Despite its massive population, China still isn’t a major destination on most international musicians’ touring schedule, unless they’re super big or making the rounds on the festival circuit. Even then it’s rare for artists to veer too far off the Hong Kong/Shanghai/Beijing line. But through some hard work, persistence and major cajoling, Shanghai seems to be getting a pretty good stream of interesting, mid-level artists to keep us entertained. Recently, Scotland’s own Fence Collective stopped in Shanghai as part of a China-wide tour put on through Split Works and UK Now. I sat down with Fence artists Found (Kev Smith, Tommy Perman and Ziggy Campbell) and OnTheFly (Gav Brown) to talk about the Fence Collective and what it’s like to tour in China.
First off, the Fence Collective is not so much a band as it is, well, a collective. “The Fence Collective was started by King Creosote (Kenny Anderson), and it’s basically a bunch of musicians who collaborate with each other in various styles of music and put on shows together and do gigs and festivals,” explains Gav, a drummer who goes by the pseudonym OnTheFly. Basically, if you see a flyer for an upcoming Fence Collective show, it could be any combination of the twenty-some musicians and bands that currently make up the collective. “It started off with a handful of bands but it’s grown quite a bit,” he adds. “A Fence Collective night may have, say, four different bands and all do a set each, but you may get people from the other bands joining in on the sets.”
All of the Fence Collective artists release and contribute to releases under Fence Records as well, which was also started by King Creosote. Fence Records has “a very hands-on, DIY approach, all about allowing musicians to play gigs to their fans and trying to get rid of a lot of the bullshit involved in bigger labels where there’s a bit more bureaucracy and it’s less direct,” says Found member Tom. “The ethos that King Creosote came up with was that he wanted to do everything that he enjoyed. He wanted to try and cut out the other stuff involved in the music business—all the legal stuff. There’s no written contract or that kind of thing [with Fence Records]. It’s pretty word-of-mouth and based on friendships. That’s dangerous but it seems to work.” But Fence Collective artists also can release under other record labels, if they want to. “What tends to happen and what Fence has kind of encouraged is that once a band has released on Fence, they can use it as a stepping stone towards something else,” says Tom. “So for example, Found has gone on to the Chemical Underground label, which is a bit bigger than Fence and a little bit more structured. Other bands within Fence have gone on to other labels. They kind of encourage that because they want to keep in small.”
“It also keeps it fresh,” adds Kev, another member of Found. “It means they can nurture more new bands, once bands have moved on. Other bands can be nurtured by Fence to move on to something else.”
The Fence Collective is based in Scotland, with most musicians being close to King Creosote’s home base of Anstruther in Fife. “The reason why Kenny even began doing this is because he was fed up with playing gigs, with travelling, being paid badly or people not turning up, and being told that you have to go to London [to be successful], and he just enjoyed being in his town,” says Ziggy, another member of Found. “So he just started working from there and got all interest to come to him rather than fielding it out.” It seems to work as well. “Fence puts on festivals in their own little town—their own little fishing village—that attract people from all over the world. It’s drawn people from everywhere.”
The Fence Collective came to China as part of the UK Now Brit Band Series—a concert series that brought musicians from each of the UK’s countries to China to play in different cities, some well off of the beaten path of where most foreign musicians go. Think of it as one part tour, one part cultural exchange. The Fence Collective did the Silk Road route, meaning they stopped in Xi’an, Urumqi, and Kashgar, with shows in Beijing and Shanghai as well. But anyone’s who been in China for any amount of time can probably figure out that things don’t always go smoothly or as expected.
“We had to very quickly learn just to go with the flow and chuck plans away,” says Tom. “There was a lot of improvising, shall we say, from when we started out in Beijing to even the next gig in Xi’an. It seemed to be that at each gig the equipment and level of professionalism—from everybody’s part—got just a little bit worse!”
“It was interesting,” adds Gav. “I don’t think we had any expectations, really.”
“At the final show in Kashgar, the gig that they’d tried to arrange for us completely fell apart because it was in this sort of gangster-run restaurant which was just horrible,” continues Tom. “They weren’t going to let us play because we didn’t have a permit but they hadn’t told anyone we needed a permit. In the end they conceded and said we could play two songs as part of a talent show and then do a DJ set. But we looked at the place and were totally intimidated by all these guys in really crap suits and we made a call not to do it.”
Gav adds, “We were staying at a hostel and we had made our own flyers and got a lot of people from the hostel to come to this place. They were like, ‘Alright, wow, a band’s playing, excellent; we don’t get much music here.’ So a lot of them turned up to watch this talent show and waited for us to come on and of course we had no way to tell them that we had pulled out of it. So to make it up we put on a show the following night at the hostel. No instruments, no drums or anything.”
“We did an open-air acoustic show,” says Tom.
“We set up some candles and in this really nice courtyard,” says Ziggy. “It was good fun.”
But not everything went badly. “In Urumqi, I think we might have been one of the first Western bands to play there,” says Tom. “That was a great show; a welcoming crowd. It was worth the travel.”
“That was a brilliant show,” adds Ziggy. “A really responsive, nice crowd. That was a funny show because they were all so intrigued. They were scrutinizing every song, so you’d play and they’d fall completely silent and just stare. It was quite eerie. It’s not like they were into it or dancing about or that; they were just staring, totally intrigued. But then they would clap at the end of each song so they were appreciative and nobody left. But it was just kind of a strange crowd.”
And they’re lucky they made it to Shanghai at the end as well. “It was a bit hit-or-miss until about 24 hours ago whether we would be playing this show at all,” says Tom. “Our flights were from Beijing which meant that we would have had to get the high-speed train from Shanghai meaning that we’d miss the show. We were kind of down on the fact that we weren’t going to be able to play Shanghai, so we just kind of phoned around and made it possible.”
The audience in Shanghai certainly seemed glad that they made it, as Yuyingtang was pretty crowded that night. All the guys played together on stage, including King Creosote, but they also took turns sharing vocals, sometimes playing solo, and also switching instruments pretty regularly. The music was varied and sometimes took on the feeling of a jam session, but all in all it was good show, and a good end to the Fence Collective’s tour in China.
For Fence Collective music, more information on each of the individual artists, album and tour information, visit their official website.