DAY6’s Jae Is Going Back to His Roots and Finding New Music As eaJ

In an exclusive interview with VICE, Jae talks about his solo project, the problem with perfection, and finding himself again through music.

20 August 2021, 5:22am

For most of his career, Jae Park has been one of five. But in three months’ time, the Korean-American musician will be performing in Los Angeles at 88Rising’s Head In The Clouds music festival, alone. It’s a homecoming of sorts. 

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Park grew up in California and there, at the festival, he won’t be appearing as part of the South Korean band DAY6, but by himself. Or, more accurately, as eaJ—a personal music project he launched last year. He describes it as a journey back to his roots, a way to discover a new sound. 

“It started as me just finding a journey to myself, and it ended up becoming like a venue for me to continue my path as a musician,” he told VICE in a video call from Seoul.

His is the kind of story that’s familiar to millennials who dreamed of becoming a musician. Park posted song covers on YouTube, placed in a reality singing competition in South Korea, and landed a spot in one of the country’s biggest entertainment companies. 

He’s now the lead guitarist of DAY6, a group under music heavyweight JYP Entertainment and one of the few rock bands in K-pop. All five members take part in the songwriting process and trade in choreography for instruments.

“Congratulations,” the lead track in their 2015 debut EP The Day, sets the emotional pop-rock style they’re now known for. Released in 2018, “days gone by,” is synth-heavy and channels the 80s ahead of the 2020s retro explosion we’re still on. One of their most popular songs, “You Were Beautiful,” is a heartbreak anthem that literally had fans mourning their past loves while belting and flashing photos of their exes as a guy crowd-surfed

But with leader Sungjin enlisting for South Korea’s mandatory military service earlier this year and bassist Young K doing the same in October, it could be a while before the band makes music again together. Figuring out how to reposition himself as a solo artist, Park said, has been “bittersweet.” 

“I’m excited and scared to see what it is like to perform alone. Like that performance is weighing on my mind… I’m afraid because I’m not used to having this kind of pressure on me.”

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For the most part, DAY6 sits firmly on its rock influences. eaJ leans more lo-fi, atmospheric K-r&b, but is kaleidoscopic, with no specific genre. The first song Park released as eaJ, “LA Trains,” starts with echoey whispers and an acoustic guitar; “Otherside,” with a slight melodic rap, pines for a lost loved one; and “50 proof” is a soft piano ballad. 

“I would have to be nine different people if I’m going to sing the nine different songs,” Park said of his struggle to prepare for the upcoming performance. “They’re all different ranges, they’re all different sounds, they’re all different rhythms, they’re all different types of voices. And I’m kind of lost, but I’ve been starting to figure it out. It has been starting to come to me.” 

For listeners, it’s like witnessing pieces of a whole come together. Various elements from earlier eaJ songs culminate in “Pacman,” an introspection on the frustrating game of intermittent ghosting. “Loving you’s just getting harder and harder to do / Cause my head says no but my phone keeps calling you / And you never pick up unless you’ve got nothing to do / But you say that you want me / Much as I want you.”

New listeners hear an artist discovering his sound in real time, while longtime fans find a new side of an idol they’ve followed for years. Park, too, has learned a lot about himself in the process. “Jae is eaJ, not DAY6 Jae,” he said. 

And in many ways, eaJ is antithetical to K-pop: the songs are in English, not Korean; the lyrics are abstract and the sound subtle; they were released on SoundCloud and YouTube with little promotion, not a boxed album with collectible photocards and a hectic comeback schedule. 

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“I’m just trying to make… music that I think is good, and not necessarily [what] everyone thinks is good. I never planned on being a Billboard artist. I just want to be someone that people can vibe to when they’re feeling a certain type of way,” Park said. 

He prefers a more relaxed approach. 

“I am much more comfortable being allowed to record as long as I want, as long as I need, and to do it how I want to do it,” he said. 

“I kind of have to go at my own pace in order for things to come out at a good level of quality.”

K-pop distinguishes itself with its systematic talent training, high-energy performances, and never-ending stream of content. It’s all part of the attraction and global success, but it can also take its toll on artists and set unrealistic expectations among fans. 

“We’re feeding these kids the idea that you have to be perfect to be normal, but it’s not true,” Park said. 

“I feel almost responsible for a lot of the things that the younger generation are going through with their idea of perfection and their idealization of certain figures. I know I’ve said this like a broken record over and over, but it really is hard. It really is unsettling when you see these younger people having actual internal conflict… thinking, ‘Is something wrong with me?’ after having looked at an idol, and comparing themselves to them. An idol has been prepped for the two minutes that you see them on camera, for years.” 

He tries to share this unvarnished side on social media, previously interacting with fans on a personal Twitch channel. Mostly, he was gaming, some moments he was singing, other times he was reacting to fan art on Reddit. But in all these streams, he was just at home—no makeup, and hair unkempt.

“All those times I Twitch-streamed, I don’t know why I turned it on. I just felt like it. I was bored. It’s just cool being able to see a community whenever you want. Because usually, in order to do that, I would have to set up for months, practice for half a year, and then go on tour. But now, I can do that at the click of a button—see everybody. Not that I can see them physically, but I can… interact with them, right? I just thought that was cool,” he said. 

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“I guess it was being able to fill the need for human interaction, because I don’t really talk to people unless I’m at the studio. It was nice to be able to converse… It was just a nice and warm feeling that I used to have, and really a place of comfort. I really liked streaming. It’s unfortunate that I can’t do it anymore.”

Letting loose came with its own kind of scrutiny. Park recalled being criticized for things like burping on camera and sleeping late. He eventually shut down his channel and apologized after an on-stream comment some found “inappropriate.”

But his openness has also led to important conversations on topics usually swept under the rug. Last year, Park talked about experiencing panic attacks and has since become a rare voice for mental health in K-pop. 

“When I first had it, I thought I was gonna die. And then the first couple times I had it and I knew I wasn’t gonna die, it still stuck because I wasn’t used to it. But now I kind of understand that, Oh, it’s a part of how it happens. It’s just a part of how it feels. And, I mean, it hasn’t happened in a long time,” he said. “I feel like I’ll be OK. I just got to take my time with it. But that’s different from work, that’s just mentally trying to figure it out.”

Fans continue to check on him online. “Feel better,” some say. “Come back soon.” He appreciates the concern, but insists that he never actually left. 

“I realized that I can’t just sit by idly anymore. Because I have been working this whole time but people have been giving off the premise that I’ve just been at home, trying to fix this mental condition, wrapped up in towels and blankets, shivering by myself. And that's not how it’s been.”

He’s been working on a lot of features, collaborating with those who listened to eaJ and liked what they heard. He’s been working on his own stuff, too, but now that he’s finally found a slower pace, we’ll just have to wait and see what that’s like. 

“What you’re gonna see is definitely a different me,” he said, relaxed. “I don’t know if it’s going to be worse or better. But it’s for sure gonna be a little bit different.”

Follow Therese Reyes on Twitter and Instagram.

Tagged:

South Korea, VICE K-Pop , 88rising, music interviews

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