The world is awash with literature describing the massive transformations which have occurred in China during this period of mind-boggling and unprecedented change. Perhaps given less coverage is the knock-on effect this has had on the Chinese live music industry, both in terms of the initial boost given to those engaged in this sphere, but also in terms of where live music scenes have arguably partially stalled or been hampered by constraining factors. But let’s not dwell on any negatives here. It wasn’t long ago the best Hangzhou had to offer was a venue that doubled up as a pool hall. This isn’t to be disparaging about the mainstay that is 9 Club. The venue has and continues to put on great events and has long been doing an important job in providing a vital spot for live music and DJ nights to flourish. But a city requires more than just one place with a decent sized stage. Whilst the recent arrival of a Mao Livehouse is a fantastic and welcome development, it’s hardly been a surprising one given the success of the franchise in other cities. What Hangzhou needed was something the city could call its own. Enter Lineout and then Loopy.
What Loopy has given us is homegrown and completely fit for purpose. Loopy’s gig room is for music and nothing else. No distractions from the clinking of pool balls here. Building upon the valuable experience of the setting up of the Lineout stage at XX Cafe, this venue has been established by people passionate about hosting live music and savvy enough to do it very well indeed. Loopy provides just what Chinese urban areas are so often broadly missing compared to the numerous buzzing music scenes of Europe and the US. A pioneering DIY spirit, a determination not to simply prioritize money at the expense of art, and a potential hub for local creative types to socialize with those of a similar mindset whilst also taking in and bonding over great events. This isn’t a copy and paste job. All great music spots have a certain individuality to them and Loopy certainly isn’t lacking in this respect with its appealing and striking minimalist aesthetic. And the venue boasts implausibly great sound given the fact it appears to the casual eye to be little more than a concrete box inside a shopping mall.
Despite an emphasis on electronic output, Loopy’s team has shown to be more than willing to host all manner of different types of acts, a blessing for local artists and also for punters who want to catch a great band in an intimate venue. Indeed, though China can leave a Westerner pining for the ample gig-going opportunities they enjoyed back home, when a top band does play in China it’s often, funnily enough, a better experience because they may not be well known enough to command an audience requiring that large a room capacity. Thus what you get is the welcome chance to witness an act up, close and personal, and live music is often so much better that way.
It’s pleasing tonight, on Loopy’s first year anniversary, that they’re hosting such a well known band in the form of DIIV. Pleasing not just because this was always likely to make for a great gig, but also because after a year of serving up top quality music nights, those running the venue more than deserved an act (thanks to Split-Works for bringing yet another top group to China) that was likely to generate some extra ticket sales and attract the type of wildly enthusiastic audience that helps make this a birthday shindig truly something to savor.
Within the first few bars of DIIV’s set I feel the cobwebs of a stressful week immediately being blown away. The group set about belting out songs from both their albums and whilst having heard both ‘Oishin’ and ‘Is the Is Are’ a fair bit over the last year or two, I don’t think I’ve ever given enough credit to the rhythm sections (different drummers on each record if I’m not mistaken) for the manner in which the bass and drums drive the arrangements forward. It’s easy to be distracted by the shimmering beauty of the reverb-laced guitar work and the catchy arcs of the vocals listening to DIIV on record but witnessing the band live you really feel the impact of those bass and drum parts. There’s nothing fancy going on in terms of showmanship but what is being done, is being done very, very well. The man who has held the sticks since 2015 is Ben Newman. His young and almost naive looks compared to the relative rock star auras of his cohorts, belie the fact he pounds away like the genuine and finished article – a real force to be reckoned with. Bassist Perez works perfectly in tandem and, whilst forming a striking visual contrast with the drummer, rhythmically they are a match made in sweaty gig heaven.
Despite Smith being the obvious focal point of the group both in terms of DIIV’s music and overall image, Perez is arguably just as big a draw regarding the band’s impact live. It’s difficult to take your eyes off him. The man looks like he was born to play the bass guitar and never seems close to putting a finger wrong. During the course of the show it becomes so hard to imagine him without a Thunderbird bass stuck to him that it’s almost a shock when he moves across the stage minus his instrument prior to returning for the encore. Hidden away behind a messy mass of hair and the bill of his cap, whilst the other band members are lit up, Perez seems somehow to always remain firmly in the shadows, so much so you start to wonder whether the stage lights are kept off him deliberately to foster a sense of mystery. If there is a certain darkness to DIIV’s music then it is Perez that personifies it in a live setting. With Smith positioned right next to Perez, it’s light and shade.
Whilst Perez comes across as reclusive as anyone can be performing on a stage in front of lots of people, guitarist Andrew Bailey is perhaps the member of the band most relishing of the limelight, axe raised, acting as a conduit, serving as a bridge between audience and band. The big red hat is a nice touch and the guitar playing ain’t too shabby either.
Colin Caulfield is the musician brought in to fill the gaps, perhaps one of the least glamorous roles but no less important when it comes to giving DIIV their full live sound. Switching between guitar and keyboard/buttons/knobs he also provides backing vocals and grows into the performance as the night continues, finishing up with top knot breaking loose and his mane granted the consequent freedom to lash away with some rudimentary head banging.
It’s understandable to hold reservations about DIIV given the range of press that has followed the group around. And on the media surface Smith seems to almost blindly cater to our vapid, celebrity obsessed, cultural addiction to the rock cliché. His apparent determination to go out of his way to seek or provoke comparisons with his idol Cobain have done nothing to contradict this notion. However, this detracts from what a great band DIIV are. There’s no room in my listening schedule for bands who don’t cut it and I’ve listened to DIIV plenty. Incidentally, as much as I like both bands, DIIV sound nothing like Nirvana. If I had known nothing of the group other than hearing their music I’d never have made a connection with the latter. In addition, Smith comes across as a smart cookie between songs, extremely self-aware rather than the vacuous Kurt-a-like the general media narrative might lead one to expect, instead demonstrating sizable wit.
China can be a baffling place for foreign performers. Perhaps it’s the collective culture at play but often clapping can be limited and the quietness can prove slightly eerie between numbers. As the band acclimatizes to the setting, Smith plays on this, asking if there are any “questions or comments”. He jokes about the “no drugs, no dealers” sign, stating “NOT ON MY TURF” and, spying someone smoking in the audience, remarks, ‘Wow I’ve always wanted to smoke onstage’. He lights up a cigarette himself, but not before stopping with perfect comedy timing whilst appearing to be fixating on someone at the back of the room. He then whines, like the stereotypical teenager, spitting the words out with mock-petulance, “What? You’re not my real dad.” Very funny. Perhaps you had to be there. It’s a shame if you weren’t. This was a spellbinding set and my only regret is other commitments precluded me being at the venue for the whole event. If you’re Hangzhou-based then do your best to check Loopy out in the near future. Here’s hoping there are many more anniversaries to come.
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