HYUKOH Is the
The Korean Band Speaks Backstage about Love, Happiness, and the Global Music Market
- Interview: Yae-Jin Ha
- Photography: Dasom Han and Seoul Studio
“I don’t think we were fundamentally wired to be showmen,” says guitarist HyunJae Lim of HYUKOH matter-of-factly. It is quite an unexpected statement coming from someone with millions of fans worldwide. But it is exactly this sense of nonchalance, humbleness—and acute self-reflexivity—that make this indie band so refreshingly charming in the Korean music scene dominated by K-Pop and hip hop.
Comprised of four 93ers—Hyuk Oh (lead singer), HyunJae Lim (guitar), DongGeon Im (bass), and InWoo Lee (drums)—HYUKOH has enjoyed a sweeping ascent since their debut in 2014. With piercings, tattoos, and his signature oversize gray suit, Oh defiantly bellows songs about the anxiety of youth. Their nonconformist aesthetic and their don’t-give-a-fuck attitude are an anomaly in the Korean mainstream media populated with cookie-cutter celebrities. TV producers find them endearing, although the boys do not understand their enthusiasm—nor could they care less, for that matter. In this social context, the ascension of an indie rock band like HYUKOH is an incredible and invigorating feat. But it also reveals an audience that is increasingly interested in musicians that they can relate to on a personal level. HYUKOH has become the face of the “Give Up Generation,” a self-ascribed term for Korean millennials that shines a light on the crushing effect of the country’s competitive job market, expensive education system, and institutionalized elitism.
Riding the success of their latest album 23, the band embarked on their first world tour this past year. When I caught up with them backstage at one of their last shows in Seoul, they seemed like typical, goofy 24-year-olds you would find in the streets of Hongdae, casually joking about Eminem and Kanye West. But their presence on stage, in front of thousands of fans, was anything but juvenile.
I was expecting it to be a standing concert so I was quite surprised to find myself in a seated venue.
Hyuk: There are definitely some pluses to performing at a seated venue. And the 360-degree rectangular stage that came with the venue was something we had been wanting to try out for a long time. The downside with a seated venue is that people can’t dance along to the music. It would be awkward to be the only one dancing. My preference would be to perform at a standing concert that allows alcohol.
Have you experimented with any other kinds of setups in the past?
Hyuk: For our first concert, we had a film projected onto a thin screen and we performed behind it throughout the whole concert.
Some of the fans must have been disappointed though, since they couldn’t really see you guys.
Hyuk: Yeah, we got a lot of complaints. But we tried it again. We thought if we made it bigger and better, we would be able to pull it off.
Any interesting episodes from the tour?
HyunJae: Usually, a Korean audience doesn’t dance to “Wi Ing Wi Ing.” It’s not exactly a dance-friendly song. I think it was in Boston—we were performing at this small, bar-like space. There were a couple Americans dancing to the song in a 2/4 beat in the front row. So that was quite memorable. And the Japanese fans… They tend to not make any sound during the performance. It felt as though they were listening to us with their soul.
Hyuk: We’ve been raffling off this cap that I’m wearing, designed by my friends at Dadaism Club, during a few of the shows in Korea. The first person who had won this cap—I found out she ended up selling it.
Wait, how did you find out?
Hyuk: Someone kept tagging me on Instagram so I checked. Initially I thought it was fake. In the caption this girl was like, “Look what I got, isn’t it cute?,” and in the comment feed, her friends asked where she got it and she wrote that she bought it from a Chinese fan.
HyunJae: Do you know how much she bought it for?
Hyuk: I have no idea.
Before meeting up with you, I checked out an episode from the Korean variety show “Livin’ the Double Life” that you have been starring in. And there was a scene where you guys get into a sort of an argument. HyunJae mentions that he would like to spend six months to just work on an album. And you respond to it by saying no, we should cater to the fast-changing market.
Hyuk: This is the problem with K-Drama. They splice together scenes and dramatize everything.
That’s what makes it fun though right?
HyunJae: What I meant by that statement was that I wished I had the time and luxury to just focus on making music. Of course, you have to be conscious of people’s music consumption pattern. But unless you put out something fresh, you will jeopardize your longevity. At the end of the day, when it comes to music, if you can’t show that you are capable of bringing something more to the table, you become stale.
Hyuk: I do see HyunJae’s points and I know that, one day, the time will come when we will need to slow down and come up with something completely new. But the global music market is changing at a dizzying speed. there are so many musicians. People aren’t that interested in us. As with anything, we are just one of people’s many interests. So I think that right now isn’t the time to slow down. Right now is the time to do more. But we didn’t even fight that day. They made it seem like HyunJae stormed out of the room when in reality he had just left to smoke a cig. It’s all fake, all a lie.
So the variety show experience hasn’t been so positive.
Hyuk: I had only agreed to do it for the fans. But I don’t think I would want to do another variety show. I don’t know about these guys, but I don’t think I’m a good fit. Maybe I’ll try documentary next time.
But I think the reason why people like seeing you in these variety shows is because you don’t quite fit into that glitzy celebrity mold.
HyunJae: But at the end of the day in these kinds of shows, you have to come out and try to appeal to the mass’s interests. Be showy. But I don’t think we were fundamentally wired to do that kind of thing.
You mentioned that the title of your concert, “How to Find True Love and Happiness,” is actually the theme of your next album—that you want to document your journey towards finding true love and happiness with your new music. How did this theme come about?
Hyuk: There was a bar on Pappelallee in Berlin—
Near Mauer Park?
HyunJae: Yeah, the dreary one.
Hyuk: We were staying near that area. Norman, this Berlin-based mixing engineer that we worked with for 23, took us to an OG pub around there. We were smoking when I saw this exhibition poster with “How to Find True Love and Happiness” written on it. It wasn’t anything special, but I was going through a hard period at the time, so that must be the reason why those words stuck with me. But I chose this as the theme of our concert as a way to ponder over them throughout the shows.
You guys have been on a tour since the summer. Now, you are on the last stretch. Do you think you have gotten closer to finding “True Love and Happiness”?
InWoo: I think I just need to rest first before I can do or think about anything else.
HyunJae: It feels as though we have been swept under a big wind, looking back at the past few months. Personally, my attitudes towards performing have changed a lot. It used to be that I would approach performing as standing in front of people to show something, but now I just try to enjoy it and hope that the positive energy will resonate with the crowd. And I have experienced that happening. I don’t know if I have gotten closer to finding true love and happiness though.
The topic of love and happiness seems to be quite a departure from your previous albums, which tended to be on the dark and depressing side.
Hyuk: We have talked about love in our albums before, but not one of those typical love stories. Same goes for happiness. They are something I do want to address and find. As you know, love and happiness are universal themes. They are something everyone knows. Even babies know what they are. People say one must love in order to find happiness, but happiness is so subjective. For me, personally, if I can find love and happiness, then I would deem that to be a successful life. Ultimately, wealth, fame, and success aside, it is rare to find people who have achieved both love and happiness. So yeah, I want to find them.
Yae-Jin Ha is a writer and editor based in Berlin.
- Interview: Yae-Jin Ha
- Photography: Dasom Han and Seoul Studio