Seoul Scene: From The Airport

From the Airport

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.

The Thin Air Issue 3

The Thin Air LogoThe Thin Air is now in its third issue in its full ‘make sure you get your grubby paws on this’ printed glory, and watching from the relative distance of a regular contributor it’s felt like a seemless transition (experience tells me the editorial team would laugh at such a notion). This issue is particularly special to me – I was absolutely thrilled to be offered the cover story, which is on Galway-based experimental bedroom-recording hero So Cow and his recently added studio/ full band.

Brian Kelly and I have a particularly weird crossover of a background, which made the interview and write up an intriguing journey down memory lane for me. The early part of So Cow’s musical career took place in Seoul, where we both hovered unknown to each other around the fringes of the expat group responsible for the first magazine I was ever published in, the glossy cultural snark of Rokon. Brian even found a mild and slightly creepy level of fame in SoKo, with his song Moon Geun Young grabbing the frenzied temporary focus only a combination of the internet and popular TV stars can bring. Not that the song has a thing to do with Ms. Moon, but you’ll have to get stuck into the article (below, page 16) to get the full lowdown on that. What a character!

Gangnam Style: An Insider’s Glance

Gangnam: An insiders guide psy gangnam style1

“Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh… oppan Gangnam style”… Just the lyrics probably have you picturing that hilariously moronic horse dance, or covering your ears in anticipation. If you haven’t seen the video for Korean pop-rapper Psy’s infectious parody on Seoul’s southern business district yet, you can’t be the web-loving type. In it, Psy discos up some stables, graces the faux VIP areas of locations such as playgrounds and Han River boat rides, and generally tries to convince the local ladies that he has the necessary street cred to be worth a second look.

Eyeing the video, you could be forgiven for thinking Gangnam is the heart of everything in Seoul. In some senses, you’d be right. As home to a huge number of the city’s major businesses, Gangnam is a district of skyscrapers, exceptionally high property prices and one of the few Seoul neighbourhoods where a typical Dublin visitor’s travel budget could be utterly obliterated by stepping into the wrong restaurant. On a week night, businessmen view ‘entertaining’ customers as a part of their job. As a result, the nightlife is heavily occupied by suited men, yet tends to be wild and alcohol fueled. The ‘kimchi flower’, an unfortunate product of vomit-inducing levels of soju and the Korean love of the spicy, red fermented cabbage ‘kimchi’, is a common sight on the area’s otherwise pristine sidewalks. Generally Gangnam glimmers with designer chic and clean-cut business facades, but there is a seedier side. That lies in the much discussed but possibly mythical brothel bars, and in the aptly named DVD bangs (bang translates as room), private cinemas that have more to do with sex than watching your choice of movie.

The women of Gangnam, though, are Psy’s concern. Generally speaking, Korea has an exceptionally image conscious society, particularly among the better off. There’s a fascination with looks that goes far beyond what’s common in Europe, so much so that plastic surgery is commonly advertised and bordering on expected of the rich. One of Gangnam’s most notable stereotypes is the Dweonjang lady, a woman on an average salary who’s willing to survive on cheap dweonjang noodles and commute huge distances in order to save for a Louis Vuitton hang bag or a Prada coat. The brands form a rare exception to the general Korean belief that ‘Korean is better’ (Samsung barely has to concern itself with Apple in its own country), and they’re so common in the Gangnam district that if you didn’t know better, you’d think they were a standard, affordable brand.

Can’t Find Concert Tickets? You’re Not Alone

Expats – at least those fresh off the boat – often bemoan the difficulty of buying concert tickets here.

With the likes of Oasis, Jamiroquai, Maroon 5 (and Weezer!) starting to show their faces Seoul-side, it’s high time we all learnt how to get past our language problems.

As Muse, Kasabian and Nine Inch Nails know, interest in Western music is at an all time high in Korea, which means the need to get tickets early is almost as pressing as it is in the rush for those magic Seo TaeGi or Drunken Tiger passes.

If you live in Seoul, ticket-buying’s not too difficult if you know where to go. Bandi and Luni’s bookstore (in Gangnam and Bundang) or Kyobo bookstore (in Gangnam, Bucheon and Jogno) are good places to start, with each branch selling tickets for a selection of events and usually able to provide service in decent English.

In other cities it’s also common for major bookstores to stock tickets (Kyobo in Daegu, for example), though tickets for events elsewhere are rarely held.

Alternatively, turning up at the venue with a calendar and the name of the artist spelled out in Korean has worked for me in the past, too. It’s worth noting that a lot of bigger events have an early bird price if you buy a few months in advance, which will usually save you 5,000 to 10,000 won.

For those living a long way from the venue, online ticketing is the way to go. Some good places to start are ticket.interpark.com or ticket.auction.co.kr.

If you don’t have substantial Korean skills, you’ll need to rope in a friend to guide you through the online booking steps. If you’re lucky, they might lend you the use of their credit card – in exchange for the cash, of course – to get your reservation through. But if not, most companies accept payment via the easy to use English language bank transfer options available on most Korean ATMs. You’ll probably need to take the supplier’s account details to a branch of your own bank to make the transfer, though some banks allow transfers from cards connected with other banks. You’ll also need a Korean address to have the tickets sent to; most employers will allow you to use their details if you have any doubt.

It’s worth noting that the booking isn’t always confirmed when you complete the online process. Confirmation can involve a follow up phone call from the company you purchased from, or in some cases ticket purchase is confirmed when the bank transfer is received.

Check the policies carefully. The sites can also prove troublesome when it comes to registering: Alien registration numbers are required, and we’ve found they’ve been accepted or declined at different times and on different sites, with various levels of success.

The phone options have no such requirements, so if it’s proving too difficult, InterPark English ticket reservations can be contacted on 02-1544-1555 (press #2 for English).

With so many concerts cancelled in Korea, there might well be times when you need to return your tickets, too. Summer Breeze Festival (featuring The Prodigy), Flower Power Peace Festival and 50 Cent’s Korean date were all announced last year, but never took place.

It’s always worth keeping a close eye on official websites to check the status of any concert right up to the day before you head off. If the worst does happen, those who paid by bank transfer should wait a week or two before getting in touch, as refunds are often automatic. If you bought your tickets in another way, get back in touch with the point of sale as soon as you can. The promoters are legally required to refund your ticket money, though you’ll probably lose out on any booking fees.

As published in the Korea Herald, 15th December 2009. Click here to view original

Pendulum: Backstage with D&B’s rock-influenced heroes.

….Dressed head to toe in black and sporting a straggly Kurt Cobain haircut and limb-sized tattoos, Paul looks more like a rock star than the head-proud jungle DJ that stereotypes have led us to expect. Unsurprising, perhaps, as Pendulum’s roots are almost entirely in metal. Ask him what he’s into, and Paul will wax lyrical about Queens of the Stone Age; punk legends Fugazi; a variety of “sick Brazilian Death Metal” and – his sole concession to dance – “that new blog house rave stuff.” Pendulum’s latest offering reflects this: the floor-pounding neo-electronic sounds of ‘In Silico’ is as metal-like as an electronic album’s ever been….

….Purism – or rather a lack of it – is right at the heart of Pendulum’s ethos. Swigging from his breakfast Jack Daniels, Paul tells us proudly how his band have succeeded in bridging the rock and dance scenes: “We’re trying to do these tours, and we can’t think of anyone to take with us, it’s a daily struggle” he jokes. He might be being tongue in cheek, but it’s a serious problem: very few acts have such all-encompassing appeal. There really is no such thing as the average Pendulum fan….

For full article click here (copyright 2009 PureGrainAudio).

Seoul’s Dogs: Friend or Food?

James Hendicott explores the changing fortunes of Korea’s long persecuted canines

It’s Sunday morning in trendy Apgujeong, Seoul, and twenty five year old Hwang Hye Young and her two friends are slurping on their Cappuccinos and mulling over the weeks gossip. They raise their voices every so often, straining to be heard over the equally passionate nattering taking place between their five pampered pooches. Hwang beckons the waiter, ordering a second bowl of strawberry milkshake from the café’s special menu, and passing it swiftly to her enthusiastic pet. ‘We like it here’ she explains as she reaches into her Louis Vuitton handbag for payment, ‘the dogs get a treat too’.

Across town in the working class district of Gangseo Gu, fifty five year old businessman Chun Oh Kyu is tucking into a late breakfast. He went drinking with customers last night, and has settled on a traditional hangover cure: dog soup. Chun sees dog meat the same way your average carnivore sees a steak. ‘We don’t eat pets’ he’s careful to emphasise. Press coverage has made him wary of his Sunday morning ritual, but he’s been eating dog meat since he was a child, and knows this restaurant breeds the animals specifically for eating. Besides, he wouldn’t feel any different if it were any other meat in front of him.

In South Korea, man’s best friend divides opinion in a way that only government attitude towards the Communist North can match. Doggy digestion is a newfound taboo, largely imported over the past couple of decades alongside Hwang’s designer wardrobe and a whole host of other Western influences. Dog meat dates back to harder times on the peninsula, and is still accompanied by other wartime staples such as Silkworm Larvae (a popular boiled snack) and a fondness for foods crammed full of Spam in Seoul’s diners. Chun’s parents may very well have depended on his hangover cure to get enough protein in their diets, and – despite Korea’s modern day economic success – Chun sees no reason to change. Hwang, on the other hand, is somewhat embarrassed by the subject.

Chun’s breakfast is, in fact, technically illegal, and he’s finding it increasingly hard to find somewhere to pick it up. ‘This is my third regular restaurant this year’, he explains, ‘it’s getting harder and harder to find’. Despite the decline, eating dog meat is a practice commonly accepted amongst older generations, and the police rarely enforce the law. In fact, an attempt to legalize the butchering of dogs as livestock this April was quickly quashed by angry animal rights protests. An Indian MPs suggestion that stray dogs in New Delhi be sent to Korea for ‘disposal’ was greeted with equal disdain, and even became the root of a minor diplomatic dispute between the two nations.

This newfound awareness – though far from universal – is a sure sign of things to come. This kind of public uproar over dogs has long been levelled at Koreans, but until now the protests have rarely perpetrated by them. Korean culture has a reputation for being stunningly slow to change, but Hwang is typical of a younger generation who are gently bringing in a long awaited change in attitude.

That’s not to say it’s over. The dog’s journey from plate to palate is entrenched in Korean culture: barring a dramatic crackdown, man’s best friend will still be filling Seoul’s soup bowls for some time to come. The shift in thoughts and feelings, however, it clear to see. Dog is going underground, and sooner or later the collective conscious of Korea’s youth will be the death of it. The soup, that is.

As published in K9 Magazine issue 27, March 2009.

Sub Zero Ice Bar

A wacky addition to any night out, Sub Zero Ice Bar is fast becoming another one of those unmissable Hongdae institutions. Constructed inside a supermarket scale freezer and maintained at a constant temperature of -5C, this is hardly your typical Beer and Soju venue.

It usually takes visitors a few minutes to get hold of their first drink. Before settling at the bar most like to drift around the room taking in the backlit icy wonderland: the statues; the igloo like walls; the liquor bottles buried deep in the ice and the lively, woolen clad barmaids. Some even like to test a certain urban legend about tongues on the more intimate parts of some of the statues…be warned, you wouldn’t be the first! When you do head to the bar and collect your drink, you’ll find it’s served in its own hollowed out block of ice that looks great, but does nothing to quench your growing frostbite. Welcome to the only bar in Hongdae in which you’re likely to order tea!

The novelty value here is certainly high. The icy theme alone is enough of a draw for most, but Ice Bars true attraction is that it goes much further to please. There are numerous photo room style dressing-up accessories for photographic entertainment. There’s a plethora of board games on ice block tables in the corner and there’s a God like statue on the bar through which the heavily padded barwoman pours a whole new style of body shot. The crowning glory, however, is the Iceman challenge.

Enclosed in plaques on the icy walls are photos of those who have reached ‘Iceman’ status. In order to achieve this legendary title, contestants must stay in the frozen bar for a seriously impressive period of time. Challengers are frequently seen huddling together in the corner for warmth, sipping on tea and trying anything to distract themselves from the mad mission they are undertaking. If you beat the record the owners will pay for all of your drinks, though be warned, it’s far from easy.

At the time of writing the mark stands at in excess of 12 hours, and is held by a visiting couple from America. Their attempt was pre-empted by some serious planning: winter clothing from Dongdaemun Market, and several days of mental preparation. In fact, the record is only half an hour short of the bars normal total opening hours, though the owners have promised to stay open for longer should circumstances require it. An early start is definitely recommended for a serious assault. Succeed, and you can leave your bottled ‘pee of glory’, alongside a signed photograph, in a frozen placard in the wall of the bar. That is until somebody else comes along and knocks you off your perch.

Most people somehow resist the Iceman challenge, with the average stay in this icy haven amounting to a little over an hour. The imagery, however, will stick with you for much longer. Ice Bar is an unforgettable Hongdae experience: something that stands out above the endless run-off-the-mill clubs and bars. Remember your thermals, and you might just leave with a story to tell the grandkids.

As published on AroundSeoul.com, February 2008.