Penicillin Vocalist Zhang Zhexuan Talks TV Talent Shows and New Album

By Bryan Grogan, October 10, 2019

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Having been crowned one of The Big Band’s hot five bands for the summer, Penicillin are one of the most hyped indie groups in the country right now. Having acted as one of the main contrarians on the show, and being criticized for chewing gum onstage and refusing song revision advice, the band’s singer and songwriter Zhang Zhexuan has been both criticized and applauded for not allowing himself to be caught up in the show’s hype. With a brand-spanking new album, Qunxing Shanyao Shi (which roughly translates as ‘The Star’s Shine’), in the bag, and a much-hyped national tour coming up, we took the opportunity to catch up with Zhang to talk about football, Manchester and the band’s new music.

Image courtesy of Penicillin

What were your musical beginnings? Can you talk about your early bands?
The first time I had a gig, I was in middle school. I was 15 or 16 when I started to write songs. I had begun listening to a lot of Western music, bands like Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses. My first band made punk rock music. Punk is easy to play; you just need three chords. 

How did you then make the transition to playing Britpop music, and what influence did you take from Manchester music?
I wanted to make something with more feeling, because I felt like punk was too easy. British music always influenced me more because I am a football lover. I’m crazy about football. There were some TV shows on CCTV about sports. Those TV shows had some Beatles songs and some Oasis songs. When I graduated from university in China in 2014, I went to Manchester to study for one year for another degree. ’90s Britpop influenced me a lot; bands like Oasis, Stone Roses, The Smiths and Happy Mondays. I love the sound of Manchester.

Penicillin’s music has gotten progressively more unique. What do you think you guys have added through the years?
I’m the primary songwriter for this band. I was in a pair of bands in 2017, playing guitar for one band called Casino Demon, which had a surf rock, Californian style. In Penicillin, I think the guitar is the most important thing for me; it’s the key to my music. We released our second album in September; that’s two albums in three years. After that I want to do something new. Now in my music the guitar is very important, but I want to play with keyboards and different sounds, maybe similar to Depeche Mode or Happy Mondays. I want to make dancing music, where the groove and atmosphere is the key. 

Could you talk a bit about the new album? Did the success of The Big Band make you want to release a new album now?
I wrote all the songs in the past two years, and then we recorded from March to June or July. We had a pair of gigs in Brazil at the start of the year, and began recording it after we got back. About the TV show, those are totally two separate things. The album is made up of 11 songs. Six using Chinese lyrics and five with English lyrics. English lyrics are the best for rock music I think. The Chinese language is much more complicated and detailed, so I’ll choose Chinese lyrics when I want to tell a story. 

Could you talk about your experience on The Big Band?
The TV show was fun, but I never actually watched any of it except for our performances. I didn’t care about all the stories on the show; it’s not really rock and roll. It’s something that we needed to do. Every country has their own way of doing things. For me, though, making a record is the most important thing, and gigs as well. These are things that a band has to do, but in China it’s different. Many musicians need to use the TV show so that more people can learn about them. We did it, and it’s finished. We have been selling out venues for the past two years, but this time it’s just faster. 

To listen to Penicillin’s new album ‘Qunxing Shanyao Shi,’ click here

[Cover image courtesy of Penicillin]

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