How Hong Kong indie bands got creative during the pandemic and are now back and raring to play
- With live music shut down by Covid restrictions, bored musicians starting writing music, jamming together online and starting new bands
- Bands such as Hz, Cirrus and Atomic Bliss used Zoom and WhatsApp to keep in touch and record together, and some released music on YouTube and Spotify
March 2020 was the beginning of a difficult year for Brendon Chan, when the Hong Kong-based airline employee was put on indefinite hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic and flight bans.
“Everything stopped in 2020 for me,” he says.
A guitarist since he was 14, Chan played on and off with different bands in Hong Kong before 2020. An avid musician, it wasn’t the lack of passion that stopped him, rather, it was just – life. But the forced time off during the pandemic inspired him to write music.
“That period really helped me develop my music. Most of the songs I’ve written were done during the pandemic,” says Chan.
Tshun Zi-co, of the musical duo Hz, also took advantage of his time at home to write songs.
“I’ve known our drummer Skynex Yee Tin-lec for years. I found myself creating music during the pandemic and I decided to reach out to see if he was interested in forming a band and luckily, he agreed,” says the music teacher and full-time musician.
Chan also set out to look for like-minded individuals to bring his music to life.
“I had recorded a lot of tracks and, around early 2021, I was starting to actively look for people [to start a band]. At that time, live music wasn’t quite allowed [again] yet,” he says.
“I couldn’t really go to different music events to try and network, so I was also looking on musician classified sites. That’s where I found a few members who would eventually form our band, Cirrus.”
Finding the right time for a jam session was challenging, especially when social-distancing restrictions were in place and there was a fear of catching Covid-19.
“I was trying to arrange people to jam, but then suddenly cases would go up and then they’d get a bit worried about the cases and we’d end up postponing,” says Chan.
However, where there is a will, there is a way. Thomas Yu Ka-ming, frontman for Atomic Bliss, came up with creative ways to write and record music.
“We started recording two songs with the goal of publishing onto the major music platforms such as Spotify and YouTube,” says Yu. “This project was significantly delayed due to the pandemic as we were not able to go into the recording studio to finish our recordings. Our original sound engineer moved to the US, too.
“We would record our ideas and share them via WhatsApp. Bertrand Renaud, our lead guitarist, would record his ideas, banging them out on his guitar and we’d comment or add our stuff on top.”
Cirrus, too, relied on Zoom and WhatsApp. “During the time when you couldn’t meet up with more than two households, I would go on Zoom. I did quite a few Zoom sessions with the vocalist,” Chan says. “We’d work on different vocal parts, likewise with the bassist.”
Not being able to get together and practise was the least of many worries faced by musicians during the pandemic.
Chris B, boss of music showcase Underground, founded charity group Musicians Foundation to help struggling musicians.
“Many of these guys had to take on other jobs to survive and the only thing they were qualified to do was either delivery services or construction. I started hearing stories that musicians were going to be evicted from their homes,” she says.
Even under these trying circumstances, she noticed the creative surge in Hong Kong’s music scene.
“I used to list upcoming gigs in our biweekly newsletter, and when those weren’t happening I noticed there were a lot of new releases coming out, so I started listing those instead. I decided to keep that section even with events happening again,” she says.
Samuel Chai Zi-wen, director general of Renaissance Foundation HK, noticed such a surge of music in the past three years in the city that he organised the Ear Up Music Festival, which runs from January 5 to 8. It features eight local indie bands who have gained popularity in the past few years.
Chai says the pandemic has brought about a boom period for local indie bands because with Hong Kong not hosting any live music events for almost three years, bands have learned to connect to fans in different ways.
“People couldn’t go travelling overseas, bored musicians couldn’t perform live in Hong Kong, so local indie bands attracted a lot of local audiences through social media,” he says. “Artists can communicate with their audience directly and share their experiences and music. It’s phenomenal.”
And now these indie bands are ready to play. Since October 2022, when live entertainment was again allowed in bars and clubs, Atomic Bliss have already performed live at Aftermath and The Wanch, Hz are ready to release their album on streaming platforms in the spring, and Cirrus are ready to rock once they find a replacement drummer.
“This is my passion and I would like to take it as far as I can,” Chan says. “Playing weekly gigs here and there, that will be great. But if we could take my music to big stages like Clockenflap, I’d be sharing my passion with everybody.”