Frenzy. The word conjures images of teenage girls, decked out in baby t-shirts, glittered eyes, frantically shouting and hollering towards (insert teen idol here) and reinforcing obscene and irreparably ignorant statements they haven't the context or experience to accurately qualify.
Or sharks, bloodthirsty and swarming. Not sure there's much of a difference between the two, but what the hell, right?
Or, the word, to a group of musically inclined indie art geeks in Seoul, conjures up images like this:
I've talked more than once about the great podcast Korean Homesick Blues, which has presenter Dave Candler introducing a great many obscure musicians based in Korea to the rest of the online world. One band he has yet to feature is Frenzy, and I hope he includes them soon. Having released one CD, Nein Songs, they have a well-carved niche in the scene. Shoegazy, yes, but very clean-cut intentions in their music and the best tone management I've ever heard. No hyperbole. The bass always speaks clear and clean when melodic, low and guttural when providing a foundation. The guitars always have a place, low volume and fuzzed for background, clear and clean for melodic lead, perfectly matched with no lead role given to either player. The drums are tribal and muffled, or sharp and biting, either atmospheric or propelling depending on the needs of the songs. They are some of the nicest guys I've met among the Seoul (read: Hongdae) music 'scene' as well, which is less of a community and more of an apathetic bloodbath whose participants bleed each other to death via passive aggressive snipes.
Anyway. Hear Frenzy here via the blog Sonic Masala (I've directed you to the 2010 July page so you can get the snarky scoop on Frenzy, about five bands down from the top) or go to their Facebook profile. Better yet, go to one of their upcoming shows which you can look up on Korea Gig Guide, the hands-down best place to locate brain-stimulating music (or not, in all too many cases) in Seoul and elsewhere on this (insert perspective-demonstrating adjective) peninsula. I'll be at the December 12th Club Ssam show, where I'll finally get to see Bit Gwa Soeum, a Pixies/Airish affair.
There are three specific types of fermented rice alcohol, which is variously referred to as rice wine or rice beer. Either description suits, though I have come to prefer the beer comparison as the rice must be cooked in hot water before it begins, something that doesn't happen during the wine making process with the exception of kosher wine, which is boiled before it is allowed to ferment. What we've started making, makgeolli, is of the type which is fermented only once, and which properly must be described as something reduced from the sum of two distinct portions, a clear, top layer of cheongju, and a second base layer of milky takju, where the remnants of the rice settles after it has been fully broken down by the yeast and bacteria which live in the nuruk introduced to the hot mixture of rice flour and godubap.
The ingredients are described thusly: godubap is rice which has been soaked for roughly three hours and let to drain before being steamed, but not as one would to in a regular rice cooked, which would introduce an excessive amount of water into the rice. In being steamed, the starch is broken down to allow the nuruk to digest it more easily, but the water content is kept to a minimum, hence enhancing the resulting concentration of alcohol by volume. This is a point where I myself would like to experiment, as it is uncommon to have and rather cumbersome to obtain a suitable steamer to produce godubap.
The initial ingredient into which the nuruk and godubap are mixed is easier to obtain and prepare, being simply rice flour introduced to boiling water and mixed into a viscous rice dough. When making makgeolli, one would mix in both the nuruk and godubap into this dough, however if one is planning a secondary or tertiary fermentation one simply mixes in the nuruk after the mixed dough has been allowed to cool to approximately 30 degrees Celsius. This awakens the dormant yeast and bacteria in the nuruk without killing it, and while wild Korean yeast is exceptionally resilient (surviving concentrations of alcohol by volume up to 18%, similar to specially engineered yeasts like Turbo Yeast, whereas typical beer yeast often ceases to function at approximately 8% by volume, wine and champagne yeasts producing between 12% and 15% by volume, typically) it is best not to test the limits by exposing it to immoderate temperatures, lest one waste ingredients and time by producing a batch of black mold.
This mixture of godubap, rice dough, and nuruk, left to sit for roughly 10 days, will result in a mixture sufficient to filter and water down to produce makgeolli. Left for one month, a concentration of 15-18% of which the top layer may be taken for a wine-like drink, the bottom layer still available for makgeolli, which should be watered down to taste. It should be said that after two weeks is the ideal time to harvest makgeolli, whereas one must wait longer for cheongju, though one may still take palatable makgeolli from beneath the more slowly developed cheongju.
Coming soon: photos updates of our homebrew... sweet. Dude.
The scene: 2010 Food Expo at COEX in Gangnam, Seoul.
The players: Susubori crew, 'been-there-done-that' foreigners, naive 'wow-Korea's-so-unique' foreigners, and the Evil and Most Malevolent Bastards Who Think Nothing of Substance, aka, the PR Wanks, aka, the Showboaters, aka, The Guys Who Would Rather Film Us Than Teach Us Anything About Their Mysteriously Inscrutable Culture Which Is World Famous. Whew.
Entries from 32 exhibitors, from which 8 semi-finalists were selected.
Here's the short version. The full account comes after the break. We're sweating away at COEX, in an exhibition hall, onstage, in front of massive rows of cameras recording proof of foreigners happily engaged in traditional Korean culture. What you won't see is that the end result of this is: no education regarding traditional culture; an unusable traditional product that would have been disposed of by the very people who made it (well, foreigners anyway, the jury's still out on whether non-Koreans in Korea are really people, given that we certainly aren't treated as such, but more on that later); and, finally, an overwhelming sense that we'd all been lent out to an end which didn't actually serve the purpose of our visit and which in truth defeated the very intent behind visiting this expo.
To wit: frequently in Korea, there are these "cultural learnings for make great benefit glorious nation of Korea" type of events. At said events, foreigners get singled out to perform something they do not understand and look silly doing so. After said performances, Koreans in attendance feel something like, "Oh, that validates my culture and its uniqueness! They try and it's cute, but they're so bad at it!"
Be forewarned: I do get negative. But only because I care. And things turn out well, and suggestions, positive ones, are made.
“For you, your band, or your friends, the stage is open!” Q Jeon, owner of Hongdae’s Club TA, knows his music. Four and a half years ago, perceiving a lack of live clubs in Hongdae, Q opened Live Club TA, named for a Korean term for striking a musical instrument. “There are many nights for clubs and dance music, but live clubs are difficult to run because they don’t make the same amount of money,” Q said. “So I opened this bar to help the bands. So many places have no dressing room for performers, bad sound systems, and low pay for the band. I chose this place to give these things to the bands. So many places were just like a black box. I wanted to create a unique atmosphere.”
Gesturing to the bar, made up of thousands of shards of variously colored tiles, Q said, “We made this bar ourselves in one night.” Psychedelic tapestries are draped everywhere, and a wide dance floor leads to a tiered open sitting area, sans chairs, creating a welcoming ambiance. Inspired by all the bands starting up around Hongdae these days, Q also runs TA Music School, offering voice and guitar lessons while members of his band teach other instruments. Though the lessons are presently only in Korean, Q hinted that they might offer some in English soon. There are also free acoustic busking nights on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. “For you, your band, or your friends,” Q said, “Club TA is open! The stage is open!”
To inquire about music lessons, booking and private parties, or upcoming shows, call 011-9033-7568 or visit the club’s page at cafe.daum.net/liveclubta (mostly Korean). English information about upcoming shows can be found on koreagigguide.com
Directions Take a right out of ex. 1 of Sangsu St. (line 6) and follow the main road for about 250 meters. Turn left at the 7-11 and you’ll see Club Ta a few buildings down on your right.
A man called Dave Candler runs a blog that should alter the awareness of independent music of all genres in Korea tremendously. The blog has been running for a short while and has just published its 15th episode, featuring a few bands I hadn't heard of and am quite pleased to now know about. I had quit going out to shows in Hongdae since a brief run with 10 Magazine as a nightlife contributor. Talking to club owners about the music community was simply too depressing, and what I wanted to end up talking them into doing was unrealistic although by no means a new idea. More on that later.
Because the music here is frequently awful; it is sophomoric, it is common, it lacks any sense of urgency to be known or original character. We have clones and copy bands; in fact we lost a round of a quote-unquote battle of the bands at the eternally wretched Rocky Mountian Tavern in Itaewon to the worst hiphop group I've ever heard in my life (a group that turned out to be very close to the judges, happily enough) and to a band that performed mostly covers of early 2000's screamo. Clearly they aren't looking for anything interesting. Popular live music in Seoul must be easily chanted by drunks and easily digested for the mentally challenged, predigested if possible for maximum absorption. It must be forgettable as well, or else people would eventually realize that it's a carbon copy of something else that while archetypal in its day is remembered by only a small, devoted cult following for a reason (which of course as a description does not describe me or my inscrutable affections). A few bands on KHB's podcast are up for worst band ever. But afterwards, The Good News!
A poster from the unwitting Nazis
We're letting Galaxy Express go; they're not worth the effort. So instead of a few poseurs with expensive leather jackets trying to invoke a decade they weren't old enough to experience (the 80s), nevermind their unconscious inclusion of WW2 era SS 'lightning bolt' in many of their posters and logos, we have a Epitaph cover band that is essentially an 'And Out Come the Wolves' era Rancid knockoff with First Round Heroes. We also have a latter-day Green Day knockoff, from Busan apparently, with Self Made Hero. No word yet on whether the bands called each other before deciding on their names. "Three words? Ok, and the last word should be something epic since our music is anything but..."
The episode focuses on the ambiguously spelled Sighborg (often spelled with 2-4 Ss and a similar number of Gs), a local project I've come to avoid but which is improving. Having once obsessed over carnival loopiness with no sense of melody or progression, the duo has overcome their inability to invoke melody and while remaining on a meandering path in their aural construction, are now producers of pretty, if entirely scale-based, explorations of their synthesizers. The sounds work, usually, and they please the 8-bit lofi Nintendo pop crowd. I've been to a few Sighborg gigs, and the sound used to make me hallucinate, or nearly, in the worst possible way, and conjured images of a Satanic Pierrot masturbating over cribs with an enormous lollipop in one hand and simultaneously spattering blood out of its bedeviled toofy (spelling intended) grin. That's no longer the case, but focus will help these guys in the end. So they are, sadly, out of the running for Worst Band in Korea.
No longer awful
It's hard to keep up the negativity, because it exhausts me as much as it does you, so while we let the two pseudopunker groups (can't blame them, pop punk's as easily to play as the name is to say, though it seems to be a bit of a challenge for the First Round Heroes) battle for suckitude, we'll look at something creative and inspiring.
First up is not Matt Spence. An occasionally convincing acousticist (let's just invent new words in this land of pidgin English, shall we?), he is actually best when he's bad, like when he stutters on the tracks in a manner that makes me think maybe he did actually not know what to sing for a moment. It works, because it sounds sincere. The epic expositions about Dongdaemun are tiresome and I will not give any credit to a band (or musician) that tries to marry its identity to soju (cough, Heroes, either/or First Round or Self Made) or such specific places. That's what made musicians like Simon and Garfunkel or Dylan (selectively on both counts, I admit) great: you could see them singing about being anywhere, especially if it the place in quesiton was unfamiliar to the listener. The familiarity kills it, and he reaches for rhymes when he should just be himself, which in this song he occasionally is, and should keep it up, should he want to come to be known for his quality rather than his artifice.
What's that, a Gibson Thunderbird? Very original...
... And, wait, just a moment! It seems like I've gone and made a mistake! I've confused a punk-pop band for a post-punk band! They get so alike... I've invoked two bands from the 15th podcast and mixed them with the 13th, which includes Kachisan and ...Whatever That Means. Not a lot to say about either of them: you've heard them before without ever having heard their names. So they're like a live jukebox, which means that they're more fun to watch while not challenging your taste or making you come to terms with originality, torturous feat that that is, and, at least in Korea, are probably much cheaper to hire for a night of music than installing an MP3 player.
Almost awesome is The Bell and The Hammer, a folksy band that I loved until the singing began. Great tones, wonderfully simple instrumentation. Actually, genius instrumental tones. Dry, wooden bass and guitar (the kind on which you can hear the fretting action, which I'm a sucker for, for some reason), dry, loose drums, perfectly matched to occupy a balanced spectrum, played simply, convincingly reminiscent of a bygone style often imitated but rarely repeated well. It is repeated well here, but I cannot bear the sappy, overly beautiful and overworked fluctuations of the female lead, though the male backing portion is suitably minimal. I'm not saying any of these groups are bad, simply that I don't like them at all and the reasons behind that sentiment.
But I apologize, I meant to speak of music that is creative and inspiring, and got caught on a tangent of ill will there. But I'm not this guy at least, so I will have a good thing to say: D.Y.D.S.U. is awesome, excellent minimalism. Sparse, empty, textured, slow to make itself known: a perfect execution of restrained evolution. Also making something unique is Dean Jukes, with a wonderfully executed electronic track that excels in the mastery of layered expectation, evolving, receding, and returning like an organic entity pulling itself out of null space. Two acts to be keen on.
And before we get off-track, I mean to say good things about the Korean Homesick Blues Podcast and its creator, David Candler. Let's say I provide a negative enthusiasm to balance his positive enthusiasm. His encouraging remarks are often wonderful, and perfectly accurate. I certainly am not a taste-maker.. I would have to have taste in the first place, which in lacking, I have only enthusiasm, imperfectly and selectively. It's a love it or hate it binary relationship.
Before you get on me, I know, I know: I'm a bastard, I'm being mean, being negative. But I want new, I want original. I want ugly, if necessary, I want it INVENTIVE AND IRREVERENT AND ALIVE. And I want it straight from a creator, someone who doesn't care a lick about any of these 'scenes' that pass for community. Community is glued together by adhesive that lasts, and what lasts is innovation, not repetition. Stop referencing, quoting, and inferring and START SPEAKING! Or put down that instrument and glue yourself to reruns of MTV from whatever decade you're trying to invoke.
So: check out Dean Dukes and especially D.Y.D.S.U. I'm not saying it's good, I'm saying I like it.
D.Y.D.S.U. The images used above are not owned by me. If you possess the rights to an image used above and would like to see it removed, please send a private email indicating so. Politely, of course. NOTE/UPDATE: Give that there has been some increased traffic to this blog for reasons unrelated to this post, and given that time provides altered perspectives as situations change and likewise do our relations and values - anyway, I am leaving this up even though this post encapsulates the lowest point I've ever been at personally, creatively, during my time in Korea. I keep this up even though it risks rubbing old wounds open and offending those mentioned, as well as risking relationships which have only recently rekindled and which are sometimes friendships, are sometimes acquaintances of utility, or what have you.. I keep this up as a memory of what it was to see this way, of where I was and where I am.. as a warning, a reminder of where I may return if i ignore those things, those people, those movements which have pulled me, at times by my own effort, at times by the efforts of others, at time as pure accidence, only at some times though concerted will and clear intent, from this negative mire which was every bit as toxic to me internally as it appears to be from the outside. This is the blog post of a rabid animal who knows only a fever of sharing its infection - and so I keep this up. I hope that anyone who takes offense to my past positions may be in the present more gracious than I was in the past and by being so may appreciate that this no longer, and for a long while now, represents any of my sentiments towards the creative pool of artists in Seoul and elsewhere and that as I've said, remains up for what is perhaps a selfish and potentially volatile reason, only to remind me of where I have been and may end up if I'm not careful, if I neglect myself and fail to appreciate the creative efforts of others no matter how much we may diverge in taste. October 12th 2012
Now available online for your listening pleasure: the new album by Arne von Brill, The Conundrum of Sheldon Whipstock's Back's Back. Also pimping the album with great enthusiasm is Korean Homesick Blues, a blog by Dave Candler dedicated to spreading independent music in Korea which bills itself as 'the best alternative music podcast in Korea and all Asia.' From what little else I've seen in the blogosphere, I could take that statement at face value without much difficulty. On top of that, Dave's been kind enough to say this about our album, having dedicated an entire uninterrupted podcast to it: "...stunning... It's killer, like nothing you've heard before."
Listen for yourself, and give the man his due by finding out whether this sort of sentiment is common or unique, at Korean Homesick Blues. He did say wonderful things about some bands I don't have much regard for, so well chalk it up to differences and mind the fact that people are often unfairly biased towards their own work, whether over- or under-estimating its value.
Cheers, Dave. Beer's on me at the time and place of your choosing. Just, please - not Walkerhill, ok? Photos by RL Baldwin, @ Hearts of Artichoke
This past Saturday, we found ourselves making a traditional rice liquor at the newly opened Susubori Academy in Sodaemun. Establish in only September of this year, its mission is to teach traditional liquor-making techniques to both Koreans and foreigners, whether tourist or expat, and to spread awareness of artisan liquor in Korea.
While drinking culture is firmly entrenched in Korea, it is frequently at local bars, known as hofs, and the drink in question is almost always a mass-produced industrial effort the likes of which companies like Jinro are behind. Jinro soju, to take one example, is not even soju in the strict sense, in that the final distilled product is watered down from an alcohol-only concentrate that has nothing in common with the traditional drink, distilled after weeks of yeast and bacterial fermentation produces cheongju, a low-proof liquor of 15-18% alcohol by volume. This cheongju, in the traditional method, is skimmed from the top of fermentation pots and the remaining layer, called takju, is filtered and then combined with water to produce the more widely known makgeolli, which commonly contains 6-8% alcohol by volume.
Few Koreans even are aware of the distinction: companies like Jinro produce massive supplies of industrial alcohol quickly and perpetually, pushing domestic liquor prices down to price points unheard of in my own country. A 370ml bottle of soju can come as cheaply as 1,500krw in some neighborhoods and rarely exceeds 3kkrw (the abbreviation for 'thousand Korean won' that will be used here on out) but the key difficulty in getting local artisan alcohol is lack of distribution as well as,in the case of makgeolli, its relatively brief shelf life. Makgeolli that far exceeds the industry standard is made even within Seoul's city limits, but simply does not meet the same level of production put out by companies like Jinro, and that the greatest variety of makgeolli houses lies beyond the city limits, and indeed all across Korea, means that that variety is experiences only by those local to the manufacturer or someone lucky enough to be within proximity of an establishment that specializes in artisan makgeolli.
Every once in awhile you get invited to play at interesting shows, which involves knowing people and having them generally like you. This, we were never good at. We never schmoozed, we couldn't, it was as though we were on a first date with someone we never wanted to both with, except in this case every single person was a connection to another show. The upside of this off-putting attitude is the sense that the performance involves no compromises. It was a fine line we were often just on the wrong side of.
No Fs for Korean Students: My Time In A Public High School (Note: written during the author's second year in Korea, this article may reflect non-current views.)
So you know all those tests we in the West hear about our Asian counterparts studying so hard for? Well, all that time spent studying has an interesting component, which is that regardless of your test or class grade, at least in the pre-university education system in Korea, you cannot fail.
That's right. You will pass biology, English, math, or any other class you take with any grade whatsoever. All you do is show up. Did you get a 20% in algebra I? No problem, we're moving you on to algebra II. Not ready? Remedial classes? Summer school? Surely you jest!
I discovered this today at the same time that I discovered my students also receive no greater grade than 10% of their overall English grade from my class. That's right, there's no separate grade for English Conversation. And that 10% comes from a one-minute (that's not hyperbole, sadly) test which I will be giving next week. And that test? It's only the second-year students who get tested. The first year students receive no sort of quantifiable evaluation whatsoever.. really. It's part of the Ministry of Education's idea about how student enthusiasm for English will be diminished by stress regarding tests and grades and so forth. Funny. I studied as hard as I did in French specifically because I didn't want to fail, and wanted to do well.. and that stress never diminished my desire to visit the Rive Gauche and drink wine and eat brie and baguette.
So basically: I have 40 students. I'm lucky to have five that have skill and enthusiasm for English. So they try anyway because they're self-motivated. They care about doing well because they want to study at good universities and explore the world and all that. Maybe there are another ten who have much less skill but who will at least listen and attempt the activity, even though they know there's no grade and basically no reason to actually do any work or participate at all. And then there's everybody else.
I guess teachers all over the world face difficulties like this. My teachers in high school certainly had to deal with difficulties, but we were a private school. So parents had an investment in one's school behavior, and were not happy if the semesters tuition brought bad grades.
Oh wait, grades. My teachers could give a bad grade. Or fail you. For wretched behavior, you might get docked 10%. Or less. Or more. You might have to have to petition the teacher and apologize to get some of that grade back, since schools teach more than just math and reading and all that. We get socialized in school. We learn about social politics and hierarchies. We learn how to play by the rules and how to break them. But we have to make an effort to learn these things. We don't just sit idly by or sleep through class and get passed. Even if we really forget as much of the information taught to us in high school as we all believed back then (remember when we told this teacher or that something along the lines of 'You know, it's proven that we forget 90% of what we learn anyway...') the most important stuff is generally ineffable, or at best difficult to explain. Because we learn to be who we are and who we become, and we learn how to behave, and grades are part of that reinforcement. Grades are part of the lesson. But I don't give grades. I will determine about 10% of the overall grade for my students, in one minute, for one single activity, for an entire semester. So grades aren't part of whatever lesson I will end up teaching.
The government wants English classes to be taught in English by 2011. Wait... Korean students study a foreign language in.. Korean!? No wonder no one can speak any English even after 5 years of 'instruction' in public school! Apparently this is true of other language classes as well, including Chinese and Japanese. It's a good thing Asian cultures are generally reputed for their politeness, or every Korean trying to order a steam bun at the Olympics would get the same sort of distainful glare I got in Monte Carlo when I tried ordering something in French, before the server sighed loudly and asked me (in French) what language I really spoke. "Uh.. English," I muttered, after thinking better of my desire to put the final nail in the coffin of my faux-internationalism by saying, "Euh, je parle anglais."
I never studied French in any language other than French. I imagine the other students learning languages like German and Spanish at my school studied those languges IN that language. Our teachers weren't necessarily native speakers, but they had degrees (in the language that they taught) and they had studied in the countries which were home to those languages. I even studied Latin in Latin. And who speaks Latin these days? The point was immersion.
So, Korea. I wonder now about your many businessmen, politicians, and doctors. Your lawyers and public servants are now highly suspect. How many of your citizens, O Country of the Morning Hack-Cough-Spit, are quietly coasting by on what in the US would be less than a high school diploma? And what of your universities? I know that Seoul National, Korea, and Yonsei Universities, along with Ewha Women's University, are all basically Ivy schools which are impossible to enter with less than a 96% overall grade average. What about the others? Even our state schools are getting harder to enter. Especially state schools with good reputations. No diploma? GED and community college, baby! We'll talk in two years. Terrible grades? Failed classes? Community college.
So I wonder about all the university students at the many less-than Ivy schools here. Someone has to take the students who don't get into the SKY schools.
In a country often characterized by conformity, a breath of the truly strange can be welcome. But you may have to dig deep to find the flip-side of Korean culture. A good to place to see some off-beat performances is RUF Projects. Located in Gyeongnidan, just down the hill from the Hyatt Hotel and near Noksapyeong Stn. (line 6, ex. 2), this venue has a regular rotation of acoustic artists, dramatic performances and traditional Korean dance.
From 8 pm until late every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night, owner Nam Hyung opens this DIY café-cum-venue for light food, cocktails, and an ever-evolving lineup of performers. A fashion photographer who recently returned from Paris, Nam hopes to expand to two other locations in Seoul later this year but for now is actively recruiting artists who wish to participate in all sorts of concept-driven art. “I want art that allows the audience to explore being something different,” he says of his performers, one of whom recently staged an original one-act play in mixed Korean and English, featuring two asylum inmates conversing with a tire.
Whether the idea is simple acoustic performances or looped dog barks performed on the keyboard (you’ll just have to trust us on this), RUF Projects offers a great opportunity to witness and participate in something which diverges from the norms of live music and art performance. Nam now opens his cafe during the week as well to give musicians and artists a space to spend time, collaborate, and be exposed to new ideas.
More specific information and the upcoming weekend’s lineup can be found at http://www.MagazineProjects.com(Korean).
Over the past few months, we’ve introduced you to clubs memorable for their quirks and character. Both Lydian and Bowie are such clubs, along with Club TA and Club Freebird. Part of the charm of such a club is its uniqueness, but there’s an undeniable shortfall of clubs like these. If someone wants to create a club that could really make money, be versatile enough to showcase electronic one night and folk the next, quirks and character can get in the way. What you need is the kind of club that I’m going to call a Big Black Box. It’s a plain name, calling such a place what it is: spacious, painted black from wall to wall and ceiling to floor, featuring only large lighting rigs and enormous sound setups and a plainness of space that any good performer will occupy and make their own.
We have already reviewed one such venue in Hongdae, V-Hall, which is beneath the Seogyo Hotel. But two others, closer to Hapjeong Station (line 2 and 6), offer almost identical opportunities to see performers in a completely undefined performance space. Such halls are Rolling Hall and Rollercoaster. There’s little to say; we’ll let the photos speak for the venues.
The Korean indie landscape is full of familiar songs simply sung in another language. Though new and a little unusual, the music there is every bit as evocative and visceral as the beats you know and love. You may even find an opportunity to put your Korean conversation skills into practice. To that end, I present my choices for the top five most interesting Korean indie bands performing today, perfectly matched to your musical preferences.
You like ambient melodies, long songs, and psychedelic influences focused by rhythmic structure. We suggest Vidulgi Ooyoo. This female-fronted shoe-gazing band will give you the lush textures of the past woven into a modern form as spare as a Danish dining room.
You like bouncy, poppy but rebellious music with an accessible dose of rock star ego. We suggest Phonebooth. Borrowing heavily from groups such as The Libertines, this guitar-driven band will get you moving and satisfy your inner angst without sacrificing a good melody. myspace.com/myphonebooth
You like strange noises, fleeting rhythms, and atmospheric textures that would feel at home in a David Lynch film. Plus a toy accordion. We suggest Itta (image above), who is best with her other half, Japanese noise artist Marqido. Collectively called 10 (no kidding), they’ll give you as much to talk about afterwards as to listen to at the show.
You like accessible pop but hate cheesy music to no end. Originality’s fine, but well-done is better. We suggest Bit Gwa Soum, a Korean indie quartet evoking the Pixies and Air. Smooth, distorted guitars and gentle rock beats drive the mostly English vocals, sung so clearly I can understand the lyrics perfectly well. No “Gosship Gull” here.
myspace.com/bitgwasoum (Korean, some English)
You like beats, volume, and thumping bass, preferably in a loud, dark, smoky room. We suggest NAKION of VU Records. This innovative DJ piles on heavy layers (not just mashed-up samples) of polyrhythmic drums, polyphonic melodies, and bizarre vocal samplings to keep your brain awake while your feet stay busy.
myspace.com/naxnaxnax (English), nakion.tumblr.com
All rights reserved by the author. Originally published in the February 2010 issue of 10 Magazine. Shot by Daniel Lenaghan
Performers at Lydian by Daniel Lenaghan
Indie music isn’t exclusive just for the fun of it; rather, it refers to the fact that you have to work hard to find those fleeting moments of musical novelty and innovation. Lydian and Bowie are two Hongdae clubs that are about as far as one can go from focus group-friendly pop. Both are tucked into the same corner of Hongdae, several blocks away from the main club area, and both offer a distinct type of music.
Lydian features bands so new they may be only half-formed. Known for local university student bands, the club’s chiefly Korean performers and audiences are treated like family. Lydian is working up to record label status as well, finding and building up bands that pass an audition and demonstrate, above all else, a singular passion for their craft. Catch one of these bands in this intimate, magically lit basement club, but get your drinks across the street at the Buy the Way, as there’s no bar service inside.
Bowie, another basement club with a spacious, sparse interior, is run by Yoshie Kim. Quiet, cute, pigtailed and a self-described “rock junkie,” she spends three nights or so each month hosting local rock bands in her venue. With funky décor inspired by the eponymous musician, Bowie is eccentric without being kitschy, as well as quiet and well-lit on nights without music when the bar is open for drinks.
If you want to find yourself somewhere off the beaten path, Lydian is an excellent place to discover something new and Bowie is the place to celebrate long-standing local Korean rock bands.
To locate Lydian, go to Sangsu St. (line 6, ex. 2) and continue past Honggik University until you reach a peculiar four-way intersection with a Buy the Way. Lydian is marked by a butterfly directly opposite the convenience store. Bowie is at the same intersection on the corner to the left of the Buy the Wavy.
Getting in Touch
Lydian Note that the website is in Korean and the staff don’t speak much English.
lydianmusic.co.kr, 070-8223-9945 (Korean)
Bowie In true underground style, Bowie has a minimalist website and does not post its information on Korea Gig Guide (koreagigguide.com) unless the band playing there has chosen to do so.
clubbowie.blogspot.com, 02-333-8665, firstname.lastname@example.org
Hongdae’s V-Hall is a spectacular venue, all the more so because organizer SuperColorSuper, represented by Sean Maylone and Christine Cho, chose it to host American indie electro-poppers YACHT and psychedelic dreamscaper White Rainbow. Both of these Portland, Oregon (USA) groups visited Korea after touring in mainland China. Seeing YACHT is like seeing James Brown reincarnated as two skinny kids dancing like crazy. Jona Bechtolt, the male lead, shimmies in ways that would make Marvin Gaye proud. In a white suit, shirt, and sneakers, his impersonation of generic TV evangelists is brilliantly rehearsed and yet utterly spontaneous. Joining him is the black catsuited Claire L. Evans, who assumes yogic poses before a video projection of hieroglyphs pulsing in time to the music. It’s impossible to sit still at this show.
Earlier in the evening, local electronic duo Sighborg (of which Sean is a member) performed, creating ravaging, feverish carnival guitar soundscapes. After their set, I spoke to Sean and Christine, who, as SuperColorSuper, have made it their mission to bring independent acts to Korea. As White Rainbow performs in the background, Sean lays out the inspiration behind SuperColorSuper. “I started this because my band was big enough to tour around Korea and garner attention,” Sean says,adding that this is proof that bands from Korea can garner attention abroad. As for the future of indie music in Seoul, he is optimistic, offering the example of SuperColorSuper’s Round Robin series, which promotes and supports local acts. There’s good reason to be optimistic. Judging by the number of bands coming together in recent months and the crowds at the venues, it seems as though Seoul’s underground scene is coming up for a breath of fresh air.
All rights reserved by the author. Photo by Erika Lippert.
On Halloween night, Freebird is loud, dark, and crowded in that surreal manner that only a space punctuated with the glow of stage lights can be. Colors reflect off ceiling-strung streamers exaggerating the already outlandish costumes present. A miasma of noise and smoke pours out of the second-floor entry onto those ascending the candle-lit stairwell in a nondescript building tucked into a side alley off of Hongdae’s club streets. Among those there are a blue-painted Kali, a fully uniformed quartet posing as Devo, and a mass of bloody zombies and ghouls. Inside the club it’s crowded, smoky, but as the music rises the sounds of the instruments are tonally rich and well defined, the vocals clear and resonant. Bands speak of Freebird as a perennial favorite due to its cozy size and sound quality, though I have to exit to talk to the performers between their sets as the volume inside the club makes it hard to hear.
The first act, The Moon, performs an initially acoustic set driven by the urgent vocals of Jason the hairy-legged witch and founded on the melodic bass of head wound victim Ross. Jake, the band’s drummer and the club’s lone chevalier tonight, joins the others, along with a convincing Mark David Chapman on backup guitar for the remainder of the set, pushing their amps to eleven and merging earnestness with a fun-loving DIY recklessness. I sank a bit to hear about the group’s impending demise. They’ve evolved since their inception, fusing simple (even simplistic) noisy rock with pop melodies, making their music easy to enjoy and easy to move to.
Ankle Attack performs.
The highlight of the evening was Seoul’s own On Sparrow Hills. Evoking the likes of Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene, OSH comprises a mini-orchestra of three guitarists (one of whom sings), a bassist, keyboardist, drummer, and an ecstatically-dancing supplemental percussionist who accentuates the band’s lush electronic texture with tambourine strikes and tom flams. OSH’s well-rehearsed repertoire suggests they aim to carve out a more particular niche for themselves and fans tired of the genre rehash bands all-too-common at Hongdae’s live venues. I applaud OSH’s attitude for being as distant as possible from the comfortable nostalgia which cover bands tend to rely upon for their acceptance.
I was in a band, before. We were the Brill, Arne von Brill. Named for an international guitar salesman. We played the sort of music that requires a sneer, rock that you will love or hate very quickly, and will continue to either love or loathe. And I sit here now, listening to the tracks, pre-release, remembering the band, the best and the worst parts of it, bilaterally divided just like that: no middle, neutral ground. Just great, sneering enthusiasm for what was good, and bitter resentment about what never worked out well.
They went through 3 bassists before they found me, and a whole train full of refugees. We went through two drummers, and we're on the cusp of a new record. Broken up, but still producing. We're modern like that. Being in a group is hard: if you contribute, you have to pay attention. If you don't contribute, you must execute the ideas of others, perfectly. Provide flourishes unexpected but known thereafter to have always been necessary. It might not have been my music but I was part of it. And now it's gone, and the new album arrives, rec'd, mixed and mastered by an American music industry veteran for no small amount of pocket change, and we've no way to do the best thing we ever did, show off, piss about, on stage, in costume, ourselves. Funny how we were always more ourselves decked out in fuckwit outfits. There's no other description. Frenchies from Mars, butch bulldyke lumberjacks, German golfers: listening to the music now gets me right back to it, and the feeling of the onstage glare returned like a follow spot right into your face is unmistakable.
In Busan, it's not so cold around New Year's, when we arrived at the hotel. Twenty minutes until midnight. And drinks are cheap, and sleep is hard to come by what with the flashing neon and rock-hard beds never intended for shut-eye, since no one sleeps at hotels in Korea, generally.
Rewind two years:
Back before we decided we should make our efforts more 'serious,' as the deadly word was, we played with cheapshit instruments through cheapshit pedals in bars deserving of our level of investment. The songs were interesting but not special. But they wanted to be more, and we could make it happen. So we parted with our first drummer and went into the studio, and I sat down behind the kit to help pound out a shamefully untuned, scatterbrained effort that you will never hear. And we learned very quickly what not to do.
What you will hear came later. It came with the mindset that follows purchasing a 1500-dollar guitar and cables at 100 each, to clear out the noise, to let your real intention come out. Our new drummer, audiophile that he was, never stopped commenting on the bands we would see together, noting the expensive instruments, the 600-dollar fuzz boxes and drive pedals, only to be gutted of the entire effect of having purchased an artisan-made, Class A electronic device by running the whole works through cables worth their quantity in singles.
Mind you, I'm not sure our efforts met with any difference. Of all the clubs I've played here, only one has consistently good sound, the kind of transparent soundboard operation philosophy that won't mask a shit performer with reverb and excessive, deafening volume: Club TA, my personal, perennial favorite.
But it showed, even when the sound didn't allow, in ways as simple as being one of the few bands that ever bothered to tune onstage, which seems like a fairly basic necessity. We began to follow through.
More to come. About the band, about us in Busan, being accosted by people who became rather irate at the flamboyant outfits we were wearing, about everything.