Chinese Football: The “Midwest Emo” band of Wuhan
For those involved in the alternative-rock music scene, the name “Chinese Football” probably strikes a suspiciously familiar chord, as many are no stranger to the industry giant that is American Football. But for those who have yet to been acquainted, American Football is recognized as one of the pioneers of the alt-rock subgenre, midwest emo. Their self-titled debut album “American Football” has enjoyed great commercial success and critical acclaim, boasting the 6th place title on Rolling Stone’s “40 Greatest Emo Albums of All Time” list in 2016. On the other hand, Chinese Football has established themselves within the alternative music scene in East Asia through several local concerts, but sadly have yet to branch out past the region.
American Football was founded in 1997 by guitarist Steve Holmes, singer Mike Kinsella, and drummer Steve Lamos at the University of Illinois. This small college band from the midwest didn’t expect the band to outlive their college careers, and ended up separating in 2000. During their initial short-lived time together, they only released one album, “American Football,” a raw and candid album tackling their struggles with heartbreak, anxiety, and post-graduation depression. The album went largely unappreciated after its quiet release in 1999, but gained traction during the 15 years that the band had been apart, propelling the band to reunite in 2014. They had lived completely oblivious to their growing popularity in the underground indie rock scene – Lamos had become a professor at CU Boulder, and Holmes was the vice president at a payroll company! Their unique post-rock sound finally gained the recognition it deserved and inspired a wave of new alternative/emo-rock bands emerging throughout the 2000s.
One of the most notable yet severely-underrated bands to emerge during this time is their math-rock counterpart from across the Pacific: Chinese Football. Founded in 2011 by lead vocalist and guitarist Xu Bo, the Wuhan-based math rock band has received international recognition for their experimental take on alternative rock. Not all the buzz has been positive, however; the group has been the subject of online criticism and accusations of plagiarizing not only the name of, but also the sound of American Football. Xu Bo’s emerging band within the Chinese alternative music scene, consisting of guitarist Wang Bo, singer/bassist Li Lixing, and drummer Xia Chao, naturally caught the attention of American Football due to online commentators branding them as another one of the classic band’s many imitators. But rather than denouncing them, American Football appreciated their artistically innovative sound and reached out to Xu, inviting his band to open for their shows in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong during their 2019 world tour. Steve Lamos even commented on Chinese Football, stating that they were “doing very different, and very interesting things, musically.” Why people still group Chinese Football with the other “copycats” of the classic alt-rock band remains a mystery. Listening to any song by the Wuhan band, the stark differences in tone and rhythm are immediately apparent – not to mention all their songs are entirely in Mandarin!
Xu Bo’s inspiration from bands like American Football can clearly be seen in Chinese Football. Pulling influence from 90’s indie rock and incorporating math rock, Chinese Football bridges the midwest emo genre with the central-Chinese region of Wuhan. While American Football tends to be classified as math rock, I would argue that they lean more heavily into traditional rock structures, characterized by mellowness and full-bodied guitar riffs. Chinese Football on the other hand uses math rock’s characteristic unconventional and irregular rhythms as a basis for their music. They elevate their sound with more abstract and capricious melodies, putting them firmly in the post/math-rock genre.
Chinese Football has the distinct voice of Chinese alternative rock, but is heavily influenced by Japanese math-rock as well as the anime that the band member’s grew up watching. This influence is reflected in the similar rhythmic complexities and electronic nature of Chinese Football and other iconic East Asian bands such as toe and tricot. This hybrid Chinese-Japanese influence manifests itself in a way that is inimitable outside of the region. Being from Wuhan (once the site of a flourishing punk rock scene some two decades prior), they had the unique experience of being surrounded by various experimentalist music groups. The influence of the atypical musical environment and prominent math-rock scene is impossible to replicate and nearly-impossible to ignore.
This eccentricity is visually presented in the anime-inspired cover art of their albums and EPs; Xu Bo notes that the “cartoon characters might be able to express [Chinese Football’s] awkwardness and contradictory emotions in songs intuitively,” as “the content of our songs is very abstract.” This abstraction and sense of confusion is the core of their music, and within traditional math rock.
Their 2017 EP, “Here comes a new challenger!”, is a perfect embodiment of this immortal sound, with fluctuating tempos enriched by expressive guitar solos. Within math rock, lyrics are kept simple and sparse, allowing the abstruse instrumentals to speak for themselves. The EP’s first song, “Electronic Girl”, speaks to this stylistic approach with lyrics that are infrequent but powerful in providing insight to the inner-workings of the band’s sentiments “She wants to know / She wants to ask / Oh who am I? / The Earth answers that it matters not / Just spin with me.” The band’s desire for perception and identification is distinct here, and the confusion and unquenchable sense of longing that arrives when such superficial appetites are disregarded, for they “matter not,” is deeply resonant. Such disorientation and internal conflict regarding self-identification and notoriety within society is perfectly accompanied by the dissonant chords and powerful instrumentals that evoke a wistful nostalgia and longing in the listener.
You don’t need to understand Mandarin in order to feel the passion of the melodies or the intricacies that lie in the plucks of Li Lixing’s bass guitar – math rock transcends language, breathing and flowing directly into the listener. For those who want to expand their music taste, but remain within the realms of the ever-immortal melancholy of midwest emo, consider Chinese Football a familiar face in your exploration of the beautifully unique world of math rock.
Carolina Oxenstierna is a freshman in the SFS