Chinese drumming heroine Shi Lu was born in Beijing and has spent her life there at the helm of two of the country’s best alternative rock outfits. She joined her first band—punk trio Hedgehog—at the age of 21. A few years later, after splitting up with Hedgehog’s lead singer, she reunited with that band’s former bassist who was in another group—electro pop trio Nova Heart. She began to drum for them, thereby doubling up her band duties. The path to becoming a loud and proud female drummer in Chinese society has been one of self-discovery for Lu, who drums under the name ‘Atom.’ Named after the cartoon character from the Japanese manga series Astro Boy, she says the other reason for choosing that nickname is because ‘atom’ translates to “strong” in Chinese. “An atom is a little thing,” she explains, “but it can make a big explosion.”
How has growing up in Beijing shaped your worldview as a performer?
“People in Beijing experience more pressures and are angrier. It’s a big city and it’s complex. It’s important for me to be a Beijing girl making music here. The people here have their own individuality.
Before you became a drummer, what were you like?
I was a good student. I listened to my parents. I played piano and thought it was very boring. When I began to play drums I went, ‘Wow this is what I want.’ Playing piano is a good education for music and when I began to play drums I thought it was too easy for me.
Do you think drumming has changed you? Has it opened up your personality?
I went from being a good child to a wild girl. Deep in my heart I have an angry and rebellious spirit that I can express through drumming.
When you were playing piano, did music seem like more of a discipline? Were the drums more creative and more liberating for you?
Absolutely. I don’t like playing piano because I have to memorize the sheet music, remember every note. Piano made me efficient but when I’m drumming I can really express myself. I can create many things in my heart.
How did you first get into drumming?
When I was 14 my mom took me to the orchestra and I saw a lot of percussion. I began to use sticks to play instruments like marimba. When I was 15 I began to play the snare drum. I thought it was super cool and wild. Then after another year I began to play the whole drum set but I was still young. I didn’t listen to rock music until after High School. That’s when I realized [being in a rock band] was what I wanted.
Did you find it difficult to free yourself from parental pressures? Was it hard to be a young female drummer?
My parents supported me. They wanted me to like whatever I was playing; drums, piano, or whatever other instrument. My father always used to check us out at rehearsals. He loves music and would come to our rock shows then comment: ‘Your band is getting better!’ It was funny. The only pressure came the first time I played with Hedgehog. I had a lot of confidence but the lead vocalist had never met me before and thought, ‘Look at her, she’s like a little girl, can she play drums?’ But after the first rehearsal he knew I was what he was looking for.”
Is it a challenge to be the only woman member in a rock band? How does it change the dynamic?
Women are more sensitive and flexible, and we have more creative ideas. Girls have more talent than boys when it comes to doing music. I think of other female musicians as my sisters.
When you started to listen to rock music after high school what were your initial influences?
My first idol was Dave Grohl. I listened to Nirvana and Blur.
You’re in one punk band and one electro-pop band. Is there any crossover between the two in terms of influencing your playing?
They influence each other. Playing in two different bands is a challenge for me. In Nova Heart, the lead vocalist sings in a tribal style and I follow her. I spend more time on Hedgehog because it’s a punk rock band and it requires more energy from me.
You rehearse in an underground parking lot with Hedgehog, right? How often do you rehearse?
Five hours a day, around 20 hours a week. Then rehearsals on top of that.
Is it subversive to be in a punk band in Beijing?
If you don’t use bad, dirty words when you talk on festival stages it’s okay.
Is that frustrating? You don’t have the freedom to say everything you might want to?
You can still express yourself during a song—you can express the freedom in your heart when you’re playing. It’s hidden, you know what I mean? Sometimes you can say something subtle or ironic and sarcastic. The government might not understand what it means!
What’s your advice to young women in Beijing who want to be rock drummers?
Don’t think too much, do what you do. If you can’t play drums well or your technique isn’t good, you can still play because the music in your heart. It comes from inside.