Interview: Dave Carey (nugget records)

Hailing from the cultural pressure cooker that is Beijing – nugget records has acted as a lighting rod for the capital’s lively subcultures and indie scene – merging the DIY ethos of underground music with the fuzzy, immersive lo-fi sounds that have been enriching the scene across China. But all good things must come to an end – and nugget records, and its co-founder Dave Carey – whose extensive credits include playing with bands like Nocturnes, lost memory machine, and gilded forest, will be setting sail for Europe next month. But not without one last bash – with the band descending upon NEO Bar in Shanghai on Friday, February 23rd, with a vengeance alongside their bestest friends and fellow Beijing rockers Sphinx of Third Party第三方狮身人面像, and Shanghai’s own Waidiren外地人, returning after a long winter hibernation. I chatted with Dave about his musical adventures here in China over the past decade.

liveCNmusic: So how are you feeling these days? With the exit date getting closer and closer, do you find yourself getting nostalgic, reflective, jaded, surly or sentimental?

Dave:All of the above, to some extent! After being here so long, the idea of it not being home anymore was kind of hard to comprehend, but as the last day looms closer and closer it’s starting to feel real. I remember the ease at which I moved here 9 years ago, it’s definitely a scarier prospect to undertake such a large move with a few more years behind you and a more than a few grey hairs to hide.

liveCNmusic: For those unfamiliar with you – give readers the cliff notes on Dave Carey and his Odyssey here in China?

Dave:Irascible Irishman finds out they also have potatoes in Beijing and decides to emigrate, falls in love with the music scene almost immediately, in no small part thanks to Live China Music (or Live Beijing Music, as it was back in those halcyon days). I started a band called Nocturnes, had some small measure of musical success in the following years, and decided to piss away all my earnings on a cassette tape label and cultural space called nugget.

liveCNmusic: It’s been nine years since we first connected via Facebook – when the band was Palaces…the first of many projects you would become invested in here in China. What were your early experiences like navigating the music scene here in China?

Dave:Wow, I can’t believe you remember that band! So I arrived in 2015, and those days we were just spoiled for choice with venues. DDC opened around the time I arrived, Yugong Yishan was in full swing, the yin-yang alcohol gut punch of Temple and Dada lulled unsuspecting adventurers in for a quick death, and School Bar was the sort of place you could message on a Monday for a show that Friday night. The thing I remember most of all was that feeling of community and acceptance. I was nervous for our first show in School, I had heard some crazy stories, but after our objectively atrocious performance (I didn’t even own a sound card back then), Liu Fei and Liu Hao took me to the bar and we knocked back Jameson for hours while they gave me compliments and advice. I remember the rapt attention that audiences would give my band, and other similarly awful bands (we’re all awful when we first start out after all), attention and support that gave us all the confidence to grow and improve. It really felt like there was a strong local scene of people looking out for each other and trying to do interesting things. It felt like anything could happen.

liveCNmusic::What was the first big break or moment you felt like you apart of something?

Dave: We had 100 people come to the first Nocturnes’ EP release in School Bar, then less than a year later we had 250 people come to our album launch in Yue Space (where we played with the fantastic Last Goodbye and SNSOS). There was a clear progression, a clear growth that felt exciting, propelled us to keep pushing ourselves to do more. But I think the thing that shocked me the most was when we played in Guangzhou for the first time, in a now-defunct venue called T-Union. During the show I could hear voices from the audience, and I thought for a moment they were just being rude and talking, that they didn’t care very much for us. Suddenly it clicked that they were singing along, people knew the words to our songs, that our songs were important to them. That was a really big moment for our band, to see that we were having an impact, moving people.

liveCNmusic: Nocturnes found an audience pretty quickly in Beijing? What was it about the music that resonated with audiences?

Dave: I think there’s a positive and negative answer. The positive being that I tried from the beginning to make our sound unique and different, we purposefully avoided a drummer until our last album, for example. So it may have been something fresh to people at that point. But there’s also the novelty of a foreign-Chinese duo making music together that may have stuck out to people too.

liveCNmusic: Let’s get into the nitty gritty of nugget records – cause in many ways this is a farewell tour for label? What was the idea or overarching philosophy behind nugget in the beginning? How did it morph over time?

Dave: Nocturnes did a Europe tour where we met a lot of really amazing people doing art just for art’s sake. I realised that we had become a bit commercialised after years of living in China, that everything was about the rat race of making money. We started a cassette tape label supporting local bands to be the exact opposite of that. A grassroots label with no money, but a group of friends willing to come together to create artwork, mix and master everything, shoot videos, organise shows. Overtime it morphed into something a little more professional, because we opened our own space, and the costs increased hugely, but that DIY ethos still persisted, we put everything we made back into the label, never taking a salary in the 4 years we did it, and putting out some really really amazing music in the process.

liveCNmusic: What were some of the highlights of running nugget records? What were some of the obstacles you came across? Any words of wisdom to young kids thinking of starting their own DIY label?

Dave:As a label, definitely the charity tape we did at the start of the pandemic. We sold 650 tapes in less than 15 minutes, raising 27,000rmb for an animal charity that was saving pets who were locked in their homes, their owners stuck outside of the city and unable to return. At the time we were stuck in our own homes in Beijing, feeling useless, and to be able to use indie music to do something so good was really important for us, and the 26 bands who took part too.

Making tapes was another highlight, figuring out the correct processes to do so at the start, refining them, turning those nebulous digital files into a ‘product’ that you could hold in your hands, it was really special when we succeeded with that at first, and continued to be special through the years as we undertook different creative projects for each release.

liveCNmusic: Nugget cafe became a home for a wide berth of cultural eccentricities and creatives. Did you know going into that sort of business it would be an uphill battle in Beijing? What were some of your proudest moments there? What were some of the head-scratching absurdities you came across in terms of regulations, violations and general red tape buffoonery?

Dave:Hmm, I think we went into it naively, full of unrealistic dreams and aspirations, which I think is probably the right thing to do if you’re opening a business in China. It’s going to be insanely difficult, challenging, frustrating, and more. And you need to have that sort of daydreamer manic-pixie-dream-girl-Zooey-Deschanel-over-positive attitude to get through it all. It is near impossible for foreigners to be involved in cultural spaces in the current environment here, you get treated with fear and suspicion and resentment, by the ‘man’. But, on the flip side, your Chinese peers will be so supportive of you, and appreciative that people are coming here from another country to invest their time, money and energy into trying to foster a thriving local art scene. In that sense you feel very accepted and loved, and it makes it all worthwhile. I have no regrets and would do it again in a heartbeat, it’s been the most meaningful thing in my entire life.

Our proudest moments would probably include our yearly Cassette Store Day events, where we put on whole weekends of shows (even blowing our budget to get West by West in from Xi’an one year), Nugchella – the music festival we ran for the last two years, first online and then for our final week before the physical store closed, and lastly probably the drag shows we did with Betty D and Velvet. I remember one sold out drag show that had gotten a little rowdy, and a grumpy old police officer had shown up to lay down the law. Our bouncer ran inside to tell us he was on his way down the street and I had to turn around and tell Betty D, who had just changed into a dress featuring two AK-47s strapped to her nipples, to get the fuck back inside the studio and stay there until this was all over.

The officer told everyone to go home, and then left. After about 20 minutes, maybe 25 of the attendees returned to our shop, and we had Betty and Velvet finish their performances, with the volume down. There were tears everywhere, and I think we all realised how important it was to facilitate such amazing art inches under the leather boot of the polizei.

liveCNmusic: Speaking of which – being an expat in the music industry, particularly on stage. You must of dealt with catatonic levels of bullshit. Let it rip……do you think it’s gotten better over your time here? Or did you sense a ceiling above your head every step of the way?

Dave:Hahaha, unfortunately it’s gotten a lot worse in the past few years. I think up to 2018 I never felt a ceiling, we were given the support and space to grow naturally, as more and more fans discovered our band’s music. In the last few years there’s been a lot of… protectionism is a kind way to put it, which stops foreigners from getting past a certain level. The worst thing I experienced, and this happened more than once, was being told the singer and drummer (who were Chinese) could perform on stage but, as I was a foreigner, I would need to stand behind the stage to play guitar, where no one could see me. I complained that this was beyond racist, and the olive branch that was extended to me was being told I could wear a full face mask, so that my foreignness would not be apparent to the audience.

The creation of this new environment is a horrific misstep that I hope the country will someday soon realise it has made. Maybe it already has, with the new visa agreements that have been peppering the news recently. Culture does not, and has not ever, existed in a vacuum. It gets passed around, shared between different peoples, each offering their own addition to our shared cannon of art, music, language, cuisine, expression. To artificially stifle that denies us an important way to communicate across borders and languages and come together as a global family.

liveCNmusic: Speaking of being privy to the ever-shifting dynamics in the music industry, do you feel much changed over the past decade as a whole? What do you reckon comes next? Are you at all hopeful or do you think China will forever be stuck in a musical bubble of its own making?

Dave:I want to be positive, I see the massive impacts Korean and Japanese musicians are having on the world stage, a wave of Asian representation in Hollywood, not just tokenised representation but amazing art coming from voices who have insightful, impactful things to say. Sunkissed indie from Taiwan and Thailand has been picked up by European and American musos (you know I love Phum Viphurit, as an example).

In the midst of that, here sticks out like a sore thumb. I think, or at least hope, that efforts will definitely be made to change that in the next few years, to allow some of the amazing bands that exist here to spread to wider audiences.

We live in a time of upheaval and uncertainty, I don’t know if anyone could predict where the world will be in 5 years’ time. We’ll just have to wait and see!

liveCNmusic: What’s the future for nugget records? (*and more specifically your super duper tape duplicator)

Dave:I’ll be moving to Berlin, where nugget will morph (to steal a word from you) into an online tape store, continuing to champion Chinese indie music and hopefully serve as a cultural bridge there. The super duper (and super fecking heavy, 28kg…) tape duplicator is already packed to make its way there with me. We’ll also continue to use the platform we have in China on WeChat, Weibo, etc, to make our voice heard, whether that’s to promote a new promising artist or just take potshots at those we want to be snarky about, only time will tell.

liveCNmusic: Let’s talk a bit about the tour and gilded forest. How did gilded forest come together? What itch did this project in particular scratch for you? Introduce your other members?

Dave:gilded forest came together strongly against my will, which I think is why it’s worked out so well! Queyue, our singer, originally was meant to come record in the nugget studio with her band, but they broke up days before they were due to come in for the session. We decided that she would continue to record the songs, so as not to waste the time we set aside, and I would add some production, but not play in the band as I already had two projects of my own. The plan was for her to find others to recreate the EP’s sound after.

But, we just got along so damn well that she suckered me into it, and here we are two years later getting ready to move to Europe to continue the band there. I’m loathe to admit my mistakes sometimes, but I’m so glad I was proven wrong about being in gilded forest. Queyue is an amazing lyricist, musician and performer, I’m honoured to be in a band with her. We found Patrick later on, after our first drummer left. The job description was for a beast of a percussionist who could go toe-to-toe with my nascent alcoholism and he knocks it out of the park on both accounts.

I’ve loved every project I’ve been in, and deeply loved the people I’ve done them with too, but this is the sort of band where we’re just really good friends, that hang out outside of our musical endeavours too. I think we put on a really fucking good live show as well, so come along and check it out!

liveCNmusic: Where will you be performing on this farewell tour? And please give us a little introduction to Sphinx who’ll be joining this Friday? Any other surprises in store for audiences?

Dave:Shanghai and Qingdao first, at NEO and Downtown respectively. It’s the first time gilded forest will be playing in those two cities, so we’re really psyched for that. And Beijing last, in a new venue called Museum out in 798, that our friend Melvin (from the band Royal as Purple) is opening.

Sphinx of Third Party are the band that we’ve played alongside most in the last year or so. Their guitarist Wei Peng was the sound engineer for nugget for a time, which is how we met. We toured in the south of China, played in Tianjin together, and did a few shows in Beijing as well. They’re really lovely, hardworking people who, like us, care about having their own signature sound. They’re pretty new on the scene and it’s been a privilege to watch their growth first-hand, as they’ve become a really impressive live act. For the tour, we’ll each be performing a cover of one of the other band’s songs. They’ll be playing our international smash hit, “不眠”, and we’re tackling their Magnum Opus “Sleep in Tokyo”.

We’re also really excited to play with Waidiren in Shanghai! We met the singer, Will, in Chiang Mai during our January tour of South East Asia. And we’ll be playing with a band in Qingdao called Glass Eye, also very much looking forward to that.

liveCNmusic: Parting words for China? Words of wisdom? Glaring omissions? Farewell haiku?

Dave:I owe the people I’ve met here so much, they are amazing, all the more so for the challenges they face in their lives here. Despite all the challenges, I emerge from my 9 years here the better as a result of their acceptance, support, love and friendship. I have endless love for China and I’ll be back before you know it, even if it’s just to stock up on Jingjiu.

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