Episode One: China Available Now.
The World Underground is literally one of the most ambitious, inspiring, and fascinating music related projects we’ve heard about here at Overblown in recent years. Basically, The World Underground is the brainchild of John Yingling, a Wisconsin native who is aiming to create and release free documentaries about underground music scenes from around the world. So far, one engrossing documentary has been released about the DIY rock scene in China (which you can view above), with more on the way detailing music scenes in Montana, Indonesia, and one documenting a trek through Japan, South Korea, and North East China with Beijing’s GUIGUISUISUI and Noise Arcade. Combined with the documentaries are a huge live archive and extensive contacts page.
What is truly inspiring about the project though is how the documentaries focus on people’s similarities rather than differences. They depict a world that has far more in common than is first evident in these times of division. John took some time recently to discuss the project with us.
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Overblown: First off, tell us a little bit about what exactly World Underground is.
John Yingling: It’s a film series, an audio archive, a push for global connectivity, a resource page, and stories. Lots of stories. That may seem long-winded, but it’s a big project. It’s everything that I like to do, currently, in my life. Take photos. Hear and tell stories. Write. Record. Film. Edit. Connect people together. I crowd-source as little money as humanly possible, to spend the most time I possibly can, in each place. When you donate, I try to spread as much of that money to the hands of the people in these scenes, buying their merchandise, art, local food, show covers. Then most the donors get something physically from these people too, directly, into their hands. It worked really well with China, the second Asia tour, and Indonesia. Though, I did develop an inguinal hernia from the last round of filming…Ha. Escalator-less parts of Japan with a roller bag stuffed full of vinyl. I still think it was worth it, even though my surgery isn’t fully healed 5 months later.
Anyways, the way it has gone before, I did the trips, and then I went home. I immediately compiled my favorite photos, and wrote obscenely long pieces on each trip. These were all done on Impose Magazine, and last year I back-dated the “blog” portion of my website, all the way back to 3 years ago…the beginning, which was China.
The idea, simply, is to release the films, mixed audio recordings, stories, contacts, all for free. I suggest a donation of $5 for the film, and you can own it, do whatever you want with it. However, it’s also on Youtube and Vimeo. I just want people to see the things. The trips, when I don’t go terribly over budget, are paid for by people who want to see it succeed, so there’s really no reason to make money off the thing. I don’t have ads, don’t put logos of some random company into the film. It’s all just trying to spread good things, to good people. That said, if someone who aligns with my interests and vision to an absolute T, wants to throw me a bunch of money to take the whole project full-time…please do contact me.
Now, I live in Northeast China. Harbin, Heilongjiang. It’s a gnarly Dongbei city, with absolutely nothing happening, musically. I chose to move here for a number of reasons, the first being it was the softest landing possible. My friend Shaun runs a school up here, and we were actually at the same punk rock shows, 15 years ago, but rarely, if ever, spoke. It’s a wasteland, really, but that’s good for me right now. No distraction. I’m finishing a degree, editing the next couple episodes, working on not being such an idiot. Street photography and wandering is fun here, because the city is so ridiculous. This is definitely “the real China” everyone looks for. Nobody really gives a shit about you up here. Very little random “Hello!”’s being shouted at you. It’s negative thirty degrees half the year. Just, insane.
So, that’s where I’m at. Trying to grow this thing organically. It’s a niche market, and slow to release them, but it’s what I love doing, so I’m just going to keep going with it. The releases should go quicker for the next few, if I have my way this next year, and beyond.
O: The first episode of the series is about underground rock music in China. Were you surprised by the strength of the scene there?
JY: Absolutely. I had no idea of the scope. Half of it’s changed now since the filming, specifically Beijing, with new venues, new bands, new projects. I knew only a handful of bands when I began, and knew there was more. I just didn’t know how to access them, even after deep digs through sites like Josh Feola’s “Pangbianr”. I suggest everybody go dive into this spectacular “Austral-Asian” Bandcamp called Tenzenmen, ran by my friend Shaun. The guy is a maniac. You can find a plethora of links to all the things you may want to look at, on the website. That’s a main point. To further spread things, I make nearly every single band, artist, label, and zine that’s listed, anywhere on the site, clickable to go directly to said artist. It’s daunting, but I’m a nerd, so it’s worth it to me, in the end.
O: You now have four more episodes either in post production or production. Could you tell us a bit about those episodes?
JY: Episode 2 is my attempt to capture a 3 week tour in East Asia, alongside GUIGUISUISUI and Noise Arcade. These are two expats in Beijing doing, essentially, the opposite ends of creative experimental music. GUIGUISUISUI is an insane, demonic, skate-board playing warlord, busting out 8-bit blues-punk. Noise Arcade is a man behind many decks of electronic instruments I’ll never understand, blowing out danceable, lush, improvised soundscapes. During the tour, they would combine and Michael Cupoli of Noise Arcade would throw on a skull mask, and get behind the drum kit. Its an attempt to disorient through sound, visuals. Tell stories about people, the basis of this whole thing. To capture a moment in time. It’s been 2 years since that trip, and a lot has changed with all these bands, but to me that’s part of this projects charm. These moments are frozen in the lens, and I get to tell the story, eventually. I try not to beat myself up over how long this one has taken to edit, but it’s a film that had me in quite the twisted head-space for some time, and I think that will shine through in the final product. I’m really excited about it. We go through Northeast China, to begin, ironically…with very few supporting acts over three shows, except for in Changchun. They played in an ultra tiny livehouse called Fuzzbox, with an electronic wizard named JFI, and a solo artist, Anqi. It’s when we get to South Korea and Japan that the supporting acts start to give a voice to the film. I’m really excited about it. Essentially, It’s about the people you meet along the way.
Episode 3 is a film on a small mountain-town I lived in for a few years, Missoula, Montana. A city of 70,000 people, that has a better music scene than most larger cities in America. Truly spectacular. It will focus heavily on a band called Magpies, and a man named Joey Running Crane. I’m excited to get to that one. It’s going to make me cry, to edit it. I hope I have enough cohesion to do the place justice. I left a lot of my heart in Missoula. It’s a town that you get stuck in, and people told me those stories time and time again. It’s drunk. Stoned. Stunningly beautiful. People work together. We’ll see how that one shakes out.
Episode 4 will be Indonesia. What an absolute pleasure that was. If you’re at all interested in experimental music, or simply just talking to people, you need to go there as soon as humanly possible. Yogyakarta, Surabaya, and Bogor were a few of the places I went, outside VISA runs to Kuala Lumpur. The whole damn thing was just a leap into the unknown. People there are so intensely friendly. You will stay up until the wee hours of the morning drinking deep, dark coffees. Not much alcohol going on due to it being a mostly Muslim based area. I had essentially just gotten finished with a full year of not drinking alcohol, and Indonesia was a final nail in the coffin for any sobriety-based anxiety I was facing. Truly, one of the most wonderful and eye-opening trips I have ever taken. I felt very honored to be taken in by these people. Jogja, Bogor, and Surabaya people, specifically, remain an almost daily part of my life. Keeping tabs, talking with them. Supporting what they do. In a perfect world, I will finish that film in country, sitting with Indonesian people, getting more stories. I am planning to back for a short week-long trip in February, and I couldn’t more excited to reconnect with them. The film itself, will continue story-telling, sharing music, people’s lives, and excitement, wherever I can.
One thing I always like to ask in my interviews, is if there is anything they think people who have never visited their city or country, should know about it. Any misconceptions they think should be cleared up? This was particularly potent in Indonesia, asking about Muslim faith. So much talk of peace, and the look in their eyes, was that of a calming love for who they are. Fuck Donald Trump.
O: What have you gained, both personally and professionally, from doing these documentaries?
JY: To say it has opened my eyes is an understatement. My first filming trip, that was the first time I’d been out of the United States. A total dive into the deep end. That changed me. To continue to do this, to keep conversations going with not only China, but then to South Korea, Japan for round two. East Asia is a completely different ball-game. South Korea and Japan have a very deep, specific impact on you when you visit. Everyone takes different things away from it. Indonesia and Malaysia were brain altering treks as well. These places couldn’t be more different from one another. Different ways of speaking to you. Greeting you. Inviting you out. Indonesia was particularly taxing on an emotional level, but not in a bad way. You’d just end each day wrecked from conversation without the crutch of alcohol. Wired to the cusp on deep, dark coffee, and heavy conversation. It’s been spectacular. I’m very lucky. Very grateful. Extremely happy with the way it has all turned out, despite wishing it would go faster. I’ll get my ass in gear soon.
Professionally, it has fine-tuned my process, since taking that first leap into China in 2013. I’m better at placing my sound equipment. Quicker to get shots I want. Set up of equipment. Being a one-man band, it’s difficult, but when it all goes to hell I really love having only myself to blame. When it goes really well, it’s the best feeling. For instance, some of the first excellent live recordings from China…it still has me so excited. Some of those bands aren’t around anymore, or have shifted to an entirely different way of things, so to have those moments frozen. I love it. I live for it.
It’s the singular most rewarding thing I’ve ever put myself fully into, and I want to keep it going as long as my body can take it.
O: The fifth episode will be about Chicago. Is that just an excuse to get to spend some time at home? 🙂
JY: Honestly, it pains me to say it, but I will have to push Chicago. I have a literal ton of footage, but a good chunk of those people do not live in Chicago anymore, and I have absolutely zero interviews, as I wasn’t doing things that way when I lived there. I also have no real plan to both move back to Chicago itself anymore, as it’s very expensive now, nor can I visit on any long-term trek, any time soon. To do Chicago properly, I would have to spend 6 months to a year in Chicago, filming what’s happening now, doing exhaustive interview, to do the city itself any sort of justice. It’s just not possible right now. So, Episode 5, will likely be something else. Again, in a perfect world, I would head to Catania, Sicily, and follow the absolutely incredible UZEDA, or Bellini, on tour. I’ve talked with them, and they are open to it. Episode 5 will definitely be outside of Asia.
O: What scenes are next on the list? What is drawing to these places?
JY: Many have reached out. Serbia. Russia. Eastern Europe. Israel. We’ll just have to see. I take everything as it comes. Whoever is the most excited when the time comes, I will go to. For now, I’m back-logged three films. I need to finish these three, or at least get up to a rough cut of Indonesia, before I do my next major filming trip. If I can really push myself, this would put me at 2018. I feel at that point, I’ll have grown so much as an editor and filmmaker, I could both produce, and release Episode 5 in less than one year. Part of me being in China for 2 years, is to get these next few films done, but also get better with process, and mainly, get out of debt, so I can be more free to roam. It’s a hell of a thing, sticking up here, but in the end, it’s going to be worth it, big time.
As for the drawing to each place, really, it’s about excitement. Whenever I reach out to someone new, they just want to share the things they’ve made. We’re all the same way. So, the drawing is, who wants to tell their story? Who aligns with what I do, and is open to me coming over? Who’s doing interesting things? In the end, this project is really skewed to my musical tastes, and the things that I like. I can’t deny that. That’s not to say I pick and choose vehemently, but really, if I’m going to go spend 2 months with you, I need to really like what you are doing.
O: Is there something that all these different scenes have in common with each other? If so, why do you think that is?
JY: Passion, creativity, and a desire to push others upward and forward. The love of supporting ones community. A love of telling stories, even if it be nervously, or in broken English. The lust to create, and release, and destroy, and make new. It sounds cliché as hell, but we’re all just people, trying to exist in the least painful, and best feeling way that we can. We all want to make things, to share love, stories, to be heard. We all want to push forward with what we believe, what we want to do, and how we want others to feel.
O: What has been your proudest moment during this documentary series?
JY: Releasing China was a high point. It was so much work, and to finish it and put it out there was a deep, warm breath of fresh air. We did so many things wrong. Learned so much. Aside from small pieces of Indonesia, when I had my ex-girlfriend with me, I still do all the filming, photography, audio recording, by myself. It’s exhausting, for a long time, to compile, collect, organize. I’m starting to get better at systems, but China was my first run at what you could call a “real” film…so it was by far the most tiring of anything I’ve done so far. I think it was worth it. People seem to genuinely really like the thing, which I honestly wasn’t sure would happen. People are behind the project, and fundraisers continue to be modestly successful. To have more than even a handful of people willing to give me any sort of money to do this type of thing, to me, is still one of my proud moments. I am deeply, unbelievably grateful to have had the chance to do what I have done. If I can follow the plan I have in my head, it should make for a really exciting next couple of years.
I have a wonderful sound editor on board for the series for now, his name he Dereck Blackburn. He runs an insanely beautiful studio called Quiethouse Recording, and is a true evil genius behind the boards. He really believes in this project, and for that I am also grateful. I’m going to start giving him a wide swath of creative freedom with the future films, because he blew my mind with Episode 1, with such an insanely short time frame to work with. We’re talking weeks, not months. I can’t wait to see what he cooks up for Episode 2, if I can stay alive up here and get it finished. Time will tell.
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