Hedgehog on #MeToo, Chinese hip-hop and split rumours

The beloved Beijing trio are back with a new album – is it also their last?

Hedgehog (from left to right: He Yifan, Atom, and Zhao Zijian)
‘A generation will always get old, but there’ll forever be people who are young’. The closing line from ‘Requiem For a Train of Life’, the first single released from Hedgehog’s new album, Sound of Life Towards, is a telling one. In many fans’ minds the long-running Beijing indie-rock heroes are inextricably linked with early-’00s youth, having so sincerely captured its feelings of wide-eyed optimism and seemingly limitless potential on first 2007’s Noise Hit World and then 2009’s Blue Daydreaming.

The latter record in particular confirmed the band as one of the best-loved in the country. The appeal of the lyrics combined with the inherent catchiness of Zhao Zijian’s jangly, C86-indebted guitar parts and drummer Atom’s energetic stickwork to ensure Hedgehog of a place in the vast majority of Chinese rock fans’ hearts ever since, even as the band has moved on to different sonic territory.

Even now, the band only has to strike up the first few notes of songs such as 'Toy&61 Festival' (an ode to Children’s Day) or '24 Hour Rock Party' at a festival, and they’ll be met with a roar and surge from the crowd, who inevitably end up pogo-ing en masse.

Such affection has the potential to be a double-edged sword however. ‘[Blue Daydreaming] is always bringing us new fans, because we sing about things that young people can really understand,’ Zhao told Time Out back in 2014, before admitting, ‘There are a lot of fans who really liked Blue Daydreaming, and were disappointed when they heard our later stuff.’

Hedgehog are not the first band to experience such a phenomenon of course, but neither are they a one album wonder. Regardless of the musical direction they’ve taken over the years, be it noisier (Honeyed and Killed) or poppier (Phantom Pop Star), the trio – completed by bassist He Yifan, who joined in 2010 – have always had an unshakeable knack for making highly infectious music.

And if the singles that the spiky act have been steadily releasing since the start of the year are anything to go by, Sound of Life Towards is no different. Indeed, the band’s seventh studio album may even be their finest work in years. Their quality shines through on the polished surges of the rousing ‘Requiem…’ and sprightly, instantly likeable hooks of ‘Longing for the Coming Warm Spring’, which was appropriately released just before Chinese New Year.

In between these two songs came the grungier ‘We Are Animals’, in which Atom ends the song’s lyrics with repeated shouts of ‘most of the males are nothing but a bunch of wild animals’. It’s a line which seems to carry extra resonance in light of recent attempts to get a #MeToo movement off the ground in China, even if the timing of the song’s release – just as #MeToo morphed into #米兔# (mǐtù) to avoid censorship and simultaneously picked up international news coverage – was perhaps more coincidental than planned.

‘That line was written by Zijian,’ says Atom, when asked about its significance. ‘It came out spontaneously. Maybe it lays bare the inner essence of most men.’ For his part, Zhao adds that, ‘Only humans who respect women are really human. We have to have equality.’

As for the push for a Chinese version of #MeToo, Atom argues that it’s important to bear in mind that ‘the historical backgrounds and basis of the different feminist movements are also different; you can’t talk about them detached from their cultural backgrounds and specific contexts. If someone touches you on the street in France is that the same as someonetouching you on the street in China? Is China’s “sexual freedom” the same as America’s “sexual freedom”?’

Ultimately, she says it comes down to there being 'a line between "sexual freedom" and "sexual harassment" – sexual freedom may be natural but sexual harassment is absolutely not a type of freedom, in the same way that killing people or arson isn’t freedom. What’s an appropriate way to chase for a boyfriend or girlfriend? This kind of code of conduct is like how your parents teach you what is polite. "Sexual freedom" and feminist resistance to sexual harassment are not the same issue – there is no conflict between these two things. The things that affect a woman’s body, shouldn’t affect her dignity and even more so, shouldn’t turn her into an eternal victim.’

'We Are Animals' also takes a swipe at 'self-inflated and stupid' hip-hop's emergence into the mainstream here in the past 12 months, via iQiyi's hugely successful Rap of China show. Released just as the TV show's second series was being shelved amid an apparent crackdown on 'hip-hop culture' in the mainstream, the message in this case was more direct, with the song accompanied by a text which talked of it – with tongue in cheek – as a 'diss'.

'Whether it's rock music or hip-hop, it's all coming from the West,' says He. 'We're influenced by some great works and some of the attitudes from the West and then we put it together with our own experiences and create our own things. With The Rap of China, it's a commercial show and it's going to have elements in it that will capture the attention of the audience, so the artists taking part need to understand how they can use such a platform rather than just being a dancing monkey for it.

'We live in a fickle age where it's easy to become famous and even easier to be forgotten again. As an artist, you have to focus on your work – a good work can move the soul, and last forever. As for those acts on The Rap of China, I've never watched it, but I just want to raise one sentence: you've probably been used.'

At least where their own art is concerned, Hedgehog seem more in control than ever, having left long-term home Modern Sky in favour of Taihe's Ruby Red rock imprint. It was a case of 'the right people, in the right time, at the right place,' says Zhao of the split, which has seen them link up with Snapline's Li Qing as producer.

'We were already in contact with some of the people at Ruby Red when we were making this record,' says He. 'And one of the reasons for that was that we hoped this record could really move up a level in terms of quality. The production team at Ruby Red are people we've been friends with for a long time, including Li Qing; after years of performing at [pivotal Beijing venue] D22, they've all known since the beginning exactly what we require as a band, so the communication with them was really easy.

'And after being in the industry this long, whether it was from the perspective of the production, experience, or resources, we just felt this was the right time for a change,' continues He. 'We felt that working with Li Qing, and with Ruby Red, was definitely going to be a successful choice.'

Yet while the band seem content with this move, there are still lingering concerns among many fans over Hedgehog's future. Writing on Weibo at the tail-end of 2017, Zhao stated that once the trio's promotional commitments were fulfilled for this album, they would be 'taking an indefinite break,' adding ominously that ‘the drummer doesn't want to play; I don’t want to go on.'

Two months later, Zhao doesn’t exactly extinguish fears that this album might be Hedgehog's last. 'I'd had enough of everything,' he says when asked about the post. So does he still feel the same way? 'Things will take their natural course.'

It's left to He to swat aside talk of disquiet in the ranks. 'If your band has become like your family, there'll always be bumps along the way,' he says. 'After all, you've been together over ten years, the "seven-year itch" has passed, and maybe there's a little aesthetic fatigue. One aspect of it though is that it shows that Hedgehog is a really genuine band,' he adds, 'and really temperamental, ha.'

'Everything ends sooner or later,' He continues. 'Whether we break up or not isn't really the important point. But there are still lots of things in front of us that need to be completed.' And though they may not be getting any younger, for Hedgehog, there'll always be people who are young.

By Jake Newby
  • 4 out of 5 stars