Peking Punk-Public Enemy’s Brian Hardgroove Visits the Great Wall . . . of Sound

You know that Beijing is hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics, however it’s also home to a thriving punk-rock scene. But when Public Enemy bassist Brian Hardgroove was invited to produce the Chinese band Demerit—after connecting with the owner of Maybe Mars Records at the 2007 Beijing Pop Festival— his first Beijing experience was a studio that wasn’t designed for rock.

“If you wanted 100 folding chairs and music stands for a string section— no problem,” he says. “But there were no instrument cables over ten feet! And I had to be careful about pointing out problems because of the culture there. A technical issue might be taken as a personal criticism. In general, the engineers dictate how the artists do things. So the fact that we listened to the band’s suggestions set a standard for what they should demand for themselves in the future.”

Hardgroove found a more congenial environment at A-String Entertainment studios. “It was beautiful,” he says. “Granite floors, wood accents, big glass doors, a Neve Capricorn, and a Taiwanese owner who had been working all night long. It was a much more passion-driven environment. The woman who showed us around was a singer, and into the music culture, so we didn’t feel like we were being looked down upon because of the genre of music we were doing.”

As to the music itself, Hardgroove says, “All these guys are incredible players. The only issue we had was I needed to show the singer/bassist some bass techniques for recording— like when going from an A to E, don’t go from one open string to another. You play the A on the E string. We also had an arrangement with Gibson where the band could pick what they wanted for recording from the local showroom. They chose a Thunderbird bass, a 1960 Les Paul reissue, and an Explorer. On the T-Bird—which has a hollow center—I encouraged the bassist to use the neck pickup instead of the bridge to get more low end.

But aside from a few tweaks, it took a lot less to get something out of them than most bands I’ve produced. And they were playing great stuff—interesting changes, with a depth of harmonic knowledge that kids in the U.S. don’t have. They mixed genres seamlessly—’50s, Metallica, AC/DC, Clash—
but they also had their own voice.” There were a few modern technical gaps, however. “Take tuning,”
notes Hardgroove. “They didn’t own any tuners before we came. They tuned everything by ear. We tried to find a Boss tuner, and then we had to remind them constantly to tune up before a take. We wanted to raise the standards a bit. Even slightly out-of-tune records sound weak instead of powerful.”

Punch-ins were also a bit unusual. According to engineer Michael Chavez: “They did punches as an
entire band—not individual parts— because that kept a better vibe. We’d want them to keep going, and just punch the part, but they’d stop, then go ahead and pick up from where they left off. Besides, there
was no timing reference on which to base the punches on because there was no click track.”

For Hardgroove, that was a conscious decision.

“We wanted to make a rock record,” he says. “No click track. No, ‘Hey, we’ll replace that later.’ That’s
what happens when technical people start making the call, and I’m a music guy. It was a real pleasure working with the band, because they were good enough players that they nailed the way I wanted the record to sound.” As to the rock scene in general, Hardgroove notes, “The problem isn’t so much low standards, as no standards.

Many things that we take for granted don’t exist there—at least not yet. None of our reference points
mean anything in China, and the sooner you realize that, the better.”

So would Hardgroove go back?

“Absolutely! Everyone was really friendly. But what’s most important is that music really matters to these kids. When you appreciate that only a few decades ago they might have been killed for what they are doing now, you recognize the huge changes that are happening. It’s great to be able to show them a thing or two to help them on their way. But I think the generation of musicians coming up in China might have a few things they can show us, too.”