With the May 1 holiday weekend fast approaching, Chinese music lovers have a tough decision ahead of them—which festival to hit when. In Beijing alone, between April 29 and May 1, three major festivals, Midi, Strawberry and Ditan, will be vying for audience, which means savvy concertgoers better start perusing the (considerable) options.
If you’re anything like me, you’re already familiar with some of the bigger indie-rock bands from the last few years, like Queen Sea Big Shark, Hedgehog, Top Floor Circus and Carsick Cars, but embarrassingly ignorant about the old school bands that started it all—and who serve as the headliners for many of these fests. In an effort to pay homage to the guys who started it all, before Western media was all over Chinese rock, I decided to investigate the headliner of Strawberry Fest Day Three: Xie Tian Xiao (谢天笑), also known as XTX.
I first caught XTX at a fest a couple years ago, near the end of a long day of music, when the main stage lit up and a screen bearing the characters “谢天笑” elicited a wave of cheers from the crowd. “Who’s that?” I asked my friend. “Ah, they’re an old grunge band from the 90s.”
But that’s only part of the story. Though Xie Tian Xiao got his start in the 90s, he didn’t break onto the national scene until 2000, with the self-titled debut release by his band, Cold Blooded Animal (动物乐队). Released six years after the band’s start on Scream Records, the album was a major success by Chinese rock standards, selling 150,000 tapes and 200,000 CD’s on the Chinese mainland alone, according to a bio on Lastfm.com.
It’s no wonder Chinese youth went nuts for the record—thanks to the importation of dakou (打口), or overstock, CD’s from overseas, 90s grunge had gained a major following in China. Cold Blooded Animal’s first album appealed to China’s young and angsty, offering up 10 songs that pair heavy bass, hard electric riffs and thunderous drums with Xie Tian Xiao’s raw, Cobain-esque screams. For anyone familiar with the self-consciously ironic bands that dominate China’s underground today, the album is a welcome tonic: the songs express real emotions, ranging from the mysterious and menacing groove of the song “Blessed” (幸福) to the plodding, dead-eyed alienation of “Maybe I Died Last Night” (昨天晚上我可能死了).
Xie Tian Xiao began to break out as more of an individual artist with the band’s next album, which was released in 2005 under the name XTX and Cold Blooded Animal. The record, called “XTX” saw Xie Tian Xiao moving toward a more controlled, mature aesthetic, as he toned down the screams and added a more “Chinese” flavor to the band’s sound by incorporating some traditional guzheng playing.
Cold Blooded Animal completed their transformation into a vehicle for Xie Tian Xiao with their third studio full-length, “Just One Desire” (只有一个愿望), released under the name XTX. This record also saw a change in style, from grunge to what the media hailed as “the first Chinese reggae.” Despite this moniker, the album is amazingly diverse—while songs like “The Wind is My Coat” (风是外衣), “Just One Desire” (只有一个愿望) and “Rendezvous” (约定的地方) mix rock riffs with a plodding reggae beat, the record also features screaming vocals and minor-toned repetition, a la their previous records, jangly harmony-filled folk tunes and 70s-style heavy guitar songs. While the record may not be all that cohesive, it offers a glance into the creative process of the man who the Chinese media have dubbed “the new godfather of Chinese rock.”
Check out this video of XTX playing an old song from their Cold Blooded Animal days, “Outside the Window” (窗外):
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