Wednesday, April 16, 2014

#NotYourMascot, and Why You Should Care

Normally, I make it my practice to silently observe the discussion involving other social groups of America. The reason for this is simple: it is important for each social group to speak with its own voice. Even if I wanted to help, it is the better habit to refrain. I have seen too many cases in which good intentions were translated into stumbling, inartful words, setting back the agenda rather than advancing it. That was not going to be me.

Despite those reservations, I feel compelled to speak out in solidarity for the movement against having a racial slur, i.e. "Redskins," as the name of an NFL franchise. I feel the compulsion for two reasons. First, I am a sports fan and a resident of the Washington D.C. area, which makes the name of the local franchise more relevant than those living outside of the region who don't care about sports. Second, I am an Asian American, and I have been mired in the ill-advised hashtag campaign from a few weeks ago that distracted the national attention away from this important issue. Though I have been speaking out on the stupidity of the hashtag campaign, it is undeniable that I, too, contributed to the distraction.

How shall I express my solidarity with the campaign against "Redskins," without running afoul of my personal rule that I should not speak on behalf of others? Answer: I can speak about my own experience, which points toward the same result. Here is my attempt at doing so.

*               *               *

I am a first generation immigrant, having emigrated from Korea to Los Angeles area in 1997. I will not bore you with the sob stories about my adjustment into American life at age 16, since I have already done that in this space already. It would enough to say that, the first year of my American life was defined largely by loneliness. In Seoul, I lived in the same neighborhood throughout my childhood. I had a close group of friends who attended the same elementary school, same middle school and same high school. The move to U.S. was the first major move I remember--and it had to be across the Pacific, in a new land where no one wanted to talk to the new kid who spoke broken English.

(More after the jump)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Monday, April 14, 2014

How to Make it in America with Music

Dear Korean,

I'd love to hear your opinion on what it would take for a Korean or Korean-American act to "make it" in the US music industry. You could answer that from a macro (shifts in music business corporate strategies, national news outlet coverage) or micro (would the act have to have certain characteristics, would the songs have to be in a certain genre) perspective. I think it is without question there is original, vibrant talent originating or having origins from South Korea. Talent that if all other things were equal, would easily go toe-to-toe with American pop talent and be equally represented. 

Jason J.

This is a question that the Korean intended to answer as a final wrap-up for SXSW, until the #CancelColbert hashtag war occupied the attention of everyone on the Internet. Better late than never, so here it is. By the way, did the Korean mention that SXSW was freakin' awesome, and everyone should go? Just in case people missed it: SXSW is incredible, and everyone should go. It's absolutely amazing.

Jambinai's performance at Spider House.
TK's favorite picture from SXSW.
Truth is, TK answered this question in previous posts, albeit somewhat obliquely. (Here and here.) To make the point more directly, the Korean believes that the "mainstream-ization" of Korean pop music in the United States will take place in several stages:

First, there needs to be a dedicated group of Korean pop music fanatics, who would serve as the log-rollers of a larger trend. Every band needs that snotty group of fans that says: "I was into them before they became big." The Korean jests, but the role of the enthusiastic early adopters is critical. They act as the constantly-burning pilot light, ready to ignite the trend as soon as the atmosphere is correct. 

It took a better part of a decade for K-pop to build this infrastructure in the United States. But from his experience at SXSW, the Korean is convinced that this infrastructure is now firmly in place. K-Pop Night Out was one of the most successful showcases at SXSW, and the people came out not just for Jay Park and HyunA, but for Crying Nut and Idiotape. Seoulsonic showcase had so many non-Koreans speaking fluent Korean, chatting excitedly about Glen Check. The only other place where I saw that many non-Koreans speaking fluent Korean was at a high-brow diplomatic function Washington D.C. Even in San Antonio, a smaller city that one would not readily associate with Korean pop music fandom, drew a solid crowd for a Sunday night show. Separately from SXSW, Dynamic Duo's recent showcase at the Kennedy Center drew at least 500 spectators, half of whom were not Korean but screaming as loudly as any other. The early adopters are already here.

Second, there needs to be a baseline of respect for Korean pop music among the movers and shakers of America's music industry. This, in fact, was a crucial component for Gangnam Style's success. Many consider Gangnam Style to have come out of nowhere, like a strike of lightning out of a clear blue sky. Not so. This graph is worth revisiting:

This graph, from a study that YG Entertainment commissioned, shows the interplay between the log rollers and the power brokers of American pop music. Numerous log rollers, chief among them Allkpop, promoted Gangnam Style's music video through its Twitter. Rapper T-Pain had enough baseline respect for Korean pop music to pay attention when enough log rollers became excited about Gangnam Style. T-Pain took the time to look at PSY's music video, and promoted to other industry insiders. The rest, as they say, is history.

In the Korean's estimation, this stage is partially constructed for Korean pop music. Korea's idol groups are the farthest along. Lady Gaga's recent pick of Crayon Pop to open her shows this summer is but one piece of evidence. Among the powers that be of American pop music, Korean idol groups are taken seriously. 

Korean rock and hip hop acts are trailing behind. Korean rock suffers from fighting in a crowded field; as delightful as listening to, say, Deli Spice is, there is simply no shortage of U2-inspired modern rock bands in the U.S. market. Even so, certain Korean rock bands manage to find an angle that is not sufficiently explored in the U.S. rock scene--for example, Jambinai with Korean traditional instruments or Glen Check's sophisticated synth-rock. Hip hop will probably have the toughest time, as the audience for hip hop tends to care a great deal about (perceived) authenticity. Unfortunately, to many U.S. hip hop fans, an Asian face does not scream "THUG LIFE." 

Third, the interplay between the first and the second stages results in a sizable corps of fan base. This group would be much, much larger than the log rollers in the first stage. Their interest in Korean pop music would not be as rabid as the log rollers', but they care enough to continuously purchase albums and attend concerts once in a while, to the extent Korean acts tour in the United States. Ideally, this group will be large enough for Korean bands to continue directing at least some effort toward the U.S., in the form of making their music available in the U.S. (via, for example, YouTube and iTunes) and putting on regular tours. Likewise ideally, this group will be large enough that, when an American person says "I listen to Korean pop music," it would be received as if she said "I like listening to classical music" rather than "I listen to radio static to find signs of life from outer space."

If Korean pop music gets to this point, the Korean would consider Korean pop music to have "made it" in the U.S. market. One has to be reasonable: Korean pop music is not of the U.S., and it is highly unlikely that Korean pop music will be a perennial presence in Billboard top 5. Much more attainable is the level at which the quality of Korean pop music is widely known, such that it is accepted as a legitimate preference of pop music among many. Korea's idol pop is at the cusp of getting to this place; other genres of K-pop have a longer way to go.

Then there is the fourth and final stage:  a viral, mainstream-ized hit a la Gangnam Style, seemingly appearing out of nowhere as if by magic. But of course, nothing cultural comes out of nowhere--each viral hit is a sudden unleashing of pent-up cultural accumulation. As the base of K-pop appreciation becomes wider and deeper, the interval between new viral hits will become shorter and shorter.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Against Hashtag Warriors: Their Arguments and Why They are Wrong

For the last week, I have had a chance to survey the landscape of opinions regarding the #CancelColbert campaign. Here are the major arguments in favor of the hashtag war, and why they are wrong.

- The Main Argument:  "Regardless of what Stephen Colbert intended, the use of the phrase "ching chong ding dong" is reminiscent of the racism that Asian Americans face. (In other words, it is "triggering".) To remind Asian Americans of racism in such a manner is insensitive and racist."

This is the crux of the #CancelColbert supporters' argument. Note that, under this argument, context in which the phrase is said does not matter, and neither does intent. Whenever the phrase is said, it triggers. Whenever the sound of the phrase is heard, it is racist. This is "magic word racism," pure and simple: if you say the word X, no matter what the circumstance, you are being racist.

#CancelColbert was not a worthy effort in large part because it is just another rendition of the magic word racism. I made this point previously, but it bears repeating and amplifying: magic word racism causes real harm. It distracts the attention from racism's core, which resides in the heart rather than words. Magic word racism lends support to, for example, the incessant whining about why black people get to say "n-----" but not white people. (If word itself is the problem, why do some people get to say it?)

Only by being sensitive to context and intent can one avoid the pitfalls of magic word racism, but #CancelColbert demands that we look away from the context.

- The "What About Black People?" Argument:  "Stephen Colbert wouldn't use African Americans as a topic and use the n-word, would he? So why is it ok for him to use Asian Americans and 'ching chong?'"

This argument, again, displays lack of consideration toward context--in this case, a historical and social one. To state plainly, Asian Americans are not African Americans, and "ching chong" is not "n-----". Historically, we Asian Americans never experienced anything close to what African Americans experienced on account of our race. Even the darkest moments of Asian American history--Chinese Exclusion Acts, the World War II Internment, Vincent Chin--are not comparable to slavery, mass rape and lynching that African Americans historically endured. Currently, Asian Americans are not experiencing a comparable level of discrimination to which African Americans are subjected. There is no stop-and-frisk program targeting Asian Americans. There is no current Asian American equivalent of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.

Are African Americans accorded greater deference in the media than Asian Americans are? Yes, and rightly so, considering the historical and contemporary context. Black folks has gone through more shit, and are going through more shit, than Asian Americans have and are. To give African Americans a bit more breathing room is the right thing to do.

Critics of Colbert have argued that Stephen Colbert should not be allowed to try and support one minority group (Native Americans) by using another (Asian Americans) as a prop. But when they raise this argument, it is the critics who use the African Americans as a stepladder. 

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Korean on Monsters of Talk with Margaret Cho

The Korean appeared on Monsters of Talk, a podcast hosted by the one and only Margaret Cho. Have a listen here:

The conversation went all over the place, but thanks to Margaret and co-host Jim Short, it is entertaining throughout. We covered Korean food choking hazard, fan death, K-pop and diapers during the 2002 World Cup, among other things.

The Korean was particularly happy that he was able to ask Margaret a question about her that he has had for a long time. Despite being a trailblazer for Asian Americans in the media, both Korean Americans and Koreans in Korea treated Cho like dirt. How did she feel about that? Did she feel that those communities' approval was important? You can catch that part around the 48 minute mark of the podcast.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Friday, March 28, 2014

Against Hashtag Warriors

For those of you who were lucky enough to miss the shitstorm in Twitter in the last two days, here is some background:

On Wednesday night, Stephen Colbert was speaking of Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who responded to those who criticized the name "Redskins" as a racial slur by founding a non-profit organization called Original Americans Foundation. Then a 2005 episode of the show replayed, in which Colbert, in character as a satirical conservative talk-show blowhard, was "caught" making racist jokes about Asians. After the callback, Colbert, in character, said he would atone for his racism by establishing the "Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever."

The butt of the joke here is very clear: it is Dan Snyder. Snyder thinks founding a non-profit organization would let him continue having a racial slur in his team's name. To mock Snyder, Colbert assumed the same posture as Snyder, only in a more ridiculous way so as to make Snyder's folly more obvious.

After the show, the official Colbert Report Twitter account repeated the joke on a tweet: "I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever." Then came the outrage. Suey Park, who recently rose to prominence due to a series of Twitter hashtag campaigns, most notably #NotYourAsianAmericanSidekick, began yet another hashtag campaign: #CancelColbert.

I believe Ms. Park's efforts are dumb and damaging. Here is why.

*             *             *

Previously in this space, I shared a story of his friend from Louisiana:
"The father of my ex-girlfriend was a rare breed -- a real deal racist. I'm not talking about someone who has a lapse in judgment and says the wrong thing from time to time. He genuinely believed that black people were inferior to white people. But whenever a black person happened to cross him, he would never yell, "you damn n-----!" Instead, he would yell: "You damn Democrat!" That way, nobody would accuse him of being racist."
This anecdote is interesting because it reveals the true nature of racism. Racism does not reside in the words; it resides in the mind that utter the words. Regardless of the precise word uttered--either "n-----" or "Democrat"--the man described in the Korean's friend's story remains just as virulently racist in his heart. Using the word "Democrat" instead of "n-----" does not mitigate the racist man's sincerely held belief that African Americans were inferior to whites. This shows the vacuity of what I call the "magic word racism," which may be defined as an attempt to detect racism by the presence or absence of certain words or phrases. 

If we cannot rely on the presence or absence of words alone, how are we to know what makes something racist? Recall where racism truly lies: it is in the person's mind, her intent. What makes something racist? It is the racist intent that makes something racist. For the man in the story above, the words "n-----" and "Democrat" serve the same function: to express his racist disdain toward African Americans. The precise vehicle by which the man delivered the racist intent does not matter. What matters is the intent delivered in those vehicles.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

NK News Pro: Special Discount for AAK! Readers

Ask a Korean! was itself inspired by the inimitable Ask a Mexican! by Gustavo Arellano, but this blog has inspired many other "Ask" blogs as well. Personally, the Korean's favorite child of Ask a Korean! is Ask a North Korean! by NK News, in which the readers can get a real sense of the life in North Korea from an actual North Korean person. The Korean hopes to steer as many readers as possible to this worthy project.

So it gives him a great pleasure for the Korean to introduce a special discount for NK News Pro. For AAK! readers, NK News is offering a 33 percent discount for their Pro service, which gives you probably the most detailed North Korea-related news that one can find in the English-speaking Internet. You can sign up via this link. Happy reading!

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Sunday, March 23, 2014

SXSW Final Notes: The Thank You Cards

A round of gratitude for everyone who made the Korean's trip to SXSW such a wonderful experience:

- To the Korean Wife for supporting her husband's crazy adventure;

- To every artist who took the time out of their incredibly hectic schedule to be interviewed;

- To Shawn D., who made most of the interviews possible and kept me apprised of everything I needed to see at SXSW;

- To Robert J., Vivian Y., Douglas H. and all other support staff who arranged things together;

- To ATK Magazine's Cindy Z., an excellent road trip companion to San Antonio.

- To reader Christine S., who, in the act of unbelievable generosity, sponsored the Korean's SXSW badge. Extra, extra thank you.

- Finally to TC, my wonderful travel companion for SXSW. 

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

SXSW Leftover Notes: The Artists

- It is a crying shame that Idiotape and Glen Check ran into visa issues, and could not play in more offsite venues. Those two bands have the most translatable music in the U.S. market.

- Personally, I feel that Glen Check has the most superstar potential. They already carry themselves like superstars: confident and charismatic.

- I really want Hollow Jan to succeed. Speaking with Hollow Jan was an intense experience, as if speaking with a slow-burning, red-hot pile of coal. Though their music is not mainstream, most people are sold when they see Hollow Jan perform live.

- Jambinai may end up being more successful outside of Korea than within it.

- Right after YB's show someone threw (new) panties and bra on the stage.

- No matter who you are and where you are from, it is impossible to not like Crying Nut playing live. Never doubt Crying Nut's ability to deliver a great show.

- Same is true for No Brain. Korea's two oldest punk rock bands got that way by being incredibly excellent. I was one of the fans who became disaffected of No Brain after its guitarist Cha Cha left in 2002. But seeing them live, all was forgiven.

- Big Phony is the gentlest, more genuine person in the world. Contrary to his songs, girls must be throwing themselves at him. If they are not, something is wrong with the world.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

SXSW Leftover Notes: The Venues

With Day 6, the Korean's SXSW adventure was over. But there is plenty that he never got around to talk about. So here is a series of thought-dumps that never made to the regular posts. First in the series: thoughts on various venues around Austin, for future gig-workers who are looking to glean more information about the venues. Please note that I have only been to most of these venues only once, and my experience is necessarily limited that way. Please use this information appropriately, knowing that.


Elysium:  Venue for K-Pop Night Out and Japan Nite. Located slightly off of the overexposed Sixth Street, Elysium is great for a large-ish show. The space can appear a bit grungy, but it actually suits the rock crowd better. The stage is large, and the space is nicely divided into a "concert area" and a "concession area," allowing the audience to take a break from the show and get a drink from the bar without fighting the crowd too much. 

Buffalo Billiards:  Venue for YB's showcase. Located on Sixth Street. Large space with large stage. Clean and well-lit, which can be both positive and negative. Good place to sit down at the bar to watch the show, but that could mean that at a bigger show, one may have to fight the concert-watchers to get a drink.

Stephen F's Bar:  Venue for Big Phony's showcase. Located on Congress Street. Hotel bar for the Intercontinental. Exactly what you would expect from a bar for a four-star hotel: reserved, classy, intimate, with comfortable seats. Ideal for soft music.

Good Ones

Icenhauer:  Venue for Seoulsonic. Located on Rainey Street, which is apparently a hip, gentrified area of Austin. Outdoor space that is on the smaller side. Chic, but the drinks are a little expensive.

Spider House:  Venue for Jambinai's showcase.  Located north of University of Texas. Small space in a pleasant outdoor patio. Great atmosphere, great crowd, very cheap beer, good snacks. The location is somewhat far from downtown.

Tiniest Bar in Texas:  Venue for Love X Stereo's showcase. Located west of downtown. Small but chic outdoor patio with good beer and good snacks. Excellent and relaxed atmosphere. Plenty of parking nearby.

Thumbs Down

Lit Lounge:  Venue for Hollow Jan's showcase. Located on Sixth Street. Small space with stages on upstairs and downstairs, and the sound from one travels to the other. 

Dog & Duck Pub:  Venue for Crying Nut's showcase. Located just south of University of Texas. Huge venue that is a parking lot covered with a tent. Scary redneck crowd.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Saturday, March 22, 2014

SXSW Day 6 Notes: Day Trip to San Antonio

SXSW was drawing to a close on Sunday. Rather than seeing the last few showcases, I decide to follow the five Korean bands' show at San Antonio, a 1.5-hour drive from Austin.

After picking up my travel mates, we first head over to Salt Lick barbecue, considered one of the best barbecues in Texas. Salt Lick was located about an hour away from Austin, at a town called Driftwood, Texas. I could hardly think of a more appropriate name for a Texas town with fine barbecue. We get there just in time to beat the massive lunch crowd.

The verdict? It was a phenomenal barbecue, but Franklin barbecue was a little bit better. Salt Lick's side dishes were better than Franklin's, but really, do you go to a barbecue place to eat side dishes?

(More after the jump)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

SXSW Day 5 Notes, and Notes on Love X Stereo's showcase

Day 5 was Saturday, and effectively the last day of SXSW. (There were events scheduled for Sunday, but only light, daytime ones.) It was a rainy, dreary day--a perfect day to stay indoors. It was a day of rest.

Only on Day 5 did I have the time to actually attend some of the panels that my badge allowed me to attend. I attend two panels: how to write contracts for artists, and the legal issues involving streaming music. They are both seriously entertaining to my law nerd side. For example, I learn that American Idol is a record sale-generating monster that is far superior to any other reality audition show on television.

Afterward, I head to the venue at which Idiotape was supposed to play. They were not there: turns out, Idiotape had to cancel all of their offsite performances due to visa issues. Looking at the venue, it was probably better that Idiotape did not play there. The venue was a rooftop stage, and the rain kept coming on. Idiotape's replacement band was playing in front of four people, who looked miserable standing in the rain.

I come back downstairs, realizing that Idiotape was not going to be there. On the street, I run into a parade of Tea Party Patriots: a line of burly men carrying their automatic rifles, holding up signs that said carrying AR-15 was their God-given right. There were also women among them, pushing a stroller with a baby in it. I was in Texas after all.

After the afternoon break, I head over to Love X Stereo's offsite show.

The venue was another pleasant outdoors venue. Love X Stereo was playing at the perfect time: happy hour, around 5:30 p.m. A solid crowd of 50 was there, and Love X Stereo pleased the crowd as they usually do.

I have dinner at a lovely seafood restaurant at South Congress area of Austin. Never mind the wisdom of having seafood in a landlocked city in the middle of Texas--the food, which included raw oysters, was fantastic. A welcome break from the incessant streak of red meat.

I decide to go to a large hip hop showcase, as I also needed a break from the incessant streak of rock 'n roll. There, I represent Korea's rap as well as one of its best international athletes.

Bouncing to the rhythm, I feel intense happiness, warming my heart and making me dance. It has been one of the greatest weeks of my life. I will take this memory with me for a very long time. SXSW is the greatest.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Friday, March 21, 2014

SXSW: Notes from Jambinai, Crying Nut, Big Phony Showcases

[Note:  The Korean is aware that SXSW is over. He hopes to punch out everything SXSW-related by this weekend. Thanks for waiting and reading.]

With another successful Seoulsonic showcase, the Korean is more excited than ever to see how Korean acts will do at offsite venues. His day began with Jambinai's daytime show, a highly anticipated event given the numerous positive coverage that Jambinai has received in the last few days.

Jambinai's venue was offsite. It was on the northern end of University of Texas, several miles away from the downtown Austin where SXSW official events were taking place. The venue itself was pretty neat. It had an outdoor patio set up as a pleasant garden decorated with vintage signs and paraphernalia. The beer was dirt cheap. Given the location and timing, however, I temper my expectation as to the size of the audience. The crowd did eventually build up to over 40 people--not a bad turnout for a daytime, offsite show.

Jambinai came on, and as they usually do, mesmerized the crowd.

With the vintage background, geomun'go-ist Shim Eun-yong gave me one of my favorite pictures from Austin.

(It's hard to see in the picture, but Shim's geomun'go case has a small embroidered Korean flag on top, and stickers that say: "FUCK THE SYSTEM". Bad ass.)

The crowd was absolutely amazed. Some of them seemed to have heard of Jambinai, as they listened to the band with knowing smile. Others were regular university types who were there to hang out, and were blown away by what they were hearing. Once Jambinai began playing, the crowd grew very quickly as more people streamed in from outside. By the end of their set, there was an excited buzz among the listeners. Several people asked me about the band and the instruments they were playing.

As I was leaving the venue, the bouncer at the entrance (who could not see the band from where he was standing) chatted me up:

"How many people are in that band?"
"Really? It sounded like there were about ten of them!"

The bouncer wasn't wrong, actually. Lee Il-woo plays three instruments at the same time and the other two members play two instruments at the same time. Speaks volumes about Jambinai's complexity and versatility.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

SXSW Interview: Smacksoft

Smacksoft, led by frontwoman Whang Bo-ryung [황보령] (known in the U.S. market simply as "Bo",) is one of the few rock bands in Korea that are indisputably led by a woman leader. Smacksoft has been critically acclaimed for its colorful music that translates well to audiences of different cultures.

The Korean met Smacksoft at the lobby of their lodging. The interview was conducted in Korean; the translation is the Korean's own.

TK:  Please say hello to everyone.

Hi people, my name is Bo-ryung Whang. I'm the vocal and I play guitar.
Hello, I'm Smacksoft's drummer Seo Jin-sil.
Hello, I'm the bassist Shin Gee-yong.
How are you, I am Rainbow 99, the guitarist.
Hi people, I am Hanul. I play the synthesizer.

TK:  How did Smacksoft start?

Bo:  I have been playing as a solo since 1998. We held an audition for members, and Smacksoft began in 2007.

TK:  How would you describe Smacksoft's music?

Bo:  It's post-punk. It defies categories, mostly based on rock, alternative and electronica.

TK:  This is your first SXSW. How are you enjoying it?

Seo:  This is way too much fun.

Shin:  It's really different from Korea's rock festivals. In Korea, you play before a single, huge crowd. Here, each bar and club has its own, small show. The whole city is involved. I wish Korea would have something like this, too.

Rainbow 99:  It's so much more fun than expected. It's fun to watch the people here too.

TK:  Any artist at SXSW that you want to see in particular?

Bo:  We are a bit too busy to follow a particular band.

Hanul:  The lines are too long for big names anyway. I just want to stroll and watch a lot of different acts.

Bo:  There was one young woman band who does hardcore rock. I wanted to see her.

TK:  Who would you call as your musical influence?

Bo:  J.S. Bach. You know, Johann Sebastian. Velvet Underground. Bauhaus. Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Cure. Simon and Garfunkle, Bob Marley, the Pixies. Suzanne Vega. I like everyone. Sonic Youth.

Seo:  I'm not into Sonic Youth.

Bo:  How about we all go around and talk about the music we like then.

Hanul:  Sigur Ross, My Bloody Valentine. [Bo:  I like them too!]

Rainbow 99:  Brian Inoue. Vision of Disorder. Yo La Tengo.

Shin:  Pink Floyd.  [Rainbow 99:  I hate them. Their earlier stuff was ok though.]

Seo:  I like jazz. Chet Baker, Bill Evans. I like Red Hot Chili Peppers too.

TK:  Would it be faster if you just listed the stuff you don't listen to?

Rainbow 99:  Sure. I'm not into "K-pop."

Hanul:  Music from hot countries, like reggae. I also hate the trot medleys that they sell at highway rest stops in Korea. Regular trot is fine; just that fast medleys.

Bo:  There is some jazz with discordant notes. I can't stand it.

TK:  How do you see Smacksoft's music evolving, going forward?

Bo:  We just want to make good sound. The music equipment has made that so much easier. With computers, it is much easier to add anything we want, and just put on some more acoustic stuff. In our most recent fifth album, we have a lot of rock, electronica and ambient noise. We try not to get tied down to a certain genre.

TK:  How did you feel about your SXSW experience?

Bo:  I love people. I love music. I love Austin and SXSW! It's so wonderful here.

Seo:  It was far beyond expectation. I really want to come back.

Bo:  Maybe we should leave our instruments here.

Shin:  Seeing so many artists was great. It was so much better than seeing just the headliners.

Hanul:  Rock festivals in Korea are too similar to one another. I wish they combined to form just a couple of festivals with more tradition, and have something like this in Korea.

Bo:  It could totally happen around Daehak-ro. We should talk to the mayor.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

SXSW Day 4 Notes

Day 4 was Friday. Most of the day was spent chasing around Korean bands at off-site venues. As much fun as it is to see Korean bands in the big showcases like K-Pop Night Out or Seoulsonic, the off-site performances will give the more realistic glimpse of the bands' potential for international success. I end up seeing the off-site performances of Jambinai and Crying Nut, and an SXSW official show by Big Phony. Another post will cover those performances.

At other times, I roamed the streets of Austin for something interesting. There was a large compound in which a number of food trucks gathered. There, I spot this abomination.

I am an irrational Korean food purist. To me, most Korean food in Seoul is not authentic enough. Regardless of my preferences, this Korean-Mexican fusion truck is popular in Austin, as is the case with most cities in which Korean-Mexican fusion appeared. This truck sold "Korean tacos," "kimchi fries" and the like. I hate-stand in the line, hate-order a rice bowl and hate-eat the fucked up glop of long grain rice, cilantro, some cabbage that pretended to be kimchi and grated cheese. Then I hated myself for a while.

Walking around the famed Sixth Street in Austin, I spy a familiar name: "Seoul." Turns out, Seoul was a name of a band from Montreal. How could a Korean not step inside to see what that was about? Inside, the band called Seoul was playing a soft, dream-like ballad on the stage. (As to the linked music video: I don't why a band called "Seoul" would film its music video in Tokyo, but whatever suits them, I suppose.) The music was not half bad. I tried to find someone who was with the band to get an explanation for the name, but no luck. I briefly thought about buying the band's shirt for the irony value, but I could not even find anyone to give my money in exchange for the merchandise. I leave the venue with unresolved intrigue.

Earlier that day, I heard there was a Japan Nite showcase. Since I had enough time to catch one set before I had to head over to Big Phony's evening show, I stop by. There, I see this:

This is a Japanese idol group called Starmarie. As you can see, there are dressed like 12 year old children. They are billed as "space idols." I wish I had enough words to describe the full horror that I saw.

To be sure, I have read enough Japan's idol market and its pedophilic aesthetics, but seeing that aesthetics in person was another matter. It is common for the idol girl groups in Japan to debut around age 13, and peak around 17~19. But the physical age matters less than the images that the Japanese groups projects. After all, it is hardly unheard of in K-pop to have idol girl group with the membership in early teens. GP Basic, for example, had the average age of around 13 when the group began in 2010. But in the K-pop idol market, young girls act like fully grown women. It is still problematic that young girls are projecting a sexual image, but at least the object of desire is a grown woman.

In contrast, in their garb, speech and demeanor, Starmarie was a team of fully grown women acting like young girls. Here, the object of desire is a child, which is far more unnerving. They are wearing a pink dress and a tiara; their voice are deliberately high-pitched and "cutesy"; their choreography, while performed well, more properly belongs to pre-teens at a talent show. The fact that I actually liked their music was even more disorienting. If one looked away, one would hear speedy rock music with high-energy guitar riffs, which is typical of the Japanese rock of the 1990s. I loved listening to Japanese rock music in the mid-1990s; I would have loved to Starmarie's music sung by a rocking front woman. It was as if I was recognizing an unexpectedly beautiful, abstract pattern from a horrifying train wreck.

I furiously text all of my acquaintances who knew a thing or two about the Japanese pop scene to get more information about Starmarie. Apparently, it is a mid-major group who are considered a bit old as they are in their early 20s. The group's target audience was japanophiles outside of the country. That made sense, as the orientalism was on full display. Switching to Japanese language at the right moments, Starmarie definitely looked and acted like the imaginary Japanese women that dirty old men would dream up.

Speaking of dirty old men, the venue was full of them. The venue was actually the same one as K-Pop Night Out, but the difference in audience could not have been more striking. The size of the crowd for K-Pop Night Out was at least double. KPNO's crowd leaned toward young, energetic girls who were ready to charge the stage, screaming their lungs out for Jay Park. Japan Nite's crowd leaned toward older, quiet men with gleaming eyes as they kept their distance from the stage.

As someone whose pop music staple growing up included a healthy dose of Japanese music, I knew that Japan has better music to offer. I left the venue, hoping that the scene would improve over time. It did not, according to a person who worked the venue that night. The high point of Japan Nite was Starmarie, and the audience count went even further down thereafter. Pity; Japanese pop deserved better at SXSW.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Monday, March 17, 2014

SXSW Interview: Glen Check

Everyone is excited for Glen Check, for good reasons. With its mind-meltingly complex blend of modern rock and electronica, Glen Check already has a dedicated following that calls Glen Check's music a religion, hailing "Glellujah." With their appearance in SXSW Seoulsonic stage, Glen Check is poised to reach even greater heights.

The Korean met with Glen Check outside of the Icenhauer Stage during the Seoulsonic showcase. The interview was conducted in Korean; the translation is the Korean's own.

TK:  Please say hello to everyone.

TK:  When and how did Glen Check form?

Hyeokjun:  Glen Check was formed in 2010. We all attended the same high school.

TK:  How would you describe Glen Check's music?

Junwon:  We don't belong to a particular genre; we employ a different style for each album. We just want to keep trying something new. We are based on electronica, but we try to have variety.

TK:  How are you enjoying SXSW?

Hyeokjun:  It's been great.

Junwon:  Probably because everyone is drunk. [Laughter] There is great energy here. Rock festivals in Korea are usually in front of one huge crowd. The setting here is more intimate. And it looks like we have more fans than we thought. It has been an interesting experience.

TK:  What do you consider your musical influence?

Junwon:  We go with different inspiration for different albums. The most recent one was about the music of the late 1980s and early 90s. Our first album was about 70s and 80s.

Hyeokjun:  I would say Michael Jackson and Prince. Pink Floyd too.

Junwon:  New Order, Joy Division.

TK:  Any parting words for AAK! readers?

Hyeokjun:  We had a great time at SXSW! Look out for us in the future, because we want to reach even more people with our music.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

SXSW: Notes from Seoulsonic

This year, SXSW has two official Korea-themed showcases: K-Pop Night Out and Seoulsonic. Although K-Pop Night Out was a highly successful event, Seoulsonic is a more mature show, as it is hosting its fourth annual U.S. tour. This year's lineup was:  Smacksoft, Big Phony, Glen Check, Rock 'n Roll Radio, Love X Stereo and No Brain. Not a single dog in that lineup.

- The venue was slightly small, but chic. The stage was set up in the outdoor yard, which allowed for a relaxed atmosphere. The crowd topped out at around 120. 

- The audience was an interesting group: at least 80 percent of the audience was not Korean, and the percentage is likely to be higher if one disregarded the staff for the bands and other Korean artists who were not performing at Seoulsonic in attendance. Many of the non-Korean audience spoke excellent Korean. The last time I have seen this many non-Koreans speaking such comfortable Korean was at an event for diplomatic staff and foreign policy graduate students at Washington D.C. 

Most importantly, a large part of the crowd already knew everything about the bands that were performing. These guys were fans, not someone who simply wandered in during SXSW. Before the show, I chatted with a couple of young folks who were planning to move to Korea within this year to teach English and write about Korea's indie scene. Another person recognized my Drunken Tiger cap, took a picture of it and tweeted to MFBTY (who promptly retweeted.) These fans are going to be the future of international K-Pop.

(More after the jump.) 

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Sunday, March 16, 2014

SXSW Interview: Love X Stereo

Love X Stereo has a real chance to become bigger in the U.S. than they are in Korea. At SXSW, Love X Stereo is in their second U.S. tour in three months. With their appealing music of racy rock 'n roll with mostly English lyrics, it is hard to see why not. The Korean met Annie and Toby of Love X Stereo at the Seoulsonic stage shortly before the show started. (Sol, the band's bassist, was not available.)

The interview was conducted in Korean. The translations are the Korean's own.

TK:  Please say hello to everyone.

TK:  How would you describe your music?

Toby:  We play electro-rock from the 1990s.

TK:  How was Love X Stereo formed?

Toby:  Love X Stereo began in 2011. I have been playing music professionally since 1999. I wanted to form a band with a woman vocal, and Buldaegal [불대갈], vocal for No Brain, introduced me to Annie.

Annie:  I was a trainee for YG Entertainment at the time. For an R&B act.

Toby:  But she loved rock too much.

TK:  How are you enjoying SXSW? How do you feel about the way crowd reacts to your music?

Toby:  This is so much fun. It feels free and chaotic. This town is crazy.

Annie:  I thought our performance [at University of Texas] yesterday was well received. It had a good college vibe. Very wholesome.

TK:  Who are some of your musical influence?

Toby:  Mostly 90s alternative. 

Annie and Toby [in alternating rapid fire]:  Nirvana. Smashing Pumpkins. New Order. Chemical Brothers. Prodigy. Prosthetic Head. No FX. Pennywise.

TK:  Where do you see your music moving toward?

Annie:  I think our future music will be more fun.

Toby:  We are aiming more for U.S. and UK market, so we hope to come here more often in the future.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

SXSW Interview: Big Phony

Soft, melodious, full of soul. Korean-American singer-songwriter Bobby Choi, also known as Big Phony, is making himself known to ever greater audience at SXSW. The Korean met him at the venue for Seoulsonic, shortly before the concert began.

TK:  Please say hello to everyone.

TK:  Can you describe yourself for those who don't know you yet?

Big Phony:  I'm Big Phony. I'm a singer-songwriter. I'm based in Seoul now, but I was born and raised in New York. I write sad songs.

TK:  Were you doing music before you moved out to Seoul?

BP:  Yes. I moved to Seoul three years ago, but I have been writing songs for 22 years and I have been pursuing music as a career for about nine years before I moved to Seoul. 

TK:  How did that decision come about?

BP:  I have been active in LA and New York, and I was actually thinking about relocating to Portland. Then three years ago, I visited Korea just to see the country. Once I was there, I met so many indie musicians. I didn't even know there was a scene like that! 

And it was not just about music. I became so curious about the country that my parents came from. I feel connection to the place as well. Plus, I was at a good time in my life to make a big move like that. I wasn't married, and there was nothing holding me back.

TK:  Who were some of the indie bands you met in Korea?

BP:  I met Galaxy Express, Idiotape and Vidulgi OoyoO. They were all really great. They were getting ready for the first Seoulsonic tour, and the Seoulsonic organizer asked if I wanted to open the show for them. Since then, a lot of doors opened for me.

TK:  This is your first SXSW. How are you liking it?

BP:  I am blown away. I feel exhausted too. It's like Disneyland for musicians. At first, I didn't think I got into SXSW because I mistakenly read an old rejection email for a different showcase. I was going around telling everyone that I didn't get into SXSW, but I got another email a few weeks later from SXSW about how to register for the festival. I was so happy! It felt like getting into college again, and SXSW is the Ivy League.

SXSW is like college in a different way too. Musicians behave like freshmen who just arrived. They are all nice to each other, but they also size each other up.

TK:  Is there any act that you really want to check out at SXSW?

BP:  I'm friends with [Korean American band] Run River North, so I'm definitely going to go see them. I'm so glad to see them succeed. It's a success just to be here.

TK:  Who would you call your musical influence?

BP:  I began writing songs when I was 14 years old. Back then, I listened to a lot of Christian contemporary music, like Michael W. Smith. I think Sting was a big influence too. What I learned is that when I write music, I should focus on the lyrics because my voice is not great and my guitar skill is a bit sloppy.

TK:  I think your voice and guitar are just fine. Do you think you were influenced by any Korean band since you moved there? You remind me of a softer, more refined Kim Gwang-seok.

BP:  I'm sure I have been influenced by Korean bands, because I'm surrounded by them. There are so many inspiring bands. They are all disciplined and skillful. And I feel a connection with them. I love seeing them succeed.

TK:  Any parting words for AAK! readers?

BP:  Stick with your passions. I am 36 years old, but I am just getting started.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Saturday, March 15, 2014

SXSW Interview: Crying Nut

If there were a world rock band Olympics, Crying Nut would probably be the captain of Team Korea. Formed in 1995, the first punk rock band of Korea has maintained the same membership for nearly two decades. In the interim, the band preserved its youthful, explosive energy while becoming veterans of international tours.

The Korean met Crying Nut at their hotel. The interview was conducted in Korean; the translation was the Korean's own.

TK:  Please say hello to everyone.

Crying Nut:
Rock 'n roll, yeah! Hello, I'm Captain Rock [TK Note: real name is Han Gyeong-rok], bassist for Crying Nut. [Gibberish; laughter]
Hi, this is the guitar for Crying Nut, Lee Sang-myeon. [Attempted gibberish; laughter]
I am Kim In-soo, accordion and keyboard.
Lee Sang-hyeok for drum!
[In Japanese] I am the vocal and guitarist Park Yun-sik.

TK:  Please introduce Crying Nut for those who don't know you yet. How did you come to form the band?

Han:  The four of us [except Kim] were all friends since elementary school, so we always played together. We met In-soo in 1995. He was a DJ at the time. We formed Crying Nut together then. We are Korea's first punk rock band. We have seven regular albums so far. And we go anywhere there is a good live stage to perform on.

Kim:  We go anywhere we can drink.

TK:  This is your second SXSW. How is it different from the first time?

Lee SM:  We had a great time when we first came here! It was amazing to see a city full of rock music. I think we felt the pressure that we should really do well then. This time, we just want to have fun.

TK:  What did you think about the audience reaction last night, from K-Pop Night Out?

Han:  Fantastic!

Lee SM:  We were surprised by the enthusiasm. It was moving.

Park:  We are world stars.

Kim:  But you could totally tell the part of the crowd that was there for Jay Park, another part that came for HyunA.

TK:  Crying Nut is one of the oldest continuing rock bands in Korea. How do you think Crying Nut's music evolved over time?

Han:  We are like bibimbap. We began as punk rock, but every one of us has a different taste. We blend them all in and create our music.

Lee SH:  We were probably more rebellious at first. Now I think we became more romantic.

Kim:  I recall seeing a 70-year-old film director receiving a lifetime achievement award, and saying in his speech that he still doesn't really know much about movies. That's how I feel about music.

TK:  Who would you call your influences?

Lee SM:  There are too many; we can't list them all. We listened to a lot of alternative at first. Before that, heavy metal.

Park:  Dead Kennedys, Pixies.

Han:  Irish rock nowadays. Gypsy music too.

Lee SH:  New Age, classical. Enya.

Park:  I like funny bands. There were some Mexican bands here at SXSW who played with the luchador masks on. They were funny as hell. Their music was shit though.

TK:  On the other side of the ledger, do you see your influence over Korean bands that came after you?

Han:  We were probably a terrible influence. When we were playing at Club Drug [in 1995], we saw all these high school kids listening to our music. Later, we saw them all forming bands and playing music. Of course they all played different kinds of music, but all the punk rock bands learned from us. No Brain learned from us, too. [TK Note: this is quite a statement, because No Brain began playing at Club Drug around the same time Crying Nut began.]

Lee SM:  Regardless of what music they play, I do feel that the later bands look up to us because we were able to stay with the same members for so long.

TK:  In your long career, what changes have you seen at the Hongdae scene?

Lee SM:  Now there is a huge diversity in music, and the quantity of it increased a lot too. When we started out, there were only so many genres of music.

Lee SH:  There is a different mentality behind it also. When we started, there was this weird pride about not appearing television, not trying to promote. You were a traitor if you showed up on TV. Now it is just normal for bands to do whatever they can to promote themselves. And of course, that's just the normal way of doing things.

TK:  As Korea's premier rock band, do you have any thoughts on how the word "K-pop" is used in the international market?

Kim:  I think the definition will change over time, but frankly I don't care that much. Things change when they cross over to a different place. A lot of these smaller differentiations in musical genre are about American and British music; they don't end up being applicable in Korean setting. So calling some Korean music "K-pop" but not others doesn't really make sense. I think "K-pop" is just pop music of Korea.

TK:  Do you plan on checking out some of the acts at SXSW?

Lee SH:  I've been listening to a lot of the bands here through the SXSW app.

Park:  That's high tech. I just wrote them all down. [Shows the note.]

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

SXSW Interview: Hollow Jan

In many ways, Hollow Jan stands alone in Korea's music scene. Hollow Jan is arguably the only screamo band in Korea. As such, they do not simply stand apart from the mainstream; they stand very far away from the prevailing Korean indie scene as well. Yet Hollow Jan presses on, playing their own style of music for more than a decade.

Hollow Jan has six members, but the guitarist Lee Gwang-jae could not make the trip to Austin. (Choi Hyeon-seok from Apollo 18 substituted Lee for the band's SXSW tour.) The Korean sat down with four of the members, at Hollow Jan's hotel. (Drummer Ryu Myeong-hun was not available.)

The interview was conducted in Korean; the translation was the Korean's own.

TK:  Please say hello to everyone.

Hollow Jan:
In English? [TK: No, Korean is fine.] Hello, this is Im Hwan-taek, vocal for Hollow Jan.
Helllo, I am Kim Seong-chool, the FX for Hollow Jan.
Hello, I am Hollow Jan's guitarist Seo Han-pil.
Hello, this is Hollow Jan's bassist Jeong Dong-jin.

TK:  How did Hollow Jan come about?

Jeong:  We formed in 2003. At first it was just me and Hwan-taek. We first met after we finished our military service. We both had a job already, although we didn't work at the same place.

TK:  How are you enjoying SXSW? What did you think about how the audience reacted to you?

Jeong:  It was good. Unexpectedly good.

Kim:  Can I offer some criticism? I did not have an entirely positive experience. There were some equipment issues at the venues, and one of the venues did not even bother to ensure that the music from the other part of the venue did not leak into our stage. I'm not sure what the bands can gain in that kind of environment.

TK:  That venue was pretty tough, I thought. The crowd was thin, too. But you guys did great at K-Pop Night Out.

Jeong:  I thought the venue was fine. When I play, I can't pay attention to the audience reaction anyway. We have been doing this for a decade now, and we are playing a very uncommon genre of music. Other than us, there is literally one other band in Korea that plays what we play.

TK:  Which band is that?

Jeong:  49Morphines, which is run by Lee Il-woo at Jambinai. But since Jambinai is doing so great now, 49Morphines is not very active at this point. So it's just us. No matter where we play, we end up looking like we don't belong there. We stick out in rock festivals, we stick out at K-pop festivals. Ten years ago when we started, the audience literally walked up to the stage to mock us, because they didn't understand the music. Compared to that, this is fine. It feels like the early days of the band. If we could pick up just two more people who follow us, I would consider our SXSW tour a success.

TK:  How would you describe Hollow Jan's music?

Jeong:  It's screamo. It's a rare genre and not popular. There are a few bands in Japan and Eastern Europe that do this. If you never had challenges in your life, you wouldn't really understand it. I call it, "music for someone who was abused by his mother." It's not han, though. There is an underlying message of hope in our music. [Pointing to Im,] the lyrics that he writes tend to be hopeful too.

Im:  I don't think our music is that tortured, actually. I just like it. It's a stress relief.

TK:  Who do you count as your musical influence nowadays?

Seo:  Nowadays, I only listen to Hollow Jan.

Im:  Me, too.

Kim:  I probably listen to the most amount of music in the band. Since I'm an FX guy, I listen to a lot of electronica. I was also the last to join the band, which gives me a bit more objectivity about our music.

Jeong:  I like Poison the Well, and Japanese bands like Naiad and Heaven in Her Arms. I also like Deftones a lot. When Hwan-taek and I began, we were a cover band of Deftones.

TK:  In the ten years of playing music, how do you think you grew as a band, musically or otherwise?

Kim:  I think we became more focused on our mission, and all six of us became a bit more harmonious.

Jeong:  I disagree! We still have the same conflicts. But I suppose we did get a bit smoother in manners as we got older.

TK:  You just released a new album.

Im:  Yes, it's called Day Off. It is about death. I think our next album has to be happier, however. We joke about being cursed by the album, because so many bad things happened to us shortly after we released the album. We got into a car accident, caught mysterious physical and mental illness, broke a leg, etc.

TK:  Any parting words for AAK! readers?

Jeong:  Love your mom.

Im:  Be healthy. Without health, you can't play music.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

SXSW Day 3 Notes

I begin the day with light dread. Day 3 is the busiest day yet. Back-to-back interviews with Hollow Jan and Crying Nut in the morning. Then back-to-back interviews with Big Phony and Love X Stereo before Seoulsonic showcase began. Then six hours of Seoulsonic, with an interview with Glen Check mixed in. By the end of the day, I have so much written down in my notebook that I fear it will be well after SXSW before I can finish writing about everything I saw and heard.

To avoid burning myself out--on my vacation, no less!--I seek local delicacy. So I found myself in front of this building.

Whataburger, the pride of the South. I order a double cheeseburger with jalapenos, fries and diet coke. Apparently Whataburger operated on the same system as Carl's Jr.--you order at the counter, and the food is brought to you. They also bring a condiment tray, as if they are selling cigarettes at a casino. I am intrigued by salsa picante and spicy ketchup. I get everything.

A couple of bites in, and the appeal of the burger was evident. The vegetables were very fresh, which warmed the heart of this unorthodox burger lover who thinks vegetables are what completes the true burger experience. Salsa picante and spicy ketchup were both excellent. The fries were mediocre, but I have had worse.

Overall, I would love to have it again whenever I have a chance. But anyone who thinks Whataburger is better than In-and-Out burger is out of her mind.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...