An interview with John Yingling and the World Underground Music Film Project
of Marco Paolucci
The World Underground is an idea brought forth from the mind of John Yingling, an American journalist of the “do it yourself” kind and devotee to “Gonzo Journalism”, who decided to describe, through a series of documentaries freely viewable from the web-site, the word underground music scene. Each episode, according to his intentions, serves as a fundraiser for the following one, so as to make the project the most participatory. The first episode, devoted to China, is on-line, and I vividly recommend its viewing to all of you. The second episode is currently being shooting: our videomaker is running the Vietnam and other countries to pick up what is “shaking on the pentagram”. In the meantime, other episodes are being assembled to be soon ready to be uploaded on the website. As soon as I became aware of this interesting project, I decided to contact the journalist/videomaker to tell me about the story of making it, its implications, and the idea of the crowdfunding supporting it. John Yingling answered immediately the questions I made, and he told me everything about the “The World Underground” project (here the inteview in italian). Thanks to the editor Filippo Focosi for the help in the translation in Italian.
1. Tell me about your first steps as a videomaker.
It all start in Chicago, on a crappy point-and-shoot camera that realistically should not have taken as good of video as it did. At the time, it really wasn’t bad, for what was really, a $200 photo camera. I started filming all of these intense, noise-drenched acts in a warehouse called The Mopery. The Chicago scene was, and remains, spectacular. I wasn’t even writing then, just bare-bones cutting one song in “Windows Movie Maker” with harsh titling, and putting it on the same Gonzo Chicago blogspot blog that exists today. When I saw people visiting daily, I took it as seriously as I could with such limited resources. Chicago as a community essentially funded better gear after a few years of doing that. I began writing, taking photos, and it got a lot more serious.
2. How did the idea of D.I.Y. The World Underground documentary/films grow up?
(In the picture P.K.14) The idea began with my interview of the band Handsome Furs. They has just gotten back from a long tour in Asia, and it left a huge impression on them. After so much gushing about China, I decided to dig around a bit. It was then I found Josh Feola’s website Pangbianr. I e-mailed Josh an idea I had : What if I could raise a small amount of money, head over by myself, try to capture a moment in time. Release the film online, for donation, and archive all of the live recordings, and connections I made. Begin a huge archive, free to all, and do it again. Josh missed that first e-mail, and I then moved to Missoula, Montana to try and rid myself of some debt, and get away from the massive expense of Chicago for a while. Live near the mountains. When I settled into Montana, 6 months later, I e-mailed Josh one more time. He responsed, and connected me with Nevin Domer of Genjing Record who suggested maybe I go on tour with P.K.14. I did. It was all uphill from there. Josh and Nevin, and so many others like Brad from Thruoutin, helped so much with making this what it was.
3. Why did you choose to devote the first episode to the Chinese Underground?
A number of factors. China was the first place I dug around in when thinking about the project. Josh’s response, and the subsequent ability to go on tour with one of the most influential bands in China, it was a no-brainer. A main factor was also the fact that I could not find a long-form piece on what was happening now in China. Mostly short, sensationalized bits about skinhead punk bands and the like. I knew there was more to it. Josh and Nevin told me there was more to it. To challenge myself to such deep waters, I figured would be the best first step I could do.
4. How was it to film the episode/documentary in China?
(In the picture P.K.14)Intense, amazing, and eye-opening. It was my first time out of the country, and I was going it alone. I knew Chinese hospitality was nice, but damn, was it ever. People were so helpful, from the old men who’d help me buy my first few train tickets, people offering directions, beer, cigarettes. Someone told me before I left that “everyone speaks English” and that could not be further from the truth. It was difficult at time, but that’s what made for the best moments. The Chinese rock and roll scene is much more diverse than I ever imagined. Even the smaller scenes like Chengdu, Changsha. So much creativity. It was amazing.
5. You have filmed more than 50 live sets. Can you tell me some funny anecdote?
(In the picture the Hiperson) When I rolled into Chengdu for the final P.K.14 show before I went to Beijing, my computer died. The nice front desk girl at the hostel brought me to her computer guy after her shift, in one of those huge maniacal computer malls. Her guy hit the power button, and it turned on. I thought that was that, but when I got to the venue shortly before the first time I saw Hiperson, it was again, lifeless. I needed my computer to transfer footage, so I was visibly upset. A random guy came over, and I told him the story. Don’t worry about it, he said. He’d bring me to his computer guy in the morning. In the mean-time, he invited me to his table and got me drunk. I awoke to a text from him asking where I was. He ended up picking me up in this expensive black Audi, blasting Chinese death metal. We again went into a giant computer mall, but into a back room this time. The kid fixed it for $90. Quite the day.
6. I really enjoyed this first episode. It has introduced me to many interesting bands. From this point of view, in my opinion you have achieved an important goal: to throw light on the world of chinese undeground, which is constantly changing. Do you agree with me?
(In the picture the Stolen) I do. A lot has happened even since the filming of this first episode. China’s government has been making it very, very difficult on touring bands lately. The Boys, and many others, have had entire tours cancelled at the last minute. Watching from afar, it seems like a very difficult time, but this has happened on and off since there has been shows. DIDERS, a band featured in the film, have a new lineup. Josh Feola is now the drummer of SUBS! XP Club, a haven loved by everyone in the Beijing scene, will close by the time this interview goes live. Scenes shift, morph, grow, and break apart. That’s a main reason I am doing this project. Aside from capturing these moments, freezing them in time, it also captures sound, and contacts to remain live for the ages. I will constantly update the website to reflect the change. Scenes around the world change constantly, that’s what makes it all so exciting. Really, I’m happy a small slice of what’s going on in China can now be digested a little more thoroughly outside of China.
7. What other episodes are you ready to bring out?
Episode 2 is a maniacal tour film following Beijing’s GUIGUISUISUI and Noise Arcade through NE China, Korea, and Japan. It will not only focus on them, but the cross-section of artists we came across including the amazing Genius (South Korea), Nice Legs, Blond New Half, Macmanaman, and Go Tsushima in Japan. It’ll be quick and dirty, just like a tour. Episode 3 will be on Missoula, Montana. A small mountain town in the U.S.A. I am typing this from a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and we are about to jump to Indonesia, which will be Episode 4. It’ll focus on the punk and noise D.I.Y scenes across the region. Then I will move to Harbin, China, to accept a teaching job, and begin editing the new films.
8. Are you planning to translate the episodes of your documentaries in languages other than English?
Howie from Guangzhou’s is actually working on editing the English portions to Chinese as we speak. They will screen the film in Guangzhou soon. As for other translations, we will have to see. It took all my effort just to get the project launched, and keep rolling.
9. Are you planning to give, through the World Underground website, the chance to download the compilations of the bands that you’ve filmed?
That’s the best thing about The World Underground site. You can download over 50 live recordings. View the film for free. As for more in depth longer pieces of each band, that is something I would indeed like to work on. I have to prioritize my editing though, as there is a lot to do yet.
10. Tell me about the chance to support the project with donations. How does it work specifically? How do you want to involve the contributors in the making of the project?
Another great part about the project is these fundraiser. Through their donations, they receive record packs from the countries I visit. Their donation gets spread to the local music scenes, and I return with their merch, to spread around America, and beyond. I also involve local businesses around the U.S. in each fundraiser, so people get local goods when they donate.
11. Can you tell me something about the next episodes of The World Undeground? Are you thinking to come, sooner or later, in Europe to film the European underground scene?
(In the picture the Hedgehog) (This is mostly fielded above, for Episode 1/2/3/4.) As for Europe, I would love to come. I have already reached out to Uzeda and Bellini, who you may know, about my wish to tour with them some day in the next year or two. Kids in Serbia have reached out already, and they say I should come and visit. I am excited to take the project out of Asia for the next episode, but it will be a while before the new episodes are all release. When I am ready for the next episode, I will gauge whoever is the most excited, and go from there. Thanks so much for the opportunity to tell my story.