Beijing indie rock band Carsick Cars reform for Shanghai music festival, but jury’s out on permanent reunion

The original line-up of Zhang Shouwang, Li Qing and Li Weisi, who supported US rock band Sonic Youth in 2007, will reunite to play their classic first album at September’s Concrete & Grass Music Festival

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 August, 2017, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 August, 2017, 6:01pm

Chinese indie-rock fans could be forgiven for doing a double take last week when the full line-up for this year’s Concrete & Grass Music Festival in Shanghai was released.

Featured on the bill for the mid-September festival are a trio of surprise reunions: the Beijing folk collective Glamorous Pharmacy, Shanghai rock act Boys Climbing Ropes and – chief among them – the original Carsick Cars line-up, playing together for the first time in almost six years.

“It’s not a normal show,” says Zhang Shouwang, frontman of Carsick Cars and until recently the only original member still playing under the band’s name. “It’s very special for us. There’s a lot of history involved in this show.”

It was in late 2011 that Carsick Cars – one of the best-known bands to emerge from the heady days of the mid-noughties Beijing rock scene – announced that they had “made an important decision”. A statement on the band’s Douban page read that “due to creative differences and opportunities for members’ personal development”, founding members Li Weisi and Li Qing had left the group.

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For many fans who had observed the trio’s exciting rise over the previous five years, the announcement left them reeling. Along with acts such as P.K. 14 and Hedgehog, Carsick Cars were a central pillar of the burgeoning Beijing rock scene that had been built around the live venue D22. Songs including Guang Chang (chorus: “This is a square of no hope”) and Zhong Nan Hai (the name of both the Communist Party headquarters and a popular brand of cigarettes) had become bounce-along anthems for audiences across the country. The latter regularly saw the band enveloped in a deluge of cigarettes from appreciative fans.

At the time of their split, the band was also one of the most internationally recognised Chinese acts around. This was in part thanks to a dream opportunity in 2007, when Chinese music promoters Split Works brought US indie giants Sonic Youth to mainland China for the first time and offered Carsick Cars a slot on the bill.

There may be a chance we connect and have some new ideas and work together. I don’t know. I think we’ll just see how it goes
Zhang Shouwang

The Cars’ static- and feedback-filled sound seemed to make them perfect for supporting the New York-based noise rockers. Ultimately, however, the band shot to fame for different reasons: shortly before they were due to perform at the Beijing leg of the tour, the government told them that would not be allowing them to take part in the shows.

Sonic Youth eventually invited Carsick Cars to join them for concerts in Europe instead. Meanwhile, Zhang admits that being included on the Concrete & Grass bill together with the new band of Sonic Youth co-founder Thurston Moore helped bring him and his former bandmates back together.

“When Sonic Youth came here [in 2007], when Split did that, it was really the first time for a lot of musicians in Beijing to see their heroes live and it’s very important for Carsick Cars’ history too. So 10 years later, to play with Thurston at the festival and also play our first album, it’s very special. Li Qing and Li Weisi feel very emotional about this band and have always said it’s not the right time [to reform], but when I told them Split had asked us to do the first album, they just said yes.”

Despite the sense of finality in their 2011 break-up announcement, it did state that Zhang had vowed to “continue the work of Carsick Cars”. That he did, releasing the band’s third album with the help of a new-look line-up in 2014. But he admits that he has “been talking to [the Lis] for years about doing something together”, and has clearly always harboured hopes of a reunion.

“Band relationships are always complicated, but we’re not 20 any more; a lot of things are different,” he says when asked how it will feel playing together again.

Is he worried they might be a bit rusty? “Oh I don’t think there will be any problem for us. The first album is very simple – anybody can play it – and it’s very important for the three of us, so when we get together it’ll come out very naturally.”

The two Lis gave something of a prelude to the performance last month when they covered Carsick Cars track Hui Shou as part of the 10-year anniversary celebrations of the band’s record label Maybe Mars. “It made a lot of people in the audience cry,” says Zhang, who was also in the crowd. “I had a lot of complicated feelings after their show.”

Exactly how complicated Carsick Cars’ future turns out to be remains to be seen. “There may be a chance we connect and have some new ideas and work together,” says Zhang, before pouring a little cold water on expectations of a permanent reunion. “I don’t know. I think we’ll just see how it goes.”

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Regardless of what comes after, don’t be surprised if Concrete & Grass features a few fans dabbing at moistened eyes once they’ve hurled their Zhong Nan Hai cigarettes towards the stage.

Concrete & Grass Music Festival 2017, Sep 16-17, Shanghai Rugby Football Club, Pudong, Shanghai, from 280 yuan (one day) and 460 yuan (two-day pass)