Sub Jam, the “experimental art organization” headed up by poet, critic and musician Yan Jun, just put online an archive that is a treasure trove for fans seeking China’s outer-edge music history. Compiling over ten years’ worth of events, publications and photos, there is a lot to go through. But anyone interested in a window into how the edge of yaogun mapped itself out should head there and check it out.
Sub Jam’s, and Yan Jun’s, story is you might say, typical of yaogun in its atypicality…
Sub Jam itself began life, as the “About Us” section will tell you, as a record label in 2001. But its roots go back three years before that, to a book, of sorts. Sub Jam was the title of a publication put together by Yan Jun that collected the writings of the country’s few rock critics. The Spring of New Music, it was sub-titled, and it laid out the landscape of the underground bubbling to the surface.
There is an extensive profile of Yan Jun at Tiny Mixtapes (and he appears throughout Red Rock) but in brief: With the exception of his entree into rock and yaogun via Cui Jian and the Beatles and a brief metal period (and, like so many of his contemporaries, a breakdance phase), Yan had, musically, always been attracted to the edge – though, at the time (the late-eighties and early-nineties), those artists could certainly qualify as edgy. An early champion of upstart bands like Pangu, Tongue and PK14, Yan’s music critic days began in the depths of Lanzhou’s underground; the industrial western city was, as Yan recalled to me, a wasteland caught on the wrong side of China’s modernisation and
privatisation efforts, where punks were the kids caught in the depression of the world around them, and may not have signed up for the ‘oi!’, mohawks or other accoutrements of the genre, but shared the movement’s sense of struggle and desperation. He put on shows starting in university; he wrote for a local newspaper, DJed at a local radio station and eventually was writing music reviews for a range of publications.
Moving to Beijing in 1999, he fell in with the capital’s rock scene. Sub Jam the record label was, as he put it to me, his method of releasing “good music my friends were making,” and described his methods as “anarchistic.” In 2004, as his tastes shifted further toward experimental music, he founded, with Christiaan Virant of FM3, the Sub Jam sub-label, Kwanyin. An experimental music series, Waterland Kwanyin, about which I wrote a column back in 2006, began in 2005, which was notable musically, sure, but also in its ability to draw a decent-sized crowd regularly to Beijing club 2 Kolegas on Tuesday nights. Writing in the Wire‘s year-in-review at the end of 2005, Steve Barker, of BBC Radio show On the Wire called the series “probably the bravest and most successful night of free improv anywhere in the world.” From there things snowballed: In October 2005, Yan hosted a stage at the Midi Festival, and thus began Mini Midi, which continued for the next five years; photos from those events, and a whole lot more, are at Sub Jam’s Flickr.
I recall Yan speaking to me with excitement about an artist who plays a laptop – literally; like by scratching and hitting it and using those sounds. In that context, the following list of items I have seen employed in Yan’s performances might not be so strange:
laptops; microphones; poetry; Buddhist meditational bowls (like the one above); a long-range mic; Buddha Boxes; and, in an Arhus (Denmark) studio in the wake of his and my trip to the SPOT Festival in 2006, a contact mic, a jar of PepperPower, a spice rub, emptied of its original contents and replaced with a bit of sugar, an electric nail-file he’d stolen from his wife, some effects pedals and his poetry (the bits I caught every so often included: “Chinese people drink alcohol, leave home…Wild vegetables, pasta…”), alongside three local composers in a local studio jam session.
Which is all to say that his musical arsenal is limited only by that which exists in the world around him.
SubJam’s Flickr account certainly got me looking back; when my band RandomK(e) was just getting going, Yan was a big early booster, offering us slots in his events and even beginning the conversation about putting out an album. As a band that wasn’t interested in being constrained by genre, the Sub Jam/Kwanyin world was an amazing one to be a part of.
This 2005 pic of RandomK(e), performing on Yan Jun’s Mini Midi stage in 2005, brings back memories would imply that I have clear recollections of that day, when, in fact, those recollections comprise a mishmash of what I know was a Great Day Out, and a Great Set that was described, perfectly if not quite purposefully, by one of a couple of basball-capped dudes standing at the side of the stage in the wake of our 20-odd-minute set as we walked offstage: “I thought you guys would change it up a bit, but you just kept on going…”
Yan continues to host events, including the Miji Festival, expanding the spectrum of offerings on the Chinese musical spectrum. While his events have, for some time now, drawn a large amount of attention, it’s attention that seemed to confuse Yan; indeed, other experimental musicians and fans that came through Beijing always seemed to confide a surprise at just how much attention Yan and others were receiving. As Yan put it: “There shouldn’t be tons of people watching these shows… It’s not that kind of music.”