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Indie rockers soar with genre's rebirth

By CHEN NAN | China Daily | Updated: 2019-08-06 07:28
New Pants, from Beijing, is one of the most popular bands in China. [Photo/IC]

Reality show helps propel bands to new level of fame

When indie rock trio Hedgehog won the Chinese Rock Band of the Year award on Wednesday, leading singer-songwriter and guitarist Zhao Zijian picked up drummer Shi Lu and held him aloft to show his excitement.

Cheers and applause rang out from hundreds in the audience, which included music industry insiders, record company executives, critics and other key figures in the business.

"This summer is full of rock 'n' roll," Zhao said on stage.

During the ceremony for the third China Music Industry Committee Music Awards, held at a studio in the Beijing suburbs, the band performed one of its hits, Requiem for a Train of Life. The song, regarded as the band's anthem, is from Sound of Life Towards, an album released last year, which frontman Zhao describes as "the best record we've made so far".

Founded in 2005, the band comprises Zhao, Shi and bassist He Yifan. They have established themselves as one of China's most popular bands, performing at festivals at home and abroad, including shows in New York and Helsinki, the Finnish capital.

However, like many other Chinese indie bands, they have experienced some difficulties, and at one point were even on the verge of breaking up. The difficulties included changes in personnel, problems in their personal lives and earning enough money.

So it was somewhat of a surprise that the band took off again thanks to a reality show on the streaming site iQiyi. Launched in May, the show featured 31 Chinese indie rock bands, from the 30-year-old lineup The Face to newcomers Jiulian Zhenren.

The show successfully brought these once-underground indie musicians into the mainstream.

Hedgehog, along with four other indie rock bands, including New Pants and Miserable Faith, was one of the top acts that stood out in the show.

Really different

The band's followers on Sina Weibo rose from 30,000 to 1.3 million. Before the show, the trio played fewer than five gigs a year, but now has a hectic schedule, performing at least twice a week. It also has new opportunities, such as photo shoots for fashion magazines and representing fashion labels. The band members describe this as "totally beyond expectation and a little bit uncomfortable".

To devote time to rehearsing and recording the show, Zhao quit his job as a computer programmer two months ago.

"Four years ago, I also quit a job with a large internet company and told myself I would not work for any company, just the band. However, it was very hard to make music my sole source of income at the time," Zhao said. "Now, things are really different."

When Zhao was in his third year at Beihang University in Beijing majoring in computer science, he was introduced by a friend to Shi, a third-year student at Communication University of China. They had no plans to make music a career, let alone earn a living from it, but wanted to use it to express themselves and talk about their lives.

Zhao said, "Her drumming sounds like a powerful storm. I couldn't find anyone who plays as well as Shi Lu."

He, the bassist, said: "She is the best female drummer among the country's rock bands. Don't be fooled by her small stature."

Better known by his stage name Yifan, He joined in the band in 2010. The Beijing Jiaotong University graduate works for a bank.

Since the show was staged, one of the most frequently asked questions has been, "Is this the beginning of an unexpected indie rock boom era?"

"Yes. We feel like a new band again, full of passion and hope," said Shi, adding that tours and a new album are on the agenda for next year. "Everything happened so fast and has seemed to be a turning point for all the bands.

"We get lots of messages from people who have never listened to our songs before."

Indie rock music, which is rougher and more rebellious than the well-polished pop that floods the musical mainstream, has attracted a grassroots fan base in China for decades.

Flourishing outdoor music festivals and indie live house venues have given the bands the chance to showcase themselves, but as they are often associated with a bad image, they can find it hard to make a living.

'Stereotyping and wrong'

Liu Fei, who owns the Beijing live house venue School, said, "I can still clearly remember that about 10 years ago I sat outside a live house venue along with a band who were wearing ripped jeans, black T-shirts, and had long hair and tattoos.

"While looking at the band, a woman walked over with her little grandson, telling him to 'be good and not like them'. We were all shocked. It's stereotyping and wrong. Some of the band members graduated from great universities and have decent jobs."

New Pants, from Beijing, is one of the country's most popular bands, and on the reality show its retro blend of disco music and electro-rock wowed audiences, enabling the lineup to register the highest score.

Both age 43, Peng Lei and Pang Kuan, New Pants' lead vocalist and keyboardist, are arguably the best-known middle-aged members of the country's indie rock music scene.

Classmates in middle school, they started a punk band in 1997, signing with Modern Sky Records, then a lesser-known label, but now the biggest indie music recording company in China.

To support their musical ambitions, Peng works as an animator, and Pang as a designer. As indie performers, they have faced a struggle to survive.

"We played just two shows a year back in the early 2000s, and both of us were paid 200 yuan for each one," recalled Peng, a Beijing native, who learned painting as a child with his father and graduated from the Beijing Film Academy with a major in animation.

For years, they continued to write songs while rehearsing after work, and in 2005, released their fourth album, Dragon Tiger Panacea, mixing vintage 1980s new wave with disco, gaining them a fan base.

"The situation has improved. However, we cannot quit our jobs, as we still cannot make a living as a full-time band," said Peng, who has a daughter. (Pang has two children.) "But an audience member told me she would love to listen to more new songs from us because she loves our music. This really means a lot to us."

With indie music undergoing a rebirth, new bands have seized their opportunity.

On Thursday, 12 new rock lineups will perform in a show at the Tango Club, one of the most popular live house venues in Beijing, to mark the release of Modern Sky 9, the label's ninth album featuring new sounds.

Founded by former rocker Shen Lihui, the label is now home to more than 100 indie rock bands from China and abroad. The first Modern Sky compilation album was released in 1998, a year after the label launched.

Zhu Yanfeng, marketing director for the albums, said: "It's great timing to introduce these young artists. For the ninth album, we selected new bands, covering more of the musical spectrum."

Xu Yi, former Sony Music Entertainment China CEO, said Chinese indie rock bands flourished in the 1990s, with early-generation rockers, and lineups such as Tang Dynasty and Black Panther finding widespread popularity with their interpretations of Western rock.

Yi, now CEO of Taihe Music, who was unanimously voted president of the CMIC Music Awards Committee in March 2017, added: "However, young rockers are different from the seniors. While maintaining their wild spirit, their music is individual and personal, rather than being about pure anger and rebellion. They have their own jobs to make a living while harboring their passion for music."

Xu said the reality show not only offers "the real deal for real bands playing real music" but also showcases new bands, whose novelty lies in experimenting between the local cultures they grew up with and Western music.

Hot pot dinner

The band Jiulian Zhenren was seen as a dark horse on the show. Comprising lead vocalist, guitarist and singer-songwriter Ouyang Haopeng, vocalist and trumpet player Mai Haipeng and bassist Ye Wanli, the lineup, which was founded a year ago, won over fans with its original songs based on the Hakka dialect.

Last winter, the three young men, who live in remote Lianping county, Guangdong province, received a phone call that changed their lives. The caller was Huang Liaoyuan, a well-known agent and indie music promoter, who discovered the rockers Second Hand Rose, who rose to become one of the country's biggest alternative-rock bands.

Huang invited the three to Beijing, and after a hot pot dinner, they were signed by him and officially launched their music careers.

Ouyang, better known by his stage name Along, said: "This was totally surprising and mind-blowing. We had never performed on a real stage. We just played in front of villagers living in the county, who didn't understand our songs."

It is not difficult to see why Huang, 54, decided to come out of retirement and help the young band members become stars.

In November, after competing for four hours with other new indie rock bands, Jiulian Zhenren won the 2018 Original Band Contest, organized by Rock Records of Taiwan and Xiami, a leading music streaming platform on the Chinese mainland. The band's raw spirit and songs inspired by hometown life instantly impressed Huang.

"They naturally get the audience involved and create a great atmosphere," he said. "While some complain about a lack of new talent on the indie rock scene, this is the band people have been expecting."

The band members have no plans to move to Beijing or other large cities. They have kept their jobs as music and art teachers at local schools.

Ouyang said: "Many bands work their whole careers to get to this point. We never imagined our music could be accepted by so many people. For us, the show is only just starting."

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