

Zhang Shouwang (张守望), lead singer of Beijing rock outfit Carsick Cars and experimental band White (with musician Shenggy), is possibly the most famous musician in the so-called "Beijing underground music scene", famous for supporting the U.S. band Sonic Youth and penning infamous Beijing rock tunes of recent years.

As part of the "New Youth" feature in the May issue of Esquire, Pettis asks Shouwang, whose name means “to keep watch", ten questions about composing a very famous song, rock music today compared to the '80s, traveling and "new Chinese music".

Below Danwei republishes the full English interview (in Esquire it was translated into Chinese) with Pettis and Shouwang's permission.


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The may issue of Esquire

Michael Pettis: When did you decide to become a musician and why?
Zhang Shouwang: When I was 17, after I heard the first Velvet Underground CD. Until then I didn’t know that it was possible to make music like that. It sounded like everything that was harsh, beautiful or ugly about normal city life and made me realize that music and poetry could come from the streets and factories of every city, even my own city. Until then most music I had heard was either empty or had nothing to do with my life and the lives of the people I knew.

MP: I have met many young Chinese, especially artists, who say that they started listening to or making music because of you. Why have you had such an influence?
Shouwang: I don’t think I've had any influence on them. It's just that we all want to compose music and make art that fits in with the lives that we're living, and no-one else was doing it, so we all discovered each other at the same time.

I think China is changing very quickly and many young people don’t think we fit into the culture and society of our parents. We are trying to build the China that belongs to us and that we can understand. That is why we all listen to each other and are influenced by each other.

MP: Your song Zhongnanhai has been called the “anthem” of the Beijing underground scene. Why do you think so many people love it so much?
Shouwang: Maybe it's because it is the first song they heard about something very real and ordinary in their lives. Everyone in Beijing knows Zhongnanhai.

MP: Will you make a living as a musician? How important is success to you?
Shouwang: It is very hard to make a lot of money as a musician, but if I can make just enough money to be able to continue writing and performing for the rest of my life, then I think I will have had a very successful life.

MP: Is there such a thing as new Chinese music?
Shouwang: Of course there is. There has always been great music made in China but until recently it was very hard for musicians to spread their music unless they produced very simple pop music or music that was very familiar and easy to swallow. But in the last four or five years it seems that underground rock musicians, folk musicians, and experimental and avant garde musicians in China have created so much great new music that finally many people are noticing it not just in China but all around the world.

MP: What is the biggest difficulty for young artists and musicians in Beijing different from other world cities?
Shouwang: Actually I think in Beijing we are not so bad compared to the rest of the world. Of course the audience for new or different non-commercial art and music in China is very small, and so it is hard for many artists to earn a living, but it is growing quickly. In some ways we even benefit from lack of attention. I am afraid that if the government understood what we were doing and decided to support the underground artists and musicians in Beijing with money, the way they do in many European cities, they would end up hurting the strength and variety of the Beijing art and music scene. By ignoring us they also give us complete freedom.

MP: Have you traveled to many places inside and outside China? What do you think about them?
Shouwang: Because of my music I have been lucky enough to have visited many places in Europe and the U.S., and in fact in May I am going again to Spain, Switzerland and England for concerts. I have also traveled widely in China, including Hong Kong and Taiwan, and in April I will go on tour with Gar to 23 cities in China. Of course it is very exciting to go to so many places and to meet so many interesting people, especially so many artists that I admire, but I have to admit that I always love getting back to Beijing. This is where I feel most at home, and it’s the only place where I can make music.

MP: You are well-known for your underground rock band, Carsick Cars, and your experimental band, White, and you are known as a widely acclaimed composer for classical music ensembles. What kind of musician are you?
Shouwang: I don’t really know. I don’t like to worry about what kind of music I am writing and I don’t care too much if some people think I am a rock and roll musician and others think I am a composer. It’s sort of embarrassing because I don’t think I am good enough for people to care about classifying my music. Anyway I think those differences are created to make it easy for audiences to follow the music. They have nothing to do with music.

MP: What musicians or artists in Beijing have influenced you the most?
Shouwang: Of course Yang Haisong (PK14) and Joyside have had a big influence on me and on most of the young musicians in Beijing, but there are so many great artists in musicians right now. For example, Snapline and Ourself Besides Me are some of the most innovative bands in the world, Gar writes really amazing songs, and bands like Ma Fei San are breaking all the limits for the rest of the musicians here.

MP: What is your greatest dream?
Shouwang: I don’t really dream. I just try to do it.

MP: Can you say a few words to sum up this generation of Chinese youth?
Shouwang: I think one thing we all have in common is that there is such a huge gap in our experiences and understanding compared to Chinese who are in their mid-thirties or older. It seems that we live in very different worlds. More and more of us are exploring new ways of thinking and living, and I see this even more for young people who are four or five years younger than me.

I think many of us feel that much of what we learned in school and in the media was not really true, or perhaps didn’t really fit our lives, and so we are reading books, listening to music, and sharing ideas that are very different from what we had been given. I think very few of our generation have beliefs the way older Chinese do. We believe in real things, and we find it hard to take seriously all the big, empty ideas that we were given.

MP: What do you think about conditions in China today? Do you want change things by your action and your music?
Shouwang: Of course we all want to make things better for China and for the world, but I am not comfortable with all those people who talk so loudly about what they are doing for China. It is the people who help in small ways and who don’t get rewards for it, who do brave things when they are alone, who refuse to believe in lies. I want to be like them.

MP: Are your lyrics important to you? How do you write the lyrics to your songs? Do you want your fans to understand your lyrics?
Shouwang: Of course the lyrics are important, but they are just part of the song. Normally I write the songs first and then I try to find words whose sounds fit into the song. Sometimes it's easier to do this in Chinese and sometimes in English. The meaning of the words is important but I don’t think people should dig too deeply for my meanings. Different people read my lyrics differently, and that’s fine.

Once I finish the song, the lyrics don’t belong to me anymore, and people can think whatever they want. An Austrian friend told me that when he heard No Future Square he thought it was about a park in Vienna in which many young people were killed during the war, and it moved him deeply. I am happy that he felt that, because it means that the song felt true to him.

MP: You were born in 1985, when Chinese rock first started. Do you know Cui Jian’s music and have you ever gone to one of his shows and listened carefully to his music? What do you think about your generation’s musicians and about the older generation of musicians?
Shouwang: Of course I know Cui Jian and I admire him very much. He spoke for his generation and was a good artist, but I think what he was singing about and the experiences he had are so different from what my friends and I have had. I think his music fit a more idealistic generation who knew less about music and city life and cared more about changing the world. I think we are maybe more pessimistic and also more interested in finding art that challenges us and makes us expand our thinking.

There are currently 10 Comments for Michael Pettis interviews Carsick Cars' Zhang Shouwang .

Comments on Michael Pettis interviews Carsick Cars' Zhang Shouwang

Shouwang's EP "Is It Real" for the netlabel Buchadian: link

Behind the scene videos: link

Produced by Yang Haisong of P.K.14

Actually Carsick Cars were MEANT to support Sonic Youth, but they did NOT show up.

From Wikipedia: "The band was scheduled to open for Sonic Youth in Beijing in April, 2007, but their performance was canceled on short notice. However, in August the same year they joined Sonic Youth for their European tour in Prague and Vienna."

michael pettis interviewing anyone from carsick cars is like a pedestrian interviewing a homeless person after tossing the pour soul some change.

Anonymous: Care to elaborate?

Anonymous: Care to elaborate?

i'd conjecture most of the passing interests from foreign journalists tend to assume that whatever music scene there is in Beijing goes through this guy.

don't get me wrong, shouwang is a talented guy (i recommend his side project: Speak Chinese or Die!), but CSC's music, on its surface, is proof positive that without donated money and connections no one would have ever heard of it.

some people just aren't cut out to be producers.

What the commenter above says may or may not be true. Foreign journalists don't do enough homework.

I would argue however that CARSICK CARS has a kick-ass music video on Vimeo: link

Now we know Zhong Nan Hai is some hardcore gateway drug man.

Zhong Nan Hai to shrooms to who knows what's next.


Its funny to me that many foreigners are angry at Pettis so much because he made Chinese musicians more important than foreign people in Beijing music scene. Anyone who knows CSC, Snapline, Ourself Beside Me, Xiao He, AV Okubo must than him for his work.

Anyone as energetic and dominating as Pettis is going to get brickbats from expat losers. I am sure he spends much of his time crying obsessively about it.

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