For Some Chinese Indie Rockers, 1960s Psychedelia is the Future

As they try to escape from the pressures of contemporary China, Backspace and Sweet Sister Session are looking to vintage psychedelic rock for inspiration

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4:21 PM HKT, Thu July 4, 2024 4 mins read

The cost of living is crushing. Workloads are overwhelming — that is if you’re fortunate enough to have a job. Then there’s the beyond-measure family pressures. As all this and more leave Chinese youth feeling cornered by conformity, it’s little wonder that two of the country’s best emerging bands have found an escape — and inspiration — in a foreign counterculture of yore.

Both Beijing’s Backspace (who are on revered label Maybe Mars) and Wuhan’s Sweet Sister Session (signed to major alternative imprint Modern Sky) have drawn upon a notable genre for their latest albums: American psychedelia. This notoriously trippy 1960s sound is very different indeed from the post rock and hip hop influences that dominate much of the Chinese underground music scene.

Sweet Sister Session released Filthy Floating Fantasies in January. The album opens with “Raininess,” and right away frontman Fan Dengyan’s reverberating vintage keyboard notes and foreboding singing evoke Jim Morrison trying to light a fire under all that’s conventional. Much of that sound was achieved with a 1960s transistor organ mixed with analog oscillators, relics that Fan had to seek out beyond China (more on that later). Backspace, meanwhile, also use electric organs and effects pedals to create a lava lamp-like immersiveness on their album Outside Change (released on April 30 and followed by a national tour). But both bands’ attraction to this bygone genre runs deeper than its sounds.

Fan tells RADII that even without experiencing “the turmoil of the 60s, I was still attracted to the aesthetics and psychedelic sounds of that era.” And when it comes to then and now, “I think maybe there are similarities to some extent, because the general environment is getting worse, people’s internal friction is increasing, panic is growing, maybe everyone is looking for an exit.”

Aside from sharing this sentiment, Backspace have depicted it powerfully in their latest music video. Their vid for Outside of Change lead single “Narcissus’s Death” stars a Beijing office worker leaving a surreal boardroom meeting to partake in a pressure-relieving scavenger hunt.

Backspace bassist Gua Gua calls the video “a little bit exaggerated, but in fact, many people would resonate with the core expression. Because of the pressure of life, we have to be submissive in front of our bosses; because of the pressure of family, we have to obey our parents; because of the pressure of reproduction, we are forced to marry someone we don’t know very well... There are too many such things, which are the common experiences of our generation of urban young people.”

He was reminded of that fact at one stop on Backspace’s tour of 10 major Chinese cities in support of Outside of Change. “I accidentally saw a boy in the front row who [really] engaged [with] this song. When he sang the lyrics ‘dead, dead,’ his expression was very painful... So based on the background of the [psychedelic] era, it can resonate with young people, and I think it is attractive.”

Of course, the comparisons aren’t cut and dry. On a personal level, Backspace’s members still need to participate in the daily rat race, but in some ways have things pretty good for themselves. Drummer Mao Te in fact points out his day job office was the setting for a key scene in the “Narcissus’s Death” video, and that company was surprisingly “supportive of my band, and lent me the office for the music video’s shoot. I also used the general manager’s office. I had a good chat with him before the shoot, but he passed away due to illness after the MV was finished... We’re grateful for his support. His name was Frank.”

Backspace Band Photo

Backspace. Photo by yeee, courtesy Maybe Mars.

And when it comes to psychedelic core tenants like defying convention and tripping out, Mao succinctly points out: “After all, drugs are illegal in China.”

So fans from the West might indeed wonder about the appeal of psychedelia for millennial Chinese rockers, who weren’t raised on classic rock hand-me-downs and, unlike in more lenient locales, didn’t get the chance to trip, regardless of the legality. Indeed, Mao Te admits: “Our music is not mainstream. Young people who seek to vent may prefer more direct and immediate music at nightclubs.”

And yet, Backspace’s Zheng Dong — guitarist, vocalist, and player of the electric organ that cements their retro sound — quickly cites notoriously inebriated hippies and psychedelic mainstays The Grateful Dead as a key influence on his band. He adds: “Psychedelic music is one of the products of the hippie movement. It truly reflects the utopian life state of young people, mainly in the United States, who pursued maximum freedom at that time. Yes, young people in China are indeed suffering from pressure from all sides nowadays, but […] compared with the 60s and 70s, the culture of our era is still much milder. Maybe psychedelic is just a layer of our music that wraps what we want to say, more like a young man wearing a grandfather's clothes.”

Regardless, the free spiritedness of the 60s, along with the sheer boundary-breaking sonics of that era, appeal to Backspace, Sweet Sister Session, and many of their fans.

Sweet Sister Session. Image courtesy Modern Sky.

Sweet Sister Session. Image courtesy Modern Sky.

Committing to the sound can offer a way out of the information overload of contemporary China — and digital music-making. But finding the right gear to do so isn’t always easy: Fan Dengyan exemplified modern nerd culture when he hit a wall searching in China for the vintage synths he hoped Sweet Sister Session could use to recapture a 60s sound on their debut album (despite Taobao’s reputation for having everything). So he branched out and asked friends in Japan to help him bid on Yahoo for well-maintained vintage synths.

When his prized hardware finally arrived in China it did not disappoint, and not only because it was well maintained and sounded like the songs of yesteryear. As Fan from Sweet Sister Session points out: “Iconic instruments of the 60s, such as the electric pipe organ, are fascinating in design. It has a pure analog circuit, so the sound feels more real and warm. I can sit there and play for half a day, not thinking about anything else, just completely immersed in it.”

That runs deeply contrary to the supposed benefits of modern music tech, says Fan. “Modern synthesizers and music equipment will provide people with more choices and modulation space, but this is precisely the issue — too many timbres, too many settings, too many choices. I cannot enter a deep state,” he says, quickly capturing the conundrum many young Chinese face from the bombardment of modern tech, on top of the pressures mentioned above. He goes on to say, as if breaking on through to the proverbial other side: “The psychedelic music of the 60s is wild, imaginative, sinister, meditative, and infinitely extended. This kind of music allows me to enter a deeper state of thinking and feeling in the present.”

Banner image by Haedi Yue.

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