Interview: John Yingling

The filmmaker is back with a sneak peak of his documentary, The World Underground

Less than a year after his whirlwind tour of China’s underground scene, filmmaker John Yingling is back with a sneak peek of his documentary. Ahead of this month’s premiere, he talks to Liz Tung

When filmmaker John Yingling landed in Hong Kong at the end of last summer, he had one goal: to film as much of China’s underground music scene as possible. It was an ambitious goal for his scant two months in the country, but one for which Yingling – who’s spent the last seven years shooting underground shows in Chicago – was particularly well suited to. In total, he would spend 67 days taking trains around China, following bands on tour, shooting shows and practice sessions, and interviewing artists – all as a part of his new project, The World Underground, a video series that aims to capture underground music scenes around the globe. We
talked with Yingling near the end of his stay last summer about his tour of China, and what makes Beijing’s music scene so special.

You release videos under the moniker Gonzo Chicago. Where did the name come from?
That was actually just a placeholder because I didn't know what to call it. I used it because I did a lot of things that I wasn't supposed to do, like filming in venues you're not supposed to film at, sticking the thing in people's faces it was very gonzo-esque in the Hunter S Thompson sense of just doing crazy stuff. And it was still a placeholder until Pitchfork posted some Deerhunter videos that I had shot [using the name Gonzo Chicago] and it just stuck. I didn’t even really like it, but I was like, f**k, alright.

Gonzo journalism is usually really interactive. How much do you insert yourself into a situation when you’re filming?
Everything – that has everything to do with it. I’m pretty outgoing, and I’m a nice person. And I guess the background of all of this too is that it’s very DIY. I don’t want to make money; I just want to do something because I think it’s awesome and I love music and I want other people to find out about cool s**t. And that’s basically all I’ve ever wanted to do.

Where did you get the idea to come to China?
It started out when I interviewed The Handsome Furs because we talked for so long about it [the Canadian indie duo toured China in 2009 and 2010]. So I got the idea then, but I didn’t know how – being in so much debt – I could ever do it. So later on I emailed [keyboardist] Alexei and was like: I can’t get China out of my head since I talked to you. I told her about my idea – what if I raised money to go to China for two months and document the scene there, then released the episodes on a website for a suggested donation? She emailed me back and basically said, you need to do this; this is the best idea I’ve heard in a long time. You need to risk everything, you need to risk financial stability – which sadly ended up happening – to do it. So I did. I went for the fundraiser and I raised six grand [US dollars] in 30 days.

What did she say about China that stuck in your head so much?
The Handsome Furs were really excited about the rock ’n’ roll scene and how excited the kids were. They talked about all these small towns that only had, like, one band or one livehouse, and it just seemed really raw and something that I should capture because stuff changes in this environment so fast. This has always been the point – to capture what’s happening now and put it up.

You’re envisioning this as a worldwide project, right?
Yeah, it’s going to be if I have my way. I want to do Sri Lanka next and then maybe Japan after that, then South Africa, parts of Europe, anywhere I can get to that has a scene. S**t changes so fast and it’s just really important for me to capture that stuff. It’s something that I can’t get over; I don’t like doing anything else, I just want to do this. I’ll gladly work in s**tty call centres to make the money to keep doing it – have fun at night and be miserable during the day. And, you know, I could get a decent job, but then I would never be able to leave.

Did you have any preconceptions about Chinese music that were dispelled over the course of being here?
I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I thought there would be a lot more bands copying Western bands, but there’s some really unique, killer s**t here. There’s a lot of great improv stuff from the dudes that play at [Xp’s experimental music showcase] Zoomin’ night, you know, Soviet pop, The Dyne – I think The Dyne are spectacular. Hedgehog and PK14 are great, of course. The Diders are f***ing phenomenal.

What surprised you the most about the scene here?
I was just surprised at how many good bands there were in Beijing. I thought it would be a much smaller scene, but I’ve seen maybe 30 bands in this city and there are probably at least a dozen more that I haven’t seen. And that’s awesome.

The World Underground’s first episode debuts at Yugong Yishan on Thursday 10 July, with sets by Subs, Residence A, The Diders and Chui Wan. See our event page for details.
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