Hyukoh, photo courtesy of Hyukoh
This summer, the most popular band in South Korea hasn’t been a carefully marketed new K-pop phenomenon or a supergroup making a long-awaited return. It’s a soft rock indie quartet whose success comes as a surprise to the members themselves. Hyukoh shot to fame early this summer, climbing the charts and beating out top K-pop acts like nobody’s business. When walking through Seoul the first week of July, it was almost impossible for me to go a few blocks without overhearing one store or another playing Hyukoh’s music, especially their hit song “Comes And Goes.” Not bad for four reserved 23-year-olds.
Hyukoh are like a breath of fresh air in a country where K-pop stars are trained for years to shape media-friendly images to back up their pop sound. Hyukoh’s music blends familiar shoegaze and surf rock sounds; these are soft rock tunes turned up a notch, explicitly positioned as an alternative to the mainstream. Over a recent Skype call with me, Hyukoh kept things simple, often answering with single-word responses. They made it clear that all they want to say can be heard in their music. Vocalist Oh Hyuk, whom the band is named after, writes about what he feels in an earnest mix of Korean and English.
“We wrote about the changes that many people can relate to and think about,” Oh explained in regards to the latest album. “We didn’t necessarily think about wanting to say anything particularly when making music. We didn’t start our album 22 that way. We just wanted to figure out the situations that we were in at that point in time.” Their first two EPs, one released last year and one released this year, were named after the age that the members were when they created them: 20 and 22.
“We put in our opinions and suggestions when composing,” said guitarist Lim Hyunjae. “But [Oh] Hyuk writes all the lyrics and, for most of our songs, Hyuk composes them as well. We develop them together, though.” Lim, drummer Lee Inwoo, and bassist Im Dong Geon joined the band Oh was putting together in 2014 after he decided to forgo a solo career. They came together mostly by chance. Oh was already working with Lee, who introduced his friend Im to the singer; another acquaintance introduced the singer to Im.
Trying to get Hyukoh to describe their sound is difficult, but the indie band have a dreamy tone to their music reminiscent of 90s indie rock and contemporary acts like Beach House or even Jack Johnson.The songs are beautiful in their simplicity, with Oh’s deep, raspy voice as the focal point of the music. Their biggest hit, “Comes And Goes,” is music to sit back and relax to. Like many of their songs, it favors light drums and gentle guitar strumming, forgoing most pop music’s heavy basslines and synthesizers and creating a bit of a retro eclectic feel. The past is very much alive in many of Hyukoh’s songs and music videos, particularly that of “Comes And Goes,” which adopts a VHS home video aesthetic and shows the band hanging all over beat-up furniture. In contrast with the flashy, choreographed videos from the acts that generally top the charts, Hyukoh look like Korea’s version of Pavement.
“We don’t just make one genre of music,” explained Oh. “We like all genres, so we mix them together. We just make what we want. We don’t necessarily think about [what people will like].” According to the band, their music is about relationships and life. Oh sings in both Korean and English because he finds it more difficult to write lyrics in Korean. “When I compose in Korean, I have that mindset that I have to write it perfectly,” he explained. Why? “Because I am Korean.”
A perfectionist streak dominates mainstream Korean society and popular music. Indie music is generally unpopular in Korea because it forgoes that perfection, but Hyukoh’s mild sound stands out in part for that reason: It comes as something of a comfort in comparison to the highly produced songs that usually become hits.
Prior to their big break, Hyukoh were selling out shows in Seoul’s Hongdae neighborhood, the heart of indie music in South Korea, and gaining popularity. Tablo, the frontman of Korea’s most popular hip-hop trio Epik High, sent the band a shout out on Instagram after they released 22. Then an appearance on South Korea’s most popular variety show, “Infinite Challenge,” in July made songs that Hyukoh had released in May shoot to top spots on every South Korean music chart. “We didn’t even think that our music was something that would be on the charts, but I think that ‘Infinite Challenge’ really, really helped us,” Oh said. The band was included in a biannual music festival coordinated by “Infinite Challenge,” and they ended up collaborating with Tablo on another Korean television show, “Show Me The Money.”
On July 21 it was announced that Hyukoh was the first act signed to HIGHGRND, a new indie music label run by Tablo. (“It was good,” was how Oh described the band’s emotions when they got the offer, highlighting the discrepancy between Hyukoh’s eloquent lyrics and the member’s quiet demeanor.) It’s unclear what signing with HIGHGRND means for Hyukoh, since they’re the label’s first act, but it definitely means that they’re here to stay. HIGHGRND is an indie company, but it is also a sub-label of YG Entertainment, which is home to some of the most popular Korean musicians, like Psy, BIGBANG, Epik High, and 2NE1.
“I think we have a more definite set of options of what we can choose to focus on,” Oh offered. “We can do more things that we wanted to do. For instance, before we signed with HIGHGRND, we filmed the music video for our song ‘Wi ing Wi ing’ by paying only one million won [around $861 USD]. We wanted to do more, make it better, and express ourselves differently but we couldn’t because we didn’t have enough funds.”
The indie scene in South Korea has a lot to offer, but the music usually gets lost in the shuffle due to the artists’ inability to compete with the production costs of large agencies. Many indie artists feel there is an industry bias against them. Yet Hyukoh were able to break through, appearing on television—a once in a million chance for Korean indie bands—and have their songs become not just popular music but legitimate hits. “Comes And Goes” took the number one spot over songs by Girls’ Generation and BIGBANG, arguably South Korea’s most popular acts today.
Even though they’re signed to a big agency now, Hyukoh want to make it very clear that they are not the manufactured musicians that most people expect from South Korea. “We weren’t made by a company,” Oh explained, and they plan on continuing that way. Hyukoh plan on releasing a new single in September, and then they will begin working on a new album at the end of the year. “We’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing so far,” Oh added. “We’ll do what we like, do what we want to do, and we’ll work very hard on it. As for our future, I’d like for us to expand further into the world, outside of Korea.”
Tamar Herman is a writer living in New York. Follow her on Twitter.