I find myself on Ande Lu, Gulou, a neighbourhood that delivers exactly what you’d expect from Beijing on a windy Sunday afternoon. Under the grey skies, a taxi driver leans against his vehicle and smokes; vendors with both hands tucked into their sleeves sell baked sweet potatoes; while locals in long coats are heading out for groceries.
Hedgehog’s rehearsal room is an underground shelter beneath a supermarket, a basement that can only be found after walking past rows and rows of parking spaces. ‘We’ve been practising here for a year now,’ says drummer-vocalist Atom (Shi Lu). ‘The three of us have very fixed working hours, so it’s never been a problem to get everyone together.’
But time has been an issue for Hedgehog in recent years. The release of fourth studio album Sun Fun Gun marks the beginning of an exhausting tour (from Tianjin in March to Hong Kong in late April). Each weekend involves a back-and-forth trip between Beijing and ‘anywhere China’, as all three rush back for their day jobs. Atom freelances from home, guitarist-vocalist Zo (Zhao Zijian) works at online media giant Sina and bassist Fun (He Yifan) performs software tests in a bank; it’s not easy being a part-time rocker.
The band’s journey began back in October 2005. But it wasn’t until two years later, when Atom bagged a stint as a session drummer for punk-krautrock trio Hang On The Box, with local label Modern Sky, that things took off. She approached the record execs about a deal for Hedgehog – a few demos later, they were recording debut album Noise Hit World. The result was a raw, chest-beating, anthemic introduction, with teen angst, fuzz-coated guitar and melodic choruses announcing Hedgehog’s arrival on Beijing’s music scene alongside a new generation of bands that included Carsick Cars, Snapline and Queen Sea Big Shark.
But in late 2010, after the release of second album Blue Daydreaming
and the band’s first US tour, original bassist Box (Zhu Boxuan) left Hedgehog for reasons never properly explained. It inevitably led to a new direction, as Atom and Zo were forced to switch focus to lo-fi side-project B-side Lovers until they recruited new bassist Fun from Guai Li. ‘People from all over the country come to Beijing,’ Fun murmurs. ‘They come and go all the time. It’s never safe to predict how long a band might last.’
Besides personnel changes, Hedgehog hit another stumbling block with third album Honeyed and Killed. It received heavy criticism for abandoning the band’s trademark energetic style. ‘Some critics said we were trying to be too sophisticated in Honeyed and Killed, which is not true,’ Zo retorts. ‘But it is true that, with the change of bassist and everything else, we were not in a good shape when writing songs. The album is a reflection of where we were at that point.’ Fun mumbles: ‘You guys were beaten to the ground by reality.’
‘Reality’ has rarely been easy for those living the Chinese rock ’n’ roll lifestyle – often a part-time existence, even for the success stories – but Hedgehog are clearly aiming to put their troubles behind them. Sun Fun Gun picks up where they left off in 2010: in-your-face power, backed by lashings of guitar and singalong hooks. This is also the band’s first album produced abroad, with all the songs recorded at Converse Rubber Tracks Studio in the States.
‘When we toured the US with Casino Demon and Queen Sea Big Shark in 2009, we were invited by a rich American guy to play a private party in his basement,’ Zo recalls. ‘Among the audience was hip-hop producer Damon Dash, who later financed our second US trip in 2010.’
‘It was really weird, because most people in the audience seemed to be hip-hop or post-punk fans, so they were nodding their heads to our music like this,’ Atom laughs, rocking her head like a chicken pecking for grain. ‘Yeah, just like this!’
But some Chinese bands have had some unpleasant experiences working with US producers in the past; they usually arrive with a few promising names on their CV, work with multiple bands in assembly line fashion, and leave after a few days. Hedgehog also had difficulties, but seem to have figured them out. ‘It’s difficult to do it through emails,’ Zo explains. ‘First there’s the time difference; then there’s a lack of communication for various reasons. We recorded Sun Fun Gun in the US, then overdubbed it here ourselves. I think, that way, it worked out best.’
It’s almost 6pm and time for practice. I head upstairs to pick up some supplies in the supermarket. Toilet paper is on sale and people are slamming bumper packs into their trolleys like there’s a tissue famine coming. The world hasn’t stopped turning, though. It is at that moment that I get a sudden thrill: beneath my feet, a sudden commotion of noise. Hedgehog are back.
Sun Fun Gun is available to buy in stores from Thursday 5 April
Photos by Wei Bai (top) and Kira Simon-Kennedy (left)