A Look Into Korea's Most Exciting Indie Rock Band

Eastern Sidekick shine a light on what it's like to be a nonconforming indie rock band in Seoul.
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Eastern Sidekick shine a light on what it's like to be a nonconforming indie rock band in Seoul.
Eastern Sidekick

byJESSE NEE-VOGELMAN < @jtneev >

In 2003 a punk band called Couch and the Spiky Brats broke Korean indie music when the entire group stripped naked on live television. The program, Live Music Camp, was part of an effort in countercultural tolerance, a tentative acceptance of the growing Hongdae-area indie scene by the musical establishment. For one hour the program would broadcast an up-and-coming alternative band between their constant K-Pop idol coverage. The Penis Incident occurred during the second episode—ending the indie experiment swiftly with a bang.

It was in the wake of this anti-indie climate that the upstart alt rock group Eastern Sidekick formed in 2009 as the project of Ko Han Kyul, the band’s lead guitarist and songwriter. It is one of the most popular and successful projects to emerge out of Hongdae (i.e. Seoul’s Brooklyn—a university oriented youth and countercultural mecca) in recent years, and rightly so—like a harder Korean Strokes, their music is quick, clean, and fiendishly catchy. However, in part due to CatSB’s famous phallic debaucle, ESK’s early history was marked by an intense struggle against Korea’s stereotype of contemporary rockers as lascivious hooligans. It is only in recent years that alternative music has begun permeating back into Korean culture, leading to an explosion in ESK’s popularity both in Korea and abroad. Energized by solid album sales on a “major” Korean indie label, last year the band played its first international festivals—a K-pop gala in Singapore and later Supersonic in Japan.

As with most arts scenes, success in Hongdae depends on a combination of luck, talent, and timing. For new bands, there’s a distinctly old-media order to things: first you write introductory letters, then you send in demos. From there, if they like you, the few clubs hosting indie shows will invite you to an audition performance—an empty Tuesday or Thursday where no-name bands perform for four or five other no-name bands hoping to make it. It was at one of these auditions with his first band, Nohm (Korean for “Dude”), that Jun Bum Sun met Han Kyul and the rest of Eastern Sidekick.

“They were just starting out. A completely new band too,” said Bum Sun, explaining his introduction. As luck had it, ESK was also looking for another guitarist. After the audition Han Kyul invited Bum Sun out for drinks and, as with all good business meetings in Korea, a couple bottles of soju seduced Bum Sun into the blossoming folds of ESK.

In this way Han Kyul assembled his band. Sniping musicians from co-auditions and mutual gigs, swapping and trading like Pokémon until he crafted his perfect sound. However, even as ESK enjoyed some mild success, the stress of the penniless, itinerant, transient lifestyle got the best of them. Bum Sun, who had come to Hongdae during the nine-month gap between his high school graduation and his commencement at college in the U.S., had run out of time. Faced with attending Dartmouth or playing another year for a no-name band with a glint of potential, Bum Sun’s choice was easy. Later in the same month ESK’s bassist and lead singer departed for the army, throwing Han Kyul and the band into the first crisis of its young life.

“They die at 27, all your American rockstars. That’s where it begins in Korea.”

Confronted with a constant threat of indeterminate seriousness from the North, South Korea has made military service compulsory for all male citizens. As one might imagine, this has a special impact on the indie scene. While in America, rock’s an artistic realm often associated with youth and rebellion, Korea’s two-year service time coupled with an extreme emphasis on higher education has resulted in most big name indie stars breaking out in their thirties. “Your parents say, oh, you want to do music?” explained Bum Sun. “Well at least get a college degree. Then go to the army. Then try to find friends to make a band with, and that’ll take a couple of years.”

“So,” I told him, “it seems you start going for your dreams just as a lot of Americans are giving up on theirs.”

“They die at 27, all your American rockstars. That’s where it begins in Korea.”

Of course, at 23, Bum Sun is still young for the indie scene. While abroad at Dartmouth, he earned his Ivy-degree watching ESK’s national explosion in Korea, and eagerly awaited his return to Hongdae where he could restart the process. Now, several months into his newest band, Bum Sun still has yet to complete his army service and doesn’t seem to have a real plan for when he’ll once again abandon his music.

Back in 2010, when he left for Dartmouth, these questions may have seemed distant, but for Han Kyul and the rest of ESK, they were unavoidable. After three-fifths of the band’s departure, Han Kyul and the drummer—both older, army vets—restarted the search and soon found three new members from three new bands. Almost entirely rebooted, ESK reentered the Hongdae fray and quickly discovered a phoenix-like success out of the ashes of their old band—swift, unexpected, and on television.

While most Korean-Idol-type shows focus on the spawning of more popular K-Pop-style performers, several less popular programs offer gateways to “fame” on public access. Enter: Hello Rookie. While it’s no longer aired live (see: genital exposure, p. 1) shows like Hello Rookie gather the small indie pond’s big fish in one area, and from there, bands lay their hearts out in classic reality show style. When the smoke cleared, ESK had come in a disappointing third place. Just days later, though, Han Kyul received a call from Fluxus—more or less the only relevant label in Korean indie—to offer them a contract.

Fluxus is kind of like Korea’s Matador—they rep the “hip” and “cool” bands. They’re disaffected, guitar heavy, and well-dressed. In the two years since Fluxus’ marketing team took over with cool looks and hi-fi music videos, ESK’s star has orbited further and further from the hot Hongdae core of the universe—making their increasingly rare local shows not just concerts, but events.

***

Korean rock bands making the jump to idol-levels of success have had to sacrifice bits of their nonconformity for fame, often manifested in plastic surgery deals with the devil.

Last month, I sat down with Bum Sun and Han Kyul in a Hongdae bar before ESK played at FF, the largest alt-rock club in the area. It was the first time Han Kyul and Bum Sun had seen each other since Bum Sun left the band in 2010.

With Bum Sun acting as translator, we conversed in slow circles around the experience of playing indie music in Korea, the process, what it has been like to achieve anything even resembling fame. All throughout Han Kyul quietly asserted that he didn’t feel successful. That success isn’t about recognition but about better music and better melodies.

While my initial reaction was to scoff at such privileged humbleness, anecdotal evidence shows this to be true. Historically speaking, Korean rock bands making the jump to idol-levels of success have had to sacrifice bits of their nonconformity for fame, often manifested in plastic surgery deals with the devil. Most famously, the erstwhile Hongdae trio Busker Busker capped off their successful run on a television audition program with a celebratory round of botox before dropping their album. Other bands, like the popular CN Blue, morphed into soft, ballady, romance-fantasy parent-rock. Eastern Sidekick, by contrast, has remained remarkably loyal to its “bad-boy” roots. Recently Han Kyul rejected an offer to appear on a new, mainstream audition program called Top Band because he “didn’t want to be submissive” to the K-pop machine.

Still, ESK’s future is intimately linked with the music it is trying to subvert. “[Indie musicians] think that K-pop should be big because there could be trickle down,” explained Bum Sun. Thus, they root for their enemies: CN Blue, FT Island—the rockband version of the idol groups. “They don’t write songs, they don’t play live. They’re extremely popular, but even they’re alternative K-pop.” (Members of CN Blue and FT Island do, in fact, contribute to the songwriting and performance of their music.)

Belying this contempt, ESK’s presence at festivals already indicates of how the growing popularity of K-pop has benefitted them. Festivals invite them as representatives of the K-indie scene—cultural oddities riding the growing Korean Wave of global cultural exports.

Despite this, alternative bands like ESK still face an uphill battle against Korea’s entrenched musical despots. Bum Sun already refers to indie-rock as music for the ten percent, and in this anti-experimental climate those listeners are even more difficult to reach. “Besides, ten percent of Korea is, what, New Jersey?” Actually, less.

Thus, bands like ESK must focus on attracting enough attention to keep their live shows bumping even when touring is all but impossible in the small country. Coupled with poor recording studio quality and lack of permanent practice spaces in a sky-bound city clawing for space, the main goal of most Korean indie bands is not to replicate the sounds of the West—often simply too technically difficult—but to create music that capitalizes on Western attitudes while still being distinctly Korean.

“Basically no one is thinking about going outside of Korea,” explained Bum Sun. “Hongdae is their world.” This attitude is particularly evident in lyrical content, which both Bum Sun and Han Kyul agree sets Korean rock most apart. Much of this has to do with the advanced age of emerging rockstars. “The things they talk about,” said Bum Sun. “No drugs, no rockstar lifestyle. If you talk about drugs and sex all the time in Korea, people aren’t going to listen to it.” Instead, they sing about marriage, loneliness, and Seoul. They sing about facing pressures from family to “get a real job.” They sing about being Korean.

Koreans want bouncy, ballady K-pop. Those few rock lovers go straight for the larger international acts, clamoring to indie world tours but paying little attention to their native scene.

However, the sheer size of the English-speaking market has led some Korean bands to dabble in American themes and multi-lingual song writing. Han Kyul in particular has faced pressure from Fluxus to begin writing in English in order to grow ESK’s presence in Japan, which he says he will resist until they begin having more international shows.

It’s musically, though, that Han Kyul most cares about creating something “essentially Korean,” which sets their music apart. “When writing guitar licks and melodies, there are things familiar to the Korean ear,” he explained. “I hope Western audiences will catch that too.” An important reference for Han Kyul’s music is Korean traditional folk, which employs just five notes. It contributes to the unusually clean and crisp melodic patterns and guitar counterpoint that embody ESK’s distinct sound.

Still, it’s precisely this combination of West and East that makes their musical appeal so limited. According to both Bum Sun and Han Kyul, your average Koreans want bouncy, ballady K-pop. Those few rock lovers go straight for the larger international acts, clamoring to indie world tours but paying little attention to their native scene. Han Kyul in particular was frustrated by what he felt was a meaningless double standard in rock. “What I realize going to the Korean rock festivals in the summer, there’s tons of people there. These Korean rock listeners kind of look down on the Korean indie bands. They call us ‘kimchi bands.’ They like the foreign acts that come in and they’re willing to pay a lot of money for that, but they won’t come to Hongdae.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Because either they suck, or we suck.”

“Do you ever worry about doing music that people in Korea don’t really listen to?”

“I’m a little worried now. I’m 30…Every night, I drink.”

Bum Sun turned and asked, “Are you still smoking a pack-and-a-half a day?”

“No,” he said, adjusting his collar, “I’m up to two.”

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originally posted june 12, 2014.

Han Kyul had to go. Next door, the concert had already started and only a couple bands remained before he took the stage. Han Kyul was a little grumpy because they got bumped from headliner to penultimate act for the club engineer’s friend’s new band.

Bum Sun and I finished paying for the food and drinks and hustle over next door. We passed through the smoking room and down a thin black staircase into a grungy basement straight out of dirty fantasies of rock—everything dark and alt and exaggerated.

Packed, too. Exploding.

We caught the tail end of a solid Black Sabbath/Metallica sort of mix, followed by a drum-guitar duo sporting an aesthetic inspired by Japanese Bowie-descended glam rock—pretty, flirty, covered in makeup, shredding, constantly whispering sweet-nothings into the microphone that sent shivers and giggles down the spine of every fangirl in the audience.

When their set ended, a white projector screen descended before the stage. Han Kyul and friends began setting up behind the curtain—musical Wizards of Oz. More and more people piled into the basement until hundreds were packed in like rush-hour subway sardines. Small bursts of noise peeked out from behind the screen, tantalizing Hansel-and-Gretel crumbs causing the audience to cheer and lean forward as if they could follow the sound to the primeval spring of ESK music.

Finally, the screen rose and all hell broke loose. Han Kyul ripped out a slick riff and cheers of recognition went up through the crowd. The first five rows—all girls—swooned. Every one of them was in love with someone in the band. However, the girlish shrieking seems reserved for one person in particular: Oh Joo Hwan—the lead singer.

He’s got shoulder-length hair, a thin beard and mustache—wearing an Adidas jacket and a beanie as if he’d just been running. He’s edgy, dreamy, and every movement gave off the impression that he was a little bored and doing us a big favor by being there. He sang with his back to the audience and covered his face with his hands. During a guitar solo he lit a cigarette in the background—the girls next to me screamed. He picked up a drumstick and began pounding on the cymbals with one hand, chugging a beer, before unzipping his jacket a little—the girls next to me screamed again. Swaggering all over the stage, leaning on the mic stand for support, and I think he must be on drugs until I remember—nope, not in Korea.

This, of course, is the appeal. The appearance of edge without the danger of cutting oneself—all of the fun and aesthetic of drug culture with none of the drugs. This is alternative. Behind the stiff riffs and chanted choruses is the constant knowledge that this whole scene is out of the ordinary, insular, and self-celebratory. It’s counterculture, but not the way we imagine it back in the West. It’s all about the look.

ESK, to their credit, manages the dual nature of Korean indie’s image well. While the lead singer plays a more traditional “bad boy,” the rest of the band merges hits of counterculturism with a well-dressed playboy appeal. They all have hair down around their ears, long for Korean men, with varying states of facial hair stuck in sharp contrast to their babyish, skin-product smooth cheeks. They sling guitars in button downs or well-knit sweaters with starched collars peeking out. The drummer’s the only one who doesn’t rigorously conform to the theme—he wore just a t-shirt collared in rings of sweat, a little chubby, the only one with short hair, face drenched beneath his glasses.

As for Han Kyul himself, he looked like he was having a ball—like a little kid putting on a show for his parents. Constantly surprised and delighted by the feedback, the gaggling mob of fans. Oh, look what I made.

And he had made something big. Everyone in the place knew the lyrics. Everyone in the place exploded at each new Franz Ferdinand-y riff. Their enthusiasm and dedication had a quiet earnestness to it that I hadn’t encountered at indie shows in America. No youthful slump of the disaffected. At one point during their most popular song, “Inefficient Man,” the long-haired frontman even lead the audience in a series of choreographed chorus-celebrating waves, his hand like a hypnotic pocket watch.

This is the intense, zombie-like devotion that characterizes much successful popular media in Korea—addictive and replicable. It is the swarming devoutness of Korean fandom that keeps the “successful” indie bands alive. For those struggling to reach fame, though, indie-rock more closely resembles the barren Hongdae desert just after Couch and the Spiky Brats showed their penises to the world.

Just the week before the ESK concert I had seen Bum Sun’s new band perform at the same venue, only on a Thursday night. It was a completely different, empty world. About fifteen people lounged about the club, most sitting with their own instruments, waiting for their own chance to perform. His band is now called Jun Bum Sun and the Yangbans. Yangbans were the aristocrats of the Chosun dynasty. According to Bum Sun, a Yangban is the classic ideal of someone who enjoys life through music and poetry. “A Yangban never walks fast,” he said. “It’s a stark contrast to how Koreans live now.” This sentiment never echoed more truly than watching Bum Sun and company rock out to an empty house.

In the next few years Bum Sun will once again have to face the decision about how to handle his future. While his connection with ESK has helped him restart his indie career at the lowest levels, it’s clear a small cloud of improbability hung over each band playing that night. For their part, the Yangbans were pretty good—folky and sincere. Instead of thrashing, Bum Sun bopped earnestly with the swing of his strum, as if the hand also controlled his knees. Still, when I talked to the band after the show, only one topic came up.

“I still can’t believe he was in Eastern Sidekick,” said the drummer, crystalizing for me the true look of awe. “Bum Sun said not to take a selfie with them when he introduces us, but I’m definitely going to.”

ESK is a band in their prime that hasn’t hit their ceiling yet, but even so they’re getting dangerously close to the limits of Korean stardom without changing. A ceiling for an American indie band probably looks something like Arcade Fire—a Grammy-winning, chart-topping underdog, and a blog devoted to not knowing who they are. For Korea, reaching that ceiling means something else entirely. It means television. It means makeup. Bands get poppy. Bands get plastic surgery. Then again, ESK is pretty good looking. They might have a chance.

***

It’s the final song now, and the lead singer celebrates by completely removing his hoodie to reveal a plain white t-shirt. The girls next to me stop breathing—all they can do is bounce and shriek. One is turning blue. I’m worried for her. The guitars are pounding and there’s some small equivalent of lights flashing. Everyone’s jumping and singing and taking selfies and recording pretty, pretty ESK in their final moments.

Then it’s over. No encore. The screen comes down and the lights come up. Within moments the place empties, even as the headliner begins setting up. I guess, for Han Kyul, there’s some justice.

Eastern Sidekick plans to have a new album out in September. As of this interview, Han Kyul had written one-and-a-half songs.

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