A decade ago, Beijing was teeming with college students armed with guitars and something to say. Vaunting to the front of the pack was spiky, anarchic trio Hedgehog. Now wizened veterans with tours of North America and Australia to their name, the group is celebrating their 10th anniversary with the launch of a B-sides compilation Neurons and a mini-tour that caps off at MAO Livehouse on July 11.
"At the time, Beijing was very open. We came of age in the 1990s and graduated from school with the same ideas. We felt like new pioneers coming up,” drummer and singer, Atom, recalls of the band’s early days.
“Everybody was excited and you really couldn’t decide which show to go to,” adds guitarist and front man Zo. “All the bands were that good.”
Sitting backstage at Shanghai’s MAO Livehouse, Hedgehog are relaxing after ripping through the opening date of their Neurons tour. While bassist Mr. Fun sits back, cool and aloof, Atom and Zo relive their first encounter.
“At our first rehearsal, Zo asked if I was OK, because I was a ‘pop girl,’ or something,” Atom recalls.
“I did not say that!” counters Zo, in mock outrage.
“OK, but I knew you were thinking it,” replies Atom.
“After the first rehearsal, he said, ‘OK, you’re cool, you can be in the band,’” she laughs. “Before I joined, the band were super punk. I brought a lot of the melodies to the band. We were listening to The Raveonettes a lot and then I began trying to sing.”
The pair were originally introduced by Queen Sea Big Shark drummer Xiao Wu. “Ten years ago, I was in a band called Run Away,” says Zo. “The guitar player sucked, the bass player sucked and the girl drummer hated drumming.”
“So he [Xiao Wu] suggested I meet up with Atom, though he warned me that the only rock band she liked was Blur.”
The chemistry – despite Atom’s love for Damon Albarn and co. – was instantaneous. Two weeks after that first rehearsal, Hedgehog wrote their first song ‘Idle.’ Later in the year, they self-released their full-length debut Happy Idle Kid, which was recorded over two days for the princely sum of RMB1,400.
Since then, the group have proven to be a model of consistency. Modern Sky signed the band within fifteen minutes of hearing their demo. They’ve since released five acclaimed albums on the label, from 2007’s irrepressibly youthful Noise Hit World to last year’s psychedelic Phantom Pop Star.
The group’s high-water mark though remains 2009’s Blue Daydreaming. Their pop-tinged third album written and recorded not long after Zo and Atom graduated from college was the band’s first to be sung predominantly in Mandarin.
“It built up our fanbase,” says Zo, who identifies the album as the band’s turning point. “Sometimes with English, we can’t express our ideas so precisely, so I use my mother language,” he explains. “There are times you feel stupid singing in Mandarin though. If the song is about love, I will sing in English. It might still be stupid, but I don’t know it.”
The disc captured the hearts of college students across China and remains massively popular. When Hedgehog played the album’s standout track ‘24-Hour Rock Party’ during their recent Shanghai show, ebullient audience members began dousing themselves with beer.
The album also led to their inclusion on the 2009 Hope for China tour of North America. It was the first time Mainland indie bands had toured the continent. The impressive accolade doubled as a torturous experience, with eleven people and their gear crammed into one small van, traveling coast to coast, playing 20 shows in 22 days.
“Near the end of the tour, we didn’t talk to each other,” Zo laughs. “The drummer from Casino Demon almost killed me. He threw all my stuff out of the van.”
The trio will again join Modern Sky’s international touring festival this summer, where they are set to play in Helsinki and New York. They’re already one of China’s most notable acts internationally. Hip-hop impresario and Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Damon Dash has organized showcases for the group in Hong Kong and New York. While recently, the Go! Team recruited Atom for their single, ‘Did you know,’ which according to Zo is the British group’s version of the Hedgehog single, ‘Dear Boy, I Want to Be Your Girlfriend.’
Drama, though, has continued to follow the band. Following that 2009 North American tour, original bassist Box left and the remaining members spent six months trying out more than 30 bass players before inviting former Guai Li bassist Mr. Fun to join the fold.
“We tried out a lot of fans who wanted to join our band, but they would be super nervous,” recalls Atom. “When we played, their legs were shaking.”
The resulting album Honeyed and Killed was a feedback-drenched finale to the group’s so-called ‘youth trilogy’ of discs. Initially unloved by critics, the disc foreshadowed the group’s tendency to flirt with different genres on albums, including the sugary-sweet Phantom Pop Star.
“We don’t want to do the same things we’ve already done,” Zo explains. “It’s okay, because it’s still Hedgehog.”
“Every time we change, I think we will lose a lot of the audience,” Atom admits. “But more come in. I think we’ve grown up together.”
Despite Atom pulling double duty as drummer for Nova Heart, the group remains remarkably efficient. While Neurons is a journey through the group’s past comprised of old school tracks and sonic experiments, Zo wants to play tracks from their next disc at their upcoming Beijing show.
“He’s always like, ‘keep going, keep going,’” Atom laughs. “He’s a fast person and a very intelligent guy. He wrote ‘Toy + ’61 Festival’ while riding his bicycle alongside Tiananmen Square.”
Aiming for a release next summer, Zo promises that Hedgehog’s next album will return to their punk roots. Irrespective of whether the MAO Livehouse crowd are treated to the new songs, the show will mark something of a celebratory homecoming for the trio – who many credit with helping to give birth to the city’s indie-rock scene.
Not that the band seem to care. While they praise newer acts like Chui Wan, MC David and The Big Wave, the group are less than effusive about the Beijing scene.
“To be honest, there are thousands of new bands coming up, but they have no soul,” says Atom.
“There are lots of bands but 80 percent of them are focusing on the lifestyle and clothes,” adds Zo. “There’s no meaning to it now. There’s a lack of geniuses.”
> July 11, 8.30pm; RMB100-120; MAO Livehouse