Uncovering the Underground: The Korean Indie Rock Scene & The 10 Best Bands
Words by Michael Berry
It is patently obvious to anyone with an interest, however fleeting, in the contemporary Korean popular music scene that the overwhelming media attention and marketing clout are squarely-focused on the “cultural phenomenon” known as K-pop.*
Any non-partisan observer would naturally conclude that K-pop, over-hyped, over-wrought, overly-derivative, and over-promoted though they may be, comprise the only music of note offered up by Korean companies and performers on the altar of current artistic trends and musical endeavour. While such a conclusion might be understandable, it would also be incorrect. An argument can be made for it in terms of an undeniable international presence and well-choreographed “dance” routines, but in terms of creativity, imagination, individual initiative, and prowess on all manner of instrumentation, K-pop comes up short!
In terms defined by the contemporary Korean musical context, the true standard-bearers on the musical vanguard operate within another milieu entirely: hard to pigeonhole and with its own growing pains and inconsistencies, but also much broader in scope. This milieu is populated by people more diverse in style and content who are often eccentrically brilliant and for whom the mainstream musical control grid is simply too onerous to contemplate. While most musicians will admit they embark on this uncertain path to achieve some measure of critical acclaim and financial success, not all are prepared to accept the loss of control, compromise of integrity, and subsumation to a corporate entity that such “success” can entail.
This milieu is the realm of the alternative/indie musician.
So, what does being part of this scene entail, and how can one get both an idea of it, a handle on it, and some examples to offer up an introduction? Since the term “indie” can be used to cover many musical styles including jazz, funk, soul, folk, electronic, and fusions of the aforementioned, it behooves us to limit the scope of this particular article to a primarily Korean (i.e. non-expat) “indie rock” delineation. In the limited space available for this article, to do justice to all of the styles nestled within the indie rubric would be a Sisyphean task; the growing importance of the entire indie/alternative spectrum here deserves no less!
First of all, while there is an overall concept of an “indie” scene, the sheer diversity contained within it means that, among other things, contrary opinions abound, performance venues change, bands break up and re-form, petty – and not so petty – squabbles happen, the dichotomy between expat and Korean indie bands can affect co-operation and the development of a more inclusive environment. Costs and other hassles associated with producing albums, etc. all play a part in keeping the scene more fragmented than it should – or could – be.
Also, for the purpose of this article, there is often a lack of foreign language outlets that cover this burgeoning outpouring of creativity, although the Internet has stepped up to the plate in a big way. Korean fans and supporters of the scene have many of their own language options to utilize, but foreigners and expats who don’t speak Korean are not as well served.
Or, they weren’t; thanks to the Internet and the efforts of a passionate core of supporters – both foreign and Korean – there are now some excellent websites and blogs where anyone seeking pertinent information on any and all aspects of the Indie music scene in Korea can check in and uncover a plethora of facts. Bands, personalities, discographies, important labels, reviews, venues, opinions & observations, myriad links and assorted asides abound. The best English language sites are well-organized and veritable fonts of knowledge; up-to-date and easy to navigate. Again, there are too many to list them all here, but five of the best are:
The lack of attention and support from the media in Korea that purports to “showcase Korea” (looking at you, Arirang!) and cover all of the art, music, and culture of import is another serious hindrance. Even though the emphasis on K-pop and the Korean “Hallyu” cultural wave is generally cited as important due to the economic benefit(s) it supposedly brings to Korea, there is no excuse for ignoring the much more relevant independent artistic flowering that the indie music scene here is an integral part of. Pop music is, by its very nature, ephemeral, and regardless of the efforts made by the big K-pop production companies to keep re-inventing the wheel with “new” dance routines and costume adjustments, it cannot leave the kind of legacy based on real musicianship, creativity, and personal commitment that any serious band (indie or otherwise) can. When you are a throwaway cog in a giant machine it is a simple matter to be replaced. Indie bands may not become household names, or “rock millionaires” but they are not easily replaceable. All contribute something of their individual selves to the greater effort; truly original Korean indie bands like Huckleberry Finn and GoGo Star are prime examples of this – and there are many more out there!
It hasn’t been easy establishing a singular starting point for the Korean indie rock scene; there have always been bands in Korea’s modern (post-Korean War) history that have tried to do things their own way, whether in the more popular styles like trot and early 60’s rock & roll, through the repression of the 1970s when government repression seriously censored anything not “approved”**; the folk and “ballad” sounds of the 1980s; and the beginnings of the real “rock” sounds of the 1990s, including hard rock, early punk (with great venues like the late Skunk Hell – R.I.P.), hiphop/rap, dance, and metal. If the indie of today had a genesis, it would have been the 1990s, and the last 15 years or so have seen an eruption of rock styles that could all be labelled “indie!”
All of which segues into what is happening now. What can someone wanting to check out the scene do to get their feet wet? Well, the websites mentioned earlier are great places to start and other perusals of sites accessible via the internet can also help flesh out some of the best venues offering up a real assortment of indie rock nowadays. A couple of other good addresses to check are:
Most of the main venues for good live indie performances are centered on the Hongik University (Hongdae) district of SeouI. Lately, this area has become saturated with all manner of performance venues; rents are going up, and many indie/DIY performers are finding places for reasonable rates hard to come by and now, there are the beginnings of a movement away from this area to less-expensive and less crowded districts. Hapjeong was one, but others are looking even further south across the river to places like Mullae, working-class districts that are now offering better options for the more adventurous sorts! There are other venues (including the Itaewon area –most notably Thunderbird Tavern in Noksapyeong) that host shows on a non-regular basis but they are not always indie rock-oriented. In these cases, it takes some online sleuthing to find the appropriate information. For anyone who is really set for exploring what the local indie rock scene has to offer, it is worth the time and effort.
Another way – and often most informative – is through word-of-mouth. Especially if you know Korean aficionados of the scene; rest assured, there are many, and most are more than willing to point you in the direction you’re looking for, especially if one of their favourite bands is playing.
All in all though, such information needs to be taken in along with an understanding of the bands and musical styles that are the real reason people want to immerse themselves in the indie experience. In that vein we present 10 bands that we feel can best demonstrate some of the various styles (sub-genres if you like) on offer within the expansive boundaries of Seoul’s current indie rock scene. This list is by no means definitive, nor is it anywhere near exhaustive; it should however, give the reader some indication of the depth of talent and musical acumen that lurks beneath the more apparent veneer of established alternative tunesmithing and open the door to discoveries perhaps not previously imagined.
It’s best to understand from the outset that some readers may disagree with the selections; they may feel there are better bands that should be included, or the list is not representative enough. These are all valid criticisms and duly noted in advance. It is intended as an introduction and we hope it will encourage readers and interested souls to delve deeper!
Without further ado then, into the breach!
JAMBINAI (잠비나이): Outstanding amalgamation of traditional Korean instrumentation and compositional mien; their collaborative magnum opus with Korean metal mavens Vassline is a tour de force – outstanding in every way and a stunning metaphorical exemplar of the coming together of the old and new in Korea. This trio have opened up the door to an old vault, taken out the traditional musical treasure, and used it to recharge an essential part of Korea’s musical heritage. We cannot recommend them highly enough! (See our interview with the band here).
ASIAN CHAIRSHOT (아시안체어샷): Leading edge post-rock psychedelia and buzz guitar with heavy melodic undertones from one of the vanguard trios in current Korean indie; compositionally complex blended well with reflective vocal eccentricity. Another band (Trio), with heaps of live cred (UK-8 gigs, 2014; SXSW 2015) under their belt. Formed 2011 in Seoul; 1st EP [Chairshot, 2011]); 2nd EP (Mask, 2013) and full album (Horizon 2014 – see review here). Another helping of virtuosity added to the Korean indie layer cake!
PATIENTS (페이션츠): “Hybrid punk?” Another power trio this time driven by a riveting keyboard attack. Old Rock & Roll-meets-Rocky Horror – and then some. Kick arse drummer; great bass sound. Formed by Jo Su-min (Bass) and Lee Jae-hyuk (Drums) in 2005, released a 1st EP in 2006, another in 2008, then established their own label – Steel Face Records – in 2010. Added keyboardist Kwon Hyuk-jang in 2013 and really started kicking out the jams! Another EP in 2014 (see review here) and another indie milestone reached. Insane live!
LOVE X STEREO (러브 엑스 스테레오): Female vocals bounce above an electro-rock bottom end that fuses harder guitar alt rock and quirky punk to an incessant electronic sound. Hard to believe they’re (now) a duo. They are 5 albums into their sojourn and show no sign of retreat. Started in 1998 as part of a “skate-punk” collective Skrew Attack; changed trajectory in 2005, then really powered up with their debut EP Off The Grid in 2012. The rest, as they say, is history. A stellar example of the “dream-electronic” end of the indie spectrum.
DARK MIRROR OV TRAGEDY: Lots of great Korean metal sallying forth these days; this is one of the best and a metal rarity. A septet (5 men, two women), striding purposefully through the symphonic realm with a Death/Gothic edge; it’s Amorphis-meets-Therion-meets-Paradise Lost. Formed in 2003; take their name from a Nostradamus reference. They’ve produced 3 full Albums, 1 EP, and 1 “split album” with Ethereal Sin. Popular internationally, and an integral part of the current Korean Metal scene.
The GEEKS (더 긱스): Major players in Korea’s expanding Punk scene. The first Korean punk band to tour the USA and progenitors of Korea’s “straight-edge” hardcore scene. The quintet formed in 1999 and are going even stronger now. The Geeks are an essential punk show to catch and their albums are equally important. Often considered one of the most important and vanguard bands in the entire Asian rock music scene, punk news calls them “…the most popular hardcore band… in Korea.” Must sees!
MUKIMUKMANMANSU (무키무키만만수): If you can get past the name (Muki plays the Janggo-Korean drum; Mansu plays guitar), this off-beat duo project an indie sound reminiscent of Cibo Matto using only guitar and Korean drums. They started with a couple of demos in 2011 and hit the scene virally with the video “Andromeda” in 2012. Surprisingly frenetic, given the paucity of instrumentation, and lyrically intense Mukimukmanmansu is out on the quirky border where real K-pop meets indie.
ROCK N ROLL RADIO (로큰롤라디오): Leaning a bit more toward the dance-y border between indie and commercial alternative here, but still very much a great get up and move album, Rock N Roll Radio has a prolific style of song-writing and is musically astute. A quartet formed in 2012 as winners of EBS’s “Hello Rookie” award. They are SXSW veterans and seriously good musicians. They dominate that realm wherein quality musicianship and business acumen reside amicably; success is more than a pipe dream here. They had an outstanding release recently (see review here); packed shows and near-mainstream popularity, the ascendant domain of local indie!
KINGSTON RUDIESKA (킹스턴 루디스카): They are a ska-powered nonet formed in 2004 and are probably the most well-known ska band in the country. Many members are accomplished jazz players. Choi Chul-wook (trombone) got the band together and blended a Skatalites base with calypso, reggae and jazz stylings. The result is a super-infectious and dynamic Korean vocalized dance sound with punchy horns; not to mention their outstanding live shows!
There are literally dozens of other superb indie bands plying their trade in various venues all over the city, and that’s only Seoul. There is another whole assemblage of talent bringing the noise to the faithful all over Korea – not to mention the expat indie bands working the other side of the street. The bands mentioned here are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the abundance of indie music emerging into the light on the contemporary non-commercial Korean music plateau. Are we approaching critical mass, some kind of tipping point?
Given the matrix established by the corporations that control just about everything related with – or connected – to the music arena in Korea at the moment, such change seems unlikely. It may seem hackneyed to employ such a well-used saw when expressing thoughts and observations on the future of the Korean indie music realm (not just as it relates to rock music) but the longest journey begins with the first step. So, whither indie music?
It should be apparent to all but the most jaded observer that the indie music scene in Korea is growing from strength to strength, and is not going away; not now, after the trials and tribulations of the past two decades.
New developments that allow far more individual and personal control over the concrete realization of a musical/artistic vision mean that the power to create is devolving to a more basic level- that controlled by the artist in its entirety. The fact that Korean indie artists are now able to showcase their efforts to a worldwide audience through the internet, and such a utility – hopefully – leading to a better understanding and appreciation of the (until now) latent talent simmering under the surface of a bland, unimaginative, contrived corporate “pop” sector, allows one to garner a degree of confidence in the future that might have seemed wistful at best a few years ago.
Korean indie bands are touring foreign countries like Japan, the U.K. and The U.S.A. and are drawing attention; SXSW (an annual music and film festival that brings in tens of thousands of people) over the last three years has seen local bands gain more exposure. Local festivals, like last year’s amazing Zandari Festa, are upping the ante considerably and providing an incredible experience for alternative music lovers of all kinds, while the alternative media – especially the internet and blog sites – are attracting more and more attention.
It might be premature to start rubbing hands in glee, and there is certainly a ton more work to do to draw the disparate streams and elements of indie endeavour together, but the momentum has surely started to increase; it is now up to everyone who cares about this fascinating aspect of the human condition here to see that it continues!