8 great moments from 10 years of Split Works

China-based promoters talk Sonic Youth, Gang of Four and more

One of the first names in music promotion in Asia, China-based Split Works are celebrating their tenth anniversary in November with a special warehouse show in Shanghai featuring Eagulls, PK14 and Dirty Fingers. Over the years, they've been responsible for bringing the likes of Sonic Youth, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Grimes, John Grant, Ghostface Killah, Damien Rice, King Creosote, A$AP Ferg and lots, lots more to these shores.

But which moments have really stood out in a decade of putting on quality live music events in China? We asked co-founders Archie Hamilton and Nathaniel Davis for their highlights.

Midi Festival in Haidian Park (May 2006)
AH The first moment that I was like FUCK this shit could really fly here. There was a massive (or so I thought back then) audience going crazy for Chinese metal and punk in the middle of the day in a central (ish) Beijing public park. I don’t really remember any of the bands that I saw (perhaps Yaksa was one of them, I imagine that Miserable Faith would have had to be one of them). It wasn’t something that I’d expected, but it gave me the belief that we could actually make a business and that there might be an audience for it.

Sonic Youth (April 2007)
ND This was our earliest coup of a booking (five months into the start of Split Works) which I convinced Archie was going to be a key part of our early development as a music promoter in China, and which Archie agreed to push through with CAA despite his not having heard of the band before. It turned out as I expected and really set us up

The shows themselves were incredible and controversial and garnered international press and engendered a huge amount of street cred for us within the music industry in China. Everyone and their rock 'n' roll brethren were at the shows. The Shanghai show was at the Shanghai Concert Hall on my birthday. I think it was the first time they had a rock show in this beautifully ornate venue with plush velvet seats. Needless to say, no one was sitting. The band were super cool and it was one of those things that will never be replicated.

AH The first time that I actually saw the power of the people. Those kids were crazy about Sonic Youth, like, completely batshit insane - some of them had been waiting for 20 years for this band to come and people had come from all over China to see them. We were worried that the authorities might pick up on discrepancies in the band’s past (and we were worried that Thurston might say something on stage) but the worst thing that happened (and it was a mini-tragedy at the time, but might have been a good thing for the band in the long run) was that Carsick Cars were told they couldn’t play the show because of concerns over Sonic Youth’s influence over the kids. It was just one of those nights. You had to be there.

Converse Love Noise Tour (Summer 2008)
ND Converse’s agency W&K had approached us about doing something different and new for Converse who were relaunching in China and we suggested doing a China tour with a couple of local bands, touring on a proper American-style tour bus. We booked PK14 and Queen Sea Big Shark - two bands which have played a big part in our history. QSBS opened for our first show ever - Maximo Park in Beijing in December 2006 and PK14 are one of my favourite bands and have played countless shows for us over the years - including at our upcoming 10th anniversary party in Shanghai on November 26th.

As is par for the course with clients, the pitching and planning period for this was long and slow and when the decision was finally made to go forward, I think we had only several weeks to actually find a bus, buy a bus, convert a bus into an actual tour bus (nothing like this existed in China) and actually execute a tour. The stories surrounding this whole tour could probably fill a book. In the end we (tour party of 32 people) drove 6,000km around China in 14 days and played sold-out shows to crazy kids, all crazy for the bands and for the brand.

Handsome Furs (2009)
AH A perfect storm - I’d been invited to my first overseas 'music export' festival in Canada, representing China along with Shen Lihui, Ni Bing and a bunch of other usual suspects. I hit the boards hard, and saw 50 artists in four days. Some good, some great and one totally and utterly incredible band, a husband and wife duo called Handsome Furs. The energy in the Horseshoe Tavern was off the charts, the music was insane. I went up to them after the show as they hung out with fans and propositioned them on an Asian tour.

We’d been organising dates around Asia since Battles the year before, but this was the first one that took in such a broad sweep of the continent. They were super tight and economical to tour (two people, shared room, minimal backline), but each of the shows was off the hook. They were at the peak of their powers and they destroyed a packed out Yuyintang. We’d been doing shows there for a couple of years, but this was the best one ever.

It was also the golden age of Shanghai’s indie (expat-ish) band scene (though perhaps I’m viewing it with rose tinted glasses), with Boys Climbing Ropes, Duck Fight Goose, the Rogue Transmission, The Mushrooms, Booji, Banana Monkey all producing great music and putting on great shows. It was just a perfect storm and one that left everyone with big bad smiles on their faces… plus a certain Jake Newby started blogging around that time, which gave some more (and much needed) context to the local scene.

José González (February 2009)
ND Similarly to Archie with Sonic Youth, at the time I had never heard of Jose Gonzalez. But likewise, it was a memorable booking for us. It was the first show we had ever done in Yugong Yishan and I offer apologies to this day to anyone who was there, as we mistakenly oversold the venue (anyone who is familiar with Yugong knows that once you get beyond the sound desk the back of the room is a hole). The delay speakers which were meant to work, really didn’t and I think only those 500+ who managed to crowd to the front of the stage actually managed to enjoy the show.

Shanghai was a much better conceived sit-down show at the Children’s Theater. In Hong Kong, Jose and I had a long heart-to-heart chat about God and Abraham and everything in-between and we became pals. Looking forward to seeing him next month again in Shanghai as part of our Contemporale series with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Hall.

AH I’d been waiting for the opportunity to book Jose Gonzalez since 2003. He was one of my favourite artists of the decade, and at a moment when we were struggling financially as the GFC bit hard and we were laying people off, I was offered the chance to book him on his way in or out of Australia. We cobbled together some money from our kind friends at the Swedish Embassy, and we managed to get a little more from Absolut (if we agreed to a show in the Glamour Bar). I knew (and explained to Jose) that the Glamour Bar show was gonna be kinda sketch, but as a makeup, I told him about a little theatre that we’d discovered on Huashan Lu - 450 seats, but quite reasonably priced for whatever quirk of fate.

So we booked all three shows (another in Beijing at Yugong) and as predicted the Glamour Bar was kind of sketch (along with the Yugong show we had lots of issues with people talking loud at the bar), but the show in the Children’s Theatre was absolute perfection. This was Jose at the zenith of his levels (shortly before he took a big long break from solo performing). He was intense, isolated and brilliant, and I actually cried from side of stage with the overwhelming emotion of it all. We have him coming back as a part of our 10th birthday celebrations next month, which is kinda amazing.

Patrick Watson (December 2009)
ND This was a one-off show in Beijing on a frigid winter night. We brought a grand piano for Patrick into Yugong Yishan for this show. Just before doors it started snowing outside and the magic of the outdoors that night somehow transferred indoors. That is the only word to describe that show, that night: magical. The several hundred people who braved the winter weather on a Sunday night were so completely enveloped and entranced with the show that people were whispering to the bartenders when they ordered drinks. Amazing night.

For me, there was also a personal connection - Patrick had been introduced to me in 2005 by his publicist, SuperFrank, who also happened to be James Brown’s manager. It was nice connecting the dots. We called SuperFrank on the phone from backstage and reminisced a bit.

Gang of Four, Grimes, Frank Turner, Matzka (JUE Festival 2013)
AH We started JUE Festival in 2009 as a reaction to the heady losses of our 2007 YUE Festival (yeah, we were super creative with our Chinese names back then). We built over the years, as the community around us grew. 2013 was probably the best year, where everything just clicked.

The centrepiece of the 17 day festival was the week where we did four massive shows in Mao Shanghai in five days. All really different artists, but all amazing shows with the standout moment (apart from bodily carrying a scalper the four flights of stairs up to dump him in the Mao office) was when Hua Dong and Lu Di from Re-Tros and AV Okubo respectively got up and sung 'Damaged Goods' with Andy Gill and his reconstituted Gang of Four. It really was one of those moments that I will never forget.

Damien Rice (May 2016)
ND Most things become memorable by the virtue of the people themselves. As I reflect on this idea, I think it is true of all of those listed above as it was with Damien. He was a gracious, thoughtful, principled human being and we had a long chat about Chinese politics before he went on to play a stunning afternoon matinee show. I think the entire crowd was completely mesmerised. I certainly was.

To be honest, I wasn’t actually planning on watching the show. I wouldn’t consider myself a 'fan'. But I stepped in and found a seat in the back of the Symphony Hall at the top and ended up not being able to leave my seat. What a conveyer of emotion this man is. Now I get it - it’s a shame his records don’t fully capture the pure live beauty of that solo voice and guitar.

Archie's honourable mentions
Thee Oh Sees, 390 Bar, Shanghai 2013
The Maybe Mars Showcase, JUE 2009
Moonface, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, 2014
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, 2011
Swans, 2015
Metz, 2016

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