There’s no need to tell you that Korean food is so popular in America that it’s practically mainstream — you’re already on Food Republic, you’re well aware. When planning my recent trip to South Korea with my boyfriend, a former (and still honorary) resident of Seoul, I assumed that eating would be the main event of the trip. I wasn’t incorrect, as everything we ate was spectacular in a surprisingly unpredictable way for all my knowledge of Korean eats. I went to college a mile away from Los Angeles’s Koreatown, Food Republic HQ is across the street from Manhattan’s Koreatown and my former colleague Matt Rodbard is pretty much the white guy to consult for supplementary information on this pervasive spicy, funky, meaty cuisine.
I wanted to visit the spots Anthony Bourdain likes best: simple stalls in outdoor shopping centers piled high with blood sausage, chicken feet and pork skin. Also on my to-do list: grill up some authentic Korean barbecue with local friends, take down a mountain of bingsoo (a shaved ice dessert), shovel down some fresh tuna salad kimbap (all the kimbap I find here is pre-made) and scope out which food trends are popular with Seoulites. Discoveries on that front: churros everywhere, doughy takes on various pizzas, including a tragic-looking Chicago-style, tteok rice cakes prepared carbonara-style and a place serving cuttlefish and raclette. I had plans to round up the best craft beer spots in the city. What I found to satisfy my sensory ambitions was chewier than pig hide, hoppier than IPA and buzzier than Seoul’s 10,000 coffee shops combined.
In short, the food was killer, but my significant other’s reason for returning to his adopted hometown was even more pleasing to the senses. Henceforth, Seoul shall be known as the city with the best indie music scene you’ve never heard of. It makes K-pop sound in comparison like a squeaky hamster wheel (which it basically is, but that’s a story for another day). Music was always meant to be a big part of the trip — my boyfriend co-owned a small music venue in Itaewon called POWWOW (sadly now defunct) and frequented other indie hubs, like Strange Fruit, DGBD and Bbang in Hongdae, and Mudaeruk in Hapjeong near the river, where you can get a well-appointed charcuterie board and glass of wine before heading down to the basement for a show. Every group was better than the next…and decidedly better than the shows I’d been seeing back home.
“The latest thing” is Seoul’s lifeblood — the newest plastic surgery procedure, soap opera actress or fast food joint rules them all — but the new and seasoned faces of independent music haven’t (and may never) break into the mainstream for the masses to enjoy. The Korean iterations of chillwave, grunge, ambient, heavy metal, warbly folk rock, surfer rock, funk and all kinds of electronic with not a single pop band in the works are exactly what your fatigued ears have been itching for. This stuff is hot off the presses, juicy as all get-out and performed with unwavering enthusiasm by some of the most dedicated musicians you’ll ever encounter. You have to be very, very dedicated to make this happen in a culture that strongly expects to you…well, not do that. Anything but that.
In Korea, deviating from the beaten path of academics, mandatory army service and as many extracurriculars as you can cram onto a résumé for the uncertain life and optional haircuts of an unsigned musician is about as taboo as it gets. Your friends from “before” assume you’ve lost your mind and likely ditch you. Your parents may apologize for your odd behavior before anyone has the chance to bring it up. And, like burgeoning musicians anywhere, you have a shit job that barely pays the bills (teaching English included) while your passion project simmers and bubbles like a pot of soondubu-jigae.
Your shows turn up an audience of 20 or fewer, but that’s okay because they really, really, REALLY like your stuff, and word of mouth is essential to maintaining this slowly but steadily growing scene. Indie bands and venues bring together young and old, locals and expats in a type of communal culture bred through the hardship and monumental obstacles Korea throws your way when creating or participating in independent culture. Add a dash of political repression (via President Park Geun-Hye, who many musician-activists call the “dictator’s daughter”) and a pinch each of nationwide hyper-consumerism and rapid gentrification (read: small venue rent explosions) and you’ve got a recipe for a robust, meaningful independent music scene produced by passionate, if underpaid, musicians. Musicians with something to say and fight against.
By the end of the trip, after accidentally crashing one favorite band’s basement-venue wedding reception where another favorite band was playing (hey, free Hite and spicy fried chicken), we’d hatched plans to organize and promote a Korean indie rock tour of New York, Brooklyn and Queens. Will bands be crashing in our living room? Definitely. But our downstairs neighbor is elderly and hard of hearing, and our upstairs neighbor is a jerk, so I’m less worried about the inevitable weeklong party and more pre-occupied with finding great spots for us all to eat.
Here are 10 Korean indie bands to listen to right now, courtesy of Alex Ameter, cofounder of Do Indie, a Korean independent music and culture promotion company. When you hit Seoul, be sure to wash down that spicy fermented goodness with some fresh, excellent tunes. And stay tuned about that NYC tour. It’s happening.
Kuang Program is a postpunk duo masterminded by lead singer and guitarist Taehyun Choi. I’ve seen this band play enough times to get embarrassed when the members recognize me at a show…again. The energy Kuang exudes in a live set is exemplary, enhanced by and infused with existential themes of isolation, searching for meaning in one’s life and coming to accept its non-existence, and dealing with the conflicting desires to be in love and commit suicide. A little heavy? Don’t worry, the alternatively droney-glitchy chanting/shouting-singing style in which Taehyun addresses these themes makes the subjects feel defiant rather than oppressive and gives Kuang Program’s music delicious depth. On their most recent EP, they’ve skewed a bit more toward experimental noise and dabbled with electronic minimalism, but Kuang will always be Kuang.
Watch: Gangs Are Blue
Wedance: It’s a statement and a warning. This mildly insane duo spends a great majority of their time on stage living up to the name. Often wearing outfits that might be described, with the greatest amount of love possible, as retirement community–inspired, Wedance is a singularly difficult band to describe. With songs about everyday life, a penchant for banging on a single cymbal in between dance breaks, dissonant vocals, dissonant guitars and an accompanying drum/electronic track played (at least up until last year) from an old portable CD player the band often needed to skip through during live sets to find the right song (which actually positively contributed to the overall experience), it’s hard to talk about this band without any musically seasoned listener narrowing their eyes skeptically. Against all odds, these features come together to form a glorious confluence of atonal, spasmodic pop bliss that can feel at once anthemic and, of course, make you move in whatever weirdo way these unique compositions compel you. The first track, 준비됐나 (Are You Ready), on their year-old album Japan Tour Unfixed, plays like a pied piper anthem of indie strangeness, beckoning all to join in on the alt-bacchanal.
Watch: Are You Ready
Goonam gives some of the liveliest, danciest concerts of any band playing in Seoul. They use funky styles and smooth, frankly groovy beats to lure even the most stoic audience members into at least a relaxed sway. If you’ve ever wondered what Korean hippies look like, look no further than Goonam. If I were ever DJing an event, all I’d have to do to put everyone in a good mood is pop on one of the band’s more popular tracks and watch the party break into spontaneous sing-along.
Watch: Light of Dawn
Kim Il Du
The best way I’ve ever been able to describe Kim Il Du to people: “He’s like the Korean Johnny Cash.” His songs are often acoustic swear-laden stories or ballads in either Korean or fairly accurate English (though sometimes I think the inaccuracies lend even more charm) that describe relationship troubles, problems with his health, job, society or whatever other issue has affected his hard-livin’-style existence. His voice, not what one would call a classic singing voice, sounds weary with all the burdens he’s endured in his life. In answer to the rapid, vapid hyper-consumerism that seems to infect every part of modern Korea, Il Du offers a refreshing moment of reflection on the people left behind or caught in the gears of the sometimes unforgiving demands of capitalist life.
Watch: No Job No Truth
The first time I saw PigiBit5, lead singer Yeol Park was wearing a banana suit and singing about a perverted young man who can’t seem to find a relationship (for fairly obvious reasons). Needless to say, I was in love. With elements of Deerhoof-style twee and a zany edge of abandon running rampant through their music, Pigibit5 adds mountains of character to a music scene that can at times feel overly serious. They band often dresses in anime-inspired costumes, supporting the idea that the poor besotted otaku who acted as the central subject of their first album might have been more autobiographical than they let on. Regardless of romantic frustrations, Pigibit5 is an exceptionally fun band to watch and listen to, with a frenetic energy that feels like it might tumble over a cliff at any moment.
Ever heard of Han? It’s the much-discussed sensation of (supposedly) untranslatable infinite sadness or burden all Korean people carry around with them due to a long national history of struggle and invasion and famine and…all the bad things, from what I’ve been told over and over and over again. Anyways, while it might be tad overblown, there is a certain underlying emotion that seems to add a measure of meaning or depth to works of art and even pop music coming out of Korea. So maybe there’s something to it. If, however, one were to want to listen to Han distilled down to its core, I highly recommend listening to the solo work of Danpyunsun, a prolific musician who gets to the heart of this uniquely Korean condition. His voice, arrangements, subjects, and instrumentation are the Hanniest Han that ever Hanned a Han, if you know what I mean. Oh, plus, he’s got this whole gender-bending thing going on where he dresses up like female pop musicians for certain performances and covers a few of their songs…which makes for an interesting combination.
Watch: The Hill
It’s hard to talk about Vidulgi OoyoO without also talking about their place as the band that served as my introduction to the Korean independent music scene. I arrived in the country and immediately set to work trying to find some decent music, having no idea the depth of the talent and quality I’d experience. At once both shoegaze and post-rock, Vidulgi was a band I followed from concert to concert, learning about other bands by watching whoever shared the bill that night. Because I didn’t speak any Korean and it was difficult for me to search for bands of my own accord, the process felt disconnected, but natural. I went to most concerts not knowing the music I’d hear and occasionally discovering a band that absolutely floored me. And so, not only because they are at once talented and wonderful people, but also for serving as my launching point, Vidulgi will retain a special place in my heart.
Watch: Goodnight Shining
When you run a music venue, there are certain bands who feel like part of the family — when they play at your venue, it’s a kind of homecoming or house party each time. The fact that a band as talented as Tierpark was part of the family for our venue made us feel extremely lucky. Each time I listen to a song, I feel like I discover something new: a clever time-signature change, a riff interwoven into the melody that eluded me upon first listen or maybe even the relief found in the resolution at the end of a moment of harmonic dissonance where you think, “Whoa, that was brilliant!” Watching Tierpark develop, grow, and improve over time has been a pleasure for me, and seeing them now as a Radiohead-influenced post-rock band with melodic female vocals as they gel and craft their moody atmospheres and weave their complicated textures, I’m more of a fan than ever.
Sometimes music is so immediately affecting that it leaves you desperate to recapture the feeling over and over. In the moments after listening to a song or EP or LP over and over, I’ll scour first my iTunes and then the Internet for another band with a similar sound. Saram12Saram left me desperately wanting more after making it through their first EP, and I was nothing if not an addict, listening to their songs on repeat for entire car rides (a particularly nice environment to experience their sound). This dark electronic with heavy base and breathy female vocals strikes a chord in my brain I’ve failed to replicate despite extensive efforts on my part. In the end I realized I just need to wait for more Saram12Saram, one of a number of excellent electronic acts making up the stable of the Young, Gifted, and Wack collective, all of whom offer unique and refreshing takes on various electronic genres.
Zoopasoo Odaeri is music you have to hear for yourself. Glitchy, blaring movie clips, commercial sounds and even porn interspersed with jagged instrumental flare-ups all come together to create some of the loudest and most unique music I’ve heard on any continent. When he played at my venue, I thought I was going to go deaf, but I was absolutely transfixed by the hypnotic nature of the chaos he both tames and lets run wild through his mad-scientist style sounds. His setup is almost entirely analog, and we would joke that it looked like something out of either a Terry Gilliam or early David Cronenburg movie. How he produces his music is beyond me, but I highly recommend the experience to the brave and adventurous listener. Sometimes I drive to work listening to his album and spend the next two hours in meetings feeling rather surreal. Confusion leads to a natural high, I suppose.
Watch: Burn Ceremony
And because I’m awful at sticking to the confines of a small list when talking about Korean music, check out these bands as well:
Visit Do Indie for upcoming shows and much more on Korea’s indie music scene.