Hardcore music is not for everybody. Even I don’t really care to listen to it on CD. It’s a live genre, mixing together the DIY ethic of punk, the eardrum-rupturing high volume of heavy metal, and the social awareness of hip-hop. It’s a diverse genre with myriad subdivisions. After starting in the US in the ’80s, it’s since spread to all corners of the Earth, but it didn’t reach Korea until relatively recently.
That may have worked out to Korea’s advantage, because as most hardcore scenes were plateauing in the mid-’90s, Korea’s scene was just getting started. Although it’s not very big or domestically popular, it’s been steadily growing as its members make connections with hardcore people around the world.
I’ve always said that the two modern genres that Korea does best are psychedelic rock and hardcore, and since I’ve already written so many articles about psychedelic rock, it’s high time to introduce you to some of the key bands of Korea’s hardcore scene. This is of course the tip of the iceberg; I’ll introduce you to the few bands who had the time in the last two weeks to talk to me.
Any list of Korean hardcore bands is going to start with the Geeks. I discovered years ago if I ever talk to someone who’s straight-edge from anywhere in the world, as soon as they discover I live in Korea they ask me about the Geeks.
Since 1999, they’ve been delivering their own positive message about life which is known in hardcore as “posi.” Although they’re famous as a straight-edge band, meaning they don’t drink alcohol and shun similar sins, at least one member has broken the edge and become a champion drinker.
Although they’ve been around so long and their members grow older and focus on their careers, they continue to take the time to be one of Korea’s top energetic acts.
Their lead singer, Seo Kiseok sings like a teenager going through puberty, even though he’s in his 30s. He spent time on a working holiday in Washington, DC and got to know the hardcore scene there, making important connections that have helped bring foreign bands to Korea and established connections for Korean bands touring the US. The Geeks have done two American tours, as well as one to South Asia, and countless other smaller trips.
“We never set out to do anything other than play local shows. As time passed we were setting new goals every year. We wanted to travel the world and we didn’t really care how much money we were gonna lose. We valued the experience more than the money we spent on it. That’s what real hardcore is about–it’s about a global network. No matter what country you’re from it doesn’t really matter. We know for a fact we’re not in this alone, despite the fact the music we’re playing is far from commercial. There’s a reason we’re doing this and we know that this reason is shared by the international hardcore community all over the world. It’s all about sharing ideas, connecting dots, interacting with other hardcore kids, that’s the beautiful thing about hardcore.”
To see just how crazy a Geeks show can get, watch this video from their tour in Indonesia (terrible sound quality though).
Things We Say
For fans of the Geeks (and I sincerely hope a lot of them find their way here looking for further recommendations), I point you in the direction of Things We Say. This band has the same energy as the Geeks — Kiseok is their bassist — and they have a similar uplifting message that’s apparent in their lyrics with titles like “Keep Your Dreams Alive” and “Find Yourself Being True.” They embrace a style of hardcore called “youth crew.”
Their lead vocalist has an interesting charisma, yet he’s the last kind of person you’d expect leading a hardcore band. He’s 35, married, has two daughters, and runs an English academy in Cheonan. That’s right, somewhere out there is a foreign English teacher whose boss is the lead singer of a hardcore band. As well as singing in Things We Say, he also prints the zines Break the Shell and In Walnut We Trust, creates custom buttons for bands under the label Button King, and organises shows under the brand Cheonan Walnut Cake Crew (named after Cheonan’s popular local delicacy walnut cakes).
“Hardcore to me means more than just a music genre, but it doesn’t mean that it rules over my entire life. It plants positive thinking and independent problem-solving, from the punk spirit of DIY. I am not a man who has time to spare. I’m busy every day. But hardcore music gives me strength. It’s fun. I go to a gig once every month or two to show up to Seoul to meet old friends, laughing together, and sing. The Korean hardcore scene gives me a great sense of belonging. In it, if I mind, it makes me feel comfortable. Because of endless band practices and performances, and talking with them about life and music, I can be happy.”
Not many people have heard of Cheongju, tucked away in Chungcheongbuk-do a comfortable distance from the main Gyeongbu corridor from Seoul to Daejeon to Busan. But somehow this small university town has produced some of Korea’s best underground bands, not the least of which is 13 Steps.
They play a heavier version of hardcore, more inspired by New York’s old school hardcore movement, notable for the hoarse, barking vocals from lead vocalist Dokyo 13. Recently I found an old demo CD they made over a decade ago, and I was surprised by his much higher-pitched voice, almost at the level of Kiseok’s from the Geeks. I wondered if his vocal style had been impacting his voice.
“13steps’ music is going darker and heavy so I had to make my voice heavier. My vocal tone is naturally changing. Yeah, it’s consciously.”
For a video of their song “No Hope,” follow this link.
Chadburger started with a bunch of Koreans and one Australian attempting to make Korean hardcore more extreme. Not long after, their lead singer left for law school and in stepped Tel, a foreign English teacher from Wales with a flair for professional wrestling. The first time I saw him perform, he leapt off the stage and punched my glasses off my face within the first ten seconds of the first song. He apologised after, but when he’s performing there’s nothing that can hold him back. I’ve seen him get piledrived (piledriven) by spectators, I’ve seen him cannonball into groups of schoolgirls, and once I saw him jump off a bar and land directly on his head, making a sound like dropping a watermelon. He started wearing a Mexican wrestler mask during performances, ratcheting up the intensity a bit more. They’re no longer together, now that their Australian member has moved away.
“I somewhat object to the term ‘foreigner band’ in itself. It reeks of division and exclusivity. It suggests that a band should only be allowed to aspire to reaching a very limited audience based on factors that are completely irrelevant to the only issue that SHOULD matter, that being: what do these guys sound like? The bands you listen to — and the audience that any given band plays to — should not be based upon the color of your skin, the country you came from, or the twang of your accent. It should all be about the music, and it should only be about the music.”
Find the Spot
First time I heard Find the Spot was on a split album with Chadburger. I was more impressed with their songs because they were clearly recorded, with less screeching feedback and much clearer vocals. Find the Spot has more in common with a punk band, playing within more of what I’d call a tolerable range, but their live performance is a lot of fun, and considerably less likely to cause you bodily harm. A couple years ago when the Geeks weren’t as active and Banran went on hiatus (one band who didn’t answer my questions in time), suddenly Find the Spot emerged as Korea’s flagship hardcore band.
They’re unlikely candidates, with chubby Song Changeun on vocals and drummer Mizno who has a fixation with Milhouse from the Simpsons and seems to base his entire life around the blue-haired cartoon nerd.
“We don’t exactly know about style and image. We try to model ourselves after Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Gangreen, but we don’t have a clear idea what our image is. We don’t have any deliberate image we’re trying to make. I don’t think hardcore has an emphasis on image. The important thing is the mindset of the bands and the audience. The mindset I say here is the approach to life or overall general hardcore lifestyle.”
Mixed Blood is one of the other all-foreign-member bands in the Korean hardcore scene. They’re a relatively new creation, born out of the ashes of Shellback, the Tremors, and Seoul City Suicides. The name was chosen by vocalist Cliff, who’s half Korean. They play aggressive, angry music, and you can tell by watching them that they have a real axe to grind. But their shows are a lot of fun, and they encourage crowd participation and group vocals rather than stage-diving. Cliff spends most of the performances off the stage, choosing instead to be on the same level as the audience.
“Most hardcore kids are straight up posturing to make themselves appear like they subscribe to some type of outsider lifestyle, but in reality I’d say only a select few kids in any given scene are in reality violent people. Real aggression in hardcore gets channeled into the music and the performance. If someone falls down you pick them up (unless its a suspected neck injury); otherwise anything goes.”
This band started as a collaboration between Jru and Ian, two foreign residents who met in Daejeon in 1998 where they were going to high school in Korea. They started in the band Unroot, and then in 2003 they formed Something Fierce, which may be Korea’s earliest grindcore band. They moved to the US shortly after, where they continued as Something Fierce before recently moving back to Korea. I invited them to play a show in Mullae, and then when I saw them play I was a bit surprised to see Jru sitting behind the drum kit naked. Well, fortunately he was wearing underwear, but it was not a pretty sight.
“I play in my nudels because the clothes are annoying and the body shame also helps me void any worries while I’m playing. The more shame the more honest it feels, right, because it feels so wrong.”
One of the younger bands in Korea’s hardcore scene, Scumraid was made up of some of the younger kids in the scene (by which I mean in their early 20s). They caught everybody by surprise with their powerful, intense performances, backed by their incredible drummer Juyoung, a waify little girl who was previously mostly known for her live music photography.
They started off being called a D-beat band, referring to a genre popularised by British hardcore band Discharge, but more recently they’ve been calling their sound “crasher crust,” which as far as I can tell originated in Japan. I asked lead singer Ryu Jihwan to try to explain what that means, and he honestly couldn’t put it into words.
“It is a term refering to a particular piece of music. In the ’90s the Japanese punk band Gloom heard the the phrase “the crust crashed” from another member at the end of a show. And we have been influenced by that music and we follow it as a path. To help you understand more, the basic crust punk sound of shooting-like noise, sticky and uncomfortable noise, and a strong social message is enhanced to open up the teeming urge of rebuttal, letting the core explode from the audience and performers. It is in theory far feched to explain. Breaking the cymbals, making a hole in the snare… coming home to find a fret broken off from neck of the guitar, leaving the audience claiming that the noise made them want to barf, injuries sustained by being attacked while going crazy on stage, being electrocuted and lying squirming on the floor. Anyways making the most cacophonic noise possible with given or added instruments. There is no why and no answer to this.”
Animal Anthem is another very new band, even newer than Scumraid, although the members have all been in bands before. Made up of 1.5 foreigners and 2.5 Koreans (lead vocalist Sean is half Korean, half black), they haven’t had many shows yet. Sean’s previous band was Shellback with Cliff, where he wasn’t the frontman. I asked him what it’s like to get up in front of the audience for the first time.
“Well, before the show started I was incredibly nervous. It felt close to panic. All the doubt I’d ever had came bubbling up in the form of a thousand questions flying around in my head: Can I really do this? Am I in over my head? Am I going to make a fool out of myself? And I guess if you focus on those things they can be paralyzing, so I brought myself back to the moment. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen, and it was way too late to back out. When I was up on stage I remember peeking around the screen that they lowered between sets and seeing way more people than I had expected. I felt like my chest was going to explode. Then the curtain went up and the music started and when I heard my voice roaring back through the monitors with the guitars, I forgot about everything and just gave myself up to what we had been practicing for the last two weeks. We only had a couple of songs, so the set was over pretty quick. Afterwards, I was chock full of nervous energy but I felt pretty good and the general reaction was positive. Initially I think people were impressed because we didn’t suck and they were expecting us to, and I remember thinking, yeah, it’s great that we’re not awful, but maybe we’re capable of more than that.”
No Excuse has a more old school hardcore sound similar to 13 Steps in many ways, though they’ve maintained the old school hardcore sound while 13 steps has drifted closer to metal. Lead vocalist Hwang Kyusuck also founded Townhall Records, one of Korea’s main hardcore labels, and has supported countless young bands release albums and find venues to play in.
No Excuse is one of those bands that sing mostly in English, something I frequently take Korean bands to task in CD reviews–but No Excuse’s lyrics are honest, raw, and powerful.
Unfortunately I couldn’t interview Kyusuck. Mizno explains why:
He was in a traffic accident and has had serious injuries to his hipbone, back, and spine. Now he is able to walk a little while recovering from extensive surgery. He has made a considerable contribution to the Korean hardcore scene and is burdened with huge hospitial bills. So we have planned a show that will give 100 percent of the earnings to his treatment. Not only will the sales of the show go to him, but also a donation box will be set up for additional fundraising.”
-Mizno (Find the Spot)