It started with a Van Halen album when he was 11. “That was first album that blew me away totally,” says Hua Cai, editor of Painkiller, China’s only national magazine dedicated to heavy metal music. Hua Cai's tastes have gotten louder and heavier since that first encounter with big haired, cheesy hard rock on an imported casette purchased on a backstreet Beijing music store.
The September issue - number 26 - of Painkiller, which comes out every two months, features Californian trash metal pioneers Testament on a cover flagging other articles on Scorpions, Pain Of Salvation and Nightrage. There’s reviews of albums by Behemoth Blitzkrieg and Heaven Shall Burn. The magazine's New Found Power section features Chinese band Puppet Butterfly.
Readers of the 25,000 copies of Painkiller published each issue are mostly students and blue collar workers. A national book distributor and Post office subscriptions get the magazine from Painkiller's Beijing office to fans around the country. An A4-sized glossy, Painkiller has been around for more than three years, born out of fanship and a commercial choice. “Yang the boss predicted this music will be big in China.” Hua read the first issue during his second year in high school. “I said ‘wow we have this in Chinese!'" says the man who signs himself “Dirty F” in his emails.
Sitting at a glass table in the corridor outside Painkiller's office in an anonymous commercial centre in Beijing's college-cluttered Haidian district, the 24 year old Beijinger speaks English with a fast fluency. He thanks Iron Maiden for that. “I wanted to understand the lyrics,” says Hua, who has never been abroad. “Van Halen is about entertainment. Maiden is more about faith...” Iron Maiden remains his favourite “because they have everything I want, power melody and great lyrics, epic personality. I like everything epic.”
The hardest part of an adolesence listening to Iron Maiden and Metallica was getting the CDs. “Before there was so very little chance to get into the music... I needed to be an angry teen,” says the very mild-mannered Hua, who introduces himself as Freddy. Broad and bulky, hair shaved to a neat one-centimetre stubble, it’s like he’s overcompensating for his normal down-to-earth-ness. “When I was 11 or 12 I realized that popular music would kill me.”
With those neat black rectangular-framed glasses resting on his nose, he could be the accountant or an advertising salesman most of his class mates became. They however would unlikely wear his olive-green sweater, emblazoned with the flame-like logo of Swedish metal band In Flames, who gave it to him. A thick ring on the right hand is styled like an Iron Cross, with a Coptic star in the turquoise-coloured centre. Ozzy Osbourne wore something similar in his Black Sabbath days. “A British friend got it for me,” says Hua, happy I notice.
Heavy metal was why he majored in journalism and communications. After graduating at the Xinan University of Nationalities he came back to Beijing – Chengdu had “hot girls and hot pot,” says Hua in an endearingly naïve way nice rock stars have of confirming to the rock star cliché of sex, drugs and rock n roll. He talks the talk, and in December walked the walk, in to Painkiller to ask for a job. "I was talking to chief said I was biggest fan since school.” A week later the clearly impressed publisher called back inviting him to start.
The editorial job has gotten easier as more bands add China to their tours: Testament and Slayer played here, while Linkin Park play Shanghai later this month. Hua wrings his hands with delight while describing the phone interview with vocalist Tom Araya, known for his trademark shouting singing style. “We got the first China interview with Slayer!”
That chat was set up by Universal’s branch office in China. Labels are keen to set up interviews for each issue. Smaller, specialist heavy metal labels have a contracts with Painkiller to contribute two songs for the CD that goes with each issue. Most of the tracks are by Western bands, says Hua because there’s not enough local talent good enough to make the cut. Yet most of the music isn’t available in china: readers have to buy online.
For the rest of its content Painkiller searches the international fanzines and magazines for Section 8 Crazies: whacky stories behind music like the world’s most famous husband-wife bands. Painkiller staff also write an Audio Powers section, its title borrowed from the film Austin Powers. “It introduces classic albums and pioneers of rock,” says Hua.
The latest issue of the magazine runs the gamut from hard to classic rock, with a few pages on horror films in between. “At the start we were very focused on metal and now we’re more open minded.” Stories on local punks Brain Failure and Sonic Youth-admiring indie stars Carsick Cars are a sop to local non-metalheads. Painkiller fills pages dedicated to the local scene with words and photos of local CD releases and shows at local venues such as 13 Club and Yugong Yishan. “We pick the best of new bands and predict the future stars,” says Hua.
Coverage of indie artists is part solidarity in a music scene where rock music of whatever variety remains a minority taste, banished from national radio and TV. “In China metal belongs to the indie scene…” The two will grow together. The rock fanbase is getting bigger, society accepts this kind of music than ever before.”
Painkiller's horror film section is staple fare for fans of gothic rock. “We want to be a heavy alternative magazine.”But Painkiller can only follow the rock code of rebellion so far. “Some people realize this music stands for power showing people to truly believe in yourself and fight for what you want, but not politically.”
Getting the magazine onto the street was tough enough to begin with. The publisher had to drive two days south west from Beijing around Henan province to find the state-owned sponsor every publication needs to get the magazine a barcode. A book publishing company in Zhengzhou was eventually persuaded. Changchun and Harbin are tops of the 20 mainland cities - the publication is also distributed in Hong Kong - where Painkiller sells. “People up there are more aggressive probably,” shrugs Hua.
A staff of six in a cosy-but-cramped office in one of Beijing's anonymous fast-built new real estate development whose unfinished glass exterior suggests the developer got the location wrong. Two in-house designers spend periods between issues mapping out designs for the stacks of t-shirts piled on office shelving either side of the office door. Most are original designs meant as tributes to well known metal bands.
Most of Painkiller’s advertising comes from instrument makers and sellers. The other half of Painkiller’s revenue comes from concerts. Beijing-based Twisted Machines recently headed a Painkiller six-band show that included seasoned groups, newcomers and bands with new albums. Finding good bands is hard, says Hua. “Most Chinese musicians talk about their instruments and equipment but pay little attention to the music… Some of the musicians don’t know how to match melody and singing.”
A new wave of bands singing “more and more” in English is also proof of the lack of originality. “Even in Heilongjiang bands are just copying western fads. That’s the biggest problem now, there’s no originality.” China made better metal in the past, when the country was far less plugged into global music trends. Hua’s pick of the best Chinese bands, Overlord and Tang Dynasty, retired in the late 1990s. Spring and Autumn, formed by core members of the latter, is a pale shadow of the original, says Hua.
The medicine Chinese metal scene needs is more live music: “more chances to see good metal.” Even though 1,000 people showed up to see Testament’s summer gig, high ticket prices are proving prohibitive to fans. “No one, especially students will pay RMB300 for an hour and a half long show.”
Proof that China has fans willing to travel: die hard fans from Tianjin and Heilongjiang paid up to RMB660 for tickets to a recent Beijing show by Swedish glam metal band Arch Enemy at the Haidian Exhibition Hall. The band, which features on a recent Painkiller cover story, drew 1000 Chinese fans, “not bad on a Wednesday night,” nods Hua. But high ticket prices are not sustainable in China, says Hua. “I couldn’t believe what some people were paying, 660 yuan is half my salary!,” says Hua.
The solution is to bring younger, lesser known bands who are willing to share some of the costs and sleep in cheap hotels. A May concert at Beijing’s Star Live club by Denmark-based Hatesphere
organized by Painkiller drew sponsorship from a Danish corporation while concerts in RMB50 and RMB30 in Zhengzhou, Xian and Shenyang were helped by distributors of Schecter guitars in the cities. The band took trains between venues packed with attentive fans and local musicians keen to learn some new tricks. The Zhengzhou bill support came from a brutal death metal band while in Shenyang several black metal bands - "the screaming type" opened for the Danes. “The crowd went wild.”
Tours by foreign bands are growing the fanbase for metal music, says Hua. Arch Enemy took a week off after a Japan tour to check out the Chinese scene before going on to Australia. Painkiller estimates 900 people gathered at the Painkiller Stage at the recent Modern Sky music festival in Beijing. The indie label organising the festival gave Painkiller a stage to fill for one day. Several Japanese bands have via Taiwanese promoters, paid their own way.
The increasing mobility of young Chinese is grooming Chinese heavy metal fans - and Painkiller readers. Reviews and interviews come from Chinese students in Germany, Canada, Finland and London. “They’re fans of metal music and emailed us and said want to be your writer or distribute you.” One of them, a Chinese-born German, Yang Yu, has brought connections and PR know how. Webmaster and PR for Painkiller Yang Yu is also the force behind www.rockinchina.com
“Metal music will grow by us organizing shows and writing about them,” says 'Dirty F.' "We have to show people how cool this music is, and help them understand this music’s expression.”