Some Thoughts On Korean Indie Rock

Some Thoughts On Korean Indie Music

To start with, this is NOT going to be a sweeping declaration, a wide survey, or anything. It’s just time I got some more content up, and this is something I’ve been finding a lot of resources on, while working on the dabang web page update. This is some musing about indie music in South Korea, just the music itself (since I know little or nothing about the labels, distribution, and, well, the tour circuit is currently close to nonexistent).

One time, I was complaining to a friend of mine about the way a music shop owner in the town I live in dealt with me when I came in looking for some “underground” music, a CD by the Uh Uh Boo Project Band (one of the bands that played at the Ssamzie Sound Festival where my own band performed last summer). He looked at me funny, showed me one CD single, and then when I asked for a full album, he suggested I try some other music… then he showed me some painfully mainstream Korean acts like Shinhwa and SES.

Frustrated, I said to my friend, “He acted as if all Korean pop music is basically interchangeable.”

My friend Marvin in Texas replied via email something to the effect of, “Well, isn’t it?” (That’s a paraphrase…)

Well, yes and no. The mainstream stuff definitely is. It’s so interchangeable that it IS being interchanged, in Asia, at least. Korea is actually a pioneer of the franchised rock band concept, where a band’s name is sold off to a “knockoff” band in another Asian country, who sings the same songs in the local vernacular. Something in my head is screaming about the Renaissance and multilingual polyphony, those polylingual motets I had to study so hard. But it’s nothing of the sort, it’s just profit-pop.

But then again, most of the dross that is Western popular music is also interchangeable. You would not believe how many times I have seen a Korean band do a cover of that Radiohead song, Creep. Tons of mainstream music in any language is that way. You really need to scrape around, look and search and bumble about until, bam, you find something that sounds… totally different.

I realized there was interesting music going on in Korea right when I got here. Within a month of arriving I saw a famous jazz pianist at a local, newly opened jazz palace (it can only be called that… check my website when it’s up for the poem “In the Mood”, which is about that place). I can’t remember his full name, but the family name I think was Shin. He was freaking amazing, mixing all kinds of indigenous music sounds with the free jazz. He was doing the Cecil Taylor thing, plucking strings, but the melodies sounded like the kayagum (the Korean version of the koto, if you know the Japanese version of the instrument).

Of course, jazz is basically old people music now; not that there isn’t some interest in it here… there are always some young people everywhere who are into it, and I’ve met some really cool people into it here. The first group I joined in Korea was a jazz trio of people all younger than me (and all far better than me, technically speaking).

But the focus of interesting activity in new music usually isn’t jazz, and I knew I’d have to look around elsewhere to find it here. Maybe, I thought, interesting things were happening fusing traditional classical music with Western music — there should be, considering how classical music is crammed down the throats of children here. But that doesn’t really seem to be the case; the lack isn’t the Western classical music, though, it’s the Korean traditional stuff. Koreans in the same generation as me have confessed that Korean traditional music sounds foreign or even “exotic” to them.

The thing that feels natural to people, that is where most of the interesting nexuses creative activity is usually concentrated. And in Korea, one of the nexuses is located squarely in the indie music scene. The scene is small, and still just beginning to develop. It follows in the footsteps of the older “underground” music genre, though – as one might expect in the kind of political Korea experienced since World War II – underground music wasn’t usually different aesthetically, except for its politics. And make no mistake: music has a political history in Korea. It wasn’t that long ago that live shows were strictly monitored and even sometimes banned by the government, as they still are to some degree in China. The history of live music clubs (a.k.a. “live clubs”) in Korea is not such a long one, and venues like Drug are venerable once they have been around for five years or so.

I got a hint of something odd when I heard bits and pieces of the PiPi Band. To hear some very short but very strange (and representative) clips, go here. (No better links available, sorry.) I’ve had some of the songs explained to me, that is, translated, and they still make no sense. Lyrics run the range from “Things I don’t like” to “This guy, he’s chewing gum, see, and you can see his teeth, and his lips moving, and his gums, and his tongue, and he’s chewing gum…” but the sound, the bizarre sound of it, that was something. PiPiBand, well they may not be punk like they claimed to be, but they didn’t sound like SES, or FINKLE, or death metal. It’s all boy bands and girl bands and metal here, or so it seemed at first. So hearing something so unusual was a relief.

I heard a little more when a student of mine told me all about Seo Taiji, Korea’s first rapper and, later, the country’s biggest popularizer of “pimp rock” or “rapcore”, which mixes rap and hardcore rock music. It’s not my cup of tea, but Seo Taiji’s music, along with the music of Sinawe, was apparently one of the more important of the innovators on the Korean music scene in the 90s, pushing music away from the saccharine and towards other, different sounds and approaches, regardless of how derivative it may seem to me now.

Well, after seeing a few local rock shows and a couple of groups passing through Iksan, I ended up playing in a rock band, a quirky but musicially somewhat conservative group (I used to say to myself, at least it’s not metal, right?) who managed to secure a spot in a national festival, the Ssamzie Sound Festival. We played at the 4th festival, in the fall of 2002. Well, now, not everything at the festival sounded “indie” to me. Of course, I’m no expert and anyway, the category is fluid, I know that much. I know because I’d seen a few indierock shows (and shows by bands that indierock people like) in Montreal thanks to my friend Jack, groups like Yo La Tengo and The Sadies and Stereolab and Mouse on Mars. A lot of the stuff at the Ssamzie festival (including us) didn’t sound so out of the ordinary to me. But even the relatively tame mixture of jazz and rock and blues and punk and pop that my band plays is unusual, especially because we’re playing original songs. The same goes for a lot of the other bands at Ssamzie: sure, Rollercoaster kind of sounds like Jamiroquai in Korean. But it doesn’t sound exactly like the mass media pop, and the musicians weren’t handpicked by execs, so it’s indierock.

But some bands really struck me as unusual, including 3rd Line Butterfly and Cocoa and especially the UhUhBoo Project Band. If you want to see why, follow those links and you’ll see videos from the Ssamzie festival. I think I won’t need to explain any more. IT’s a good thing, too because I can’t find too many proper links to real band webpages. It’s probably got something to do with my limited skills in Korean, I’m sure. Though I did manage to find a link to some audio clips from the UhUhBoo ep I bought a few months ago, the only thing by this band that I could find in any store in my province.

Since the festival, I’ve been slowly checking into the indie scene more and more. Some of the stuff is straight out pop, like DeliSpice and some of the hard rock, like Crying Nut, is a little hard on my ears and aesthetics, but even so this stuff is generally pretty interesting. There’s also a popular Korean band in America called Seam. And of course I shouldn’t fail to mention the immensely popular Yoon Do Hyun Band, which I’ve almost seen for free several times. (My girlfriend tells me she paid a lot of money for the privilege. I think that was the band she mentioned to me…)

One thing I’m curious about is what young people here are doing with their parents’ music. The music that was popular in the days of Mum and Dad, and especially of grandma, who still reminisces about dancing on the buses, is a kind of music known in Korea as Bongchak. It’s called that for a reason… it has that bong-chak-chak sound of German oompah music, with a little chinoiserie in the melody line. It’s pretty distinctive, and has a backbeat, and it’s music made for dancing, though you hear it in cabs all the time. I’ve heard suggestions that it was popularized here by the Japanese during their occupation of Korea, but I don’t know for certain. I do know that from experience I know that at least some older people on holiday have no compunctions about dragging young people nearby into their strange, roiling, dancing mass of soju-intoxicated elderly delight. For older Koreans it is the definitive party music, and dancing to it is one of the joys of being on holiday.

I’ve seen a lot of young people doing their own version of bongchak music, and usually it comes out sounding a lot like ska. (For example, see The Jolly Brothers, a band that befriended my band at Ssamzie this fall, or the more famous No Brains.) The ska version of bongchak is fun and interesting, when it’s done right.

However, seeing that bongchak is dance music, I have always wondered what a techno geek would do with it.

Well, the most interesting thing I’ve run across in the last little while is, I think, precisely that! Here are the online archives of out of print albums by the Hwang Sin Hae Band. There are a bunch of tracks here, some good and some so-so but all interesting. The best things, I think, are the linked tracks from the most recent album, entitled The Narrowminded Romance of Mr Kim, a Chick Sexer… that’s definitely worth checking out, isn’t it?

If anyone else has any comments or thoughts on this subject, let ‘er rip… that is, post a comment.

2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts On Korean Indie Rock

  1. Lots of great ino here. I just moved to Korea and I was starting to get worried that there was nothing but K-pop. I’ll try to track down some good shows now. Thanx

  2. I’m assuming (just skimmed this entry) that you’re an expat (that’s not a derisive remark on my part), and I have not much in the way of actual concrete experience with Korean underground music m’self (being of Korean heritage, but only having been to the ROK twice). I’ve surmised that the dearth of “alternative/underground culture” in the ROK can in part be chalked up to the repressive KCIA/ANSP, which resembles the Czech StB (w.r.t the Plastic People, etc.) in its attempts to ‘put down’ such ULTRA-SEDITIOUS ACTIVITIES.
    here’s an article on korean free jazz that illustrates this.
    And here’s a general article on 70’s Korean psychedelia/acid folk (beware of Engrish).
    that’s all for now.
    [Editor: I integrated the links so this comment would fit in the sidebar.]

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