Interview originally published in HERO 19.
It’s safe to say that South Korea is better known for it’s proximity to North Korea than it is for its indie scene. So it was a pretty big deal when Hyukoh stormed the charts back in 2015, seemingly coming out of nowhere as the perfect antidote to the formulaic K-Pop that dominates South Korea’s airwaves.
Raised in various cities across China (Jilin, Shenyang and Beijing), Hyukoh founding member Oh Hyuk relocated to South Korea in 2012 after finishing high school – in rebellion of his parents strong opposition to his rock ‘n’ roll ambitions – and dedicated himself to music-making.
Initially forming Hyukoh as a solo project in 2014, Hyuk eventually decided to recruit guitarist Lim Hyunjae, drummer Lee Inwoo, and bassist Im Dong Geon. An appearance on the TV show Infinite Challenge propelled Hyukoh to South Korean mega-stardom and the band stormed the charts, leading to sold out shows and a number one single. Offering something more organic than their K-Pop counterparts, Hyukoh’s sound is a blend of 90s indie rock and contemporary shoegaze with Hyuk’s vocal as its centrepiece. The band’s debut record, 23 (corresponding to the band’s age), finds them really coming into their own, its confidence is unwavering and on tracks like Wanli the band have really hit their sonic stride – you can almost feel the mountains overlooking Seoul this time around.
Russell Dean Stone: Have your parents changed their mind about you making music professionally now that things are going so great?
Oh Hyuk: Yes, they totally support me now.
RDS: Were you surprised at the success of Hyukoh?
OH: I knew it would happen. I had a thing in my mind that one day it would be successful but I never expected it to be so soon.
RDS: Did the speed of your success put a lot of pressure on you? Was it a big lifestyle adjustment to go from being anonymous to a nationally famous band almost overnight?
OH: There was a lot of pressure. The people that listen to our music changed from this particular, specific audience to unspecific masses. I needed to process and try to understand and accept that fact in my mind. My lifestyle became more simple, a little bit more boring perhaps. I cannot go to places with lots of people freely like I used to and things that were so ordinary before aren’t ordinary anymore. However, I was never much of a fan for crowded places to begin with and I do like to focus on only a few things, so it isn’t too inconvenient for me.
RDS: What has success changed?
OH: Musically, it hasn’t changed anything. Back in the day there would be limitations, especially when making music, but now, since we have that budget or that money, we get to explore more options. We get to do what we want to now.
RDS: What’s it like having such a fierce fanbase?
OH: It feels great to have fans. We’re in an almost symbiotic relationship, I give them the best performance or the best music I can do in the moment and the fans love us back and they basically make it possible for us to do the music.
RDS: Why did you gravitate to playing the style of music that you do?
OH: Of course there would be some inspirations I got or influences I got from the music I listened to growing up. It’s not so much that I chose a certain style of music or a certain path of music that I do, it’s more like I wanted to talk about my story and I wrote something about what I feel like or wanted to say and it just naturally came out like that. The music style that we do comes naturally.
RDS: What are some of the themes you explore in your latest album 23?
OH: The album talks about youth overall, but the duality of youth, because I think it has two sides. First of all, just how Ryan McGinley portrays it in his pictures; youth is beautiful, it’s shining, it’s so bright and it’s endlessly hopeful. On the other side, when you notice that youth is not going to last forever, you have that anxiety or worry that it’s going to end sometime soon and I wanted to talk about that in certain detail.
RDS: What’s your writing process?
OH: Sometimes with guitar, sometimes with keyboard, but I’m too lazy so usually I record voice notes on my phone all the time and whenever that gathers up I start working on a full song and pulling it all together.
RDS: Where would be the best place to listen to Hyukoh?
OH: In someone else’s car.
RDS: Do you feel that you’re fetishised for being South Korean, that it’s almost a novelty that you’re not only South Korean but also a legit indie band?
OH: In the big picture, people overseas are only aware of K-Pop really, so sometimes they expect something like K-Pop from our band. Even when touring North America this time, I felt like there was a mixture of audiences where half of them would be really hardcore K-Pop heads that came to see us and others seemed like they knew nothing about K-Pop but they came anyway. I see that blend and I still see that confusion among people about our band being from South Korea but not doing K-Pop.
RDS: That was your first American tour, right? How was it?
OH: It was really fun but hard. It’s a thirteen hour flight from Seoul. I don’t want to be on a plane any more. In America we didn’t do a bus tour we flew from city to city and because of all the instruments and luggage and we were twelve people, the airport was hassle.
RDS: Do you remember the first song you wrote?
OH: It’s actually on the 23 album as the song Paul. From what I originally wrote the melody has changed, the lyrics have changed, everything has changed, but it comes from the first thing I ever really wrote.
RDS: Where would you take us if we came to Seoul to hang?
OH: For those who like to party, or people in music or the culture industry I recommend Contra, Cakeshop and Faust. If you aren’t a party person you could chill around Han River.
RDS: You mentioned Ryan McGinley’s work before, are you influenced by a lot of western and American culture?
OH: I grew up in China. It would be hard to say I was most influenced by South Korean culture but at the same time I didn’t really fit into culture in China either so it’s a bit of both if anything. For my generation, because of the internet and technology, we all get to experience and be able to be influenced by all the musicians or whatever we can find on the internet. For my favourite artists they’re mostly coming from the UK I would say.
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