Yan Jun in conversation with Edward Sanderson, at Nooo Kitty, Osaka
Yan Jun has been involved in the music scene in China since the early ’90s, originally as a poet and a journalist, as well as organizing gigs and events for experimental music and sound. He began organizing these in his hometown of Lanzhou, and later moved to Beijing. He runs Sub Jam, a very important record label in China, releasing all sorts of works by Chinese and international sound artists and musicians. In terms of sound and experimental music in China, Yan is one of the central people. And not just in China, but also internationally: for many years he has been making links between China and the rest of the world. In October he was in Japan with the group he performs with, FEN, which is himself, Yuen Cheewai from Singapore, Ryu Hankil from Korea, and Otomo Yoshihide from Japan. The following interview with Yan Jun took place after a performance by Yan and Tim Olive at the Nooo Kitty space in Osaka on the 17th of October.
Edward Sanderson (ES): Over the years the Japanese music scene has been very influential on Chinese artists, so I wanted to talk to you about this. When you were starting out, what were the connections between Japan and China for yourself and the other artists in China? How did you learn about the music there?
Yan Jun (YJ): I should talk a little bit about how my generation got their information about music. Before the Internet it was really difficult to find different kinds of music in China, you couldn’t just go to a record store to buy things like that. For me and for many other people, we would read something about the music long before we heard it. We might read some articles or some translations of articles in a newspaper or magazine. Then in the early ’90s, say in 1992, there was this kind of “cut off” CD and cassette, the “dakou”. This kind of thing had been happening since the 1970s in the States. If a company produced records but then they didn’t want to pay the artists for them, they would make this cut on the CDs or cassettes. It’s a way of claiming, “Okay, we can’t sell it because we destroyed it.” Another way this would happen is if the company had a stock clearance, then they would cut the products so no one else would want to sell them.
In the ’90s some people in China were buying these up as plastic materials for recycling. But then some people sell them locally for their music. That was one way for us to find music – just randomly from these dakou. One night someone would call and say, “Come to my house, I have something that just arrived!” So we go with big empty bags, and we buy maybe 100 albums in one night. They are all different: you jump from ’50s to ’90s, from heavy metal to alternative rock to punk, it’s very random.
Also maybe a few people have a relationship with people who live in other countries, family members or friends, they can bring some real CDs and cassettes. In this way we just randomly tried to find different music. I started from rock’n’roll—Chinese rock’n’roll actually—then I would find different music, heavy metal, etc.
ES: If you don’t know the artists, how did you know what was on the dakou?
YJ: After a year or two of collecting, I started to remember the names of the labels. I can trust this label so I buy everything from them. Otherwise we just look at the design: if it’s 4 or 5 handsome, long-haired guys it’s probably heavy metal. But maybe I have too much of that, so I move on to the next. Or if there is some monster, some strange thing, or really abstract design – it could be okay. Since ’92 or ’93 there was a very strong alternative rock scene, and many of the big record companies start small labels to focus on this kind of underground rock. Their designs were sometimes like manga, sometimes violent, porno, or just a wild style of drawing. So I just look at what’s there, and randomly pick things up.
Then we got information from the local writers and critics like Yang Bo 杨波, or Hao Fang 郝舫. I don’t know how they got their information about the music, but they had more information than I did.
I think it was in ’97 or ’98 that some people started to use the internet. So I just follow what they are posting. My English was really bad, so there are also some people translating and I read those translations. It is at this moment that Japanese underground or loud music was introduced into China by these people. Before, of course, we knew about rock’n’roll, or singer-songwriters, and classical composers. But now we’re kind of looking for heavier rock, looking for punk, looking for strange, noisy, different music and we just continued this way, towards darker, noisier things. Then people started to introduce Haino Keiji, Otomo Yoshihide, Ground Zero – this kind of Japanese extreme music.
ES: This was coming from the internet, not from the dakou?
YJ: Yes. Because the recycling is only from America and only from the big companies until early 2000. But once I think I found a release by Painkiller (John Zorn’s band), but that was really unusual. The label was from UK, from Birmingham: Earache – I still remember this. But maybe it was distributed in the States and so that was why it was amongst these recycled materials.
So, like I said before, the Japanese music came later than the texts about it, later than the articles and introductions.
ES: So you knew some of the names of Japanese artists already?
YJ: Some of the names. There were several magazines that introduced them. Yang Bo wrote a lot of articles – actually he would use different pen-names in the same magazine. Some of them might include a CD or cassette compilation and you can hear some tracks. I think many of my generation were shocked by this kind of music.
ES: Why shocked?
YJ: Because it’s so different. You can draw a [genealogical] line from rock’n’roll, to heavy metal, to Nirvana – it gets more chaotic, but there is still that line. Then suddenly it becomes…! For example some of Haino Keiji’s CDs appeared in China in 1998, 1999, 2000. Of course pirate CDs appeared very quickly. This seemed very strange to me: why did they make pirate CDs of Haino’s music? But it’s true! You could buy them. You know in China this was a golden time for pirate DVD and CDs. Everything came like this. Maybe they just copied everything?
At that time, I think Japanese music followed this logic of becoming more noisy, more dark, more extreme – this kind of thing.
ES: Were people you knew travelling to Japan?
YJ: No, not really.
ES: Was this affecting what people in China were producing?
YJ: At that time I think “Japanoise” was a big influence on many young people in China when they started to make noise. [The Chinese musician] Li Jianhong wrote an article at the time about Japanese music. You know some people used to call Li Jianhong “Haino Li” (or something like that) because for several years he looked like him, with his long black hair.
ES: Do you think he was doing that deliberately?
YJ: There was a time he played in that style. He also talked about Japanese music a lot. He said that one thing that is important about it is that it is “pure”. So I think many listeners were really into this “pure” noise, focusing intensely on something and pushing it to the extreme. Psychologically maybe this is very nice to do, because living in China is so chaotic, everything is messy, there’s too much information. So for me, this is a good experience. You just go in one particular direction, do some small thing – it’s very good for your psychological balance!
The year 2003 was the year of the internet in China, so all this music was coming into China that way. Before there was just the LAN which was quite slow, but after 2003 it got much faster. Before, to download one album you might spend eight hours; but afterwards it’s just a few minutes. That year there was a 179% or a 197% increase in new users! I remember this, because that year I downloaded about 900MB of MP3s using the p2p software SLSK.
ES: So the floodgates opened?
YJ: But then people stopped following the critics, because Google was good enough. Most critics and magazines disappeared at this time. Of course there was [academic and musician] Yao Dajuin from Taiwan, who was then living in Berkeley, California. From 1998 for about two years he produced an internet radio program about sound art and music which many people listened to, and you could download them, and it’s influence lasted until about 2006. He introduced all kinds of music: from Indian classical music, to field recordings, from noise to modern compositions, free jazz, ECM, many different things. He was a big influence, but I think you should say he was presenting a kind of “school” of artists and aesthetics, a kind of “Yao School”.
ES: He produced this big exhibition called Revolutions per Minute framing his concept of Chinese sound art.
YJ: I think it’s mainly his own students and followers, because otherwise you can’t find enough artists.
ES: You have been over to Japan quite a lot, on tour or otherwise. How has the Japanese scene affected your own activities?
YJ: In 1999 I organized a concert for Otomo Yoshihide and Sachiko M in Beijing – this was only two months after I had moved there. Dickson Dee in Hong Kong called me, and asked if I would like to organize a concert for these two. But I didn’t really know anyone or any venues in Beijing yet – how can I organize a concert? But he just said, go ahead! But for that first concert there were only five people in the audience, in this huge, very bling-bling sort of nightclub, called the Volcano Club in the Haidian District of Beijing. Otomo was a very good contact for me then. That was the time he was playing the guitar solos, with a lot of energy, then he played a turntable solo which was pure sounds. It was not emotional at all, but the sound itself had a kind of materiality, it contained this energy: there was energy from the performer, energy from the machine, and from the sound itself. Then there was Sachiko M, she played very quietly – and not just the sine waves at that time, but really quiet, small sounds.
So I was just acting as an organizer of events and a critic at that time, but this scene came into my mind and my body, and stayed there. And then actually I started to make music after 2003. Why? I just think it’s different. It’s not very emotional, not someone trying to express his own story, or talent, or emotion, or whatever.
ES: Your performances can also be quite unemotional. It’s like you’re simply presenting a situation, like we’re in a room together and we just listen, or we’re sitting there and simply being there with the sounds. Do you think this goes back to these early experiences of the Japanese artists?
YJ: Could be. Anyway I have a very good feeling with this kind of music, this kind of sound, this kind of attitude. Of course, later I met more Japanese musicians like Taku Sugimoto, Toshimaru Nakamura, Tetuzi Akiyama, Ami Yoshida, this group were from the Onkyo scene, and others.
But also I enjoy other kinds of music from Japan. Like Violent Onsen Geisha, Gerogerigegege – more strange or abstract, more nonsense. I enjoy the feeling of, “Oh? What’s this?” There are similar people working in Europe. Like Scott Walker, but he is in another field, more a singer or composer, but he’s also weird. And Jandek, this guy who hides himself away and almost never comes out. I like this kind of weird stuff.
I think one thing that is very good for me regarding Japanese music and culture is, whether you are weird or have some strange ideas, you can survive here. You don’t need to follow the other concepts, the other rules. This is very good for me. Not only in music. Sometimes I don’t really enjoy the music, but I like this attitude. Sometimes you see a musician who just plays some stupid thing for one hour. If it was an American or European artist you might say, okay, he has a very strong idea, he has a very strong philosophical background, so this is concept art. But sometimes you see this Japanese musician, just doing this thing without any reason, and people just enjoy that. I think this is good.
ES: I don’t want to generalize about Japan, but you think there is more possibility of that happening here? That Japan has a culture that is more open to that kind of experience?
YJ: I don’t know. I think if you are weird here, it’s okay!
ES: Is there that possibility in China?
YJ: I think in China it is very different, different to anywhere else. For instance, the audience is very critical in China – it’s hard! Sometimes, I feel like I’m a product in a supermarket and they’re coming to pick me up, but if I’m not good enough, they put me back down.
ES: This is a bad kind of criticism?
YJ: Yes. It’s just like <sigh> concept art! Or <sigh> sound art! Or <sigh> I know this! <sigh> Not again! It depends on the situation of course. So that’s why now I talk to the audience more than before. Because if you talk to them you feel there is some communication. You don’t feel this separation, that the artist is of a higher rank somehow – so let’s pull them down!