I feel a lot better about my upcoming year-long trip to Beijing after seeing three of Beijing’s best indie bands hang with two of L.A.’s best at Elaine Layabout’s Bands Over Borders concert at the American Legion Hall in Highland Park on April 9. The event was a pairing of the final L.A. show on the Chinese Invasion Tour—featuring Beijing bands P.K.14, Carsick Cars and AV Okubo—with L.A. bands Signals, the Monolators and M31. The night was promoted as a bridging of the two musical scenes, and it was successful in that the crowd of over 200 people was a nearly even split between Chinese students and Eastside hipsters. The venue broke their record for bar receipts and much of the crowd remained until the final waves of distortion faded into the night sometime after 2 AM.
The three Chinese bands all share an affinity for first-generation post-punk like Joy Division and Bauhaus. It’s most apparent in the basslines, but all three bands take their sounds in unique directions. AV Okubo plays industrial punk with keyboards that sound distinctly Asian. Carsick Cars are China’s answer to Sonic Youth, and that’s not hyperbole. P.K.14 sounds like Joy Division with the urgency of the Clash. Chinese students were jumping around in a frenzy, and hipster jaws dropped before bands who are local heroes 5,000 miles away from Spaceland and the Echo.
I missed most of M31′s set but returned in time to grab a couple two-for-one beers (one Chinese/one American) and hit the main floor for the first of the Beijing bands, AV Okubo. It wasn’t really unusual seeing Chinese musicians onstage in L.A., and the music was so loud that the language difference had a minimal effect. In fact, I was standing next to a friend from L.A. RECORD, and two songs into the set he turned to me and said, “Oh, wait—these are the guys from China?” Lu Yan (vox/keyboard) is a fierce front man with a vocal delivery that rates up with the rest of the genre’s screamers. They kind of reminded me a bit of Infected Mushroom. AV Okubo’s debut CD is produced by Martin Atkins, and it’s easy to see why he’d be interested in working with a band like this.
L.A.’s Monolators were the next band up. Perhaps it was because they were onstage a little early compared to their preferred midnight slot, or maybe it was because they wanted to impress the Beijing bands, but they hit the stage with even more ferocity than usual. The band sounded great—blazing through their set, breaking mic stands, cords and strings and flailing all over the place. The Chinese students were even caught in the frenzy—a tornado of energy lifting everything not fastened to the floor. They closed with local classic “We Fell Dead” and raised the bar for P.K.14.
(I think this was around the time I walked across the street with friends to smoke the mystical bloggerweed. For some reason, the bloggers in this town get the best weed in L.A.—I think if you show the collectives your URL link, they take you to a secret humidor for the strongest marijuana in the universe.)
P.K.14 are legends in China, and lead singer Yang Haisong made the most of his stage space, shouting in Chinese over classic Factory Records-style music with an intensity that makes Bruce Springsteen look bored by comparison. Yang leaped through the air and danced like crazy, unlike his Wednesday night Viper Room appearance where he spent the set writhing on the stage and screaming directly into the floor. Clearly, he’d been watching the Monolators and was conscious enough to want to avoid repetition—a mark of a true headliner. The band’s songs are also in Chinese, so I don’t know what the lyrics are about, but they sound important. The band was tight and they play heavy and hard. The band absolutely killed, and by the time they left the stage the American Legion Hall was as humid as Nanching with vaporized rock ‘n’ roll sweat.
I was excited to see Signals, since I was a fan of the Mae Shi and I’d never seen the band that rose from their ashes. But I never really got into this band. I think the double wallop of the Monolators and P.K.14 really siphoned away a good part of their energy. I was psyched to hear their cover of one of my most favorite bands ever—Sparks’ “Angst in My Pants”—but ultimately they never quite won me over. I’d definitely catch them again though, because I really liked the Mae Shi and sometimes a band’s slot on a lineup affects how they connect with the audience.
By the time Carsick Cars hit the stage, it was close to 1:30 AM—if not past it. The crowd by this point was mostly Chinese, with some hardy hipsters sticking around to see a band which had developed some local buzz after a midnight set at the Echo earlier in the week at Walking Sleep’s Monday residency. (They’ve also been building an international reputation after opening for Sonic Youth on their European tour.) Carsick Cars are into pedals, loops and long waves of distortion, and they do it better than most American bands that I’ve seen. They also have a keen sense of pop hooks and riffs that really separates them from most of the shoegaze-ampstare bands. They even have a few songs in basic English, which really helped me get into them. The title track from their new CD, You Can Listen, You Can Talk, sounds like a mix of Sonic Youth and classic bubblegum. Their jams were really good, and they had a nice ebb and flow linking the riffs, jams and choruses—and their new songs shred!
The event had a real special feel to it. It was really interesting and inspiring to see the two scenes merge. Members of the different bands were hanging out together and talking music. The Chinese fans loved the Monolators and the L.A. hipsters ate up P.K.14. All three Chinese bands are headliner quality, and the Carsick Cars—with their English lyrics and distortion fuzz bubble yum sound—are catchy enough to catch on with American radio. (Especially those stations that don’t suck.) I think the middle acts—the Monolators and P.K.14—were the stars of this night. Beijing’s music may be mostly unrecognized on these shores, but the best bands from China can definitely hold their own with L.A.’s finest. Los Angeles is awesome for recognizing this and welcoming them with open arms.