Indie Music in South Korea: Number One Korean

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Number One Korean

It’s already been four years since I arrived in Seoul for my study abroad program (am I that old already?)  I was excited and ready to wander the city.  It’s a good thing I did, because that’s how I discovered Hongdae.  Hongdae is a very small neighborhood surrounding the artsy Hongik University; the site of Korea’s first punk band Crying Nut and where Korean indie music has lived for the past twenty-some years.  The whole area surrounding Hongdae is in fact a hotspot for young people, as the nearby Yonsei University, Sogang University, and Ehwa Women’s University bring in more students and their college-aged friends.

Actually, YG Entertainment has been headquartered in the neighboring Hapjeong-dong (which is still pretty much considered Hongdae) due to the creative and constantly emerging art scene there, while most K-pop agencies are located in the corporate-friendly Gangnam district.

Any way, there used to be a thing called “Club Night” on the last Friday of every month where you could buy a wristband for around $20 and get into most clubs in Hongdae.  These nights are particularly crazy, with all the young people running the streets trying to meet up with friends or find the best dance club.  Me, I was content to spend most of my night at Club FF, a little dive bar I discovered a couple months back.  It reminded me of home: a dirty dark basement with local bands playing their hearts out.  Except the coolest part was that these bands were all Korean, with the exception of an American or Canadian expat playing guitar or drums here and there.

On one club night at the end of April 2008, my friends and I started at Club FF, which by the way has free cocktail hour from 11 PM – midnight (think a counter full of Dixie cups filled to the brim with screwdrivers and rum and Cokes), which definitely helped convince my friends we needed to stay there.  It’s a good thing I did stay as long as I did that night, because to my delight, the band Number One Korean came on and blew me away.

Number One Korean at Club FF

A ska band in Korea?  I was surprised and a little confused, but mostly excited.  These guys put on one of the best live shows I’d ever seen; their hearts were in it despite only playing for twenty-some odd people in a dirty basement.  Everyone was dancing and going crazy and it warmed my heart to discover this scene in South Korea, a place that conjures up images of flashy K-pop stars and Samsung plasma screens.

Singer “Oo-Yoo” (meaning “milk”)

Here’s a video of Number One Korean with Copy Machine performing at FF to give you an idea of how small the place is, as well as the kind of energy these guys bring:

About a year and half passed and I didn’t see the group perform again though Club FF was a regular haunt for me in the eight or so months I spent studying abroad.  In the summer of 2009 I was working as an intern at KBS Music Bank, a live music TV show.  We filmed on Fridays, and during the days prior did all the preparation for each week’s show: finalizing schedules, scripts, music, and making sure all the artists and their management were ready to come in on time with the right costumes, etc.  When I saw the artist name “넘버원코리안” (read: “Num-buh Won Koh-ree-ahn”)  It sounded strangely familiar but I couldn’t place it, being as 90% of the performers on Music Bank are your top-tier K-pop stars like Girls Generation, SHINee, Super Junior, 2NE1, and KARA.

When the band came out during rehearsal with their instruments, I recognized them immediately and was so proud that they’d made it to such a prominent national stage.  Every once in a while, these top music programs like Music Bank, Inkigayo, or Music Core do feature indie artists, but only recently has the nation of South Korea really come to appreciate this side of music.  Programs like “Top Band” on KBS has brought many indie bands to national attention, and Number One Korean is currently participating in the second season of the show.  My main job at Music Bank was photographing the artists and keeping fans excited for each week’s show by updating the Twitter with goofy backstage pictures.  When I got to the band’s dressing room they were excited to hear I had seen them before at Club FF in Hongdae.

Number One Korean at Music Bank

The recent success of indie band Busker Busker has totally rewritten the rules on what K-pop or K-indie can be.  Originally an indie band, Busker Busker started gaining popularity on the third season of Superstar K (like Korean American Idol), and for the past month or so have been absolutely dominating the digital and physical music charts like no band that ever played their own instruments has.  One really interesting aspect of Busker Busker is the membership of Bradley Moore, an American expat who originally went over to teach English.  It’s not uncommon for Americans to join Korean indie bands, but it is very uncommon for them to reach this kind of widespread success.  I’m interested to see how a different kind of artist will handle the K-pop level of fame that seemed to come out of nowhere.  They’ve already gotten demands to add more concert dates after their debut solo concert tickets sold out in minutes, and have been accused of boycotting certain networks because they’re not killing themselves to make every single TV appearance (K-pop stars are regularly hospitalized due to exhaustion from extremely demanding schedules).

I think the popularity of Busker Busker will lead to more exposure for many Korean indie artists who, in stark contrast to their K-pop counterparts, are struggling to make a career out of their passion.  I’m excited to see where this will go.

To my surprise, a few weeks back I received an email from Number One Korean promoting their upcoming TV appearances.  They’re also featured on the soundtrack of an upcoming film called China Blue (not to be confused with the documentary of the same name).  I’ll be playing some tracks from their third album Don’t Be Lonely on the Asian Invasion, and if you can check out the bands’ videos here.

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