P.K. 14 + Xiao He: 14 November 2009 - Govinda Gallery, Washington DC / Chinese punks storm the American Capitol / Words and Pictures by Mehan Jayasuriya
"It's great to play D.C.," P.K. 14 frontman Yang Haisong said, "because growing up, we were very influenced by the D.C. hardcore scene." A lot of bands say this sort of thing when playing the District but few have the privilege of saying it when Ian MacKaye is within earshot. It should come as no surprise, however, that local punk luminaries were in attendance at Govinda Gallery on Saturday night. Word had spread about the revelatory performances delivered the previous night, when two mainstays of Beijing's burgeoning underground rock scene played to a sold out crowd at the Velvet Lounge. The show was part of a tour organized by American photojournalist Matthew Niederhauser, whose book Sound Kapital documents Beijing's music scene, which looks to be one of the most vibrant and fertile in the world. As part of the opening for an exhibition of Niederhauser's photographs, Govinda Gallery in Georgetown hosted repeat performances from P.K. 14 and Xiao He.
Wearing a thrift store sweater and a winter hat and armed with an acoustic guitar, an array of pedals and a laptop, Xiao He initially looked like your standard-issue indie singer-songwriter. Once his set began, however, it became abundantly clear that he is anything but. Incorporating elements of folk, jazz, ambient, drone, electronic music, classical Chinese opera and even performance art into his performance, Xiao He recalled the loop station virtuosity of Andrew Bird, the folk-tinged laptop pop of Four Tet, the willful amateurism of Phil Elverum and the kitchen-sink folk of Shugo Tokumaru. In other words, he is quite unlike anything that I have ever heard or seen before. His compositions, all of which were improvised, were built by layering guitar and vocal samples using a loop station. Occasionally, he made use of a synthesizer that was mounted below the bridge of his guitar and which he ran through a laptop, allowing his fingerpicked notes to mimic other instruments and sounds. As it wound down, his set took a turn for the silly, with He peppering his songs with lyrics from American pop hits and using his guitar to produce animal noises. Whether this was meant to be taken seriously or if it was just a piss take no one seemed to know, and no one seemed to care. It was by far one of the most weird and wonderful performances I've witnessed all year.
Up next was P.K. 14. While their boilerplate post-punk was far more conventional than Xiao He's music, the four-piece easily won the room over with their energy and skill. Niederhauser introduced them as the Beijing scene's "elder statesmen" and they certainly sounded the part, delivering their taut, fractured songs with a force and earnestness that's become all too rare Stateside. While the band operated as a tight ensemble, the rhythm section was of particular note, keeping the songs firmly grounded while simultaneously propelling them forward. It's not hard to imagine that Ian MacKaye must have felt at least a bit flattered as he sat watching from the windowsill. Six thousand miles away the revolution that he helped foment lives on.