posted on July 02, 2007 03:45
The things you have to do to get a name in China. Like playing a half hour set to Communist Party cadres in a cinema in Wangjing, an industrial zone on Beijing’s northeast outskirts. "We were cultural envoys," explains Owen Hopkin, drummer of British band The Crimea, who caught up with Beijing Beat in a Beijing tea house recently. "The inititiave was taken by the British Council and our local label, Jingwen. The translator didn’t translate very well and the band got shunted around between bemused officials for photos, handshakes and “how’s your plectrum” before they boarded and bus for the hour long ride back up to a hotel miles away in Haidian district.
London-based The Crimea picked up the invitation after Hopkin came out to Beijing in September 2006 with the British-based Association of Independent Music and the Department of Trade & Industry. A wiry and wily drummer, Hopkin isn’t short of good ideas, or a knack for doing things the Chinese way. He had the Crimea draw up a Communist-style five year plan to world domination. It didn’t involve a big record deal or conquering America: Rather, free downloads of the group’s second album, and going to China. “If we can be big in China it can be Beatlemania on a scale not even the Beatles experienced!”
So far the 5 year plan seems to be running politburo-smooth. The band’s second album Secrets of the Witching Hour scored 11,000 downloads in two days when posted on the band’s website. “You don’t make much money selling physical CDs any more,” explains Hopkin. “The cash comes from merchandising and publishing and live concerts. We have to get it out to those who wouldn’t normally buy the Crimea.”
The PR value of the stunt may be convincing those punters. Britain’s music press and trend-setting radio shows played the songs for the novelty - it helped that the Crimea is also talented. The Crimea began life as The Crocketts, signing to a UK major label, V2, in 1998 with which the group recorded two albums. In 2001 Hopkin and singer Davey MacManus formed The Crimea, which they compare to their former band in an early press release: "if the Crocketts were four cavemen banging stones together, [then] this is the sound of four Tchaikovskys banging Kylie Minogue".
Chinese music impresarios liked the sound when Hopkin came over last September with a satchel of CDs and tramped all over Beijing handing them out. “I met as many industry people as he could get around to. “I handed over a lot of CDs and met with MIDI and the Beijing Pop Festival and with ring tones people.”
The organizers of the MIDI Festival, Beijing’s annual left-field rock festival put them on the main stage. “We were sandwiched between two heavy metal bands. It was really chilled out.” Always sensitive to the PR value of a trip to the world’s most populous nation, Hopkin, himself a sometimes contributor to Britain’s Kerrang! magazine, convinced a rock writer from British daily The Independent to come along to document a Crimean MIDI set and a week gigging Beijing during the annual socialist-style May holiday in the Chinese capital.
“There were no toilets backstage and only four toilets on the whole site! You had to find different ways of peeing before you go on stage.” The crowd made up for the lousy sanitation: they were “going apeshit” during the band’s set. Though the band didn’t pick up a fee, they commend the hospitality and stage hands supplied by the organizers, a European-funded modern music school of the same name, which runs the festival on a shoestring budget. Denmark’s Ministry of Culture helped with the stage. “There were good stage and sound managers. There were a lot of Danes helping out.”
Just as well money wasn’t a priority for the Crimea’s China tour. Aside from the Midi main stage, the Crimea played five other shows, during six days in China. The EUR15 they got from the New Get Lucky Bar was enough to pay for the taxis home after the show. Mao Live was more generous: EUR80 – split between the five of them. A typical bar gig in UK yields the group GBP500 while a recent club show for Carling beer was worth GBP5,000 to the band. “After a week here you realize quickly that it’s not the country for making a quick buck in as a rock band.”
Venues in China are very small by UK standards, says Hopkins. Whereas the band fits nicely into the Barfly’s chain – capacity 150 – China has cramped bars and karaoke parlours. Recently opened Mao Live was about right: it fits 150. The Stone Boat gig was to “expats” and not what the band flew out for. The coziest venue in the city, 2 Kollegas, worked best. “You get the impression it’s the wild west, but not really.”
And what of the local talent? There’s “pockets,” says Hopkins. "[Joy Division-like] Retros are very good. Tongue is very good, so was PK14. You come out as a western artist thinking you know the score. But come out here and there’s good local musicans playing conventional western style. We wouldn’t have the first idea how to play Chinese musical styles. Right now they’re not creating so much as copying, but that will develop." As for The Crimea singing in Chinese. “Well, singing in Welsh might be a problem!”
Seven shows in six days was a lot, even for this group, which, in five years together has toured with the likes of Stereophonics and Snow Patrol. “We came out prepared for the worst and expecting the best and went home exhausted.” Aside from cramped venues and lousy pay, language was a barrier. “The whole equipment thing was very stressful, having to lug cases around town in taxis with hardly a word of Chinese between us.”
The Crimea hopes to be back for the Beijing Pop Festival 2007. “It’s important to come out here because at the moment they don’t distinguish between the Crimea and the White Stripes. Rock is a niche.” It’s not like the band is unknown in China. The band’s first album has already been bootlegged here whileSecrets of the Witching Hour came out in June through a subsidiary of state-run record distributor/label Jingwen. Big as the Beatles, in China? “It’s definitely a punt.”