Interview: These Are Powers on Their Trip to China, Dan Graham, and Playing the Whitney


“We actually had to record in our practice space, and pretend like it was a show. We’re like, ‘Hey, Chinese government! Here we are performing for you on video!'”

Just back from a four-week tour of China, Brooklyn/Chicago trio These Are Powers are popping melatonin pills to get back into the circadian rhythms of the Western hemisphere. That 12-hour time difference should really hit just about 7pm tonight, when they’ll play the Whitney as part of the museum’s Dan Graham retrospective. Physically jarring, yes, but something fits about a band that doesn’t want to be a “band” playing for an artist who doesn’t want to be an artist.

These Are Powers’ visit to China was set up by Michael Pettis of Beijing label Maybe Mars and the owner of club D-22, and Shou Wang of Beijing band Car Sick Cars. The pair have brought Battles and Sonic Youth to China in the past, and have enough connections in China’s burgeoning “No Beijing” scene to have found steady partners for Noecker and bandmates Anna Barie and Bill Salas to play with during some Beijing improvisational sessions, as well as getting people to the shows. On Wednesday, we caught up with guitarist Pat Noecker to talk about the band’s trip. Despite some challenges–mostly pollution, PAs, and food poisoning–Noecker says that These Are Powers want to make Beijing and Shanghai regular stops on their overseas tours. All bands should. “It’s just something you’ll never forget. If you can go play shows that far away from where you’re from, you can play anywhere.”

I read a little bit about the “No Beijing” scene there. Is it really a movement?

I didn’t really hear that term thrown around too much while I was over there. But I believe that’s what they call it when they’re speaking to members of the media. It’s not like “post-punk” or anything like that. It’s a range of noise bands to electronic bands.

What kind of preparation did you have to go through, as far as dealing with the government and cultural authorities?

We were debating with the Maybe Mars people on whether we should get performance visas or tourist visas. They said, “Just tell the authorities that you’re recording in China when you come through.” So we got tourist visas. When we went through the gates in Beijing we were a little nervous, hoping they wouldn’t look at our passports and research us on the web and see that we were playing around China. We were taking a little bit of a risk, but the Chinese authorities are not that hip to the Internet and bands coming there yet.

The second thing we were instructed to do was record our set for the Shanghai entertainment commission. They had to hear and view the set to insure that we were not invoking any anti-Chinese or free Tibet rhetoric. They also wanted to make sure profanity was absent from the tunes. We had to videotape our set with very clear audio to make sure they could hear the lyrics. So we did that, and we got off the plane they examined us for H1N1, swine flu…those three things were the main protocol we had to go through to get there.

So how do you perform for an unseen audience of Chinese cultural officials?

We actually had to record it in our practice space, and we pretended like it was a show, so we all clapped and said, “Thank you!” at the end of it. It was really silly. It was by far the most awkward I’ve ever felt playing a set of any music that I’ve been a part of. We’re like, “Hey, Chinese government! Here we are performing for you on video!” I guess it worked.

Did you think about how much you’d have to concede to perform? The trade-off seems weird. If I had a festival in Greenpoint, but said you had to change your songs, you’d tell me to fuck off.

We weren’t going to test the Chinese authorities to see what we could get away with because we didn’t want to get kicked out of the country. It’s not like we had to whisper to our Chinese friends about how the government is messed up. We just didn’t say those things on stage, like Bjork did, which by the way people are still upset about. Chinese people are generally interested in your art, and Chinese kids don’t really care for Americans or Westerners coming there to tell them what they already know, like “Free Tibet.”

Did you find that you had an audience when you played your first show in Beijing?

Shanghai really has a big ex-pat scene, and Beijing too. It’s mostly students and career people. And they come from Europe, from the US, and they were really excited to see an American band playing in Beijing–most of the ex-pats or people just on short-term in China really miss live performance and live music. I think it was a real treat to see an American band come turn the place upside down, and then they also were turned on to the fact that there were Chinese bands there who can do the same thing.

It’s no easy challenge rounding up equipment in Beijing. After that we soundchecked one day, we felt pretty confident about the show. We had everything ready to go. When we played there was about 300 people inside a small club, D-22, and everybody got super excited when we started playing. There was a lot of sweat, and people dancing and screaming. It was so crazy up front that this thick beer mug came flying on stage and just shattered all over the place. I thought, I wonder if we should stop playing this song because someone’s really gonna get cut on that glass. Meanwhile shit’s going totally crazy. I just wanted to call my mom and tell her, “You’ll never guess what happened in Beijing tonight.”

Besides Beijing and Shanghai, you also played some smaller towns…Wuhan, Tianjin, Nanjing.

Wuhan–we took a train there, and it arrived six hours earlier than we thought it was going to. We all piled into this van that I thought would crack in half and went to the club. To our surprise, they had a great PA, the backline was decent, and 350 people showed up, and it was a pretty mixed crowd as well. But they didn’t really–I don’t think the crowd in Wuhan really got it. There was a local punk band that played before us and they seemed to take the night. The good thing was the Wuhan people saw something they’d never seen before and were scratching their heads going “What is this?” I guess it’s a punk town. It’s like, Wuhan China: they really like punk there.

Beijing must have been great for finding new sounds.

It’s somehow going to come out in the music. We wanted it to be natural, we don’t want to be conscious about it. If you’re not writing a journal while you’re in China, that seems like a shame to me because there’s so much to see, it’s really rewarding to get it on paper. We took a lot of pictures, and [Lori Baily and Voice photographer Rebecca Smeyne] were documenting. I was taking video. Bill had an audio recorder that he was walking around with a lot, recording sounds. We were constantly documenting. We finished writing a song during our soundcheck in Shanghai and we debuted it there. I was glad we did it, because outside of the act of playing it live and in front of people, it’s awesome to say to yourself, “We debuted this song in Shanghai,” you know? We were able to keep ourselves in a creative space when we weren’t working.

You got back Tuesday, and you’re playing the Dan Graham retrospective Friday. Are you a fan of his?

I love how he approached his art. He’s talked about how he’s not a “professional artist,” he’s not a conceptual artist in his, point of view. I think he used art as a means to play with satire on American life. And he did it outside of the art establishment and is finally getting the recognition he deserves. So I have a lot of respect for him, for that. He’s a big fan of music, and it’s a big honor to play anything associated with Dan Graham because he really challenges the boundaries of what creativity is in the “art world.”

With what you said about your Chinese shows–playing on the floor when the PAs were too shitty to use, trying to get audiences involved–it seems like you’d appreciate the ways Graham tried to bring together the artist and the audience.

We don’t want to come off as professional musicians–that’s the last thing we want to come off as. We want to blur the lines between audience and performer so the whole room turns into something. It’s not just about people being there to be like, “There’s the band!” It’s about creative an energy in the room and making sure that everybody is contributing to that effort. With the way Dan Graham works, I think he worked to get people to be a part of the piece, as much as the piece was his. I think there are some things that we have in common with him. Possibly. Maybe he would disagree. But I like his approach.

These Are Powers and the Vivian Girls play the Whitney Museum tonight, as part of Dan Graham:Beyond, 7 pm, free.