We meet at Sydney International. Bright-eyed, with pelican cases stuffed full of post-rock dreams. There are six of us: Otto and Lachlan on guitars, Tim on drums, Brett the sound guy and Nick, our tech. I play bass. We’ve been to China before. Last time was our first, the unexpectedly awesome last leg of a gruelling seven-week tour. The prospect of coming back fresh and with a new record to promote is really exciting to us. We love the place and want to go even harder this time.
On the plane I re-watch Interstellar (the sappy ending ruins an otherwise good film), Up! (because I love the dog that talks) and listen to a bunch of podcasts. Have to do this last one on the DL because the air stewards of China Southern enforce a strict ban on the use of mobiles on the plane. I haven’t been in trouble this often since high school.
Touching down in Shanghai, we find that Nick’s tech case hasn’t made it onto the carousel along with the rest of our gear. Not show-stopping, but annoying. Jef, our tour manager in China, reassures us it will turn up soon. We’ve worked with this guy before, an awesome, unflappable Belgian expat who specialises in touring underground bands in China and stuffing them to the eyeballs with good food along the way.
It’s a two-hour van ride from Shanghai to Hangzhou, where the first show will be the following night. Sleep, some Chinese truckstop snacks, more sleep, then the hotel, then sleep again.
DAY 02: Hangzhou (MAO Livehouse)
Brett, Lachlan and I get up early enough to explore the city before hitting the venue. After a few dead-end rambles, we leg it along urban streets and lakeside boulevards to Leifeng Pagoda. Dating back to AD 975, it collapsed in 1924 but had the foundations rebuilt in 2002. It’s a cool example of how modern China still maintains a great respect for its deep cultural and artistic heritage.
Hangzhou is a place we haven’t been before, but the MAO Livehouse brand of venues we’re familiar with from our last tour. They’re big, clean, spacious and well spec’d. The setup for the show goes pretty well. But when it comes to the performance, our excitement for the first show is a bit deflated by some technical problems. Our in-ear mix is well out of balance and our Ableton Live set, which is responsible for handling our synth and beat backings, fucks up a bit. Nothing show-breaking but enough to give us the heebie-jeebies ahead of tomorrow night’s show in Shanghai. The one that’s already slated to be the tour’s biggest.
Nonetheless, it’s a solid night’s kickoff. The fans that come are really happy to have seen us and I don’t think our performance suffered that much for the annoying technical glitches.
DAY 03: Shanghai (MAO Livehouse)
While the van rolls towards Shanghai, I spend some time with the headphones on failproofing our Ableton set. The metronome ran out of time with the music last night (among other things) so I listen through and make the timing adjustments to fix it. I feel like making all of Ableton’s moving parts work together is like being one of those New Age balancing rock artists. Impressive, but a lot of effort just to get something to hold together. I’d like to get our whole set off onto REAPER, my favourite music program, but mid-tour is not the time to do it.
I’ve often told people that MAO Livehouse Shanghai is one of my favourite venues in the world, bar none. The last show we played here was a real cracker, so expectations are high. While we’re waiting for the show to begin, we hang around, eat takeaway and drink beer. Otto and I do a filmed interview. I refer to the Australian wilderness as “a place you go to die” to the dismay of Otto and everyone else in the room. A job well done.
Shanghai’s crowd brings a lot of energy. They come out in force and are keen for a big rock show. Lachlan and Otto have a dynamic where they work together, amping punters up. In China, this goes down really well. People love to clap, cheer and jump around once they realise that you’re going to do it with them. There’s very little cynicism about big rock moves, which makes it fun for everyone involved. Lachlan, who is doing his first international tour with us, but has done his fair share of shows, describes it as one of his all-time gigs. We hang around after the show, meeting everyone who wants a selfie or something signed.
DAY 04: Beijing (Yugong Yishan)
One could argue that seven dudes catching a Chinese high-speed train with pelican cases and guitars in tow is the hardest difficulty setting of independent touring. Rail stations such as Shanghai’s are cavernous places, as big as airports and teeming with people. Despite every passenger having an allocated ticket, there’s always a mad rush to be first on train. We have to spread across the entrance to the platform with our gear so we can make sure we stay as a group and claim enough luggage space on the train for our stuff.
Beijing’s venue is Yugong Yishan. It’s a place with a lot of heritage, being one of the first well-known music venues in China. It’s housed in what looks like an old administrative building that feels very historical and overall the space just has vibe. After soundcheck we hang with Muto, a great local photographer who takes promo shots of us while we mill around. The show goes really well. Much like Shanghai, it’s a big crowd with lots of enthusiasm. And like Shanghai, the show goes off without a technical hitch, which is a relief and bodes well for the rest of the tour.
After playing, Otto and I head out with a friend from Sydney to a cool bar that specialises in baiju – clear Chinese grain liquor – in the same way places back home will specialise in whisky or tequila. It’s strong stuff, and we get pretty cooked among a mix of locals and expats.
DAY 05: Nanjing (OLA Art Space)
A hangover makes the high-speed rail gauntlet this morning feel a bit more punishing, but them’s the breaks. By now, we’re locked into a rhythm – lobby call flows into the daily jag which flows into soundcheck and then into the show. Somewhere in the midst of all this Jef finds time to take us to restaurants and stuff us full of great food. He favours the Szechuan style, with its famous pepper and numbing spice. It tastes fucking great but makes our guts feel a bit Johnny Cash.
OLA Art Space feels like a European venue. Lots of blank painted walls and a stage that feels wider than the room is long. Interesting diversions include a bottle opener backstage that’s mounted on a large, painted wooden dick. Being the sophisticated gentlemen that we are, this doesn’t amuse us much at all. There’s also an acoustic piano backstage. I practice some Tears for Fears, figuring out the intro to “Head Over Heels” and Brett joins in for a three-hand duet of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. Tears for Fears Greatest Hits is our pre-show and changeover music.
The show goes well. It’s smaller than the two previous, but that was to be expected. Meeting the fans afterwards feels particularly nice here though.
DAY 06: Chongqing (Break Day)
Another night drinking after the show takes its toll so I treat myself to a bit of a sleep-in. Today we’re flying westward and inland quite significantly. After arriving at the airport, we hit some snags. Both Nick’s name and Tim’s name have been entered incorrectly on our tickets, with small typos. As they don’t match the passports exactly, we have to buy a new ticket for Nick and also pay some additional fees for our excess baggage.
I don’t like airports or flying for a myriad of reasons, so I pass the time by talking to Otto about my fears that the wings will snap off in the turbulence. He’s reassuringly calm and rational. We touch down in Chongqing, plane intact and lives preserved. It’s already evening, but Chongqing is a busy town with a bit of a Times Square vibe in the area that we’re staying. We vow to do some exploring the next day.
DAY 07: Chongqing (Nuts Livehouse)
Lachlan and I find ourselves separated from the rest of the guys in the morning, after a catastrophic misunderstanding about which Starbucks we’d be meeting at. We cruise around, checking out a modern art gallery with a cool print exhibition, an old temple that’s been converted into a theatre and a museum commemorating the Three Gorges Project. Along the way we see lots of everyday Chongqing. It’s a city of 36 million, where modern international companies rub shoulders with ordinary Chinese people hustling to keep their heads above. One incredibly fast and sketchy cab ride home and we’re ready to load into the venue.
Nuts is a cool place, small but intimate. Great crowd. During the show the left side of the PA craps out. This gives me a chance to test out some Mandarin, cobbled together from high school lessons and my Beijing-based mate Flynn, on our lovely audience. Flynn had told me that 牛屄 (pronounced “new bee”) means “f*cking awesome”, which I used to express my feelings about the PA getting back online. Little did I know the literal translation is “cow pussy”. The crowd got lots of mileage out of my oblivious ways. Also: Mad rep to Nuts for making one of the best Old Fashioned cocktails I’ve ever tasted.
DAY 08: Chengdu (Little Bar Space)
Another Chinese show, another train. Most of the day is sucked up by the ride. By this point things are a bit of a blur. Just over one week in and the lack of sleep feels like it might be getting the better of us. Most of us use the time in the carriage seats to catch up on rest.
Chengdu was the first city we ever played in China, so it feels pretty special to us. It’s Jef’s hometown, and in the two years since we’ve been here Little Bar Space has moved from its old location into a spot that isn’t so little anymore. Show time comes around, and it’s one of the most responsive and excited crowds so far. It’s that momentary connection that helps one push through the tiredness.
DAY 09: Wuhan (Vox Livehouse)
After a brutal 6:30am lobby call to fly from Chengdu, we arrive at Vox Livehouse. We came here on the last tour, but only got drunk as the show was a festival gig in a park. Immediately upon loading in we’re greeted by a strange but affectionate cat that lives at the venue. He hangs around backstage and sharpens his claws on the foldback speaker. Later we find out his name is Xioawang, which translates as “Little Emperor”.
I know I’ve said all the shows and crowds have been great (and they have been), but tonight is particularly memorable. Both because a bunch of technical stuff f*cked up (mostly involving our drummer Tim’s monitoring rig crapping out) but also that the crowd stuck with us through the sh*t. It’s a small, tight rock club so people are right up front. Dancing, clapping and getting beard-filtered sweat on them. Good times and great classic hits.
Unfortunately our hotel smells like being stuck inside someone’s butt. Or, as my roomie Lachy memorably puts it, a combination of bongwater and rancid cabbage.
DAY 10: Guangzhou (T:Union)
Five-hour bullet train, you know the drill. By now we are a well-oiled rock and rail machine. Definitely running on fumes at this point. The last few early lobby calls have taken a lot out of everyone. Positivity is there, but energy feels hard to come by. We spend a bunch of time hanging backstage, eating strange Chinese snacks like spicy cashews, sinking cheap tinnies and looking for functional wifi.
Tonight’s show is pretty cool. Lots of people keen for merch to get signed and to grab a selfie. For us, it went pretty well. We played tight, and none of the technical issues from the previous night got repeated. For me personally, the narrow stage hems me in a bit and I feel a bit tired.
DAY 11: Shenzen (B10 Live)
Lobby call is a 12 noon, and thank goodness for that. Sleeping in across the board lifts everyone’s spirits. The end is in sight with only two more shows. There’s a resolve to really make them count. It’s an easy van ride from Guangzhou to Shenzen. B10, the venue, is a cool, big space in a leafy arts district with cool galleries, cafes and the like. There’s a great ambience to the place, and the hotel is clean, comfortable and odor-free. When you’re playing a lot of shows, little things like this add up to a lot for you.
We meet Awesome Cat #2 in Shenzen: Pillow. This adorable white fluffball that hung out in an office next to our backstage. Lachlan falls immediately in love and uploads a bunch of Pillow-related Quality Content to Catspotting where it gets some serious play. We also eat 144 takeaway dumplings backstage. Good times.
The best part is definitely the show. Jef warned us that B10 would be big, and plenty of people turn up to see us play. Not much to say other than it was a cracking show with lots of love going between the audience and the stage. We celebrate afterwards with some post-show drinks, get a bit lost. Otto climbed a bunch of trees. Somewhere along the way we fell asleep.
DAY 12: Hong Kong (Hidden Agenda)
Final show in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. Hidden Agenda is another one of those venues that has moved since we last played, but the same guy still manages it. Stevo is a cheerful, cheeky dude who spoils us with good scotch and runs a really good rock night. He also, strangely enough, keeps an assortment of pellet guns back stage, as well as several Predator masks. Go figure. Otto, Nick and Lachlan go all out with this sh*t. I will say it’s a strange experience to see your guitar tech telling your guitarist to keep still while he shoots at an empty beer can at a terrifyingly close angle.
The crowd in Hong Kong is as I remember from the last Hidden Agenda show. Small, but tremendously enthusiastic and good-humored. We play our little hearts out and end on a high note. Always good to go out on a bang with the last show – it doesn’t always happen this way.
DAY 13: Hong Kong -> Sydney (Travel)
Thanks for reading. China is an incredible place to play music. If you ever get the chance, jump at it.
sleepmakeswaves’ blistering new album ‘Made of Breath Only’ is out now. Go and order it via their bandcamp page. You can also stay up to date with the band via their Facebook page.