One of Korea’s most distinct cultural outputs, KPop is world renowned, and – led by the comic satire of Psy in recent years – has established a genuinely global audience, with the US, in particular, a huge market. Its stars, though, rarely appear in Ireland.
Rarer is a showing from a Korean rock act – in fact, it’s probably not even an annual event – and it’s a genre that two years living in Korea taught me is genuinely impressive. The arrival of Seoul act Billy Carter on our shores this May, then, marks an unusual event for the Dublin music scene. We caught up with singer Kim Ji Won ahead of their Whelan’s show at the end of this month.
A lively bunch, Korean psychedelic psychobilly rockers Billy Carter (빌리카터) find their spiritual home in the Seoul student district of Hongdae. That means they’re born out of Korea’s young rebellion: an escape from cultural conservatism, they developed amid an arts-focused drinking district, a party spot where the soju flows like water, and sweaty basement rock gigs are long the norm. Breaking out is less common.
Speaking of the rarity of getting gigs around the world for Korean acts – and particularly for Korean acts that fall distinctly apart from the Kpop genre – Billy Carter vocalist Kim Ji Won explains “Hongdae got extremely huge and full of tourists and local people who want to hang out. Rents got very, very expensive, and so many live venues had to shut down or move. Still there are more venues in the Hongdae area than in any other part of Seoul, but we can find good venues in other areas too. Hongdae is our local but the atmosphere changed a lot. Maybe it’s time to move on to the bigger world.”
If you know me, or have been following my writing for an inordinate amount of time, you might remember that this whole journey started for me back in South Korea, with a blog about my time living and working in Seoul (now moved here, if you’re into it). I loved the place, not least the music scene, which you’ll be happy to hear went way, way beyond K-pop. When I got an email out of the blue from one of the up and coming stars of the Korean indie scene From The Airport, then, it was an absolute no-brainer for me to ask them to fill me in on how the Korean scene has developed. These guys perform an interesting take on electro pop, and featured on MAP as the Korean act not so long ago. Of course, my questions were heavily informed by my own experiences and serious love of a district called Hongdae, and arts and music/ nightlife hub in the north west of the city; their answers give a more ‘of the minute’ angle…
Korean music’s international profile has been pushed through the roof with PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’. Were you surprised/ happy about its success? Is it a good representation of K-pop?
We obviously were very surprised, but not shocked, at the success of ‘Gangnam Style.’ When it first came out, we remember the music video was hilarious and we were sure it would be a hit, though we didn’t know that would be worldwide. I think it was the first time a Korean track went as high as it went on the Billboard charts, and it was quite unnerving seeing Psy on the front page of nearly every popular music webzines. As we knew Psy since before he became famous even in Korea, we were very happy to see him succeed. As for him ‘representing’ K-pop, we don’t think it’s the right word. The music in Korea, we believe, is more diverse than it looks. There are countless musicians working on their own style of music, even though they might not be top stars or famous. But yes, we think Gangnam Style is the ‘most known’ song from Korea.
I guess with PSY a lot of people outside of Korea only know of K-Pop when it comes to Korean music. How diverse is your music scene in 2015, and what kind of music are people listening to?
The most popular music currently in Korea is K-Pop and hip hop. They currently rule the charts here. However, we think the indie music scene is also growing constantly, and we sure believe the overall scene will become diverse in the near future.
A few years ago everything in Seoul seemed to centre around Hongdae. What is it about Hongdae that fosters and arts scene so successfully? Is it still as important as it used to be?
We don’t think everything is centered around Hongdae anymore, but the place is still very important to the arts scene, definitely. There are still numerous gigs and street concerts going on everyday. Now there are a lot of independent coffee shops, clothing stores, etc., attracting a big amount of visitors and tourists to the area. Itaewon is another place that is growing in terms of the arts scene. Tourists should definitely check both places out.
Tell me about From The Airport’s journey so far. How did you go from a new band to playing at events like SxSW?
When we first started out in 2012, we produced and mixed our music in a small basement studio by ourselves. We released three singles in our own power, making the covers, music videos, etc. ourselves. Thankfully we were recognized by our current label, and after we signed the contract, we released ‘Chemical Love EP’ in 2014. That’s when we really started to play more gigs and produce more songs. Our first trip to the States happened in that fall, when we participated in Culture Collide festival and CMJ Marathon. It was extremely fun and we are so excited to be a part of SXSW 2015. It was great to meet new audiences outside of Korea.