Shanghai band Ugly Girls released their brilliant debut album Welcome to the Suck last September to great fanfare on the Chinese Indie scene. In the immediate aftermath of that release, Ugly Girls drummer Ceridwen Brown began putting together another deeply interesting musical project, China GRRRL with the help of Ugly Girl’s bandmate and singer Casey Li Brander.
After finding that the Chinese underground scene, especially in Shanghai, appeared to be an unexpected haven for female musicians, she set out to interview a group of the most interesting female drummers making music in China today for Tom Tom Magazine.
Now with three seperate diary feature entries in Tom Tom Magazine detailing the process of meeting and interviewing such indie favorites as Lao Ayi, Dummy Toys and Xiao Wang, as well as China GRRRL concerts in Beijing and Shanghai, and a possible documentary film in the works, the project has swiftly gained a tonne of followers and supporters.
Ahead of tonight’s China GRRRL gig in Yuyintang, Shanghai with Dream Can, Cup Cup and Kaiselu, I caught up with Ceridwen for a chat about feminism in China, the trouble with comparing cultures and finding time to write.
When and where did the concept for this project come from?
I guess as soon my band Ugly Girls started regularly playing live shows, myself and our singer Casey who grew up in New York were very struck by the amount of girls in the scene, especially female drummers which I had always felt to be a novelty growing up playing in bands in the UK.
Casey told me about TOMTOM, a US magazine focussed solely on female drummers and I started following them on social media. They put out a call for submissions sometime last summer and I thought it was a great opportunity to cover the bands out here, so I pitched to them and they were super interested right away.
They suggested doing it as a diary style series for the web platform, which has featured 3 entries so far… the last one i sent off a few days ago. I hope to write a bigger overarching piece for their print publication further down the line.
Could you tell me more about your experience playing in bands in the UK in comparison with playing out here in China? Are the attitudes different, does it feel more comfortable playing in China?
Personally I don’t know how much of it is that I’m older and less affected by the idea of gender judgment or whether the difference in attitude is as stark as it appeared. I guess the articles have been as much about that as anything – exploring my own perception of the scene, as an outsider, as extremely inclusive and whether this was in fact in line with the experiences of these female musicians. Its hard for me to directly compare my own experiences seeing as I’ve been out here for some time now, but I think that a magazine like tomtom having a need to even exist is a reflection at least of how under represented female musicians are in the music industry in the west.
In Shanghai at least we are the only band I can think of that is majority female and foreign (our bass player is Chinese) and that in itself is interesting. Most of the foreigners making music here are guys.
And the only people who have given me the compliment of being a good drummer in a tone of voice that suggested surprise have been foreigners, men and women. It’s about expectation and where those ideas come from I think..
So in terms of the time previous to your work with Tom Tom and now in the middle of this particular project, what have you learned about the music scene here and the perceived inclusivity of female musicians?
Overarchingly my perception of the scene here as being super inclusive has rung true. Some of the girls I’ve interviewed have had a few examples of negativity, but generally they see it as a non issue. Kind of to the point of irrelevance. I’m keen not to be seen to be calling China a feminist eutopia, as of course that’s not the case, it’s a much bigger question, but just within this small subculture of creativity it seems there is a progressive attitude.
When I decided to organise the live shows, I hadn’t really anticipated feeling uneasy about people thinking that I was putting on “girl only” shows because of a perceived need to make this safe exclusive space to showcase bands that, like my own, are already representing themselves just fine in unmarginalized local scenes.
So because its like a non-issue did it feel weird to point to this aspect of the culture that seems to naturally occur here in China, or do you feel like it is something that was under-appreciated and that certain female musicians began to take notice of?
Yeah it has felt weird at points. They havent been offended by the question, just kind of confused by it. Everyone’s been super supportive of the project, on the understanding that it is a celebration of the huge number of female musicians here and how talented and interesting and creative and diverse they are. The stuff thats been more interesting actually than that starting point question has been hearing about their experiences getting into alternative music in the first place… becoming musicians… their families’ take on their music if they ever play them their music at all.
Has there been a particular story or musician whose story struck you more than others? Who made the most impact on you personally?
Its all been interesting to be honest. I do have particular bands and drummers whose style I love. I love Lao Ayi and think their drummer Axiang who plays in a few bands and has such an original attitude and process. She’s a painter and said she thinks of creating the drum structures in the same way, making shapes. The whole band Xiao Wang, who headlined the first of the Beijing shows are just so free and unselfconcious in their performance style, which I find so inspiring. They spoke about their attitude to playing live as an opportunity to express yourself honestly and truthfully and what that means to them. Both these bands have made an impact on me as a musician.
Our other headliner at the 2nd Beijing show was a band from Qingdao called Dummy Toys, 3 of whom have kids and just make it work, bring them to the shows, raise them in this punk rock atmosphere. I’m waiting on a proper translation to come back to me for that interview as I wrote it then had it conducted in mandarin. I’m really looking forward to hearing everything they had to say as my mandarin isnt good enough to understand it all at the time.
I saw Xiao Wang just did one of Live Beijing Music’s gigs in Beijing recently. And yeah, I have heard Dummy Toys are very underground, I have been trying to find their music online but to no avail.
In that sense, are bands happy to allow you to publish their music on Bandcamp?
Yeah, personally I’m finding it a bit problematic as Bandcamp disabled their old service that let you put stuff up streaming only which is what I was initially imagining… I’ve seen other comps like that, but I contacted their service department and was told that now you have to set a price. I didn’t want to set $0 and be giving the bands music away for free (although this is what many of them have set up on their chinese equivalent platforms) so its currently labelled as an unfinished work in progress with a pre order date which means you can stream without the option of downloading before the release. I need to work it out with all the contributing bands… my friend Nevin (Dormer) who runs labels in Beijing is giving me some advice, but I would love to release it as a comp and then put any money from it towards pressing a vinyl. At this point I don’t know how realistic that is. But yeah none of the bands so far have had any problems giving me one song for it. The fact that a lot of their music, if even recorded, exists only on chinese platforms that you can’t access outside made me want to put them together in a place I could link to from the articles and give them more context.
Ceridwen and Casey performing with their band Ugly Girls
How have you found bands, contacted bands and who has helped you in that process? There are some famous names recorded so far but there are also some lesser known acts there too. Is there any criteria music-wise that you use to sort out who you want to interview and who you don’t want to interview?
I sat down and made a list of the female drummers/bands I knew about and where they were in the country. They were mostly Shanghai ones at first, lots of whom we’d played with and and a few from other cities who had toured here. It was pretty easy to get the wechat’s for most of them through my friends in music here. I think at that point Ugly Girls had already booked to play our first show in Beijing, through our promoter friend there Xiao Xaio, who I reached out to asking about girl drummers up there.
Since TomTom had asked for a diary style format and that show was coming up, I figured it would be a good place to start. I wrote and got translated a broad interview covering the bulk of what I thought I wanted to ask, and got the train up a day early to do it with whichever drummers were available at the time.
There hasn’t been a particular criteria to meet other than drumming for a band that plays their own original music. Even looking at the Shanghai list, it was obvious that the bands were stylistically very broad and that in itself is interesting to me. I wanted to give an honest snapshot of the scene at the time and the diversity of bands.
I have sent written interviews to some of the drummers who live farther away and have them in a folder waiting for the right point to share. The more people hear about the project the more and more people recommend new bands and drummers to me so now my list is very long and I am having to think more about how I structure and share it. And find time to write it…!
It is at this point that I recommend a band to Ceridwen and add to her unworkable list of names.
Free Sex Shop
It seems like this project could go on and on. Do you have an end time in mind yet? When you mentioned the idea of doing a gig in GZ or possibly a tour, the idea that you could pick up more material in cities like Chengdu, Wuhan etc occurred to me. Is that something you have in mind?
Yeah it does feel like it could go on and on. I’m kind of ok with that for now. I won’t be in China forever… I’m just running with it and seeing where it takes me. I guess in terms of producing a comp I need to have a time frame and so after this Shanghai show is done I plan to think about that more next week and have conversations with the people who can help me understand the ins and outs of that better.
*All photographs by Ceridwen Brown and Lui Chen.
You can find out more about China GRRRL at Tom Tom Magazine here
and via their Bandcamp compilation album here