This is a review of the 불나방스타쏘세지클럽/황신혜밴드 show at 상상마당 last night. If you’re interested in Korean indie music, here’s my skewed and fannish take, behind the cut.
Well,the show was last night. I didn’t have my camera handy, though I’m sure a bevy of photos will be online today: tons of people were snapping shots.
The opening act was a group I’d never heard of before, namely, 불나방스타쏘세지클럽 — which approximately translates as Moth Star Sausage Club, though I’ve seen it translated (or given, anyway) online as “Rushing Star Sausage Club.” No idea what the hell that’s supposed to mean, but it does sound hokey and goofy, which fits the characters the band plays. Not that the band is hokey and goofy. Well, no, wait, occasionally they were. But they were also very tight, very well-coordinated and together. The band members were all dressed up in costume, basically a mix of country hick and middle-aged cheeseball style, but this didn’t define their music: there was a good mix of bbong-jjak influenced reggae-ness, some bossa-nova, a fair helping of funk. Here’s a video from a previous show by them:
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They even an R&B number with a very odd special guest — the main guy from this video. Yes, the main guy from Sultan of the Disco joined in for a song called, er, “Rhythm and Blues” which was, basically, a spoof of R&B music in general. Very surreal and silly all at once.
Probably because of that guest appaearnce, the first half of the show got me thinking quite a lot about the role of spectacle in Korean indie music. I mean, spectacle is a part of all popular music performance, worldwide, and has been since at least as far back as we have video: Elvis and Little Richard were dancing maniacs, we have guitars smashed and pianos on fire, Madonna commanding a huge stage with gigantic screens behind her, Prince with his enormous stage shows, and hell even the big band of the swing era, with its troupe of guys in fine, classy suits, was probably a formidable sight. Well, mainstream Korean popular music is no different, though here spectacle mostly takes the form of synchronized dance of the kind familiar from S.E.S., Wonder Girls, G.O.D., 소녀시대, and the rest. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you don’t live in Korea, so here’s the English-language version of a big song from here with lots of synchro-bot dancing.
In indie here, spectacle is different. I’ve seen bands where someone wore a witch hat on stage, bands dressing up in suits to play 50s pop of the kind you heard on Happy Days (yes, stuff people used to dance the twist to), the Sultan of the Disco is another example, and of course there’s Hwang Shin Hye Band in the mix. There’s definitely something festive and rebellious about some of the costuming and performance styles of some indie bands. (Not all of them. A lot of groups do a folky thing, or do a straigth-up rock thing, but some bands go nuts with the costuming and even the stylization of their stage identities. Another group that comes to mind is Banana Boat, I think the band was called, which I saw in Hongdae last semester during a class outing. Hilarious antics. On the more full-on side, the Rock Tigers do a weird rockabilly thing, and they do it deadpan, all the way.) The thing I’m less comfortable with is how sometimes this descends into outright comedy, and the music becomes almost — not quite, but almost, secondary. I wonder why this is, whether it’s a part of an older cultural thing, or a self-defensive thing, or what. The thing that’s frustrating is that it all but declares, “Don’t take us or our music seriously!” even with bands that would otherwise be somewhat formidable!
(Thankfully, I don’t think that’s the case with 불나방스타쏘세지클럽, or at least it wasn’t last night. They goofed off between songs, and there was a fair bit of talk between songs in that way familiar to indie concertgoers in Korea, but when they were playing, it was mostly all about the music. To good effect!)
Costume and ceremony has long been a big thing in Hwang Shin Hye Band’s shows, too, and the man jokes a lot on stage, but at the same time, the comedy strikes me as less the gag variety than a very conscious and intelligent send-up of pop culture, of the kind of wannabe-seriousness of the sychrodancbots on M-Net (Korean MTV), and all that. It doesn’t seem to scream, “Don’t take me seriously!” the way the costumes of some bands do. The videos on Youtube show Hwang Shin Hye Band gigs where people were dressed in space suits, giant puffball outfits, and other odd costumes. There’s even a great Youtube vid where bandleader Kim Hyung Tae was decked out in some kind of imperial robe and headdress and performs some vaguely shamanic revivification ceremony (staged, of course) on a tired schoolgirl:
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Which really does go well with his music, as you can see. His songs are quite weird, with a number of them having lyrics about food (for example, repeating the name of a Chinese soup, or thanking Mom at the breakfast table). His voice, too, is quite unusual, as you can hear in this track:
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So I was quite surprised when the band came on stage dressed… well, normally. Actually, quite smartly, to be honest. Sure, there was a little glamminess: Kim Hyung Tae wore white framed glasses, and a green suit jacket, but really, that was about it. No strangeoid costumes (with the exception of one song, 짬뽕 — the Chinese soup song and one of the band’s biggest hits — where the lead singer of the opening band (“Carlos Cho” I think is what his name is supposed to be) came on disguised as a Chinese food deliveryman with a big metal delivery box containing a mic… and then joined the band for the song.
(One thing that was apparent live but not in the videos I’d seen was Kim’s leg. One leg is much smaller than the other, a physical disability that would have stopped most people from even considering a career in rock… especially in Korea, where the visibility of physical disabilities is much lower even today, let alone 12 years ago when Kim released his first album. Kim barreled through it — more power and respect to him. But I did wonder momentarily whether the costumes had the effect of diverting attention from this feature of his. Not that it’s needed: he’s a great performer and amazing songwriter, but I wondered if that was part of the reason for the earlier costumes.)
Regardless of how the band dressed, the weirdness, lovely and bristling and unique, was still there in the songs. Kim is an entrancing performer, vivid and lively and strange in a very good way, a way I wish more performers were. The band played a lot of older songs, and only a little that I’ve never heard before, but everything was just a little different from previous versions. One reason is instrumentation: I didn’t catch the names of the band members when they were introduced, but there was a standard guitar/bass/drums setup with two backup singers, one of whom plays percussion and the other of whom plays the violin (and sometimes plays in that style where it’s called a fiddle). This slight change in instrumentation allowed two things: a greater focus on Kim’s guitar-work (in some songs), and a change in the sound of songs. Very little of the electronica stuff Kim experimented with in the last full album, or in the more-techno/disco stylings that occasionally popped up on the earlier ones. This was more straight-ahead rock. Maybe that’s not unusual for live shows, though.
But all in all, it was excellent, excellent, excellent. The one small complaint I have is that I’d have liked to hear more new stuff. I’m sure Kim has some new crazy songs under wraps, I’m sure another album is coming since they’re gigging a lot more these days. (I’ve missed every chance till now to see them, but I’m a huge fan.) Still, well worth the experience!
Oh, by the way, at the show they were giving away posters, exactly like this one:
… as well as a limited edition CD of songs by Kim and “Carlos” Cho, featuring four tracks including one that is a spoof of “More Than Words”, titled 갬퍼스포크송대백과사전 (“Big Encyclopedia of Campus Folk Songs”? or maybe “Campus Folksong Encyclopedia” gets closer, I think). Great stuff…
Afterwards, Kim was signing CDs, including mine which he signed to 고드 (Go-deu, the Korean pronunciation of my name). Whee. For my money, the Hwang Shin Hye band is still the most interesting thing in Korean indie music, and I got to see ’em live, and shake the hand of the man who runs the band. A pretty good night, in all.