It’s been over ten years since I moved to Korea. One of the first things I did when arriving here was to track down the local music scene. Back then, this was no easy prospect. Concerts were infrequent, and there was no Facebook or Korea Gig Guide or DoIndie or Indistreet to help. Hongdae was a different place back then. The prevailing attitude back then was that rock bands weren’t popular in Korea because they weren’t good enough. Fortunately people are wising up these days, but it’s too late for many of these great bands.
My only lead on concerts was on the English page of the Skunk Label website, representing Korea’s main punk label at the time. And it was far from reliable. Still, I was able to uncover information about the New Year’s show featuring 14 bands representing Skunk Label and hardcore label GMC Records, all for 10 000 won.
So, that’s a lot of bands I wanted to see, crossed off my list all in one show. Rux, Couch, and Spiky Brats were three of the names touted on the Skunk Label website, and I’d previously caught the end of a Samchung concert in Sillim, where they’d covered “Crucified” by Iron Cross and “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” by Skrewdriver. Yes, that Skrewdriver.
Finding the venue was no easy task. I came to Sinchon a day early to scout out the route. Eventually I figured it out, which saved me being a couple hours late when it was actually time for the show. From Sinchon, I had to cross over the train tracks that no longer exist.
Like almost all venues in those days, it was a dingy basement hall. Surprisingly, it still exists as a venue, now called Sky High.
One of the main problems with the music scene back then was that there were no DIY venues. Promoters who wanted to organise shows needed to rent a club and hope they made back their losses on ticket sales. This posed two problems for the punk scene because: (1) everyone was poor and (2) club owners hated punk music.
Between bands at WASP, the owner would play hip-hop. I initially thought this was a savvy nod to the early punk influences in old-school hip-hop. And in a case of history repeating, many of the early punk bands used the same practice studios as underground hip-hop acts, and shared a kinship. But that was not the case at WASP: turns out, the owner just hated punk music.
Anyway, I arrived right on time, and the club was already pretty full. I paid my cover, and the person at the door wrote “SKIИ” on my hand, referring to my cropped hair. Like always, I took a lot of pictures, and looking back now, everyone in these pictures are the people I got to know over the next decade. Over the course of the show, I discovered that half the people there were in participating bands, meaning I was one of the few actual paying customers.
I was immediately struck by how familiar this show seemed. It was almost exactly like a punk show back in Canada, with the same personality types, the same fashions. The only obvious differences were race and language. It gave me a strongly positive impression early on, that this was a legit punk scene just like can be found in any city around the world.
Shows in Korea have always started early, mainly to give everyone the chance to catch the last train home. Starting at 4pm was a practical solution to having 16 bands in one show. The first band to perform was called 조센브레즈, which I’ve never been able to decode. Chosen Brats? Chosen Pledge? I never heard their name ever again. They were a pretty fun punk band, more based on Sex Pistols than anything if I remember correctly. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if they went on to other bands.
The second band was 49 Morphines, who might possibly still be together, or at least doing reunion shows, judging by this YouTube video of them in Badabie last year. 49 Morphines has been unfairly overlooked: despite being quite possibly Korea’s first screamo band, that title usually goes to Hollow Jan these days. In 2009, Guitarist Lee Ilwoo moved on to found Jambinai, currently one of Korea’s most internationally sought-after musical experiments.
The next band was Knockdown, a metalcore band that’s still part of GMC Records to this day. The members of this band are very big guys that you do not want to mess with. The perspective on this one makes Boram (bass) look like a giant over Hanmook (vocals), who in those days was probably the tallest guy in the scene (unless you count Jongjae of Couch and his mohawk). These guys break the stereotype of short and skinny Asians.
They were followed by Unleashed Anger (분노복발), who were a little hard to take seriously thanks to the lead singer’s teddy bear shirt. In 2012, they reformed under the name Disfigure and took on more post-rock leanings.
Following this, the show really took off when Blood Pledge (혈맹) took the stage. They relied heavily on crowd singalong vocals, and everyone surged forward. The lead singer of this band was Lee Jonghyuk, who I later tried to nickname “Ogre,” but he made me switch it to “Orc” due to his preference for orcs in Starcraft. The band also had a mohawked Lee Juhyun on bass, who later went on to play bass for Galaxy Express.
This band turned out to be a sort of side project of Captain Bootbois, Korea’s premiere skinhead band who formed in 2001 (or were the Koryo Aggro Boys older?), while Bootbois vocalist Donghyun was doing his military service. When he returned, Captain Bootbois reunited and Orc seemed relieved to put Blood Pledge behind him. Despite his awkwardness at being on stage, Orc was a gifted vocalist with a distinct charisma that Captain Bootbois lacked. Last I heard, he works as a sushi chef.
After them was Mods, who I can’t remember much about, other than that they weren’t actual mods.
The next band, Firestorm, was fronted by Kyono, the then-owner of GMC Records. He later married Anna of Indieful ROK and moved to Sweden.
Around this point, the show moved away from hardcore toward punk. The next band was Jiraltan99, who became one of my favourite bands in those days. I bought their CD and tried translating their song “바보처럼 살련다,” but when my boss saw it, he curtly told me “Don’t listen to that.” Their name is a reference to gas grenades used by the police during riots, and literally translates to “insane bullet.” Not all that shocking to me, as just a few months earlier in Canada I was at a concert watching a band called Riot99 sing in English about pretty much the same topics. But the majority of Korea at this point was still not ready to openly talk about itself.
Next was 13 Steps, one very exciting band that is still active to the best of my knowledge. They were from Cheongju, a small university town in Chungcheongbuk-do a couple hours south of Seoul. Back then, Cheongju had the strongest punk scene behind Hongdae, with a number of surprisingly great bands organised under the label MF Crew (the M stands for Mooshimchun; I won’t tell you what the F stands for).
One thing that struck me at this show was the sense of unity. It didn’t matter if you were into punk or hardcore, left wing or right wing, everyone was welcome. In my own hometown there was a lot of bad blood between the punk and hardcore scenes, and this sort of mixing was unthinkable at the time.
It’s very common at punk shows — both in Korea and back home — for friends and supporters of the bands to gather on the sides of the stage during sets. That was pretty common here, and I spent plenty of time up there trying to photograph the bands. In the background of this picture of 13 Steps, you can see Chulhwan, lead singer of punk band Suck Stuff. They were from Bupyeong, and he organised the label BPJC (Bupyeong Jiralcore) before moving to Seoul and taking on heavy promoting duties. I believe Suck Stuff is still together, but they have a very different sound now.
13 Steps was followed by Spiky Brats, who in those days were the new young punk band. Due to their simple, visibly punk name and their fairly obvious style, they stood out and often got more attention than than some of the more senior punk bands from people overseas looking to sample Korean punk. They were fine, though sometimes teased for lead singer Jaeseok’s “Donald Duck” vocals. I’m not sure if they still play shows anymore, but I think if I called Jaeseok up and asked him nicely, it would be possible. He more recently formed 100 Blossom Club (백화난만조) with some of Korea’s other veteran punk musicians.
After Spiky Brats, the next band came out had the letter X in felt on the back of their hands, a symbol of straight-edge, a subgenre of hardcore centered around abstaining from drinking and other harmful habits. I cautiously eyed the door, as I had a beer in my hand and I’d come from a city where the straight-edge crowd was the most dangerous.
This was of course the Geeks, who I later discovered were some of the nicest people on the planet, as well as one of Korea’s best-travelled bands. During my time at Korea.net, I have covered them going abroad, inviting bands to Korea, recording, running a venue, collecting records, and giving me the time of day. Lead vocalist Kiseok is now a successful businessman for a major car company, and I still see him frequently. Their next CD will be available on the American label Think Fast! Records any day now.
In the above picture, you can also see the only other foreigner who was present at this show. I didn’t talk to him at this show, but we later became friends before he moved on to Beijing, where he is still actively engaged in supporting the music scene.
If we’re talking about important contributors to Korean punk music, nobody from this era did more than Jonghee, lead singer of Rux. Jonghee carried the entire punk scene on his shoulders for years until he couldn’t anymore, at which point punk all but disappeared. He sang in Rux, drummed in Spiky Brats, designed clothes, did tattoos, ran a music label, organised shows, and opened not one but two live music venues in the early 2000s.
Rux is still very much active, and you can see them perform this August when UK punk band Business comes to Korea. Jonghee disappeared for a year to work at a tattoo parlour in Australia, but he’s back now, married, and still doing what he loves.
After Rux was Samchung, another band that’s survived to the present day. They apparently originally started as a streetpunk band, gradually morphing into metalcore. They are an extremely intense band, and lead singer Donghyuk slowly became one of my favourite performers to photograph.
Their name sounds pretty benign — what, do they like hanging out in cafes in Samcheong-dong? But actually it comes from Samcheong Re-Education Camp, a prison camp run in the early ’80s to silence civilian critics of the government. They remain an interesting band that mixes politics and music in surprising ways.
Unfortunately, it was getting late and I lived in Suwon back then, so I had to leave for the last train just as Couch was starting. Couch is probably the most infamous Korean band, having made a name for themselves for the wrong reasons back in 2005 by disrupting a televised Rux concert. However, they were an immensely talented pogo punk band that never disappointed. They broke up when drummer Sharon left for Japan, and despite having had one or two reunion shows it’s increasingly unlikely they’ll ever play again.
By leaving early, I also missed Vassline, one other band that is still active and doing well.
This show was the start of my long relationship with the Korean punk scene. A few days afterward, I posted my photos online and managed to share them with the bands. Back then there weren’t half a dozen photographers at every show, so they were all very grateful for the attention. I was invited to write a concert review for the punk zine 붉은 깃발 (Red Flag) and I swiftly found myself part of a very cohesive family. That made it easier to live so far away from home, and before I knew it, this place was feeling like home.
Just one month later, in January 2004, Jonghee would open Skunk Hell, a dingy basement club that served as the headquarters of the punk scene from 2004 to around 2009, beginning a golden age for Korean punk music. Over that period, Hongdae’s music scene diversified and grew, largely thanks to the seeds planted in these days. But more about that some other time.