At 5pm on June 28th, Zhang Zhexuan, who just got on a cab, was still savoring the sweet feeling of victory from earlier that morning. Argentina barely made it out of its group in the World Cup thanks to Rojo’s goal in the 86th minute, and as a loyal fan of the country’s national team, Zhang, knowing full well of his low tolerance for alcohol, downed a couple cans of beer, after already having drank an entire bottle of white wine. Excited, he sent messages like “Long live Argentina” in a football group chat.
Having stayed up all night, even while sitting in the car, his body felt sluggish at best, and his throat sore. He started playing a live version of Hotel California on his phone, and the guitar solo at the end reminded him of practicing guitar in his youth. He jotted down in his memos, “f**k the 21st Century—guitar is the best.” Zhang kept writing, as the inspiration kept coming.
While Zhang was still on the road, Liu Jia, who just got off work from a large national corporation, had already ordered a coffee, patiently waiting at their point of rendezvous for an interview. A tall and skinny man, Liu wore a white bucket hat that almost completely covered up his long and skinny eyes.
Zhao Zhao, similar to Liu, also has a full time job outside of his music career. He currently works at an internet company with a focus on sports media. In fact, Zhao had to speak with his supervisor to get off early that day so he could attend the interview.
^(from left to right) Zhao Zhao, Liu Jia, Zhang Zhexuan
Liu Jia is the band’s guitarist, Zhao Zhang the bassist, and Zhang Zhexuan, the only full-time musician out of the three, is the vocal and secondary guitarist. Penicillin, the band comprised of three millennials, is the result of an atypical yet practical partnership.
Zhang Zhexuan says, if it weren’t for music and Penicillin, they definitely would not have crossed paths in life.
Chaos is reason
Zhang Zhexuan says that he has a pretty slow metabolism and therefore life style now. The first thing he does after waking up is to make a coffee. He has started to take his time browsing through the produce section in supermarkets. After buying food, he would take his time to listen to music while he prepares food. He’s especially fond of stews that take an hour or two to make, because it gives him more of a reason to go on YouTube or practice guitar while he waits for the food to cook. After finishing his meal, he would usually head out to bars to watch sports and drink a few beers until it is dusk out, at which point he goes home to crash on his bed.
Before becoming a full-time musician, Zhang Zhexuan had worked a regular job for two years, specifically commentating and analyzing on football (soccer), as well as related translation work. “I really loved that job because I had a legitimate reason to run around and get to meet famous players and coaches. But of course, you can’t get everything in life.” Due to his even more overwhelming love for music, Zhang decided to resign to focus on making music.
When asked if he was jealous of Zhang’s current state as a full-time musician, Zhao Zhao said that although he is somewhat jealous of him being able to use his time freely, his current job is one that he also loves. Liu Jia, similarly, says that his current lifestyle suits him perfectly, but adds that “there wouldn’t be any fun without the band.”
While he was in college, Zhang Zhexuan had already started touring with Penicillin at various schools. At that time, Liu Jia was in a different band at his high school, and he would have never imagined being able to join Penicillin. Zhao Zhao also never expected to become a musician three years after he’d started working. After Zhang graduated, Penicillin went through a major change, and Liu and Zhao both found a full-time job, but Zhang believes that the current state of the band is “reasonable.”
“In the current state of this band, pretty much only I can sustain this full-time-musician, carefree lifestyle. The other two members are, in a way, working so that I can live like this.” In his opinion, Liu and Zhao are both very practical people, like players in football that have equal defensive and offensive work rates, whereas he himself can be equated to one that doesn’t want to play defense. “I just want to go forward. I would much rather have a 4:3 game than a 1:0 one.”
Now, Liu and Zhao have both gotten used to this lifestyle. After a day of hustle and bustle, they bring out their alter ego at night, making their ways through the night crowd to enter a practice room in a downtown basement. After every weekend out-of-town gig, they then switch back to their “normal” self and catch the first train to get back to their 9-to-5. That has become the norm of their lives.
^Zhao Zhao (left) and Zhang Zhexuan (right)
When asked if this dual-identity life can sometimes bleed into one another, “no” was the collective answer given by both of them.
“Everyone’s life contains chaos because of their place in the society; you experience both negative and positive emotions all the time. When you enter the practice room and hear the screeching of electric guitar, however, you’ll remember that ‘hey, I still have rock and roll.’”
From Zhang’s point of view, Liu and Zhao’s lifestyles actually enables Penicillin to stand out from other bands. “I remember once when Liu got on the stage and said in a very corporate manner, ‘please allow me to introduce Zhang Zhexuan who will tell you about his creative process when writing this song,’ and everyone thought it was the funniest thing.”
A “Romantic” Point of View
Penicillin, as most may know, is the medicine that saved many soldiers’ lives during World War II. Zhang Zhexuan’s naming of the band is derived from his wish that his music can one day cure many others.
But while Zhang was a very active musician in college, he decided to study abroad after graduating to “heal” himself. “I was so crazy back then. I was drinking and partying almost every day, and I added so many contacts on my phone that I don’t even remember most of them. During a tour, I all of a sudden and had this revelation that I might need to take a break.” He said he needed the year abroad to really get to know himself.
As a musician and a football fan, he chose Manchester as the city to study in. During that year, he joined an amateur football team and played almost every day. He also formed a band and wrote songs and performed on a regular basis. Manchester’s music scene left a deep impression on him. “In Manchester, aside from all the commercial ones, even universities have professional-level venues. On weekends, unis are filled with live shows, and the bands are pretty good too.” Slowly, he felt like he found his purpose in music.
Aside from music and football, Zhang also used his spare time to travel throughout Europe, which had a substantial influence on his songwriting. “I remember walking through Prague, where their cobblestone roads are 500-something years old, and it is truly inspiring.”
In April 2017, Penicillin released their first studio album “An Embrace with the World,” an album that is largely a reflection of Zhang’s life in England.
In May of this year, Penicillin went on their second 14-city nation tour. From stats provided by the band, their Wuhan, Chongqing, and Chengdu stops all attracted over 700 people, and in Guangzhou, Hangzhou, and Shenzhen, more than 800 attended each show, making them one of the highest grossing indie rock bands in China.
When asked why they have been doing so well this year, Zhang Zhexuan gave us his answer. He thinks that the most important part of a band is to allow fans to hear the music. Thanks to his suggestion, there have been more than 10 Penicillin fan group chats created to facilitate the direct communication between the musicians and their fans. In addition, Zhang has held a very open-minded attitude when it comes to collaborations and commercial work; as long as they can produce content that they are happy with, they’re down for it.
Regarding the future, Zhang wants to push the band even further. But even as romantic as he is, he realizes that people change throughout life, inevitably. “Maybe the band will continue to exist indefinitely; maybe I’m going to be coaching football. I know Zhao Zhao likes outdoor sports, and Liu might end up in a high-up position in a national corporation. The point is, everyone might end up doing something different in life, and who knows, maybe after we’re ‘done with real life,’ we’ll come back to make music for another year or two.”
The people and the experiences allow Penicillin to have a certain layer of depth. The balance and chaos between life and music make it that much more “real.” The “romantic” style revolved around the band may just also be the members’ way of life, allowing them to become the Penicillin of those who love their music.
Translated by Kane Ge
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