Bad education: the story behind School Live Bar

Beijing's favourite rock dive turns five

It’s early on a Wednesday evening, but School Live Bar is already bustling with activity, as the bands scheduled for tonight’s show hurry to and fro, carrying guitars and bundled-up leads with the nervous, twitchy energy of young musicians playing their first show.

Presiding over the scene are School’s two owners, Liu Hao and Liu Fei, who lean against the bar with proprietary ease, trading talk as they sip from their drinks. This is their usual stance four-to-five times a week, which is the number of days School hosts rock, folk, punk and sometimes electronic shows in its dark, cave-like interior.

‘After five years, it does get tiring,’ admits Liu Hao – a beefy, rogueish-looking character – with a laugh. ‘You can go a bit crazy being in the same place all the time,’ agrees Liu Fei, who with his quick tongue and impish, bespectacled face offers a foil to Liu Hao’s brusque manner. ‘On days off we go to other pubs to have a drink, and we’re just like, “Ahhh” – we can finally have a break.’ Breaks are something the two partners haven’t had much of over the past few years.

Though School has always been a happening spot ever since it opened as a DJ and dance bar in 2010, it wasn’t until the venue transitioned into a livehouse two-and-a-half years later that it turned into a full-time job for the pair, who quickly built the club into one of Beijing’s premiere live venues. Since that time, School has given rise to a handful of up-and-coming bands, and played host to artists who could easily fill a venue five times its size, like Carsick Cars, Xiao He and Omnipotent Youth Society.

It’s a level of success that’s been striking for two guys who never intended to open a venue in the first place, but fell into it through their first love: drinking. ‘Back in the day, it was always the two of us who would get everyone together to drink and hang out,’ remembers Liu Fei. It was a natural pastime for the two Lius, both military brats who grew up in the punk scene, and forged a friendship through the famous – and infamously alcoholic – punk band Joyside, in which Liu Hao played bass and Liu Fei served as manager.

After the band fell apart in 2009, the two men found themselves at loose ends, and began to spend more and more time at their vintage clothing shop in Gulou, Underground Kidz. ‘In the summer, we’d be hanging out, sitting in the doorway drinking because we had to watch the store,’ says Liu Fei. ‘Then around 11 or 12 o’clock, a bunch of people would come to hang out. So we just thought, if it’s going to be like this, we might as well just open a bar.’

The rock scene provided School with an instant clientele, though in the early days that presented somewhat of a culture clash with the club’s more Gongti-esque patrons – the kind of foreigners and Chinese who liked electro, flashing lights, and vodka-based cocktails.

Business was fairly steady, but after more than two years, Liu Hao and Liu Fei were growing weary of spending their nights around seizure-inducing dance parties. ‘As time went on, we just couldn’t stand it,’ says Liu Fei with a laugh. ‘We were both coming from more than ten years of being in the rock scene, and a lot of our friends were also a part of that. They were always surprised that this was the kind of club we were running – it wasn’t what they’d imagined the two of us doing.’ So when friends’ bands started asking to play gigs at School, they said yes, and, after a couple of successful shows, decided to ditch the disco vibe and return to their roots: a good old-fashioned rock dive.

They started with renovations, replacing the white walls, pleather chairs and disco ball with a black interior, fortress-like bar and – most importantly – a stage. The quarters were tight, but that didn’t seem to matter; bigger acts, they say, relished the opportunity to get close to their audiences, while newer bands got the chance to cut their teeth in a venue no bigger than a living room. Indeed, discovering talented young bands like Big Wave, Heat Mark and The Diders has been a mission of sorts for School over the past couple of years.

‘We just rely on our taste,’ says Liu Fei. ‘Like some bands might not be very mature yet, but we can see something good in them, even if they’re a little sloppy.’

Their affection for the scrappier side of rock ’n’ roll is arguably what makes School such a vibrant space. It’s also, of course, what often leads to late nights filled with spilled drinks, puking patrons and drunken scuffles. But as far as the Lius see it, that’s all part of the package.

‘That’s just rock ’n’ roll,’ says Liu Hao, as he describes a recent show, in which an audience member smoke-bombed a Diders gig, and everyone had to evacuate. ‘Things have changed a lot in the past five years,’ adds Liu Fei.

‘More bands, more venues, more commercial elements. But no matter what else has changed, I think we’ve helped preserve the spirit of rock music.’

We barely catch those last few sentences – the band downstairs is starting.

School Live Bar's five-year anniversary show is on Saturday 25 April See full event details here

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