Hedgehog is a very deceptive band. Their music is, superficially at least, simple punk pop, good fun with a good beat and catchy melodies. But it can withstand closer examination, revealing a great amount of craft and creativity. I have been lucky enough to see them several times live, and always enjoyed the show.
by Jon Davis, Published 2015-07-01
photography by Jon Davis
Note: This piece was originally published on my Rocket to China blog back in 2009. Since that site is more or less defunct, I've updated the post and brought it to Exposé to make it more accessible.
Part of a series dealing with rock music in China, mostly Beijing because that's what I know. 摇滚 (yáogǔn) is the Chinese word for rock music, the two characters literally meaning "shake" and "roll."
This band was the subject of frequent notices in the English-language publications around Beijing from the time I started reading them, and the descriptions were enticing enough for me to buy their second CD Noise Hit World (Badhead/Modern Sky, 2007) without hearing any of it first.
It’s a really engaging pop-punk sound with some elements of both British and Japanese rock to it. Like many Beijing bands, Hedgehog is a trio, in this case guitar/bass/drums, and also like many Beijing bands, at least one member is female, in this case drummer 阿童木 (Atom, as in Astroboy, because she is small in size but very powerful just like the robot boy in the cartoon). Their modus operandi is to establish a catchy rock groove and add somewhat sing-song vocals over it, sometimes punctuated by enthusiastic shouts. Guitarist 子健 (ZO) does most of the singing, though Atom helps out with backing, occasional lead, and shouting. The lyrics are mostly in English, unabashedly sung with Chinese accents. The bassist also goes by a nickname, 博宣 (Box), and most of the tracks feature very strong, catchy bass lines. On some tracks, the bass part is more prominent than the guitar, as on “Nova Nova.”
I’ve been unable to find any actual videos made for this album, so here’s the lead-off track with minimal visuals. Searching for Hedgehog videos gets you a lot of video-game results.
The basic trio is occasionally augmented with a variety of other instruments like glockenspiel, synthesizer and other keyboards, and sound effects. The sound is full and tight but very live, retaining the feeling of the three of them playing together in the same room, and my experiences with their live shows bore out the fact that any studio additions were merely sprinkles on top of a desert, fun but non-essential, though the song “It’s Not Yourself but It’s Future” has no guitar at all, being built around a bass line and a number of synthesizer parts. The thing they excel at is making each song a distinct entity, never just a copy of one of the other songs, in spite of the basic instrumentation.
It wasn’t long before I got a chance to see them live (covered here originally). They were part of a four-band bill at Yugong Yishan for the two-band album release party of Carsick Cars and Snapline on November 10, 2007. That was a great night of music, and Hedgehog were outstanding – noisy and rowdy without being out of control. Melodic power pop that's neither mindless nor completely derivative.
Looking back at my original post:
"Two things set them apart: the singer/guitarist can actually sing (though he does a great rock ‘n’ roll scream as well) and has enough energy to light a whole village if there was a way to harness it; and the drummer (who from appearances isn’t old enough to be out this late, though I know she is) is rock-solid and has enough energy to make me worry that she contributes to global warming – they don’t call her Atom for nothing."
Apparently, their energy impressed me. They were a lot of fun and a great contrast to both Carsick Cars and their wall-of-noise art rock and Snapline's minimal electronic experimentalism. Certainly it was near the top of the many excellent live shows I saw in Beijing.
I ended up seeing them live again the following weekend at 2 Kolegas as part of a different four-band bill. This time they were the final band after RandomK(e), Subs, and Re-TROS. Most of the decent pictures I got appear in my original post over here.
2 Kolegas is a very different environment from Yugong Yishan, closer to classic “dive” status and proud of it. The smaller, more intimate show was looser and ended with a real Rock and Roll Moment, as I described in my original post:
"Near the end of the final song, the guitarist pulled his strap over his head and dropped his instrument to the floor, finishing out the tune on voice only. Then when the others finished off the song, he staggered backwards and fell to the ground. He was still lying there as his bandmates headed backstage. Atom came over and shook him, but he didn’t appear to move. She hurried over behind the drum kit and got one of her cans of Coke, then brought it back to him. She lifted his head up to pour some in his mouth. Eventually he sat up enough to drink on his own."
The band has remained active since then, though I haven’t seen them again. Their third CD, Blue Daydreaming (白日梦蓝 – báirìmèng lán), came out in 2009 on Modern Sky, and, like Noise Hit World, is much more subtle and melodic than their live persona would indicate, though it’s full of vitality and charm. This time the lyrics are split about halfway between English and Chinese, but I don’t think that’s an indication of them giving up on international recognition. As much as I like Noise Hit World, I think this one is better. The first sound you hear is a synthesizer, but it isn’t long before a big wall of guitar hits you, and they’re off with the title track. There’s also some growth in songwriting, as in “In Spring,” where a lengthy slow intro breaks into a bouncy rock song to finish off.
I said it’s more subtle, but that doesn’t mean it’s wimpy. It’s more muscular sounding in many places, though there are passages of acoustic guitar with dreamy vocals. And sometimes the dreamy vocals are placed with a more upbeat rock section, for a nice contrast. “The Last Bus” offers up perhaps the greatest stretch from their basic sound, with most of the lead vocals handled by Atom, prominent acoustic guitar, and a variety of spoken voices coming and going throughout its duration.
Here’s one of many great selections.
That concludes the update of my original profile of Hedgehog. Now for some updates.
It took quite a bit of searching, but I finally tracked down an earlier release, Happy Idle Kid. In some ways, the songs are more demos than something intended for wide release, but it's still a good listen, and has the base of their sound in place. The sound is more stripped down, and the way quiet and loud sections are played against each other owes something to Nirvana, but it’s no mere rip-off, just some talented kids who learned a thing or two about dynamics by listening to some American music. Britpop is the other influence, with some echoes of Blur, Oasis, Teenage Fanclub and the like. There’s an air of innocence about the songs, and this is a case where heavily accented English (there’s very little Chinese singing on the album) isn’t really a detriment, only adds to the endearing nature of the music. It’s clear that Hedgehog’s esthetic was in place from the beginning, as there have been no major shifts in style from these first recordings to the latest things I’ve heard. There are a couple of awkward edits where it sounds like two different takes of a song were put together, but that’s a minor complaint.
There’s even a video for the song “Wink,” which shows them having fun with a Chinese take on the “kids these days” attitude of the older generation.
And I actually did see them again. They played the Modern Sky Festival in 2010 while I was visiting Beijing. This was quite a different experience than seeing them in small clubs where the audience maybe topped a hundred, but not by much. They were on a huge outdoor stage, with a crowd of thousands dancing and screaming and singing along.
The three of them seemed so tiny on the massive stage, but they handled it admirably. The big video screens at either side of the stage helped, though the cameramen roaming the stage were distracting – though totally standard at Chinese festivals. Later in the set, after that picture, ZO played an old hand-decorated Stratocaster with the letters SO FASHION across the top. Not sure what that was supposed to mean.
Since I returned to the US, it's gotten a bit harder to keep up with the music scene in Beijing, but Hedgehog does get some coverage, and Tenzenmen out of Australia distibutes their releases.
Honeyed and Killed came out in 2011, and further builds on their strengths, but maybe not in expected ways. The slightly mellower side comes a bit to the fore, though in Hedgehog’s world, “mellow” is a relative term. There’s no mistaking they’re a rock band – but more tunes have slower builds up to their climaxes, and some songs, such as the title track, don’t bring in the distorted guitar until more than halfway through. ZO sings more in his breathy style, and there’s less shouting all around.
The album finishes with something new: a completely acoustic tune, just ZO and his guitar, accompanied by a female voice (Atom, I guess) speaking in Chinese, some of which seems to be the same as what ZO is singing in English. It’s a lovely, odd moment, and shows they’re not content to sit still.
“Sparklehorse” is one a catchy, upbeat song which has the unexpected choice of a chorus that is in a slower tempo than the verses; it was one of their choices for making a video.
The next thing that showed up was a limited edition collection of demos called 2011 DEstroy meMOries (put together the capitalized letters). This CD features nine tracks, several of which would show up on their next release, 2012’s Sun Fun Gun, which I haven’t heard yet. It finds them indulging in psychedelic jamming not unlike something that might have come out of Germany in the 70s. They stretch out beyond their typical 3-5 minutes several times, and there are atmospheric passages as well, showing the band doesn’t just add all the frills when it comes to the studio - they’re planned from the start. And while the recording quality isn’t super-high-fidelity, it’s a worthy addition to their catalog, and certainly gets some play time around my house. All three musicians show great creativity, with Atom’s unusual drum parts really standing out.
They’ve released two more albums since that (Sun Fun Gun and Phantom Pop Star), and I’m looking forward to hearing them. This band hasn’t let me down yet, and with Chinese bands having more opportunities to play outside their homeland these days, hopefully the rest of the world will catch on to how good they are.
Filed under: Profiles
Related artist(s): Hedgehog
Didier Lockwood RIP – Word reaches us today of the death of one of France's great jazz musicians, violinist Didier Lockwood. His playing bridged many worlds, from traditional jazz to fusion to progressive rock, and his talent can be heard on recordings by Magma, Clearlight, Pierre Moerlen's Gong, and many more. Lockwood was 62. » Read more
10 Years of Fruits de Mer - The Incomplete Angler – Those of you who are faithful followers of Exposé will know that we have been promoting Fruits de Mer and its side labels and releases from nearly its first year. Now music journalist and author Dave Thompson has written a book chronicling the past ten years as a celebration of this milestone. » Read more
Bill Bruford Ventures into Uncharted Territory – Drum master Bill Bruford, veteran of some of the most creative bands in history (King Crimson, Yes, Genese, etc.), is sharing some of what he's learned about being a drummer and a musician in his new book, Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer, out on University of Michigan Press. » Read more
First Band from Outer Space - We're Only in It for the Spacerock – Can anyone hazard a guess as to the type of music on this CD? And the first two don’t count. What a blatant name for a band and their debut release! In actuality, this Swedish band is quite good.... (2006) » Read more
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum - Grand Opening and Closing – After two years of playing astounding shows in the Bay Area and with a national tour under their belt, this band finally has an album out! Sleepytime Gorilla Museum is a Bay Area supergroup of sorts.... (2001) » Read more