Modern Sky Festival Connects Chinese & Western Rock in Central Park

Hedgehog perform at the Modern Sky Festival on October 4, 2015.
Hedgehog perform at the Modern Sky Festival on October 4, 2015.
Courtesy of Modern Sky Festival

The Modern Sky Festival, started by China's Modern Sky record label, returns to Central Park's Rumsey Playfield for a second year on October 4 to showcase the best of its roster alongside an eclectic, international group of rock-inclined bands. Though it has scaled back to one day from last year's two, it promises to be just as much, if not more, of an event. Yoko Ono will headline with her Plastic Ono band, here comprising some very special surprise guests. Also headlining are foundational postpunk group Gang of Four. Indie rockers Hedgehog and New Pants — the latter of which played Coachella in 2011 — make for a special draw for fans of Beijing's rock scene.

Modern Sky founder Shen Lihui was on hand at the festival last year and got a kick out of the crowd's demographics. “It was an experiment for us, to a large extent. About 60 percent of the crowd was Chinese, and they’re a very dynamic young population. Some came from other parts of the U.S. or even Canada. So, when I was actually standing in Central Park, I thought it was far-reaching and significant beyond my imagination. I believe that, before this gathering, many New Yorkers had never seen a Chinese band. I like the feeling of mixing different audiences and fans,” he wrote in an email.

Michael Lojudice runs Modern Sky's New York City office. He underscores the attraction of the event for Chinese youth in New York City. “Young kids who come from the cities where we do our big festivals in China, when they get here, there's never anything cool representing contemporary Chinese art or music,” he says. Many of the bands who play Modern Sky here have played Modern Sky's many domestic festivals, making New York's installment a small taste of events like the Strawberry Festival, which can draw 100,000 to 250,000 people in Beijing and Shanghai.

Gang of Four take their name from a political faction influential during China's Cultural Revolution, but quite apart from that, they could not be a better choice for a Western headliner this year. The British band has been building ties with the indie scene in Beijing, starting in 2010 when Modern Sky band (and 2014 festival act) Re-Tros were booked to support them on an Australian tour. In 2012, Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill was invited to produce an album for dance-punk quartet AV Okubo, who are signed to Maybe Mars, another important Chinese label. During his time in Beijing, Gill got an immersive introduction to the city's indie music culture. He took in concerts at clubs and made friends with bands as well as the folks at Maybe Mars and Modern Sky.

“I was interested to see what's going on. Everybody was giving me stacks of CDs, which I've been listening to since,” he recalls. Gill returned with Gang of Four in 2013 to play some dates in Beijing and Shanghai, where they were joined onstage by AV Okubo frontman Lu Di and Re-Tros leader Hua Dong for a couple of songs. Lu and Hua have recorded a Chinese version of “Broken Talk,” off Gang of Four's 2015 album, What Happens Next, for release in China.

Re-Tros embody some of the best qualities of China's rock scene. Bands sometimes have to be careful with their lyrics to avoid government censors, but often make up for it by being musically uncompromising. Re-Tros' abrasive, terse postpunk is breathtaking live, as is the band Hedgehog, who will be at Modern Sky this year. In an email, Hua writes that, though Re-Tros' sound has changed over the years, it is still fundamentally, if subtly, indebted to Gang of Four. He fondly remembers doing “Damaged Goods” and “Broken Talk” live with the band, writing, “It was a really beautiful experience.”

Postpunk in general — and Gang of Four specifically — has had a marked influence on indie music in China, something Gill seems both thrilled and a bit flustered by. “It was great to find [that] these Chinese bands had been listening to our records and were so into it and that it had had such a strong influence on their musical development. I had no idea until I got there and found out. And then when we did gigs in China — Beijing and Shanghai — the enthusiasm for the songs, clearly everyone knew everything and seemed to know the words and all the rest of it.” Hua believes the band's name piques the interest of a lot of Chinese young people, but ascribes Gang of Four's status as an underground touchstone to the music itself. “In the end, the music is powerful enough to hold its own and have an impact,” he writes.

Modern Sky's international activities are directed at fostering just this kind of cultural exchange, albeit with an eye toward balancing out the frequent West-to-East direction of its flow, even if it might take time to reverse the status quo. In its first year, Modern Sky Festival ended up scheduling all of the Western bands later both days due to the requirements of various agents, but the schedule is more equitable this time around. “It ended up being weird because the Chinese fans all left when it was time for the Western bands. So this year we have Chinese band/Western band/Chinese band/Western band, and just explained that this was better for everyone,” Lojudice says, taking the growing pains in stride.

And they are, indeed, growing. Another Modern Sky Festival will be held in Seattle this year with a lineup that differs from New York's; there will be a Modern Sky showcase at Los Angeles' Culture Collide Festival, and yet another wing launched in Helsinki in August. The label's goal is to open up more opportunities for its bands to tour by doing something the label excels at. Modern Sky currently organizes around twenty festivals in China. In Shen's view, it's only a matter of connecting people and music.

“I believe that there will be more fusion, and the boundary between the West and the East is increasingly fuzzy — the world is getting smaller. In terms of young people in the future, I think they are going to classify themselves by common interests that go beyond the boundaries of individual countries.”

Gill, for his part, sees no reason why the acts that fill out the roster of Modern Sky shouldn't transcend national boundaries: “I think people will be interested because it's a genuinely different take on things. [The Chinese bands] have taken a lot of the influences from Western rock, especially some of the postpunk stuff, but they've done something themselves with it in a particular way.” He's personally looking forward to seeing New Pants live for the first time: “That's a band that I really don't want to miss. They're great.”

Modern Sky Festival takes place all day at Central Park's Rumsey Playfield on October 4. For tickets, lineup information, and more, click here.

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Rumsey Playfield, Central Park

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