8 Questions for Jon Campbell, Rock Scholar

Perhaps no one knows more about Chinese rock than Jon Campbell. He’s been a part of the music scene ever since he landed in 2000, and also covered it for numerous publications. We got a chance to ask him about his experience inside the world of Chinese rock.

When and why did you first come to China?

My first trip was in ’97 when I took a summer course in Xiamen and then travelled for 6 weeks after that. I came to Beijing in 2000 on a scholarship to study Chinese because I’d just gotten my Master’s in China Studies and couldn’t think of what else one does with one of those.

What made you stay in Beijing?

I could feel that it was an exciting time to be around and I didn’t want to leave. Plus, by the time my scholarship was up, I’d already gotten myself wrapped up in the local music scene and was excited about the potential. I also realized that, contrary to what I’d thought before, there was much more than teaching English that could keep a foreigner employed. In short, I saw potential: for Beijing and for me.

What drew you to the music scene?

It was the same sense of potential and excitement I saw in the city in general that drew me into the music scene. Also, the people I met were so accommodating and eager to meet new people that before I knew what was happening, I felt like I knew more people in the scene than outside it.

Music really started to get exciting in Beijing, with a blossoming of clubs and rehearsal spaces. Geographically, it was starting to spread beyond just Beijing and Shanghai. Of course, in classic “China Expert” fashion, as I started to write my book under the assumption that the most exciting times for the music scene were the years I’d been living in it, I realized that there were a lot of amazing things that happened in the early years, and my focus switched into writing. Which isn’t to say the excitement is gone—it’s actually expanded because I learned about the foundations upon which the current scene was built and I’m psyched to share that with the world. China’s musical output, particularly on the rock tip, is something that a lot of people in a lot of places are paying attention to.

You put “China Expert” in quotation marks…

I feel like there were a couple of phases for me in my quest to Figure It All Out. Before I got there, I studied the place and had made up my mind what it was like. Then I got there and realized I was clueless. Then, I started to look around, meet some folks and learned a bit, and thought, “Yeah, I can figure this place out.” A little while longer and I knew I had it all figured out. Suddenly, I started to see that I had no idea what I was talking about, and neither did anybody else. Eventually, I became comfortable with that fact, and came to see that China is whatever you or the people around you think it is at any given time.

Care to tell us a little more in detail about your China experience?

Let’s see, there are the bands: from jazz-funk to post-rock to blues, funk, punk and more. I played in upwards of ten bands in my time. With the last two, Black Cat Bone and RandomK(e), we put out albums and played together for five plus-or-minus years. I’ve played at cruddy bars, massive festivals, city squares, enormous jam-packed clubs, and empty national parks; to audiences that couldn’t care less, audiences that say we changed their lives, empty rooms, and everywhere in between. I’ve played to paying, grateful audiences and for people who paid thousands to be there completely unaware there would be music. And to goats.

There’s the writing: I wrote for a wide range of media inside and outside of China. I got my start on a now-defunct bilingual events guide, then worked at That’s Beijing (now the Beijinger), and worked and wrote for theSouth China Morning Post and many others. Earnshaw Books just published my first book, Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock & Roll.

And there’s the promoting: I worked with somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 artists over the years, setting up tours, gigs, and workshops across China (and in Europe), which took me, and them, to something like two-dozen cities in China. I worked with embassies, national institutions, foreign affairs departments and other partners on a variety of projects (like sending Norwegian jazz acts to universities in the interior), as well as working for and with a range of festivals in China and appearing at conferences and festivals outside of China.

Any standout acts?

One artist of note I’ve worked with is the banjo-player and singer-songwriter Abigail Washburn, whom I met when I first arrived. Beginning in 2004, she has come back to China with a variety of different projects at least once a year. As I type she’s on a State Department-sponsored tour along the Silk Road. I’d argue that she’s done more for US-China relations than anyone since Kissenger, performing in front of and alongside local audiences and musicians from Beijing to Urumqi, Lhasa to Guangdong, and many, many spots in between. On stages at festivals, bars, schools, clubs and living rooms. I am extremely proud of the role I had in her China journey—which is ongoing.

So what are you working on now?

Right now, other than restarting a life with my wife outside of China, I’m focusing efforts on my book. I’m eager to tell the world about Chinese rock music’s history and development and start getting serious attention focused on it.

Last but not least, favorite hangout spot?

That’d have to be the living room couch in our apartment in the hutongs of Andingmennei, where my wife and I lived for the last four years of my China time. From the window, you could see the Drum and Bell Towers and the old city around it and even all the way down to the Forbidden City. That was our first home together and it will always be a huge part of my memories of Beijing.

Photo courtesy of Jon Campbell.