South Korea


Rock n’ Seoul: Riotous Korean Band Billy Carter (빌리카터) Drop in on Dublin

Billy Carter

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.”

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!

Tiger and Bear in Jung Gu – South Korean Cultural Cartoon.

I was offered the chance to write a cartoon on South Korean culture, and who am I to argue? This is the result. It’s intended as a commentary on how Korea’s original aims have been twisted into a kind of avid commercialism, something that we’ve used ‘Tiger and Bear’ – the characters in the traditional story of the country’s creation – to show. The artist is a Korean-based American called Matt Broadhurst, and the title ‘Tiger and Bear in Jung Gu’ refers to a major shopping district in Korea. Cartoons aren’t my usual specialty, but I’m all for a bit of variety!

Tiger and Bear in Jung Gu

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

Young Koreans look to Ireland, U.K. for school

DUBLIN, Ireland – “As a little girl, I always had an image of England as a place where people wear top hats and dandy suits, and walk around umbrella in hand,” said Kim Do-young.

“I always believed there was something out there in a foreign country, just waiting for me.”

At 26 years old, Kim lives by the motto “seize the day,” and has only returned to her native Korea twice in over ten years. She’s one of an increasing number of young Koreans looking to expand their horizons on foreign shores, seeking a different type of education and a slower-paced lifestyle.

Kim chose the United Kingdom – and the industrial town of Coventry – as her new home.

As the geographical center of England, Coventry is mockingly nicknamed “the car park of Great Britain,” and Kim admits she sees it a little like a “black hole.”

“For the locals, it’s the center of the earth,” she adds. “But you can get almost anywhere in a day, and the Cotswolds and other scenic farming areas are within easy reach.”

After going through school, university and now entering employment in the United Kingdom, Kim concedes “the longer I stay, the less likely it is I’ll ever go back to my homeland.”

But even after 10 years there are still things she misses. “I’m surprised how little fish English people eat, considering all four corners of the country are surrounded by the sea. I miss my family of course, and I’ve had to tone down my spice-loving palette. At the end of the day, though, people are the same in terms of living.

“They eat, they work, they watch TV, they laugh, they cry, they go to the toilet and they sleep. The difference is that in Korea everything happens faster with ten times the intensity. In Coventry you get to do everything slow.”

Of course most expats do intend to return home.

Ham Ryul-suk – a former Gwangju resident – chose Dublin, Ireland as his destination, and sees himself as a more short term resident. “I expect to stay two or three years,” he says. “Until I’m satisfied with my English level, I probably won’t leave. English is more important now than other things.”

There are other benefits too, though: “In Korea I earned about 1 million won a month. For that I’d have to work 40-45 hours a week, minimum. Here I can make double that, and I only have to work 20-30 hours a week. Of course, the price of living in Ireland is higher, but whether I spend the money or not – at least to some extent – is up to me.”

Having lived with his parents right up until his move to Ireland, Ham met a host of domestic challenges head on. “I have to make meals, wash dishes, wash clothes, clean my room … in Korea, my mom did all of that. I miss my family. Things are not easy at home, and I miss Korean food and friends too.”

Overall, however, Ham seems to enjoy his new life.

“Dublin’s very cosmopolitan. I speak to people from many countries every day, and I have to speak to them in English. Sometimes I don’t want to, but in the long term it’s always an opportunity and a great benefit. At first I used to freeze when I tried to talk to people in the street. In my first week I walked into someone, and I couldn’t think what to say.

“He said sorry even though I knew it was my fault. I think the people here are very kind, gentle and polite. I’m no longer afraid to talk to foreigners. I have changed my life, and my personality. Now I feel brave, I believe I can do anything.”

The cosmopolitan streets of English-speaking Western Europe, it seems, are a new refuge for Korea’s enthusiastic youngsters to seek out an education in languages and culture, with many looking increasingly likely to stay put.

As Kim puts it, “I could write a book about it. Every day’s an experience. I still have problems sometimes. Like at university, when a friend told me a professor was going on sabbatical.

I confused the word with ‘Sabbath,’ and said I didn’t know the professor was Jewish. But we all laughed about it. I still think the biggest challenges are yet to come, but at the end of the day I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

As published in the Korea Herald, August 25th 2009.

link: this article on the Korea Herald website

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.

Radiohead: High and Dry on an Incheon Stage.

Rokon are delighted to announce that Radiohead – that’s right, Radiohead – will be one of the headliners at this years Pentaport music festival. We’re happier than a celibate nun who’s stumbled across a desolate cucumber field, and are already in the process of lining up a complex on-sale-day routine to ensure we all get one of the highly prized tickets.

Radiohead may not match the likes of Coldplay or U2 when it comes to CD sales, but in terms of political influence and melancholic lyrics the four bookworms from the literary middle class of Oxford, UK are rocks modern-day revolutionary point men. They are punk for the modern generation: Radiohead speak their mind, making forceful political statements in their music and backing them up with an impressive range of social activism. They even manage all this without destroying their kit every gig, after all, this would go against their ‘green’ message.

Radiohead appear to have made only one early compromise: they were renamed at the request of record company EMI – after a Talking Heads album track – from high school name ‘On a Friday’. From then on they haven’t given an inch: from Amnesiac’s unsubtle sarcasm about former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to a heavy corporate, anti-globalization stance, Thom Yorke’s boys have always called it how they saw it. They even went out on a limb last year as the first major artist to release a solely online album, allowing the buyer to choose how much they want to pay: a move that no doubt cost millions but fits in perfectly with their political beliefs. Respect.

The politics, of course, would all be the irrelevant ramblings of another ineffective bunch of activists if it wasn’t for the stunning musical accompaniment, and Radiohead’s music truly is sublime. Having graced many a moving Hollywood moment – the use of ‘Talk Show Host’ in Romeo and Juliet being a particular stand out – often leaves uninitiated audiences scouring the credits. Slowly but surely Radiohead have become the kind of act people will still talk about years from now. The five high school friends are now as important as anyone in world music. Whether they’re strumming through the self depreciating heart break of ‘Creep’ or the falsetto complexities ‘High and Dry’ all the tracks have one thing in common: they are invariably deeply meaningful and stunningly beautiful.

Pentaport really couldn’t have pulled a more exciting headliner out of the bag this year. Radiohead’s appearance will be a musical high point for everyone involved in the Korean music scene, and no doubt will be an emphatically emotional experience for all of us. Expect ‘Lucky’ and ‘No Surprises’ to cause grown men to shed tears on the arid Incheon airport soil. Let the ticket scramble begin…

As published in Rokon Magazine, May 2008.