You could call Jambinai a post-rock band that uses traditional Korean instruments and takes inspiration from traditional Korean music, but you could just as easily call the Seoul quintet a band of Korean traditional musicians influenced by noise, experimental rock, metal and hardcore. To Western rock fans their clearest antecedents are Explosions in the Sky and Mogwai, two bands principle songwriter Ilwoo Lee is happy to claim as influences, in addition to Black Sabbath and Metallica, but the group's Korean roots run deep.
The three original members, Lee, Eunyong Sim and Bomi Kim met in college where they studied Korean folk, classical and ritual music. They formed the band after graduation. In addition to guitar, Lee plays a reed flute called a piri, Kim plays a bowed instrument called a haegum, and Sim plays a zither called the geomungo. Drummer Jaehyuk Choi and bassist Byeongkoo Yu round out the line-up. The song “For Everything that You Lost,” which we are premiering with this interview, appears on A Hermitage, the band's forthcoming album with Bella Union. It builds slowly and contemplatively, with the inexorable rhythmic progression and narrative arc of one of Godspeed You! Black Emperor's epics. Lee's piri moans like a heartbroken loon, while the deep, bold-voiced geomungo acts as both a melodic and percussive instrument. The sound of the haegum flickers at the heart of the song like a pale flame. Rather than standing in for Western instuments, the traditional instruments are allowed to determine the direction and melodic possibilities of the music.
Traditional Korean tones and rhythms are a big part of what makes Jambinai sound so refreshing to listeners new to those sounds, but its their energy and inventiveness that make them one of the most exciting rising bands in the realm of avant rock. If you ask Lee about it, he'll tell you it's all mainly a matter of spirit.
Enroute on the band's fifth tour through Europe, Lee got on Skype from a hotel lobby somewhere in France to talk about making new music with an old soul.
Noisey: How was SXSW?
Lee: It was great. We had a show with Bella Union's other artists, not just Korean musicians, so we had an opportunity to introduce our music to label owners and other people. It was a really good opportunity for us. There were not that many people at that showcase but the reaction was very good, very powerful. They gave us really good vibes.
How do you find the audiences in Europe?
This tour is really hot. The audiences in Korea are very quiet, but here they are very loud and have a strong reaction. They really cheer us up.
What is the song “They Keep Silence” about?
Two years ago Korea had a really serious accident, the [Sewol Ferry Tragedy]. I'm talking about that in the song, because many people in the Korean government are keeping silent about the truth, the facts surrounding the accident.
Why did you choose to write about that subject?
Many Korean musicians wrote songs about the ferry accident but they wrote songs filled only with sadness. I didn't want to do that. The people in the government did wrong and those who know are keeping silent about it.
You wanted to write something expressing your anger at the injustice?
Yeah. Like a journalist.
What kind of music inpires your songwriting for Jambinai?
I'm inspired by all kinds of music: Korean traditional music, hip-hop, rock, jazz, electronic music; but also I'm inspired by the present moment, the present situation.
So, the original three members of Jambinai met while studying tradional Korean music in college. What was it that led the three of you to explore the nontraditional possibilities of your instruments?
Nowadays, many Korean people don't listen to traditional Korean music and they don't respect Korean traditional culture. We studied Korean traditional music, so when we would play a show the only people in the audience were other Korean traditional music students, or teachers, or family. We wanted to communicate with ordinary people as musicians through our music, but it's impossible to do that with only traditional music, so we created Jambinai. We found our own way to create new music with Korean traditional instruments.
What is it about Korea's musical traditions that you want to share with people?
Korean traditional instruments are really unique. The intruments convey certain very special Korean emotions.
Can you give me an example of those emotions?
In Korean, we say heung and han but they are very hard to translate into English. [Ed. Note: These are culturally-specific ideas that are central to Korean culture, and for which there is no direct translation. "Heung" describes a specific kind of pure joy. "Han" is even harder to translate. The word describes a deep and bitter resentment or state of suffering combined with an enduring sense of hope.]
Had any of you played in rock bands before you started Jambinai?
I play in two hardcore bands, 49 Morphines and Combative Post. I just play guitar in those, not Korean traditional instruments.
Is there any one aspect of Korean traditional music that especially inspires Jambinai?
We are inspired by the spirit of the music. Many Korean traditional musicians in the past have experimented and created music for their time, their own age. I'm inspired by their spirit.
So, you see the band as part of an ongoing tradition of Korean music? You aren't making a break with it, but continuing it?
Yeah. I think we are, but many other traditional Korean musicians … they don't think so. Most Korean traditional musicians tell me it's too loud. They say “What the hell are you doing?!” I don't care.
Do you feel that the band is closer to traditional Korean music in spirit than it is to Western music?
They both inspire me equally. I don't think Korean traditional music is just for Asia and I don't think modern Western music is just for the west. All Asian people live in Western culture. It's complicated. Everything is mixed now days. We play Korean traditional instruments, but it's not just Korean traditional music. It's just music, I think.
What were your first practices like? How did you find your sound? Did it take a long time?
It look a very long time. We didn't have any points of reference for the band. We would just have improvisational jams and make noise for an hour, two hours.
If the other members aren't into hardcore, how did you win them over to this kind of music?
At first, they were like other Korean traditional musicians and thought it was too loud, but they got used to my sound—and my drummer is a punk drummer.
Can you think of one night on tour or a show you played abroad that was an especially great, memorable experience?
All the shows are really good. It's very hard to choose one. For a Korean band playing traditional Korean instruments, it's just a miracle to have shows in Europe or the US or South America. But Australia, at the WOMADelaide 2015 world music festival, was great. Our stage was really small and I was just watching my shoes while I played, but after I finished I looked up and there were so many people in front of our stage! Even in front of other stages, the audience was watching our show. After our show, they shouted “One more! One more!” for over 10 minutes and all our CDs and T-shirts were sold out. It was really good.
Beverly Bryan is spreading heung on Twitter.