When we began working on this series of primers on Korean pop music, we got a bunch of looks. Some were interested and keen to see what we’re doing. Some were, well, puzzled. “I thought you preferred indie?” some went. “Why are you tackling this obviously manufactured genre?” Well, on this week’s installment of How to Collect Korean Pop Music – the final one – we look at Korean indie acts. Yes, underneath the flash of the pop groups and the feels of the OSTs, there are lots of acts toiling away, doing their thing, and getting some attention for it.
A week or so of digging has revealed that Korean indie falls into two loose categories. There’s your usual guitar-based music – your typical indie bands, rock bands, that sort of thing. But today we’ll mostly focus on the other category, those artists that have their way with a piano or a guitar, producing minimally-produced yet arguably-twee music. Rainy’s got a thing with pianos, as long-time readers probably know, so that’s a given – but, also, we’d contend that these songs are interesting and refreshing after six weeks of K-pop’s wham-bam.
One of the giants, so to speak, of the Korean indie scene is Standing Egg. These guys have popped up many times in the years we’ve written about K-pop: they’re everywhere, and they’re quite prolific, too. Founded in 2010, the acoustic three-piece has released two albums, two mini-albums and a lot of singles – and in between them, have worked with a lot of guest musicians and singers, as the group’s core mostly focus on producing and composing their songs.
The song we’re highlighting today features Han So Hyun, the vocalist of the lounge act 3rd Coast. (Think of them as a bit like the Pizzicato Five.) If this song sounds a bit familiar, well, yes, it is – we have previously written about a cover of this song featuring actress Park Shin-hye. Also worth listening to is “Lean”, their collaboration with actress Park Se-young. The group has also frequently worked with vocalists Clover and Windy – and yes, we know how whimsical that sounds.
We’ve also written about J Rabbit before, on our very first earthings! Fantasy Festival series. (Again, Rainy’s idea.) This duo’s more indie: they made their debut through the website friendz.net, and became popular through homemade videos showing the pair – vocalist Jung Hye-sun and instrumentalist Jung Da-woon, alongside some occasional collaborators – just goofing around before getting down to perform. That friendship is so infectious, you could see it even without understand a word of Korean. Also, trust us – watching their videos are fun. Take this one – all in one take.
The duo has released three albums, including one filled with Christmas songs. In all three, you can’t help but be drawn to Hye-sun’s vocals – a delicate soprano that’s expressive as well as versatile. There are the obviously twee, happy songs like “Happy Things”, and then there’s “Smile”, which is more tender and sweet. It’s too bad they haven’t released an album for a few years now. We can only wait…
While working on this last list of the series we discovered that most of the acts we’re highlighting come from one music label. Pastel Music, founded in 2002, is, so to speak, the Korean equivalent to Labrador or Terno – a leaning towards pop, sure, but with a different flavor than their more mainstream counterparts. One of the acts on their roster – and the one we’re keen to feature – is Lucia, who first performed under her real name Sim Kyu Seon, before adopting the monicker.
She has collaborated with Epitone Project, aka indie singer and producer Cha Se Jung, one of Korean indie’s luminaries; he’s been releasing music since 2006 and continues working to this day. (Rainy’s particularly keen towards the instrumental piece “Spring Day, Cherry Blossoms and You”.) Taru is another act who came from Pastel’s ranks: she pursued a solo career after her band, The Melody, split up. She’s more of the shimmering, glittery electro-pop type (here’s “Love Today” from her solo debut) although her track “Rainy” (no relation, hah) has a more familiar Britpop feel.
Another band from the Pastel roster – at least until moving to Magic Strawberry Sound a few years back – is indie pop duo Lucite Tokki. Composed of Cho Yae-jin and Kim Seon-young, here’s an act that could, and possibly already has, translated their music to an audience outside Korea: the video for “Let Me Dance” is very much a Western affair, and Niko’s pretty sure that’s Adam Driver playing one of the roles. (Also, it’s in English.) There’s a definite Scandinavian pop influence in their tracks, in both English and Korean – hear “Wallflower”, their latest release, or one of their classics, “Go”.
It’s interesting, really, noticing that a lot of Korean indie has been, whether conscious or otherwise, a reaction to the manufactured nature of K-pop. Not that we’re slamming that – there’s a place for both in this world, of course – but there’s a lot of piano, a lot of gentle rain, a lot of sweet, sweet voices, both male and female… let’s just say K-pop is an obvious gateway drug to these gems. Maybe the language barrier would be hard to jump through, but this could easily go the way of the success of Scandinavian acts, or the burgeoning indie pop scene in Southeast Asia.
But of course, it’s not all happy twee stuff. South Korea’s got an alternative rock scene that understandably gets buried underneath all the gloss. We had a hard time looking for an act to highlight (considering the language barrier, again) but Niko’s keen on Phonebooth, founded in 2005 and known for a straightforward yet polished take on melodic rock.
And there are a bunch of others too. 24Hours has a familiar garage feel, very British. Yellow Monsters, founded in 2010 and only splitting up this year, has a harder sensibility. Another one of Korean indie’s luminaries is Peterpan Complex, founded in 2000 and known for the many shifts in their sound throughout their albums. We wish we had time to explore them, more so even do reading on them, but you know, limited time and all.
Additional listening: Singer-songwriter Lel has collaborated with many K-pop acts, including 2PM’s Wooyoung and Fiestar’s Linzy. Rocoberry is a two-piece, although you wouldn’t know it because the vocalist, Roco, is all you see; her partner, Conan, often hides under a teddy bear head. Shifting to the more lounge-y side of K-pop, we focus on Yiruma, a pianist who’s seen success both in his home country and his adopted United Kingdom. (Yes, we used the song that Twi-hards claimed for Bella Swan.) Vanilla Acoustic is, well, another acoustic act, although oddly they had a fuller sound until the release of their 2012 record Romance of Underground. Finally, that rare example of a major label investing on a rock band: TRAX is part of S.M. Entertainment’s roster, and was more of a nu metal act in the beginning, before shifting to a more typical pop rock sound.
And finally, a few words from Niko, to tie everything up in a nice bow: I was bewildered when K-pop started being a thing in the Philippines. This was around 2008, I think. I distinctly remember going, “why would you like a song that’s in a language you don’t understand?” Of course, seven years later I would be listening to a fair number of these acts, even counting some as my favorites, and I would devote seven weeks to a look at K-pop nobody is likely to really read.
I knew I have really changed my views on a red eye flight from Hong Kong to Manila just a month ago. The only thing I watched on the plane’s entertainment system was a months-old episode of M Countdown, one of Korea’s biggest music shows. Mamamoo’s having their goodbye stage on that episode, so I was giddy. I remember listening to Stellar’s “Vibrato” – that was their comeback stage – and going, “this is too raunchy.”
I didn’t notice my companion – we were on a business trip – was watching the show from beside me. He would then ask me if I could set his screen to show the same episode. He was interested. So I did, tapping the screen a few times, and there he was, watching M Countdown, and there I was, soon asleep on a plane – a rarity.
Lee Soo-man, the founder of S.M. Entertainment, coined the term “cultural technology”, referring to the way he and his ilk are exporting Korean music, and later television and film, to the rest of Asia, and as it would turn out, the rest of the world. The intricate system – a product of years of investment and support from every relevant party, and perhaps the Korean sensibility of hard work – has paid off, obviously, with K-pop now a globally recognized juggernaut. Of course not everybody will see it that way: here in the Philippines, for one, K-pop is still seen as music for the masses, manufactured for great effect and not challenging in any way. Of course, if those rich snobs would only take a second look, they’ll find that K-pop is more than the dance steps and the occasional viral hit like “Gangnam Style” or “Gwiyomi”.
In the past seven weeks Rainy and I have been researching on K-pop, I wondered (again) what it would take for Filipino acts to have a fighting chance, at least, of being in the same league. A lot, I figured: support from every stakeholder, a commitment to quality rather than numbers, exposure not just to the converted but to the wider public. I learned in these past seven weeks that K-pop is successful because they’re proud of it, and they’re willing to push it out to as many arenas as possible. Here, we’re so fragmented – to borrow the Internet’s words – I can’t even. Maybe we all won’t like K-pop, but there’s something here for us to learn, about how we could support the Philippine music scene more than we supposedly are right now. And it’s not just copying concepts and calling it P-pop. [NB/SY]
[Many thanks to the people who helped us as we worked on this series: Adette Razon, Cris Michilina, Eleanor Manaois, James Habitan, Janine Diñoso, Jeany Lee, Jennifer Cortez and Sudoy Pateña.]