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Uncertainty Mounts in Beijing’s Indie Scene, but Nocturnes Keep Playing

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Beijing indietronica trio Nocturnes have officially hit it big. They received 2 million streams on Spotify in 2021, signed to powerhouse Chinese label Modern Sky’s sublabel Watermade, and, at the bar after a recent show, a concertgoer told guitarist David Carey she was there with her 15-year-old son, chaperoning his first-ever date night.

As Carey recalled the charming interaction during a Zoom interview, singer Weidu “Leslie” Liu chuckled while drummer Yutong “Rainy” Chen exclaimed, somehow both sarcastically and sincerely: “So romantic!”

Kidding aside, the trio has been steadily rising in popularity, just as the music scene around them undergoes equally dramatic shifts.  

Nocturnes

“I have no idea why the songs are suddenly so much more popular than before, but I’ll take it,” says Carey, an Irish expat who has kicked around Beijing’s music scene since 2015.  

But the numbers feel abstract and difficult to digest for the frequently droll yet humble Carey, especially compared to another digital milestone: a recent notification from Apple Music that someone Shazamed a Nocturnes song in Tel Aviv, Israel.  

“Not only is it playing somewhere and had people listening, but also someone cared enough to find out who the artist was!” Carey says of the breakthrough. 

Carey and Leslie formed Nocturnes as a duo and gained a dedicated following with their debut 2017 LP Lines Written In Code.  

Because of their electronic- and R&B-inflected intricacy, Carey’s séance-in-the-circuit-board guitar pedal effects are all the more impressive, both on stage and in recordings.   

The complexity of this technique was evident in Nocturnes’ opening set for indie-pop darling Japanese Breakfast during the Beijing stop of her 2017 tour.

Leslie’s smoldering, slow-burn vocals, meanwhile, are the perfect foil to Carey’s playing. As she puts it, “I found it easy to come up with melodies and lyrics based on his music from the very start.”   

Her ambiguous-yet-conversational lyricism evokes the potency of seemingly everyday memories and their unexpected reservoirs of emotion.   

It’s as effective and no-nonsense a vocal style as her on-stage and in-person demeanor. When interviewed about government interference leading to a canceled gig circa the Lines Written In Code release, for instance, she succinctly comments: “It’s pretty shit.”   

Nocturnes

Beyond his work in Nocturnes, Carey is deeply involved in Beijing’s music scene — not only through playing and collaborating with other musicians but also by launching a lo-fi, DIY label called nugget records back in 2019. Perhaps more importantly for the local music scene, he co-founded a space for musicians to perform, which also doubles as a bar and cafe, while adjoining a recording studio called nugget sounds.

As ongoing business license issues, zoning crackdowns, and rent hikes forced several music venues to shut down in the once-thriving Beijing gig hub Gulou and its neighboring hutongs (traditional alleys), Carey partnered with friend and colleague Jen Rao to open a spot of their own in the area called nugget (stylized in lower case).  

The pair met while working day jobs at the same school — Carey as a music teacher and Rao in the English department.  

While he moonlighted in bands like Nocturnes, she meticulously illustrated music venues and other streetside Beijing businesses being bricked up for operating in long-accepted legal grey areas. She then sold the drawings as postcards under the moniker drift and dune.  

When Nocturnes toured Europe in 2019, Carey invited his like-minded artistic friend to join the German leg, and both Rao and he were astounded by a number of the experimental spaces they visited.  

The most memorable: A former Augsburg grand hotel turned pay-what-you-can social living experiment inhabited by musicians, artists, refugees, and more, all under one roof.  

“We were so inspired we wanted to create a community-based, inclusive ‘project’ of our own,” says Rao.  

From there, she and Carey founded nugget records as a DIY record label on which they released local artists’ music on cassette tapes, using retro equipment like splicers, duplicators, and tape decks.  

When the pandemic hit and the city of Wuhan faced bruising international scrutiny, Rao and Carey set to work on a charity compilation cassette featuring music by 20 acts from across China.  

They donated the funds to that city’s small animal protection association, which was rescuing animals that were abandoned or could not be reached during the city’s initial rigid lockdown.  

When the tapes quickly sold out, raising 28,000 RMB, Rao says she and Carey felt “really validated with what we were doing.” And when their teaching day jobs were nixed because lockdowns slowed student enrollment, the pair dedicated their free time to further developing nugget.  

Nocturnes

Another seeming setback — Nocturnes’ usual studio barring foreigners from entry during a period of pandemic-fueled xenophobia — motivated Rao and the band to start a recording space of their own. 

When they found a properly licensed hutong location, albeit with limited space, they resourcefully made use of every square meter. They set up a matchbook stage and a bar, with the latter housing a secret door to a recording studio built with enough soundproofing to quell complaints from Beijing’s notoriously noise-adverse, complaint-prone hutong neighbors.  

Rao describes recording and mixing the album of boisterous Beijing shoegazers The Claptraps in that snug studio as one of her proudest 2021 memories. 

“It was this moment when I felt like we were a ‘real’ label,” she says.  

The Claptraps guitarist and vocalist Guan “Greg” Rui was similarly content, calling his band’s self-titled EP “a good start for both nugget and The Claptraps,” adding, “together we achieved what we wanted to do for the first time.”  

He says the studio and label helped his band record with the precision he had hoped for, which may surprise fans because that is “contrary to our music, which sounds gross.”  

Such milestones were not only forged in that little studio behind the bar but also on the stage next to it: One night when Carey took off his venue owner hat to step up to the mic and perform alongside Leslie, soon-to-be Nocturnes drummer Yutong was in the crowd.  

She remembers being instantly impressed by Carey’s guitar riffs and “Leslie’s singing because her sound is just so different.”  

Yutong had an even bigger fan in Carey, who remembers how the well-established drummer would play in her former band, AV Okubu, at the now-shuttered original Mao Livehouse as far back as 2015. Her propulsive percussion led him to think she was “in the coolest band in the world.”  

As Nocturnes work on a new album, Carey says Yutong’s drumming adds a heaviness that has long been missing, likening the sound to bands like Foals from the UK or Future Orients in Beijing.  

“It’s invigorated a lot of our old songs, and I’ve found it has influenced how I’ve written the new songs, knowing how Yutong would add her instrumentation to it,” he says.  

Yutong, meanwhile, says she and Carey share a love of music with “delicate expression,” which is an asset to the band’s songwriting. 

Nocturnes

Even an “ordinary” night at nugget — when the owner and his bandmate don’t wind up impressing an attendee enough to join their band as drummer — is nevertheless special for many patrons, who may grow jaded at other venues.  

Indeed, Beijing music fans know nugget as true to its name — a compact gem of a venue, where crowds squeeze in to hear equally cozy acoustic open mic and themed cover sets. 

Frequent nugget open mic-er Peter O’Hare, a Scottish singer-songwriter who has shared stages with members of Chvrches, says the venue’s intimacy leads to a greater appreciation of and focus on the music, often to heartwarming — and sometimes comedic — effect.  

During one of his recent Billy-Bragg-meets-Grant-Lee-Buffalo acoustic sets of all original songs, O’Hare looked up and was taken aback: Instead of a chatty crowd passively listening, he was nose to nose with a roomful of gig-goers enthused by his every guitar strum.  

That led him to quip, in his slyly lilting brogue: “I wasn’t used to so much attention.”  

The supportive atmosphere is all the more refreshing for livehouse regulars and artists who have been surprised by a significant shift at other venues.  

Ahead of a concert at longtime punk club School Bar, whose crowd capacity is far larger than nugget’s, Nocturnes expected to play for one of their biggest audiences yet.  

That’s because the venue gained new fame after a feature on The Big Band, one of many slickly produced reality TV talent shows making alternative rock increasingly trendy among viewers who might never have otherwise set foot in School Bar or nugget.  

Bands have since been left to wonder: Are the majority of such crowds genuinely eager to broaden their musical palates alongside tried-and-true attendees, or would they rather go to these shows to hold court?  

That question remains unanswered for Nocturnes. While their School Bar show was unfortunately canceled, they will be wondering the same thing ahead of a recently announced March 17 gig at Omni Space, a large-scale venue in Beijing’s south end, which is already garnering buzz.  

“There might be three times as many people at these shows now, but a lot of them are looking at their phones every two seconds. What they saw on those TV shows was so airbrushed, some of them might not like what they see when they get to the venue,” says Carey.  

Nocturnes Beijing

Leslie agrees that some of the newbies “might not know what seeing a band really means,” before striking a note as upbeat as the dramatic tone shifts in a Nocturnes song: “I’ll be happy to be part of changing that for new people who come and who are open to hearing it. I just hope more people will accept different sounds.”

Rao, meanwhile, admits the increased mainstream interest in indie music has caused “some to feel that this may affect the spirit of the scene.” 

But she prefers to focus on the positive, saying “it provides more opportunities for artists and bands to make a living at what they do.” 

School Bar owner Felix Liu says wariness about potential posers crowding the front rows at shows is valid to an extent, but adds, “I think it’s a two-way street.”

“The most important thing for indie music and the music scene is: stay alive,” says Liu, thankful that School Bar is still alive given the closing of many of its contemporaries.  

Carey can’t help but see Liu’s point. He has been fond of the School Bar owner since the first time Nocturnes played the venue. 

At that first show, they didn’t have “any idea of what we were doing,” says Carey, adding, “I tried to plug my computer into a jack without a soundcard or anything. But Felix bought us a bunch of drinks after. He’s a fan of Irish punks for sure!” 

But Carey looks at recent trends as a fan, artist, and venue owner, and the greater mainstream attention hasn’t been limited to concertgoers. 

As authorities continue to crack down on music venues operating in a grey area, fewer and fewer entry-level spaces are left standing. The greater oversight also leads to mandatory registration, fees, and taxation that can eat into and even erase artist earnings.  

“Sure, it’s great to have bigger livehouses and stadiums, but new bands need places to start off,” Carey says, though he remains hopeful that the issues will subside.  

Beijing has long been dubbed the cultural capital of China, and as a result, musical talent from across the country has traditionally flocked to the city. Now, amid the crackdowns, other cities are seeing their music scenes blossom.

Leslie says Nocturnes is even considering relocating, but those feelings are mostly fleeting. “Beijing is my home,” says Leslie, after spending a decade in the capital and “loving it deeply.”  

Rao says the lack of accessibility for smaller acts has been a significant hurdle, but “this is changing with the entry of alternative spaces, nugget included. Such is the transience of Beijing, I guess!”  

Uncertainties aside, Nocturnes remain upbeat and acknowledge that it’s an exciting time for the industry.  

Carey would rather not dwell on the bricking up of his favorite Beijing spots. Instead, he likens the scene to weeds growing through concrete cracks that, in the past few years, “were pulled up, paved over, but slowly but surely are finding their way through little crevices again.”

All images courtesy of Nocturnes

Kyle Mullin
    Kyle Mullin is a Beijing-based Canadian freelancer who has written for National Geographic, The Guardian, Wired, Spin, Forbes Asia, and is a former editor at theBeijinger. Follow him on Twitter @MulKyle
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