Girl Groups of the Underground

Written by on May 15, 2013 in Arts

If you go to a typical rock concert in Hongdae, the bands are overwhelmingly made up of males, sometimes with a token girl on drums or bass, or a singer backed by an all- or mostly-male band. But every so often a band forms composed entirely of girls, and it’s interesting to see how cope with and respond to societal expectations and their own image as a girl group. There’ve only been a handful in Korea’s relatively young modern rock movement, but all of them have left a strong impression with audiences.

I’ve rounded up all the all-girl bands I could find for this article, setting aside the great number of bands with just a female lead singer or one or two token female members, as well as bands with a female majority like Look and Listen and Super 8 Bit, so we can look specifically at bands that present an unfiltered female voice.

 

Supermarket one of Korea’s first punk bands.

Supermarket

The first all-girl Korean band I know of started in the early ’90s. Sadly not much is known about them today, other than they were one of the original bands of Club Drug. They were featured prominently in Stephen Epstein‘s Our Nation documentary recorded in 1999, and were represented in the Chosun Punk compilation put out by Drug in 1999.

Sadly I don’t know anything more about them, and they’re the only band on this list that I’ve never seen in concert.

 

Nonstop Body

Starting in 2000, Nonstop Body filled the vacuum between Korea’s first wave of punk in the 1990s and its second wave in the mid 2000s. Unlike many of their later peers, they came off more as tomboys, led by lead vocalist Unson’s deeper, more aggressive voice.

They were discovered by Japanese all-girl punk band Lolita No 18 who took them under their wing, bringing them to Japan for a tour and releasing a split album on Japanese label Benten, as well as their own full-length on the Japanese label. I saw them twice in 2004, first at the opening of Korea’s second major punk club Skunk Hell (in the same location as its first major punk club, Drug) and then at the first ever Korea/Japan Oi Fest at which they held their own on a stage shared with Korean and Japanese skinhead bands.

The original lineup of Nonstop Body: Unson, Inzo, Asher

Despite their positive reception in Japan, Nonstop Body drifted apart after four or five years, and then reformed in 2010, still keeping a low profile despite their legendary status among the younger girls of the Korean punk scene.

“We are old and they are young and pretty,” Unson told me in interview in 2010.
“In Korea,” said Inzo, their drummer, “there have been a few punk rock girl bands, but they sing so pretty and melody.”
“We are not interested in being feminine,” said Unson. “We are the same as boy punk bands.”

Their name, if you’re wondering, is an inexact translation of 몸을말려, which itself doesn’t make a lot of sense either.

“It was a club for dieting when I was a high school student,” says Unson. “Some other members and I said ‘you should go on a diet first, before starting a band.’ After that, we changed members, but we didn’t change the name. It was funny, it was a joke, because we didn’t think [we needed to diet].”

Prior to moving to Korea in 2003, I tried researching the Korean punk scene which was very difficult at the time. One of the few bands that had music samples online was Nonstop Body, and I see that that old website is still online.

 

Shorty Cat

In the heyday of the second punk club known as Skunk Hell (2004-2009), Shorty Cat was one of the stable bands of Skunk Label. Rather than ignore it like Nonstop Body had, they embraced their femininity, if at times hanging a lantern on it, putting a lot more effort into their appearance and singing in super-feminised voices.

“We don’t want to be only about music, but also hope to carry a positive message with our band,” guitarist Eunjin/Pheobe[sic] told us in 2005. “Where there are boundaries set against women, especially in Korea, we want
to push through them and say hey, women can do this too!”

The original lineup of Shorty Cat, taken from their only reunion show in December 2010

Their shows tended to attract an odd combination of starstruck teenage schoolgirls and foreign males.

“From the position of a female band we don’t want the attention simply because we are girls,” said Eunjin. “Instead we would hope that people will evaluate our music and message objectively and support us out of their true feelings for the band.”

Shorty Cat released one very low-fi demo recording that came out surprisingly great, then put out a polished CD on Skunk Label. It’s probably still available from the few stores that sell underground music in Korea.

Eventually they fell apart due to internal politics, with the members going off to form Super 8 Bit and the Rance. The Rance broke up when Pheobe moved to France, and Super 8 Bit still seems to be active though I can’t find any information about upcoming shows.

The closest thing Shorty Cat has to an official website is their old, old MySpace page, where you can listen to a bunch of their songs and that’s pretty well it.

 

Rule Destroyer

Rule Destroyer came about for a brief time in 2006, and while I don’t think they were formed in response to what many saw as an overreliance on cuteness, they served as a perfect example of what a lot of the more masculine people in the punk scene expected of an all-girl band that was trying to do right by punk.

I don’t have any pictures of Rule Destroyer, but here’s one of Che Songhwa’s new band Midnight Smoking Drive, from Halloween 2011.

They were angry, profane, and violent, all the while oblivious to their femininity while not trying to compensate for it. Lead vocalist Che Song-hwa was tall and graceful and intimidating, unlike the more “aegyo” style of Shorty Cat.

Unfortunately in their time, they never made an official recording, so the only music that survives to this day seems to come from an old EP or demo they released at some point. I surprised myself today tracking down a second mp3 by them called “Guilty Liar,” though I probably shouldn’t share it here due to the extreme language.

I’m not sure how long Rule Destroyer lasted, but it might’ve been a long span with intermittent shows. The lead vocalist Che Song-hwa has moved on to the more garage-rock-sounding band Midnight Smoking Drive, which doesn’t fit the qualifications for a full entry in this article seeing as she’s the only female member, but is a very memorable band in its own right.

“Girl bands have their own uniqueness,” Che Song-hwa told me in 2011. “But, because the music style of Rule Destroyer was not that girlish, I don’t feel much difference from Midnight Smoking Drive. Also, all Rule Destroyer’s members were cool, so there weren’t many conflicts among the members. Now, I am the only girl in my current band, but I am not treated differently. I am just one of the band members and their friend.”

 

Rubber Duckie

You’ve probably noticed that all the bands featured so far tend to lean strongly toward punk; I’m not sure why that is, but I hope it’s not due to just my own biases. Maybe there’s just something in punk that finds relevance in a band of all girls as a statement, whereas in most other genres it’s sufficient to have just one or two token members. Rubber Duckie is by far the least punk of all the bands on this list, and even they have a mild punk influence to their sound.

Apparently they formed in 2004 when the members were still in high school, but I didn’t hear about them until seeing them in concert in January 2012 (at a punk show naturally).

Rubber Duckie in Club Spot in January 2012

They have strived for fame that has eluded everyone else on this list, competing (and faring quite well) on the audition show Top Band 2, and releasing a digital single called “I am Single” as well as a full album Ugly Duckling Story.

Their Facebook page seems pretty active, with videos and way too much information about musical instruments.

 

Billy Carter

Don’t let the name fool you — Billy Carter is two Korean punk girls singing together in a style that’s probably much much closer to blues than anything else. Forgoing a drummer, the band is composed of Jina on guitar and Jiwon, AKA Goyang, on miscellaneous other instruments, and the two of them share vocal duties.

Jina was previously the lead guitarist/vocalist of punk band Kickscotch, which seemed to be going places in its day. The two friends came together as equals and started writing their own songs, as well as perfecting a few covers in their own unique style.

Billy Carter was composed of Jiwon “Goyang” Kim (left) and Jina Kim (right).

“[My influences are] different from time to time but baiscally I like blues (these days I like ‘50s rockabilly),” explains Jiwon. “I want to make music that conveys my thoughts in an entertaining way.”

“I want to try different styles of music rooted in blues,” says Jina. “Especially, I would love to make songs full of energy.”

Last year, both members of Billy Carter moved to the UK and stayed there as long as their visas would hold up, all the while playing local shows over there as Billy Carter. Following extensive travels around Europe, they finally both returned to Korea and I see they’re playing a Kimchibilly show at the end of the month with Rocktigers.

Billy Carter’s Facebook page has been inactive since around when they left the UK.

 

Mukimukimanmansu

Mukymukymanmansuis another duo made up of two talented girls nicknamed Muki and Mansu. Stripped down to the bare bones, Mukimukimanmansu performs with little more than a guitar and a janggu outfitted with a kick pedal in most of their songs.

“Mansu majors in music theory and has been playing piano and composing since 5, but it didn’t have much influence on Mukimukimanmansu,” explains Mansu in the third person. “As you might know if you’ve seen our gig, we don’t actually do any real training; we just practice a little before the shows.”

Mukimukimanmansu in Alternative Space [Moon] in July 2012

The first time I saw them, I really really hated them, though it was partly because their random screaming and arhythmic drumming were really the worst thing possible for my hangover. It wasn’t until last year when I was putting together a blog post on upcoming festivalsthat I finally started to understand the music they make.

Though often mistaken for folk music, their roots are familiar to anyone who’s gotten this far through this article:

“Muki wants Mukimukimanmansu moving on grindcore, hopefully,” explains Mansu, who also refers to herself in the third person. “Mansu thinks Mukman’s currently a punk band, despite using a Korean traditional drum.”

Their whimsical performance captured the attention of Beatball Records and they ended up putting out a very impressive CD in 2012, singing about everything from bugs to taxi drivers to Namsan Tower.

“We just write the songs and words out of our daily life. In ‘Andromeda’ we sing about bugs, that came out just randomly while spitting out things coming into our minds. ‘I’m a Taxi Driver in Paris’ was inspired by the book with the same title by Korean activist Hong Se Hwa. And we covered Sanullim ‘cause we really like that song.”

Mukimukimanmansu seem to have given up on their Facebook page but there are still a lot of fans going there.

 

Have I left off any other all-girl bands? I’m pretty certain I have, but whatever else is out there I’ve never come across. Let me know in the comments section.

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About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is a former editor and staff writer for Korea.net. His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats