Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Day 3: New York

I took the bus into Manhattan with Jay Z in the headphones and vibing off the blue skies and the raw energy that emanates from the hustle of New York City’s streets. Landed at 2pm, and in the Met by 4pm, staying with Mike, an old Taiwan hand on the Upper East Side. Go Chic would play later that night at Arlene’s Grocery, a Lower East Side indie rock joint, and Fire EX and White Eyes would play the next night at a 320-capacity live house inside the New York nightlife institution, Webster Hall.

The Taiwan government’s new indie rock policy has interesting implications, namely that it’s a way of promoting Taiwan’s name in an arena where China can’t do anything about it. China has prevented Taiwan from participating in the United Nations, World Health Organization and other big assemblies of “nations” for more than 30 years. In the Olympics and other sporting events, the Taiwanese team must arrive under the banner “Chinese-Taipei.” The world’s top biennials of contemporary art have been pressured by the Chinese government to disallow Taiwan from calling its exhibition hall the “Taiwan Pavilion.” But indie rock has no large central organization to apply pressure to, and even if it did, I seriously doubt a rock festival would be sympathetic to a bullying, repressive regime that will not offer them any economic benefits in the foreseeable future. Even more interesting – let’s not forget that this is a policy of Ma Ying-jeou’s generally warm-on-China KMT government.

Day 2: Toronto

Fire EX at the breakfast buffet

What’s the best way to navigate a 5-day, 800-band festival spread liberally throughout Toronto, where 15-minute cab rides cost around US$25? Especially in the case where I’d heard of maybe a half dozen performers – Janet Jackson, the Electric Six, the Russian Futurists and a Japanese band called Zoobombs that a friend had been emailing me about.

Orbis and I took the easy default. On the penultimate day of Canadian Music Week, we were in the York Hotel from 4pm to 2am, schlepping through conferences, industry mixers, the awards ceremony and room parties. The secret of music festival in the modern age is that, while they are still an entertainment showcase for the punters, they are essentially trade shows. In two days, I saw three artists perform but exchanged a thick stack of name cards. A Filipino promoter. A Singaporean B-girl who’s based in LA and spoke with a Jamaican accent. A New Yorker of uncertain provenance who claimed to have a website that promotes Chinese music. A smooth-talking, dandyish expat from Hong Kong who told us the Flaming Lips generate over US$100,000 in revenue per show and he can easily recoup that in Hong Kong. (I don’t know if we said it out loud, but Orbis and I looked at each other with a look that said, “Really?”) There were also a few potentially valuable contacts from Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, Hong Kong and Korea.

The most interesting thing we saw was a seminar called “Music Makeover.” On a stage in a big conference room, a producer with a microphone headset diced up a song by an R&B band (also on stage), and through the process of a “live rehearsal” created a new arrangement that was – truth be told – much better than the original. Watching this was like being in the studio audience of some reality TV show, except that no one got sent home at the end. There real-time critique had its moments, like a good-natured dressing down of the goofy, flop-haired guitarist:

“Real humility is not about being deferential and shy. It’s about accepting the expectations of the audience and fulfilling that role. If you are the lead guitarist, then be the guitar god and step up there and show it. If you just shuffle around in the back, or meekly retreat from the front of the stage after your solo, you simply fail to engage people, and they will become uninterested very quickly.”

This, I told Orbis, was the difference between Japanese bands and Taiwanese. Both sets of musicians tend to be pretty humble offstage, but the Japanese hone their onstage skills until they are razor sharp. Indie rock may claim differently, but in so many ways, rock ‘n roll is not just about music, it’s about the performance. Not many people go to the theater anymore, but they go to rock shows all the time, and whether they know it or not, they have the same expectations: they want to see a show. It’s a lesson that Taiwan’s bands are slowly learning, and what will help is the type of exposure that generates a culture of performance, and a culture of giving that performance whether they’re in front of 20 people or 500. That’s pretty much this tour.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Toronto: Day 1

I knew Toronto would be one big snafu. That's how this tour was supposed to start. Toronto - a total wash. New York, well, who cares, we're playing on a Monday night and anyway, it's New York. We'll have fun. For this rock 'n roll tour, all the money is really on SXSW, and the "big" Taiwan indie rock showcase there is already showing traction. One radio interview lined up. Japanese photojournalists and Korean bands and promoters psyched to check it out. And that's just on my end. Orbis Fu, director of The Wall Music, says he's getting a lot of interest as will. Things look good.

But for the moment, I'm in Toronto, which, in case you didn't know, is in fucking Canada. Pizza costs $4 a slice, and that's four bucks Canadian, which is like five real American dollars. Why is this place so fricking expensive? And how can our 4-star hotel have an indoor swimming pool but not ESPN?

I arrived Friday night at 7pm, one full day after the Taiwan showcase had ended. What was the point of my being here? The plane ticket, they said, couldn't be changed. We'll buy you a drink, they said. Would I really have to stay in Canada till Monday? This time I called American airlines. I'll make it to New York by noon Sunday and catch Go Chic on the Lower East Side at Arlene's Grocery the same night.

So far in Canada, I've managed to speak Mandarin more than English. I ate mediocre vegan risotto at an over-priced restaurant in The Distillery, a trendy Castle Elsinore-looking district of restored brick warehouses and quaint retro signage where the waiters are too-well groomed and the music sounds like techno played through a pipe organ. Steak dinner and 1.5 beers per person - with me pulling the "I'll just have salad" line - cost C$385 for seven, and I don't even want to ponder what that is in real money. On the way, the tour photographer lost his iPhone 4 in an illegal, untraceable taxi. And afterwards, I caught a couple of bands that didn't particularly impress me, including a set by former lead singer of Dinosaur Junior J. Mascis, before giving up on the 800-band schedule/clusterfuck. So I walked into a normal bar for a few bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and then took a long but fun jaunt past the bars, clubs and late night eateries lining Queens Rd. West. The walk took about 40 minutes, not including the stops for pizza and falafel, and I got back to the hotel by 3am. Then today, after buffet breakfast and three cups of coffee, I walked down to Lake Huron with the members of the bands Sugar Plum Ferry, Fire EX and the top staff at The Wall and got in a snowball fight while they all took pictures of each other in the snow.

Going to the bar last night, I did however get a chance to meet some real Canadians. One of them asked if I was American.

Wondering if' I'd failed to mispronounce "about" or "house" - though I'd been trying to avoid these verbal landmines - I asked "Is it that obvious?"

"It's the PBR."

Which I only ordered because I thought it would be cheap. Oh well. I could live with this.

But these Canadians - Torontoans? - they were friendly. Another tried to convince me Toronto was the fourth biggest city in North America. New York, Chicago, LA...and Toronto? I made a mild protest but quickly deferred, filing a mental note to Google it. A Canadian would not get this wrong. Or too wrong as it turns out. We'd forgotten about Mexico City. Toronto is 5th.

The Thursday night Taiwan gig was, consistent with the snafu-ness of it all, not even an official Canadian Music Week event. They'd been rejected at the eleventh hour, but still managed to organize a show in at some CMW-unaffiliated, Underworld-sized bar. About 50-70 people showed up, most of them Taiwanese studying abroad. Fire EX, Sugar Plum Ferry and Orange Grass played. When I asked band members about the gig, most of their answers amounted to little more than a shrug, though Andy, the soundman said Sugar Plum Ferry's set was awesome.

SPF's guitarist, Su, said their last Toronto gigs - another GIO sponsored tour - had been better. The official concert was mostly Taiwanese, but they also played a couple live houses for crowds that were at least half local and got great response.

"They all bought our CDs," said Su.

Meanwhile, The Wall manger Orbis was spending time at the CMW conference, a series of music industry talks that happens in the afternoons, before the music starts. How were they? "Boring." Then two hours later, Orbis says, "I saw a talk by Lady Gaga's manager." Troy Carter. "He's only 30 years old, and a black guy. Sometimes people think he's her bodyguard."

"People asked questions about everything. 'Would Lady Gaga consider doing an acoustic album?' The manager said, 'Of course!' 'What's the difference between Lady Gaga and Madonna?' Lots of questions like that. After it was over, he was mobbed on stage and security had to keep everyone back so he could leave."

Such was the talk around the breakfast table, where I also learned that Fire EX lead singer, Sam Yang, is being allowed to take a special "vacation" from his mandatory military service to participate on this tour - this arranged by a special gongwen (official letter) from high up in the GIO. "It's for the national glory," jibed one of his bandmates, A-Hsin. Like an Olympian.

I told them I'd seen J. Mascis the night before, but the sound was mediocre and most of the audience was just talking and drinking beer during the set.

"Cool. Then we what we saw was even better."

Oh yeah. What?

"We went to a strip bar!"

Strip bars. I get the feeling this will be a running theme for this tour. Can't wait till we get to Austin. For a long time now, I've been thinking that Orbis really needs a lap dance.