Think extended touring in China is impossible? Think again.
The world will never be short of metal bands with the desire to hit the road and spread their special brand of beer-fueled mayhem, unless they happen to be a straight edge band, to the appreciative populace. And for every band that has ever made it to the lofty heights of the metal stratosphere, there is a story of playing the dingy basement clubs, the vomit-soaked house parties, and the disease-ridden squats, for years at a time if necessary, in order to graduate to the level of club gigs and, if the metal gods permit, large-scale festival or stadium shows. But first comes hitting the local circuit, the surrounding environs of whatever sordid little burgh the band happens to call home. Then comes the regional tour and, if the members of the band can still stomach their accumulated reek and eccentricities, the national run in their home country. What’s next? Overseas of course; Europe, South, America, Japan.
What’s missing? Only about a sixth of the world’s population, otherwise known as China. No one ever talks about doing an extended run in Chairman Mao's magic autocracy. Sure, there are a lot of metal bands starting to hit the major centers like Beijing and Shanghai. Testament has been there, so hasBehemoth and Arch Enemy, and a host of others. In fact, those cities are starting to become an integral part of the Asian touring junket. But where’s the love for Lingbo? Come to think of it, where the hell is Lingbo? For the answer, look no further than Absolute Jack, a.k.a. Jack Doom.
Jack Doom is the man behind Honolulu thrash act Corrupt Absolute (formerly known as 8mm Overdose), Hawaii’s biggest metal export since Marty Friedman. OK, so Marty Friedman wasn’t actually born in Hawaii, but he did live there for a while, and was part of a band named after the Rainbow State. But let’s get back to Jack, the busiest man in the Hawaiian metal scene, who is no stranger to putting in 40 to 50 hours of promotional work in week in and week out on top of his 40 hour per week day job. He’s also the founder of the annual Hawaii Metal Festival, the biggest metal event in the South Pacific, and the promoter behind literally all of the biggest metal shows in the state of Hawaii.
Jack’s band is Jagermeister approved and tour proven, having done the rounds in parts of the U.S., Europe, and Japan. The sole remaining original member of the band, Jack founded the group in 1994, and over the years they’ve lined up an impressive array of support slots, sharing the stage with the likes of Hatebreed, Slayer, The Misfits, Marilyn Manson, and many others. But what really sets the band apart is the amount of touring they’ve done in China. Since 2005, when China was barely a blip on the touring radar for any band, Corrupt Absolute have been way ahead of the curve, taking trash way off the beaten path in a country that is notoriously difficult for bands to gain access to no fewer than four times. Even the Rolling Stones had to leave certain songs off their set list at the behest of government censors when they jetted off to Shanghai in 2006. So how does a band like Corrupt Absolute, with song titles like “Execution Style” and “Root Junkie”, waltz past the communist curtain and play three weeks' worth of shows? I asked Jack for the lowdown on what could become the most fertile touring grounds for up and coming bands looking for hungry young metal fans in the years to come. This is The Corrupt Absolute Guide to China.
How to Get Past Customs Without Getting Exploited
Believe it or not, customs officials in China aren’t frothing at the mouth to give out performance permits to long hairs who sing about Satan fucking their sister. If you’re going to go, be smart about clearing customs, or find yourself flying home much earlier than expected before nary a mystery meat dumpling wreaks havoc on your intestinal tract.
“We go in through customs separately. We put our hair under our hats. We don't go in like rock stars. We don't attract attention to ourselves. The only thing we've gotta hide is our guitars. We carry gig bags because it's not quite as conspicuous. We've seen bands that got stuck. The Exploited got booted because the guys came through customs copping an attitude and they didn't have the right visas. It's just not smart. That's guys that just don't understand the communist government.”
Hide the Merch
Nothing says “I’m a musician who’s planning on performing without a permit in your country and leaving the tax man out of the loop” like a suitcase full of jewel cases and Mao Annihilation Tour 2010 T-Shirts. Keep it inconspicuous.
“We roll all our merch up in regular clothes bags. We ditch jewel cases, we do everything in plastic envelopes now. And a lot of times we'll try and buy our shirts over there so they're waiting for us so we're not even bringing anything with us.”
Go Where the Other Guys Won’t: Part 1
Who do you think is going to mosh more enthusiastically? The jaded Shanghai hesher who sees international acts on a weekly basis, or the factory worker in an industrial town that hasn’t seen a foreign metal band pass through in two years? Tell ‘em Jack.
“I prefer to play the small places the big bands won't go. We'll go to small places in China where they've never seen a white guy and we'll get three of four hundred people at a show. We'll go way out in the sticks. The next shows I'm working on are way out in the western side by Burma, as far out as we can go.”
While You’re There, Do Some Networking
Don’t just sit back and bathe in the post show afterglow with an ice cold Tsingtao in each hand. Get out there and meet the people who will make your next tour in China. Take the Tsingtaos with you, obviously.
“I contact a lot of bands and every time we go out there I work. I have cards and I talk to people and I network. After the show I sit down and I talk to the promoter and they help me out and I talk to the bands. They know people in these different cities. Hopefully the next time we go back they're still together because that's your support right there. They're the ones that tell everybody, get people amped up, get everybody to the show.”
Don’t Expect to Get Rich or Be Comfortable
China is not North America, Europe, or Australia. Once you’re outside the major cities, conditions can be Third World. Luckily, as a dirt poor metal merchant, you should be used to living in such conditions by now.
“We go where bigger bands won't go because you're not gonna make money, and some of the trips are pretty uncomfortable man. You're sleeping in not-so-great hotels. You've got the craps because you're eating weird food. It's not very comfortable, but it's a blast. We're seeing things most people will never see. We're going to places where Western bands have never been before. We're playing in really pretty dismal clubs but the people are so into it that it's just a blast. The sound is terrible, stuff is cutting out, and we're getting shocked, but it's so fun.”
Ignore the Hype
People are always talking about places that a band absolutely must play. That’s all well and good, if you like making peanuts to play to empty space.
“Everybody tells us ‘You've gotta play this club 'cause that's where the big bands play.' That's nice, but you're playing to 40 people. I'd rather go to a city I've never heard of and play to 150 or 200 people that are gonna bust a club down because they're so crazy.”
Beijing and Shanghai: The Safety Zones
There’s nothing wrong with staying on the road well traveled. It’s safe, and soothing, much like your favorite drink. It’s not adventurous, but at least you know what you’re going to get.
“Beijing and Shanghai are cool, don't get me wrong, and we've got a couple of clubs we work with that are very upfront. We always get paid. But the bigger bands are starting to go through there and I can see China in five or ten years being like Japan now where there's so many bands coming through people don't go out and see Western bands anymore because they can see one next week.”
Don’t Leave Out Lingbo
Finally, an answer to the questions posed in the preamble to this soon to be indispensable piece of music-cum-travel journalistic excellence. Sometimes the best shows happen in the most unlikely places.
“There's a place in China called Lingbo that we played and the club we played was probably the size of my apartment. The PA had rat shit on it. I played through, I kid you not, an eight inch Fender combo amp. We had to jerry rig everything. But it was one of the funnest shows. There was no opening band. We played every song we knew—an hour and a half—and the people would not let us leave. It was outta control. We made the most money out of any show at that club. We're going back. The owner was so happy we played there. They'd never had an American band there before. We're all about playing those places. I don't even care to play the nicer places.”
Still Not Sold? Go There on Vacation First
Yes, simply getting in touch with a bunch of bands from China via social networking sites and booking a ticket to the Orient is a huge leap of faith. Sometimes, going in as a tourist first can be the smart way to go.
“I went there on vacation one year and that's how I found out all this stuff and then I booked stuff the year after that. A lot of places I'll go with press kits and just start looking at clubs and talking to bands and then I'll follow up. I travel a lot just for the fun of it and I'm always looking. In China I saw a lot of people who were into metal the first time we were there, and I started asking around and there's a really good scene in China. Who would have ever known?”
Go Where The Other Guys Won’t: Part 2
If only so you can rub it in Kerry King’s carefully polished dome.
"We always look at it like we're playing places that bands like Slayer are never gonna go to because it's not up to their comfort level. It might get to that point for me for a day but when I'm going on my regular trips by myself I'm budget man. I stay in cheap hotels and it's nothing new to me. The only difference is I've got a guitar on my back.”
Go! Go Now Before It’s Overrun! (With a Caveat)
Clearly the first thing that’s going to happen the second this article drops is that every band with a pulse is going to be beating down China’s door. Your mission is clear, you must get to this pseudo-communist paradise for the up and coming musician first, or become just one of a thousand clowns who were late to the circus.
"I've got tons of bands that we book here just begging me to take them to China. I'm telling them, you ain't gonna make any money, and the traveling conditions are at best dismal sometimes. You're on a train for eight hours a day and it sucks. You can't sleep. That's the way it is though if you want to play there. You're going to places where they haven't seen white people, a couple of places where there wasn't really any paved roads. It's crazy. It's a trip. But it's fun.”