2010 Mar 11 Curse Lifted: An Interview with Zuoxiao Zuzhou
"I hate optimism out of insensitivity."
- Zuoxiao Zuzhou
For the past five years, this guy has been making headlines for pricing his albums from 30 kuai to 500 kuai. He’s also known for being a contemporary artist/poet/soundtrack composer working with Ai Weiwei and film director Jia Zhangke. Born in 1970, alternative rock singer-songwriter Zuoxiao Zuzhou (literally means “left-little-curse of the ancestors”) founded Beijing East Village with many avant-garde artists in early 90s, and their controversial artwork Adding a Meter to the Nameless Mountain (为无名山增高一米. See photo, below) shocked the Chinese art world in 1995. Meanwhile, ZXZZ's rock band "NO" released Trip to Temple Fair (庙会之旅) and The Missing Master (走失的主人). Both albums are filled with spacious guitar chords, tribal drum beats, sound experiments and volatile vocals, which scared many people for sure, but also gained him a loyal fan base.
Ironically, years later, artists in that famous photo fought over the copyright when Chinese contemporary art started to hit unexpectedly high price points in international market, and ZXZZ made another phenomenon in 2005 by selling his solo album I Can’t Sit Sadly by Your Side (我不能悲伤地坐在你身旁) for 150 kuai - this is back in the days when Internet download had almost eliminated CD sales. In 2008, he hit another record with double album You Know Where the East Is (你知道东方在哪一边), the most expensive album in China's music history (500 kuai, released in a museum). For the two album covers, he used contemporary artist Liu Ye's work on one and reproduced Adding a Meter to the Nameless Mountain on the other one - except changing the title to I Love Modern Art Too (我也爱当代艺术) and replacing artists with pigs (See photo, below).
Seventeen years can make any rockers soft, not for ZXZZ. Last December, he released the latest album Big Deal (大事) - this time at a restaurant in Beijing's central business district. The price went back to 150 kuai (includes a copy of Ai Weiwei’s documentary Lao Ma Ti Hua/老妈蹄花, original soundtrack by ZXZZ), and it's available for free at Google Music (surprisingly uploaded by himself). On March 19 at Century Theater, he’s playing the first solo concert in eight years. Being fully aware of the complexity of his music and marketing behaviors, we tried to unveil the myth behind the curse.
the Beijinger: What was your story before coming to Beijing?
ZXZZ: I was born in a small town called Jianhu in Jiangsu Province. I spent three years goofing around, fighting on streets and selling smuggled cassettes in Shanghai before coming to Beijing. I’ve never studied art, all my artworks, music and novels are solely inspired by real lives between Chinese cities and suburbs. Then I was tired of Shanghai and moved to Beijing in 1993. Right, I also did some medical practice for about five years.
tbj: How did you learn instruments?
ZXZZ: I’ve been playing guitar since age 15. As for violin, I can only play experimental noise with it. It's the same with any other instruments, I can make it sound like anything I want.
tbj: Lou Reed? Tom Waits? Bob Dylan?
ZXZZ: Admire them all, but I was enlightened by Jim Morrison and Franz Kafka.
Zuoxiao Zuzhou performs at PRADISO "China Art Festival" in Amsterdam (2005)
tbj: Do you consider yourself primarily a musician or a contemporary artist?
ZXZZ: Bit of both really, and even more. My lyrics make plan for contemporary art, and music serves as raw materials. As for contemporary art itself, it's more like a bastard they gave birth to. Nevertheless, it generates more attention than its "parents" have ever done! Take I Love Modern Art Too for example, it scares a lot of people, but also makes some others laugh, my music can never do that. Now this is the funny part: among all my creations, contemporary art is the only one with solid financial support, you know, from arts foundation, rich people and that...what a beautiful world...talking about ironic...
tbj: Are social responsibilities necessary for being an artist?
ZXZZ: My works have always been involving with the society, discussing the unspoken parts of the world. Social responsibilities…I never thought of that, I only go with my instinct and emotion. I don’t know anything about politics, don’t want to either, it hypnotizes me. A lot of people said they like the political ideologies in my works, I don’t get it, cuz’ all I talk about is getting rich and killing people…you know, like gangster movies.
tbj: You’ve been pricing your albums against market rules, if there are any…
ZXZZ: No matter if it’s 500 kuai, 150 kuai or 30 kuai - all because it’s done by Zuoxiao Zuzhou. But when it’s free, it’s for different reasons, and I did it anyway. The thing is we’re living in a country of entertainment, so Chinese people love excitement rather than music. In that case, music works on young people since they still have hormones and emotions, but people are growing old fast in this country and the excitement would be gone by the age of 40, then all they care about is some bodypart underneath.
tbj: So it’s fair to say you’re forced to take such tactics.
ZXZZ: Yes. I forced a lot of people to love both my products and me as a person - just like what a dictator would do.
tbj: Why did you choose Liu Ye's painting as album cover?
ZXZZ: We got to know each other in late 90s, he used to go to rock gigs a lot. Back then he was a little dorky. Liu Ye is the kind of person who can tell stories with art, and that's very different from many artists I know. His artworks can be edgy, cute and young at the same time. I particularly love the fact that he can express all his ideas through very gentle approaches.
tbj: You also wrote original soundtracks for Jia Zhangke’s The World (Shijie, 世界) and Zhu Wen’s South of The Clouds (Yun de Nanfang, 云的南方), as well as many other independent films. I’m curious to find out how you write music for movies. Do you compose with scripts or final cuts?
ZXZZ: Ideally with final cuts, because it’s easier for me to know where to start. Scripts are not that useful really. Also, many independent films I’ve worked with don’t really go with scores, experimental noise and sound effects suit them better. It is also important to have a director who’s able to get his/her point across, otherwise I’m in trouble. I like to work with directors who know about my music. Things are so much better now anyway, because back in the days when people were using VHS instead of DVDs, it took at least half a year even for the smallest productions.
tbj: What happened to that furious artist/rocker in East Village?
ZXZZ: I almost died there, but it’s alright because it was not like I never thought about death. I’ve got a daughter now and I’m having more fun in life. But I’m still sensitive - I hate optimism out of insensitivity.
tbj: I’m trying to remember the last time I saw you without a hat.
ZXZZ: People keep giving them to me. When Chinese people like someone, they give him tall hats ( To “give someone a tall hat” is a Chinese saying for ass-kissing – Millinery Ed.).
tbj: Is there still anything you want to destroy?
ZXZZ: Not much in real life, cuz you got beaten up for doing that. So now do you understand why I became an artist in the first place?
Zuoxiao Zuzhou sings at InMusic Festival in Zhangbei (2009)
Zuoxiao Zuzhou plays at Century Theater on March 19 (Friday), Taiwanese singer-songwriter Sandee Chan (陈珊妮) and "Happy Girl" Zeng Yike (曾轶可, see this post on ChinaSmack) support. Tickets at 6406 8888, 6417 0058 or here. RMB 180-1,280. 7pm. 21st Century Hotel, 40 Liangmaqiao Lu, Chaoyang District (6466 4805, 6468 3311 ext 3126). 朝阳区亮马桥路40号 (21世纪饭店)