Interview on November 9 at Alba Café, Gulou
KL: I wanna talk today about your work as the booking agent at Temple Bar. How long have you been booking the acts now?
MM: I started doing it more extensively in, I guess, April but prior to that I’d been booking occasional things at Temple.
KL: So, that was for nothing and now it’s for salary?
MM: That was for nothing and now it’s for cash. Cash and drinks.
KL: And cash and drinks are enough to pay the bills?
MM: Yeah, without a lot of opportunities for luxury, for sure.
KL: That was a long pause… “yeah.” Temple definitely has a reputation as a rock bar so what are you doing to break out from that?
MM: On one hand, I’m not totally upset by Temple’s association with just rock and metal, I mean, those are such extensive and diverse scenes around Gulou that rock music has all kinds of subgenres and different bands. I do think there are interesting opportunities to draw other types of music into Temple. I understand that I’ve made the word “jam” a pejorative but for awhile I’ve wanted to have a Real Book based jam night so jazz musicians could have a jam where they played out of the book instead of jams where people play two chords for twenty minutes. I would love to have a string quartet or chamber music night just to completely switch it up. I mean, Temple being a rock bar doesn’t just refer to the music that we have but it also refers to the types of people that we generally have spending time there. The people we have spending time there also have a very diverse set of interests and Temple can also be a place where we can expose each other to new musical ideas. We have the Modular Free-For-All.
KL: What sorts of crowds are you getting for that? Do you think that you’re actually expanding on the Temple regulars or this something where you’re exposing the Temple regulars to something new?
MM: It’s hard to say because we’ve only done it twice. What I can say is, at our second event we had many mor3e people than the first one. So, the first event had maybe around 30 people at the peak and the last time we did it I almost felt like we had a Thursday sized crowd for awhile, too. I’m not necessarily sure that these are kids that are gonna be hanging out at Temple. They’re not really a go-out-and-party-all-night crowd. They’re kind of like indoor kids who build their own gear and stuff but I do think it could pave the way for interesting musical collaborations. It has created a cool way for people to expand their networks. So, while these people might not be spending time at Temple, they’re creating new communities in Gulou in general and I think that’s an important part of booking events like that, too.
KL: Break down the Rock Against Jams night for me. It definitely seems as if it’s reactionary but you’ve also created something that’s new and interesting and has very quickly got a significant following.
MM: I started Rock Against Jams last March because there was sort of like an out of control epidemic of jams happening in the music scene and it got to the point where places like Temple ended up having two jam sessions a week. The problem wasn’t just that jams are really lame generally and they only take the same six or seven people every time, but it also created a sort of unfair precedent for actual bands. It meant that venues could more reliably make shows where they didn’t have to pay anyone and they could simply let musicians be scabs. In the Beijing scene, we're really fortunate to have dozens of fantastic bands and dozens of fantastic musicians so I thought there was a way to take a jam format and actually make it more productive. It was totally reactionary. I mean, the title is really stupid but it's also really aggressive. Woops! But the point was that, with certain types of constraints, getting musicians to collaborate could create new and longer lasting projects so it wouldn't simply be a one-off thing, it would mean that these people could continue to play together and become consistent contributors to the scene and develop their own audience. Dress Code is one of those bands. I'm trying to think of who else we produced? The Blanks were playing around for a while and now Mario is making a new ska project after kinda getting the itch. I know that members of Endless Square have participated and then taken those musical ideas and developed them into their own repertoire for their own band. So, I think it’s been a productive experiment but I think it has become a place where people can feel musically empowered and that veteran musicians and very new musicians can have an equal ground where they can be creative. So I think it has become more of a distinctive thing. It’s also musically more diverse than jams.
KL: When you have a band that’s created out of Temple, do you find that you end up having a partiality for them when it comes to booking or do you try to be completely impartial? I’ve seen Dress Code at Temple a lot.
MM: Oh, no, I’m totally biased. I have absolutely no problem saying that. I certainly have an agenda. One of Temple’s strengths is that it can be a place where we can take very new bands and promote them on a Fresh Blood show and then continue to book them and keep building them an audience on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. So, Temple is actually a really good place to showcase and build up new bands. And I do try to actively support those bands and make sure that they keep coming back. I mean, one of my other goals, and sometimes this doesn't work out based on who is available for any given show, but I'm really interested in much more integrated shows. I don't want three expat bands, necessarily. Then I might not want three Chinese bands either. I think that one of the major issues that we have in the scene right now is that there is a lot of that so I’m certainly biased towards ensuring that those kind of clique-based or segregated behaviours don't really have a place to continue in Temple.
KL: And how has that agenda worked out, so far?
MM: I have no idea.
KL: Temple doesn't charge, there’s no admission, so that must complicate things as far as what you talked about earlier, scabs, and it must complicate being able to pay bands. How does that actually work? Say a band like Dress Code gets to the point where they are playing Yugong [Yishan] do you find that loyalty brings them back or do you have difficulty booking bands where they are asking for money?
MM: Well, there are bands that have played and developed a reputation and a dependable audience to the point where they can ask for a guarantee and we're willing to pay it but that isn't like a band that has played for three months and now they feel really cool. That's a band where they have cut their teeth like The Diders or Glow Curve. Temple, or any venue that does a free show, if it’s not a sponsored show, are paying bands from a percentage of the bar at the end of the night. It certainly limits some of the bands that we can choose especially like headliners on a weekend. We’re not necessarily in a position where we can get Carsick Cars and we’re not really the type of classy joint that Carsick Cars would want to play in. In part, that’s why we have such a great opportunity to work with younger bands who are really developing. I think the atmosphere is really thrilling for a lot of bands and I think a lot of bands continue to come back because they just like to play. Especially on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays we have a very enthusiastic receptive audience and I think bands generally find that pretty stimulating.
[At this point our interview subject, needing sustenance after an onslaught of probing questions, paused to eat some lunch and hum some Vivaldi.]
KL: Were you classically trained as a musician?
MM: I was raised listening to classical music. If you went through my computer you’d see a ton of classical music in my records.
KL: Is that why you want to get chamber music at Temple?
MM: Chamber music is my absolute favourite. I mean, rock bands have standard formations but chamber groups were always arranged at the discretion of the composer so the colours and timbres that get produced in chamber music are all over the place and they’re awesome. I guess having an event like chamber music or a string quartet night at Temple, I think, I don't know the way that I generally like to organise stuff is that I like to organise spectacles. It’s not just that we’re playing three bands on a Thursday, it’s that there’s a really weird gimmick or something that makes it kind of novel. We did that flannel rock night which would have otherwise been a normal Thursday but because we framed it in the way of wanting to crossover different genres and create a new genre it made it into something that was entirely different. It created a novel space where bands could confront each other under new circumstances but audiences could also confront band musical communities under novel circumstances as well. Having things that, I guess, subvert or call attention to the types of norms that we have in our music scene in Temple.
KL: Do you feel a sense of responsibility booking for Temple? It has a certain status in Beijing, a certain history, reputation and importance. Do you feel a sense of responsibility and who is that responsibility to, is it to the brand? Is it to the punters? Is it to the local upcoming bands?
MM: I mean, I think it’s my responsibility but I think this is everyone’s responsibility here. When you participate in a community, you support your community. When I first came here, like six years ago now, I got involved with a number of different Chinese punk bands. I certainly think being in China and being in Beijing and participating in this music scene, it’s my job before anything else to support creative young people that are Chinese. I think that, while it’s completely awesome that we have a lot of western participants and, obviously, I’m one of those participants, this isn’t totally your show and the greatest power that we have here, and also some of the coolest contributions we can make are lending support and knowledge and experience to a very cool emergent generation of young Chinese artists and musicians. So, I think that it’s my responsibility to work with them before anything else.
KL: Obviously you want to expand on your repertoire of spectacles, what’s coming up, other than the chamber music?
MM: On November 17th we have a show that I call, I Can Skank To This. One of my personal methods of judging how much fun I’m having at a punk show is often related to if it’s skankable music. Skanking is this - when we do the write-up, I'm just going to lift this from Wikipedia because it's going to sound a lot better than how I’m gonna describe it - skanking is this type of dance that emerged around ska music in the 80s and 90s that is kind of mosh pit based and includes kicking out your legs and throwing out your elbows. I have three young but really, really interesting punk bands and they all have the type of music that you can totally skank to. So, that one’s coming up and I’m really psyched about that.
KL: Can I ask a question leading on from that? Temple has been getting lively lately and, I don't know if it used to be like this, I’ve been going for a long time but it seems like, as far as the dance floor, it’s heating up. Teeth have been lost. Is that part of the Temple appeal, things getting wild and crazy? Is that something that’s being encouraged or are you suddenly going to have to worry about public liability insurance?
MM: As some point, we're going to have to start making people sign waivers. I do think part of Temple's appeal is that it's kind of like a dramatic movie depiction of a frat house, which I think can be fun, for sure. By the weekend, there are definitely points where things get out of control and I have to go play dad and make sure that people don’t try to jump down the entire flight of stairs because that’s how people die. Then I don’t wanna have to deal with it. I don’t want to have to drag a body outside.
KL: How do you guys maintain that fine line between somebody surfing shirtless on the table and somebody tumbling down the stairs? How do you police that?
MM: We’ve gotten really lucky. I mean, one of the things that does bother me occasionally is that there are people there who definitely need to be regulated in one way or another. They are overstepping other people’s boundaries, especially guys, which doesn’t create a safe or productive environment for anyone. You definitely have people there who’ve already had way too much to drink and they’re a liability for everyone else too. I think it’s the vast minority of people who show up to Temple but there’s definitely that kind of presence. Pink and I try to be as vigilant as we can. I think it does help that we have a lot of people who are keeping a look out and keeping us informed of things that are going on, too. It’s a social effort to make sure Temple remains a safe environment. As long as everyone comes in with at least a small sense of personal responsibility it usually turns out okay.
KL: It’s all part of the fun, right?
MM: Personal responsibility is a fun thing.
KL: It’s hard to know if it’s a community or a cult sometimes inside Temple.
MM: Oh God, yeah! I don't know what the hell it is. We definitely have a community of regulars but like you said there is an expected vibe and an anything goes mentality especially at weekends that does turn it into a weird cult of excess. Part of the reason the weekends have ramped up is we started working on the whole DJ thing, putting people on stage. Really all it takes is having a warm body on stage and people end up sticking around. Not to deride Dominic or Scott but putting people on stage creates an active environment that people respond to. That’s all it took. It’s easy to manipulate.
KL: It also got me off the bar.
MM: Yeah, that was one the reasons, not you specifically, well you…
KL: Yeah, I was part of the problem.
MM: I still can't get Alex off the damn bar. It kept everyone from clustering around the cult of Morgan and spread everyone out… to Morgan’s chagrin.
KL: Is that what drove him out of Beijing?
MM: Yeah, Morgan had to go.
KL: So what else were you going to say is coming up?
MM: I talked about bridging genres and cliques and we have a show on November 11th that is the perfect storm of clique breaking. There is this really new band who are fantastic who are called Streams of Life and they’ve generally been playing with a lot of the hardcore bands but they're really a lot more like post-punk or a post rock band like At the Drive-In. Like, Macondo actually has another band that they could conceivably play with at this point. We have Hotline who are a D.O.G. band and they’re kind of dancey, synth punk stuff and then we have Macondo that’s gonna close up the night. So, it’s an awesomely diverse range of bands and they’re bands that musically complement each other and yet come from very different parts of the music scene. It’s a really great holistic look at the current music situation.
KL: I’m gonna round it out with one of those horribly clichéd questions. Let’s stick to China, any bands, any theme, what would be the ultimate Temple show?
MM: Do the bands still have to exist?
KL: Aah… no.
MM: Okay, I would say Guai li who used to be completely awesome and they broke up and their lead singer was a total firecracker on stage. Hang on the Box in 2001, for sure. Then who would be my last one…? I’m just gonna say Dirty Fingers because I love those kids. I think they’re absolutely one of my favourites. Like the whole time I’ve been here. Those are my three, for sure.
Marshall's been around Beijing for about 6 years doing research and spending time with the Gulou music community. He organizes cool events plays in a cool band and I don't really know.